Axel King in W3 Art Center – Interview by Matthias Van De Vel


With the presentation of the works and the world around artist Axel King, a production of Leroy Brothers, one of the most interesting shows of 2008 will open at the Art Center DeWillem3 Vlissingen. The questioning is based on the work of virtual artist Axel King, who by following a certain process – and with the help of internet and a creative crowd, existing out of creators and craftsmen from Chinese painter studios – at the end creates artworks.

One of the most interesting questions in the proces is undoubtedly “when does it become art?”
Is it the digital files who are send to China after their selection via software? Or is it the image that exists after the oil reproduction of it by Chinese artists? Or is it he complete concept by Leroy Brothers, in which everything is structured? Inclusive the online platform of King?

The idea that an artist or a musician in either which discipline is backed by an entourage of creative minds, managers, producers and financial experts is nothing new. What is new, is that in the creative formula of Axel King a lot of the staff members remain anonymous and that the final art results are from a surprisingly good quality.

Absolutely worth a visit!

The artificiality of painting – Interview with Axel King and Leroy Brothers by Matthias Van de Vel

Axel King is a young painter whose work seems to have digital origins. If you visit his website, it is striking how many pictures he shows of him. Axel, you don’t seem to be a shy guy?

Axel King I’m proud of my work and proud to show it to the world. I might be a bit extravagant, … not the kind of lone artist hiding in his studio. I’d like to go out and I love giving interviews (laughs)

M.V.D.V. Your work consists out of two parts that seem different. There’s also often a built-in aphorism in which it is divided in two parts: one at the top and one at the bottom of the work. Are you possessed by duality?

King  At the moment I choose to work as such, but it is not a preoccupation. I could easily switch my way of presentation by combining multiple parts. It is just a technique I use, A style that I developed. I ‘m quite satisfied with it and want to explore it more before I change. It has much variation potential, but it has to remain recognisable for my audience. The elements I use in my work are only products of what inspires me, things that catch my attention which I try to assimilate in my work.

M.V.D.V. Where do you get these elements from?

King It is divine inspiration! (chokes and laughs)

M.V.D.V. Those aphorisms seem to be some kind of advise you want to share with the world. Are you a socially engaged artist?

King They are not really statements but rather reflections of what I see. I react on what’s currently happening in the world. I’m not quite sure which message I want to share, but I’m convinced an overload of information is circulating.

M.V.D.V. Although you create paintings, it seems by their appearances, as if they were create digitally. Is your work influenced by digital art?

King I translate virtual presentations into the real. With the help of digital paintings I want to express the binarity between new influences and a centuries old medium, which is painting. I also want to question both mediums. How will painting evolve and what is the origin of digital art? Why will painting remain painting and digital art remain digital art? Or will it not?

M.V.D.V. By giving to digital art a tangible existence in form a painting, you guarantee that there exists only one copy of it. Do you this to give the works some sort of uniqueness?

King That is indeed part of it. I could have been a poster artist, send my work to a poster distributor and allow anyone to buy it or a couple of dollars. It could have been fun as well. But I wanted to play the game of the art world. I want my work to be shown in galleries and museums. This is where I belong.

M.V.D.V. You have a vast entourage who helps you to decide what you may and may not say, how you should look or eventually who tells you what your work should look like. Does it never give you the feeling you lose your authenticity and you become some kind of supplier?

King  Not in my knowledge (laughs). For the moment I grab the opportunities. If I refuse them, I refuse myself. I am very glad to be able to meet the right people, who I am very grateful to help me develop my talents. It is not unusual as an artist to be surrounded by professionals who lead the way. The Art world is in that sense not very different to the music world. Every popular artist has to question the authenticity of their work one day. Is it really theirs? Where did their inspiration really come from? Maybe one day I’ll have an identity crisis myself. You should ask me again in a couple of years! (laughs)

M.V.D.V. Thank you for this interview.


Leroy Brothers are vital members of Axel King’s entourage. We could claim they are the minds behind him. I went to talk to them…


M.V.D.V. Leroy Brothers, if you talk to Axel, he seems to be in an almost artificial way, self-secured.

Leroy Brothers  Well that sounds not too strange, at Axel is artificial. We wanted to create a machine, which is able to create art. Axel King is our machine. We could also have chosen for a spherical or cubical representation of our machine, but machines will have human appearances in the future. So we opted to give our machine a name, a face and a personality.

M.V.D.V. How does the machine work?

Leroy Brothers It is a web platform where creative people can post their work and evaluate it. On a certain moment, the most valued ones are mashed-up by a software into a new image. This happens in the head of Axel. From there, this new digital image is painted on canvas by painters in workshops in Dafen, a village in Shenzen, China. First we thought to do the production here with the help of assistants, but we finally chose for China because of the actuality of the country. China and its economy is hotter than ever. A huge part of the outsourcing in our economy goes towards the far east. We want to highlight this.

M.V.D.V. So the work is actually created by a whole community, while Axel King is nothing more than a face. Do you want to research on the creativity of the human being?

Leroy Brothers  There are plenty of things we question. who is the artist? Who is the conceptualiser? Who produces the work? Is it important to know this? Axel King is the artist, but we are the artists who created him. We created him, but more than this we are not involved. Our work ends with the conceptualisation and the rest comes automatically. The creativity comes from the crowd. They have a user name but we don’t know them. Lastly, the paintings are produced by painters we know even less.

M.V.D.V. The most important question for me is to know at what point in the whole proces something becomes art? Are the files that are being sent already art or are they just creative ideas? Are the images art from the moment they are selected for a mash-up? Or is only the product of an artwork art? Just like the website is part of the concept…

Anyway, even though Axel King is not much more than a label to be recognised, you can make him as real as possible. How would you like to do this?

Leroy BrothersWe want him to appear in the daily life. In magazines, newspapers, radio, … . He’s preparing exhibitions too. The audience coming to visit the shows will not question his existence. In some of the exhibitions we won’t reveal anything from the set-up. Just a regular show with paintings, biography, some information on the artist… you know, how it usually goes. The audience will surely ask where the artist is, but we will simply respond he couldn’t make it to the show. This will make him a real person in others’ minds. No one will think he must be some virtual guy. There’s no reason for that.

M.V.D.V. You are also planning to show work about him?

Leroy Brothers Our work about him is like a documentary regarding our work process. We create for example Chinese ink paintings of the Chinese workshops we work with. We also make work on how we created Axel King, what his philosophy is, … These artworks are all produced in our studio.

M.V.D.V. As the work of Axel King is a product of collective creation, it arises in a very random way. Every work exists of two images and a message that by coincidence come together. Isn’t that a risk?

Leroy Brothers  Only very limited. All the works come to life digitally end end up in a catalogue of all the works he ever created. However, we decide which mash-ups will be exhibited, and thus produced. Lie every artist, he will only show his best works. So there will be a filter. The first filter starts with the community who votes on all submissions. When the mash-up is not good enough, we just don’t curate it for the exhibitions.

M.V.D.V. What if the images and the messages of the community are worthy on their own, but don’t fit together?

Leroy Brothers We won’t intervene on such matters as our process needs to be consistent. It is a pity when a n image would end up in a wrong composition, but that is Axel King making a mistake. He’s not perfect.

M.V.D.V. If you accentuate that the artworks are painted in low-cost countries, your project seems to be a critic on the global economy?

Leroy Brothers We don’t see it as a critic on something. We see the Internet as medium and look at our Chinese painters as our assistants, but also as means. We look at the world around us and see what we can use to create art. This has always been important in art.

M.V.D.V. But by choosing China because of its actuality, it seems by your choice that you want to make a statement.

Leroy Brothers  the explosion of the Chine economy and the impact it has on the world is what interests us. That’s why for us it is logical we work with China and not for instance Thailand or Vietnam.

M.V.D.V. There remains analogies with other products that are produced in low-cost countries: the role of your assistants is only production. No creativity is asked? Do you want to a certain position in this case by emphasising this?

Leroy Brothers We have chosen to make the creative part happen somewhere else. On the internet, worldwide. This can be from everywhere. Also China. We need skilled people who can perfectly reproduce the mash-up into a painting. In China, artists are trained very academically. You barely find painters like this here. Here artists are educated to add something of their own, which is seen as something positive. In China painters are trained with respect to the old masters. Therefor they first need to be able to copy them perfectly before attempting their own ideas. This is an influence of communism. So for what we aim to do it is convenient. If our assistants would start to offer own interpretations, our Axel King story wouldn’t make much sense.
The term low-cost countries is usually used in a negative way, but it ain’t always like that. Our assistants are glad to make work for us. It is refreshing to paint one work from Axel King, instead of the yet another Mona Lisa. They are not used to this kind of paintings. It opens up their minds in a way.

M.V.D.V. By deliberately choosing to produce your work in low-cost countries you seem to proclaim that art is just another part of the economy.

Leroy Brothers Indeed. It is actually quite interesting that art can merge with the global economy. The production of art is not necessarily something magical. The fact that the works of Axel King are painted makes it more delicate because the artist with brush and canvas is often romanticised. And it’s true.. it can be romantic, but it can also happen in a very technical way.

M.V.D.V. If you look at the economical aspect of art, it seems often that you walk on a fine line between reflection about and participating at. For instance, by using the character of Axel King you seem to show that the way art is sold to the audience is as important as the artwork. Simultaneously, you want to launch the campaigns of Axel King so your project gains in popularity.

Leroy Brothers The fact that promotion and economical management are part of the art production remains a delicate subject for most of us. We don’t want to know about it. But if you hate it or loath it, art has been adopted by the economy. It would be naive to ignore it.

M.V.D.V. Thank you, gentlemen.