Contemporary Artists’ Background in D&D

In the days before the upcoming panel on Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art, I’ll be posting parts of the email discussion from which the idea of the panel arose, in the hopes that this record of our initial exploration of the territory may be of use to future mappers.


Ryan Browning: Cloak of Protection, wood, 66 by 50 by 55 inches, 2008


The email thread started when I came across an image of Ryan Browning‘s sculpture (above) and wrote him to confirm my suspicion that Dungeons and Dragons was part of his background, to name-drop my gaming connections with his fellow artists Tim Hutchings and Chris Hagerty, and to suggest:

I’d love to hear about your exposure to D&D, if any, and if you’re interested would be psyched to start a conversation going about art with you, Chris, and Tim – I lack the fluency to really contribute to that discussion but would sure enjoy listening in.

Ryan wrote back to say:

D&D was a part of my background, and I’m getting back into gaming right now – it was kind of beaten out of me in school and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and have recently begun playing a little Warhammer again. A friend and I are trying to get a rpg going, but time and location have been problems. I played mostly D&D when I was a teenager but tried a few other games, including some White Wolf and a few home-brews. I played way too much Magic the Gathering. It seems my friends and I sat down for a lot of RP sessions, but never got very far with anything. We started a lot of campaigns and rolled a lot of characters, but I’m sad to say I never got into a lengthy and immersive game – we ALMOST had something extensive work out on a couple of occasions. When I went to college I didn’t find anyone to play with and stopped until recently.

I’ve also been trying to find the intersection between gaming and art, as that’s where I began (worldbuilding was my point of entry for making art), and I’ve moved away from there a little bit and feel lost and bored – so your email is quite timely, I’m just returning. I think that art is a sort of surrogate game for me – I try to really get into and experience what I’m working on, and that reaching for immersion becomes part of my dialogue with the art. I was really affected by the games I played in the sense that I was never satisfied and always wanted more – there was something tantalizing about gaming and the suggestion/fantasy of another world. A lot of my earlier paintings which I’m kind of ashamed of now were D&Dish (for being bad paintings, not for being about games). The newer ones are indebted to MMO’s, which I played (was enslaved to) for a little while – specifically the original EverQuest. I just looked at Tim’s site and saw his archive of maps and materials – that is awesome and I’d love to talk to him about a similar web project I’ve been brainstorming but can’t figure out.. I wish I had all of my old maps and things!

Tim Hutchings:


Timothy Hutchings: The World's Largest Wargaming Table, 2006, 29’ x 28’ x 4’ MDF, wood, styrofoam...


I also took a hiatus from gaming during my college years.  A little while after moving to NYC I started back in again and hope I never stop.  So I’m an artist what plays RPGs.  As an artist, I’m interested in games as ways of modeling the world, of simulating conflict and behavior.  I also think they are as fun as hell and I don’t get to play enough.  Currently I’m in a Call of Cthulhu mega-campaign set in the Ukraine in 1934, very dreadful, and I play in a handful of pick-up games.  I’ve been trying to put together an indie game weekday/evening casual game, but it’s hhhhharrd.

I know a pretty fair number of artists who play games but don’t make work about them, either.

Chris Hagerty:


Chris Hagerty, Atlantic Center Mall & Baghdad, 2008, oil on canvas 48" x 30"


I played when I was a kid up until the first round of college and then picked up again once I graduated. I have been mostly dry since I moved to NYC up until I met up with the Redbox crew.

I think I fit into the mix as the last type of artist-gamer that Tim mentioned, one of those who loves playing RPGs and other such games but doesn’t have a connection with them in such a way to draw them into a professional art practice. That is one of the reasons why I am fortunate to know Tavis who instigates these great meetings and discussions. (and to be one of his players) Both Ryan and Tim have some real visual connections in some of their work to game culture (at least in my sensitive gamer eye) but I would be hard pressed to try and make the connection in my own work. It may be working on a very subtle or subconscious level but there definitely feels like a divide.

I do however credit RPGs and game culture for starting me out as a visual artist. I painted miniatures for several years before I ever used acrylics or oils. All those bitchin pictures in my D&D books were always way more interesting than any other subject I studied in school. I
essentially went to art school to become a game illustrator but ditched out of that program focus after the first semester when I found out illustrators don’t get to always draw what they want.

So here I am now, still loving to play these fun games but they kind of maintain a different part of my brainspace than what I want to do the art thing for. Recently I have been enjoying a slight resurgence in doing game illustration and crafting game design objects purely for my own enjoyment. I think because they don’t have to interact with anybody else except my fellow players, it gives me a simple pleasure.

Ryan responded:

Chris, the first couple of things that came to mind when I looked at your mall paintings were A) heads-up-displays (like active user interface/data display for video games) or B) some trippy Doom mod that has invisible floors and a big photo in the sky background… so maybe it’s just me reading to much into it, but I did feel like video games were present in the larger picture (Modern Warfare could be a factor here too).

Chris replied:

I wholly agree about the First Person Shooter and virtual space influence on the work that I make. It also introduces a quandary that I like tabletop RPGs far better that video games. I like my X-Box as much as the next person but the table-game takes up a more cherished part in my mind.

I think the choices of how I construct things in my images have a lot to do with referencing the sources I am working with. Doom, FPS, Tron, and other virtually modeled spaces all have a look and visual feel that is associated with them. RPGs provide very few visual references, despite the tons of artwork, simply because of the fact mentioned in the game’s advertising: The game that happens in your imagination, or whatever. We could sit at a table and describe a very plain typical dungeon room to all five players and DM, and each one would have a markedly different vision of what the room looks like. Some of the players don’t even conceptualize that room into a visual space, some abstract it to sounds, a textual measurement, a plot-point in the story etc. RPGS is very interesting to me because it offers both a highly interior experience paired with a highly social experience.

Anyway, typically I will talk about myself developmentally as an artist if I try to link my art practice to games. On top of the blanket outlet of creativity the games gave me as a younger person, the one thing I think it did develop in me as the ability to visualize and construct spaces. I am still rigged visually when I play RPGS. Sometimes I am sitting at the table and silently thinking to myself “I can’t believe the DM is not mentioning the color of the WALL!” and so forth.

My shopping mall paintings could just as much pass for the mines of Moria on acid. I don’t know if it’s a conscious choice but the columns, the views, the expanses are really quite similar to how I would set up the imagined views for the underdark when I was a kid DM. Of course none of this really comes through and they are a lot more things and ideas I am trying to shove into the work now, but it all has to start somewhere.

From here, the discussion branched out into a discussion of predecessors who contributed to the background of artist-gamers rather than gamer-artists. Ryan mentioned Marcel Duchamp bringing acting/roles into his practice via his Rose Sélavy character and eventually abandoning art to play chess (with a nude woman at times!), and contributed this great quotation from Duchamp:

I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art – and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” On another occasion, Duchamp elaborated, “The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem… I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.

Tim said:

Duchamp trading chess for art is an interesting idea to bring to this discussion for me.  I am perfectly happy playing games and could see myself putting down art to game full time, if circumstances allowed.  As it is, I don’t differentiate in importance between the time I spend gaming and time I spend arting.


Gabriel Orozco, Horses Running Endlessly, 1995, Wood, 3 3/8 x 34 3/8 x 34 3/8"


Chris mentioned “some quick works and crap that come to mind in a roundabout way but don’t really fill the niche of contemporary RPGs or games”, including Gabriel Orozco’s reference of chess and other games, Henry Darger’s insane world building around the Vivian Girls, and Claudia Mesch’s article Cold War Games and Postwar Art.

Ryan wrote:

About Gabriel Orozco – since he’s dealing with classic, competitive style games, they don’t hit the mark right on (like you said Chris – kind of roundabout), but I think what he says about them is important, paraphrasing – ‘every game is a universe, or an expression of how we believe the universe works’.

I keep thinking about what an RPG is – I’ve heard lots of bickering arguments about how you define it, but you could safely say that RPG’s are player-generated universes, more complicated than chess, etc. (at least the rules typically are, and the game-world is much more elaborate), but less complicated than the real world. Everyone could have a different take on art, but I think most artworks share this similarity – on whatever level they function, they create a kind of tiny universe, where the rules of play are usually generated by the work or artist. Sometimes clearly, and sometimes not.

That last link – the Claudia Mesch Cold War Games article – that was really good! Long.. but there were a couple of things I picked out. One was Andre Breton saying something about how ‘language games’ could put the possibility of art-making in anyone’s hands. (from the surrealist games section in the article). I related to Tim saying he could easily play games or make art, and be satisfied doing either. I think when games reach a kind of saturated complexity – to the point where they approach simulations – that feels something like making art to me too. Not exactly the same, but the “pleasure principle” Breton mentions seems about the same. Although in practice making art is often more frustrating for me, but in the end more gratifying. Also reminds me of hearing about this talk recently by Boris Groys at SVA, about the deprofessionalization of art due to prolific new media tools, mass media, etc.

I could see RPG/gaming comparing nicely to some suggestions made in the article that postmodernist understanding leans to a possibility of endless play, without concern for outcome. Not that you don’t care whether or not you reach your objective in a game of D&D – usually the process and decisions made by the group that get you there (or don’t) make it fun – like the fantasy games of the Surrealists or Fluxus.

As I think about it, though, I’m more and more interested in trying to define what this style of gaming (RPG) is, and trying to see how exactly it connects with art. I don’t know if that’s something that could be defined – could it? Like Tim’s copy of the expert rulebook – trying to read it felt like a game to me, but when I work on making a picture or something, it feels more like a game that I play, especially if it’s painting. I don’t know if people would read my work in the same way. And then Chris’s work feels to me like it’s influenced by games – like he said, more of the visual variety than the intangible RPG kind.

Chris added:

Related to Ryan’s correct comments about Orozco piece with chess, I think there is a critical mass for cultural recognition of a thing or concept that makes a clear fence between a common reference to something widely known, versus a more “inside knowledge” that only a few know about. One of my questions in my college art history class was why so much art and painting from a certain time period referenced so much of the  greek and roman classics. It was explained that those classics formed a base understanding of culture that any educated person in the west would be familiar with. Thereby the subjects and themes formed the commonly understood jumping off point for the artist to expand on their visual communication through their images and execution. So I think referencing chess fits as a commonly held jumping off point as Ryan says but RPGs are still something too specific to reference reliably in a contemporary art situation. The question of intentionality springs up again and again: “What is this for?”

When we approached Zak Smith to participate in the panel, he argued that D&D was a reliable cultural reference:

I think the fact that half the decent artists working today know what a beholder is as relevant as the fact that half the artists in Beckmann’s time painted Pierrot.

I’m looking forward to exploring why this is so and what it means on Saturday!

6 Responses to “Contemporary Artists’ Background in D&D”

  1. 1 Charlatan
    November 4, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Very compelling. Looking forward to the talk or, failing attendance, the write-up.

  2. 2 mikemonaco
    November 4, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    This is a an awesome project, Tavis. I hope the forum goes well!

    Wouldn’t it be cool if a nice coffee table art book came out of this some day, showcasing the various artist’s work with excerpts of the dialogue (and perhaps brief notes on Gygax, Trampier, or whoever comes up in the discussion)?

  3. November 5, 2010 at 4:07 am

    Fantastic discussion! I got a lot from the first read. Now I’m going to print it out and pore over it in detail.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2010

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