Kristoffer Zetterstrand is my favorite game artist, but it would be unfair to label him a game artist. There are very few if any artists that work exclusively with videogames and art. Instead, videogames are one of many tools and sources that artists can use to create their works. Zetterstrand is interesting, because he was trained as a classic painter. He makes large oil canvases, but he starts by creating a 3D-model with help of software tools such as Maya. In the computer, he can mix and arrange the objects and experiment with different angels and lightning before he starts to paint on the canvas.
It all started in 2002, with the game Counter-Strike and a killing. During a play session, Zetterstrand was killed and found that he was floating outside the graphic in a virtual near-death experience. The effect fascinated him, and he started to paint the landscape in the game where the graphic ended in nothingness. He named this series of paintings Free-look Mode, which is a term used in 3D games to describe the choice of the player to move or fly in any direction in the game.
After the Free-Look Mode series, Zetterstrand continued to explore the world of videogames, and started to include elements from art history mixed with early computer graphics. For example, in the painting Pointer (pictured above), we see a character who could been taken from a Kung Fu game from the eighties and a landscape that bears similarities to those of romantic painters such as Casper David Friedrich. When I first saw Zetterstrand’s painting I thought it looked like a paraphrase of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Zetterstrand says that he wasn’t aware of that resemblance until people mentioned it to him afterwards. Pointer could also be the hand we see on the screen when we click on an Internet link or are moving an object in a drawing program. The human hand in the painting could also symbolize the creation of virtual life. God created Adam and humankind, and they in turn created virtual characters in online worlds and videogames.
In the painting Pointer, you can see traces of pixel art, as is the case in many other of Zetterstrand’s works. The pixel is an essential part of the early computer graphic aesthetics, which was created with small squares in different colours. In game art you can find many artists working with pixel aesthetics from era of early computer graphics. It’s both a nostalgic approach and a reminiscence of 8-bit videogames played in childhood, like Super Mario, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong. But it’s also a reaction against today’s hyper-realistic videogame graphics. When you create pixel art on a computer, it is not unlike how you create a mosaic. You use small pieces with different colors put together to create a pattern. In game art, artists often use the technique of creating mosaics that is at least 5000 years old. One well-known artist in the field goes by the name Space Invader, an alias for a French street artist that travels around the world putting up small mosaics on walls with characters from famous videogames like Space Invaders and Super Mario. Zetterstrand has also created mosaic works for different public locations. For instance, he was commissioned in 2008 to create Old School, a work consisting of seven large glass mosaics for Bromma High School in Sweden. In these mosaics were depictions of objects collected from old-school videogames.
In his latest work, Zetterstrand has launched into meta-art. In his paintings he includes traces of the process of painting and sometimes, of the painter himself. Zetterstrand’s The game, 2009, depicts an intersection of a landscape with different layers. It could be interpreted as an intersection of a model of a landscape, and also of an image of the process of creating a digital landscape, when designers are working with different layers as in Photoshop or 3D-programs. The landscape in the painting is also a mixture of 3D and 2D objects with more realistically-painted and pixeleted objects. The painting has many layers: it shows a model placed in a studio, but the windows in the background is not real, the view outside is made of paintings, and so on.
Zetterstrand’s interest in virtual landscape and videogames has also led to a collaboration with the Swedish indie game company that created Minecraft, a game designed by Markus Persson in which you build everything with help of different-colored blocks. Nineteen of Zetterstrand’s works were re-crafted and included in Minecraft’s latest gamepack. Virtual worlds and videogames have over the past few years proved to be a new and important art scene for artists. In Second Life, for example, artists have created art and exhibitions and artists as Joseph Delappe has used online games such as America’s Army and Medal of Honor to make performances and reach new audiences. Zetterstrand describes the result of his collaborations on Minecraft as the “The Notch Effect.” After the release of the new gamepack that included his art, visits to his website increased from 400 per day to 13,500. So videogames can not only be used to create art, they can also be an important way to exhibit art and to reach new audiences.
So why is Kristeroffer Zetterstrand my favorite game artist? As I wrote in my first post, game art fascinates me because of its juxtaposition of high and low culture. Zetterstrand is classic painter, but he uses new techniques like 3D software programs to sculpt his work before he starts to paint, in this way mixing elements from art and videogame history in the same picture. There is also a blend of 2D and 3D objects, and of realistic painting with objects with visible pixels. He brings the best of two worlds–art and videogames–together, and he does so in new and exiting ways. And of course, he’s a really good painter, too.