“Like mushrooms—discrete moments pop up but the whole thing is being fed by a single underground root system.”
What led you to become an artist?
When I was very young, I had a neighbor who made mystical equestrian-themed oil paintings and I was immediately hooked. That was maybe around kindergarten. I serendipitously found my father’s old oil paints in my grandparent’s attic about that time, and I painted from then on. Of course, it wasn’t until college that I put a name to it, in the sense that it would come to shape my life. I thought I would be a botanist and paint in my free time. I didn’t know that there was a contemporary art world, not a clue. Luckily, I went to Penn State where my professors were an amazing group of working artists, many living in New York; it sounded like a fairy tale. They saved my life!
What was your work like when you were in school?
For undergraduate, a big university was perfect for me in terms of the breadth of classes I could take. It allowed me to study many subjects that have shaped my work: Astronomy, Philosophy, Literature—I mean…the history of Math, it’s literally the history of art, you can’t believe it! Meanwhile in the studio, in addition to paint, I was working with a lot of the same stuff I’m using now: dye, plaster, raw canvas, etc. For a while I was making huge sheets of handmade paper from the university’s paper recycling. I found these 8 ft. window screens that were being thrown out, so I took them and thought…now what? Then papermaking occurred to me. They ended up looking like big slabs of crumbling plaster, heavily textured and lurching off the wall. I’d like to make some again, come to think of it…
Then in graduate school at Bard, I was working on fairly average abstractions, but using a lot of spray paint. Eventually I got an air compressor and an automotive painting spray gun and all the other kinds of mark making fell away. That was around 2004. I was doing them on stretched paper, 8 ft. square, using Savage set rolls. It was during this time that I began to think a lot about introducing imagery. What followed were many years of making some really bad moves to figure that out, but I guess they had to be made.You live in Brooklyn where you have a studio in your apartment, which is filled with careful arrangements of objects, books, works of art and various ephemera. How does your working environment inform your work?
You’re the third person in just a few weeks that has commented on what I would call slightly organized chaos, but described it as very detailed arrangements or tableau. I collect a lot of stuff and my rule is that if I don’t love it enough to actually live with it then I don’t bring it home. These arrangements are just pure necessity—I want to see these things, but not trip over them. Most of the objects sparked a possibility for a painting, either casting them in plaster or painting their likeness. It might take years but they usually end up being used. The books…they are my major weakness. Can’t stop won’t stop.
You frequently spend time at your family’s home in rural Pennsylvania, where you also paint. How do those geographic dichotomies inform your work?
The biggest difference is space, of course. In Pennsy I work mostly outside in the yard or in the garage if the weather is bad. Being in the country definitely shakes you free from self-imposed restraints. When you’re in nature, you act naturally. I think the work I’m making now is the closest to “my nature” as it has ever been. But making work is only part of being a painter; you want to be involved in a dialogue, whatever that means for you. For me, it means being in New York among a community of other artists. In Brooklyn the working process is quite different than in the country. There’s no space, everything is a pain, but making a 9 ft. tie-dye in my apartment studio is extremely satisfying—dye it in the kitchen and rinse it in the shower. It’s a scrappy little operation. I think the two places work well in tandem; without the other the shortcomings of each would become constricting.Your paintings incorporate scrawling gestures from wiping excess paint off your brush onto the canvas. What is the significance of these marks?
When I work, like most painters I wipe my brush on the wall to get the proper amount of paint on the brush or to test the color and consistency. I love the arbitrariness of those marks, so I stopped using the wall and started doing it directly on the canvas. I think a lot about composition, or more specifically about having as little of it as possible. If I’m writing my manifesto it would read “Be post-composition.” Shortest manifesto ever! In reality of course, you can’t escape composition. But I can work within a notion of “default” to present everything as it occurs with no pretense. In this way there is no hierarchy between the process marks of the brush wiping and the intentional gestures, or between the somewhat out of control nature of the tie-dye and the observational painting of imagery. I just make the picture, one foot in front of the other. A few years ago I heard Jacqueline Humphries speak on a panel at the Jewish Museum; she said, “I know what I’m doing but I don’t know what I’m making.” There it is.
Totems and mythologized symbols from various centuries of human history; George Washington, the White Rabbit, the Virgin Mary, symbols of the zodiac and the Joker have all made appearances in you work. What draws you to these iconic characters and what role do they play?
I think one of the first proper images I painted was the Joker and I painted him because his makeup looked like an abstract painting, so I figured it was a good place to start. Honestly for a lot of those early image paintings, I kind of wish they were done in secret. I was trying for many years to figure out how I might deal with image, which meant making a lot of wrong moves. I think of many of those iconic characters as loaded vessels. They are people or objects that are banks of cultural deposits. Washington is more than just a flesh-and-blood human—he’s a complete mythology. Same for the Joker, he’s not just a Batman villain—he’s an ideology, a philosophy, and so on. I think I had to exorcise all of those characters, you know? I just had to get through them and get them out of my system. Now in general I’m using imagery that is less specific and more symbolic. Like in the case of my recent zodiac show at Spring/Break, I played off of the mythologies but made up my own symbols.
The dyed portions of canvas and velvet draw to mind slabs of marble or granite, almost to a tromp l’oeil effect at times. When did you start using dye and tie-dye in your work? What lead you to this form of “mark making”?
Some of it is dye, but I also use thinned oil paint, ink and raw pigment. Like I mentioned earlier, I was using dye early on in undergrad. However, back then it was more Frankenthaler-like, lots of large, stained, poured areas. When I started making the all-sprayed paintings, they also required a very thin paint; I used some dye on those as well. So I guess I’ve been using it for quite a while, but to various ends. After a trip to Italy in 2013, I had my mind back on marble, plaster and texture in general, so that lead to experimenting with ways to make canvases that had that feel. I didn’t want to paint faux marble or anything like that. I wanted to make something that had a comparable quality. I think the tie-dye is my new loaded vessel. It’s a character with a past and a lot of cultural associations. Then on top of this free hippy love shit (to quote Johnny Rotten) I add lots and lots of good old traditional oil paint…I use Veronese’s medium recipe…the perversity of it!
How is environment important to the installation of your work?
I think it was about a year before my first solo in New York, which was in 2015…I was thinking: what makes a show? The one thing I knew was that a show for me is not just a selection of paintings on the wall. A show is a single piece. Like mushrooms—discrete moments pop up, but the whole thing is being fed by a single underground root system. It’s not of any particular importance to me what the environment is for my work. I like it when it proves impossible to install traditionally. Give me a 30-pound bearing magnetic hook and 5 feet of jack-chain over 2 leveled screws any day. I’m desperate to install a freestanding painting outdoors in tall weeds…it must happen!
At Spring/Break Art Show this past winter you did a solo show in what was essentially an office space with two walls of windows. How did you approach installation in that environment?
Oh yes, my conference room! This place was perfect. It was on the 22nd floor of the former Condé Nast building in the old Vanity Fair office. The Times Square New Year ball was literally at the window and at night well, there was no night because the neon outside lit up the room. As you said, two of the four walls were made up entirely of windows. When I saw this, I knew immediately that the paintings should sort of…hover…in front of the windows. I didn’t want to block the dramatic view; I thought it could be a moving, glowing wall. I’ve been messing around with chain lately and thought it would be rad to hang all the paintings from the ceiling with hooks and chains, even on the 2 sheetrock walls. It could not have worked better. Then the next thing to contend with was the floor. Like I mentioned before, I like the whole room to be sort of activated, I honestly said to myself, “How am I going to mushroom this?” It was a terrible green carpet, which was just bad enough to be lame but not bad enough to be good, know what I mean? The paintings are my interpretation of the 12 constellations of the zodiac, and I thought the floor should be the sun and the moon. The work definitely has the human touch so I wanted the floor to be a counterpunch—a plastic, visual pop. I got a bunch of boxes of those adhesive vinyl kitchen tiles in black and white. On these I painted a 16 square foot sun and made 5 tiles into lunar phases. I wasn’t sure if people would be wary of stepping on the painted areas, but on the contrary, everyone seemed to want to stand in the center of the sun…of course! Everyone wanted to be the center of the universe, or at least in this case, the center of our solar system. I started out making an environment for the paintings and what I ended up with was a socio-psychological experiment!
The various techniques you utilize, tie-dye, figurative painting, abstract gesture, might appear at first to be at odds with one another. Can you discuss the significance of combining these seemingly dissonant approaches to painting?
First, let’s agree that these distinctions are useless. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! They all come from the same place, namely the human condition materialized through a human hand. I don’t find them any more dissonant than I find a flower growing beside a rock, which is to say: not at all.
My paintings are reified fantasies—formed by images, objects, colors and textures. Sort of like tacking stuff up in your bedroom when you were young, you’re obsessed by things and you build a fantasy world up on the wall. Ultimately, the paintings are objects whose entire purpose is to hopefully take you past their objecthood and trigger an unforeseeable state of mind.
Problem Child is the title of your new group of paintings featured at Gates of the West. What is the connection between the new works and the Minotaur myth?
It’s such an absurd soap opera, like most mythology. The Minotaur’s mother was Pasiphaë, the queen of Crete. Poseidon was pissed and long-story-short he made the queen fall in love with a beautiful white bull. So, you know, she had sex with the bull, as you do, and she gave birth to Asterion, the Minotaur—half human, half bull. She loved him and nursed him until it became clear that the only thing he would be eating was other humans, so Daedalus was phoned and contracted to build a labyrinth within which this problem child would be contained.
I like to reimagine these stories, particularly from the side of the monstrous other. Everything is perspective, right? With this group of paintings I’m kind of considering Asterion’s state of mind in the labyrinth. At different times of the day he’s more human or more bull—at dawn he’s a classical prince but by midnight he’s gone full animal.
Which mythological god or goddess would be your best friend?
When I was a kid Apollo and Athena were my people, but now I think I’d hang with Dionysus and Asterion. Of course, in my version the Minotaur is sort of a beautiful, exiled rebel prince. He’s the Brando of mythology, the ultimate problem child.
What sign are you?
Leo, obviously, come-on!
Lightning round! I’ll say a word and you say the first thing you think of:
Waffle House / Southern Comfort
Schnabel / terra cotta
Revolutionary War / Sex Pistols
purple / mountains
art fairs / over
Venus de Milo / wave
hot yoga/ alien
Film Noir / MacGuffin
Zombie Formalism / timing
parfait / Slush Puppie