The many faces of Graham Fink: Julian Hanford reviews celebrated adman's first art show in London

By Julian Hanford |

January 16, 2014 | 7 min read

Adman Graham Fink, currently chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather China, has made a brief return to London to open his first solo art show, called 'Nomads'. Photographer Julian Hanford went along to the Riflemaker Gallery to check it out.

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Art or Advertising, Advertising or Art? The debate has been raging amongst creative people pretty much since civilisation first put pen (or brush) to paper. So what happens when an advertising art director dares to cross the 'hallowed' line between commercial and fine arts? In our contemporary culture that line now has never been thinner – if it really exists at all except in the minds of a few old-school art critics. Major fine artists from Warhol and Hamilton to Koons and Hirst have plundered the ironic cultural possibilities of the grammar and syntax of advertising to illustrate their ideas. Equally, of course, the better creative advertising out there aspires to be as powerful and significant as fine art, and sometimes actually achieves it. And let's face it, Damien Hirst is really an ad man at heart.To fully appreciate this point, one has to look at the intent of the practitioners in each field. Fine art seeks to convey the world as we see it through the eyes of artists who attempt to filter our perceptions and change paradigms. The commercial artist's intent is actually not that different, using ideas, concepts and creative techniques that will make advertising images stand out memorably and resonate with their audience.The main difference is that fine artists usually start out with the principle that they will spend their career exploring their own creativity and not be influenced by anything but their peers and their (hopefully) unique vision. Commercial artists, whatever their personal aspirations, have no choice but to be influenced in part by their fee-paying sponsors – the clients.Graham Fink is acutely aware of the difference, having spent the greater part of his career at the sharp end of the advertising industry. And he has had his share of ups and downs along the way. After a successful initial period that encompassed CDP and Saatchi & Saatchi, he went AWOL for a few years from Planet Ad, seemingly fed up with the increasing sense of restriction creative people often find themselves up against in the commercial environment. The restlessness of the artistic soul.Of course, he was eventually lured back, and the second act of his career as executive creative director has been much lauded and successful, most apparently during his current tenure in the wild virgin territory that is China – a challenging environment that suits his maverick spirit well.Graham has been tinkering with fine art for a long time, using it as a mind-cleanser from the commercial politics and cut/thrust of the agency world. His work on display at this, his first solo show reflects this, and at a casual glance seems like an admirable hobby. It is only when you spend some time with the pieces on display, and understand their long genesis, that you can see the workings of a sharp developed creative mind (this is true of a great deal of powerful fine art).The main focus of the show is an ongoing series of photographic images that he has been collecting for many years, (over 3,000 in all) of which this show represents a very small sample. Graham is obsessed with faces and seeing structure in random patterns – a bit like the classic Rorschach ink blot tests so beloved of psychoanalysts. What we see in each piece is an overtly abstract image of peeling paint, knots in wood or cracked concrete texture; but by looking carefully we can perceive forms and faces – the things he saw when he originally captured them.
Simple enough and not on the face of it particularly profound, but this series grows on the viewer and by participating in the visual 'game', one starts to see more and more as the mind adds more cues and possibilities. It's a similar experience that audiences report when they spend time with a Pollock or Richter abstract painting. From seemly random chaos, order begins to manifest. I like this because it makes us all active participants in the work – we, as viewers, are bringing as much to the party as the artist. Art democratised.Graham printed these images directly onto fine white marble, reputedly from the same Greek quarries that gave birth to the Venus De Milo. Whilst I think that this work is strong enough not to have needed this particular material conceit, it shows a desire to make permanent the impermanent – stone tablets have much more resonance than the usual standard mounted photographic paper.
Downstairs the show takes a different turn. Walking into the darkened basement, one is first struck by the incessant whirring of a 16mm projector, showing a hand-animated film playing on a continuous loop. Graham has created this animation by scratching away at the photographic emulsion, frame by frame. Faces start appearing out of the darkness on the screen, shivering and flickering, growing ever more complex, intense and and frenetic, until they erupt into a dizzying firework display, ending in a completely white-out frame. To me this has a direct correlation with the frustration of creative endeavour. A brief burst of increasingly intense activity until death takes all. A life condensed into a few seconds. For a man who has spent so much of his time creating within the constraints of a 30 second commercial format, this is not insignificant.The other aspect I really like about this piece, and which makes it more emotionally engaging, is that it has powerful sound. The images on screen are accompanied by the appropriate noise of the film surface being scratched away, building with the visual madness to a deafening crescendo, then just as suddenly giving way to eerie silence as each sequence ends.Across the room two large still frame images hang in the same darkened space, illuminated with flagged off spotlights. These are partners to the film – two huge strips of celluloid with crude faces scratched off the emulsion, one being obviously a self-portrait (Graham has a strong visual presence himself).The real revelation for me is his paintings. Thick layered textured paint of sombre colours form dark and haunting portraits with an emotional intensity that is quite moving. These paintings underpin Graham's twin motivations of gestalt psychology and abstraction and cry out to be enjoyed by a wider audience.So, art or advertising? Remember this is the creative mind that gave birth to classics like the epic British Airways 'Face' commercial and who used his own blood to create a break-through campaign for Sony Playstation. He has always done things a bit differently, has Finky.Go see his work and make up your own mind. For me, Graham Fink is most categorically an artist with a capital A.Nomads runs at the Riflemaker Gallery, 79 Beak St, London, until 22 January. You can read more about Graham Fink's interest in art in the 22 January edition of The Drum magazine.

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