dialogue…Jeff Schwarz…006

“Vandalism for some maybe, but for me it’s exuberance—even bad graffiti.”


Your most recent tile works reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning drawing. In the works you are creating your own images but then covering up large portions and only revealing smaller sections underneath. Can you tell me a little bit about the thought process behind the works?

These particular tile pieces are an extension of my love of mark making by unknown people on the street—how those marks on the street are covered in a seemingly arbitrary way and also my interest in Asian ink drawings. As a product of my environment, I love how missing tiles reveal what is behind. Like in the Canal street subway station. In my mind I don’t need the entire drawing or mark to be fascinated and don’t need the entire picture to complete the image. Sometimes the fact that something has been covered up creates more interest. The new composition created by unwilling collaborators can be really great.

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953
Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953

Also several years ago when the Met opened the Islamic wing they displayed a work of İznik tiles. Because several of the tiles were lost in time, someone on staff decided to complete the missing sections with pencil drawing. I found it brilliant. A perfect combination of contemporary ideas and history, bridging gaps.

I am interested in dealing with formal issues in painting: foreground, background, space, layering…etc. Challenges in the studio keep me going and I want those to translate in the finished object. I really love watching visitors interact with my  work. Usually people start further back from the piece and progressively move inches away, trying to look inside discovering the literal space.

İznik tiles on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

You frequently utilize scrawling graffiti-like marks in your glazing process, in a way elevating a form of expression that despite trends in contemporary art is usually viewed as a form of vandalism. What is your interest in this form of mark making?  

I have been interested in this kind of mark making since I was a little kid, discovering books about graffiti and art at a mall bookstore. Those books were total escapist and exotic to the rural area I grew up. Later in undergrad I was engaged and inspired by the effortless ink drawings from China and Japan. I think graffiti-like mark making is an extension of those ink drawings.

Vandalism for some maybe, but for me it’s exuberance—even bad graffiti. As soon as I leave my apartment I’m looking. Looking at all the different marks on the street, graffiti on walls, gestures and symbols made by the utility workers for maintenance; it really makes my visual environment way more interesting, less precious and way less flat.  There is something about the egalitarian aspect to these marks. Often times the ones I find most interesting are made by utility workers. Their muscle memory is really operating on a high level, considering they make these marks everyday.

I try to take clues from how marks on top of marks interact with each other and what color choices are made. In the studio, I chew it up and spit it out in a way that is combined with past experiences and interests. At this stage in my life I don’t feel like everything has to be justified, and it’s exciting. I try to just let it happen in the studio. I know my interests, but I don’t feel that every move needs to be a literal reference.

graffiti in a bathroon in NYC
graffiti in a bathroom in NYC

I’ve read that you’ve been inspired by the work of both painters and ceramic sculptors including José Parla, Charline von Heyl, Jean Michel Basquiat, Michael Lucero, and Betty Woodman. What links these artists to each other that we see them in the same context?

Definitely a short list.  It’s the mark making and the vibrancy in which they do it. I am attracted to artists that have that kind of urgency. Hell I guess in general I gravitate towards people that have a certain quality of engagement.

“quality of engagement” what do you mean by that?

What I mean by that is a person not just floating through life. A person that has a level of focus that is noticeable from across the room. When I was young I played sports and what I liked the most was the level of focus we had as a team and as a result our ability to communicate nonverbally. Within my personal social network most of us are artists and with some of them I have that same nonverbal communication.

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Jose Parla at Mary Boone Gallery, 2015

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Portersville, PA. A very small rural town located about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, PA.

What led you to study art and ultimately become an artist?

When I started undergrad I entered as a History/Secondary Education major but quickly became an art student. I had a friend who was an art student, specifically a ceramics student. He encouraged me to take a class and after the first week I was hooked. Growing up, I was always building things (bicycles, forts, tree-houses… whatever, with materials I could find for free) so after that first week of school, I pretty much dropped the Secondary Education part of my major. I kept the History portion though. It lined up, not only could I be engaged in the study of history (and art history), but I could also make things as well.

What kind of work did you make when you were in school?

In undergrad my education was centered around the ceramic traditions of Korea, China, Japan and Greece. At the end of my undergrad studies the work had manifested in very large figurative vessel forms that were wheel thrown and then constructed and at times deconstructed.

In graduate school I continued to explore the figure. Instead of the abstraction of the vessel, the figures for the first time became literal. At the same time I was working on a body of work that investigated the nature of clay through video and audio.  I guess this is what grad school is for—I made a ton of work. I was a person who needed grad school. I needed that time to move forward in myself, make my work and find myself—not just regurgitate interpretations of history.

detail, Tile s:n 2017_5_6, 2017
detail, Tile s/n 2017_5_6, 2017

What was your first encounter with contemporary art?

Growing up in a rural area there really wasn’t much art. It wasn’t until the opening of the Andy Warhol Museum that art with a capital A entered my life. In high school I had an English teacher that began class everyday with a mini art history lesson. As the opening of the museum approached she introduced Warhol. I was so struck I went to the library and found every book I could about the guy. I loved his personal story—it was relatable. Our teacher encouraged us to attend the opening of the museum, “this is something that is a once in a lifetime event” —so I went.

And I went again the next day and I met Billy Name (photographer, member of Andy Warhol’s Factory and Warhol’s muse and lover)! At that time the area around the museum was still a bit neighborhoody with stoops and such. I was sitting on one of those stoops having a smoke and I guess I looked interesting with my purple hair and purple pants.  He came over and asked if he could join me. Sure. We sat there talking for about an hour. He was so generous and interesting. I didn’t know who he was at first—he was just an interesting dude. When I did realized who he was I said “oh yeah I saw your picture in a book.” He laughed and we continued talking. This was a significant event in my life. He made art accessible to me.

Since you moved to New York seven years ago, your studio has been located in Bushwick, the area in New York City home to hundreds of artist studios. How do you feel working in that location has influenced your work?

Honestly I’m not sure how it has influenced me as an area with the other artist studios nearby. I would say what influences me more is the walk to the studio and the businesses around the studio.

Jeff Schwarz, Tile s/n 2015_12_1, 2015, Ceramic, 24 x 29 x 2 inches, JS-006
Tile s/n 2015_12_1, 2015

When did you start creating the tile works? What drew you to this medium?

I started working with tiles around 2012. I began working with tiles initially to focus on painting. I would go to Home Depot and buy already fired white gloss tile and paint over the commercial glaze. I knew that if I re-fired the tile my drawing would melt into their glaze.

So using the store bought tiles was kind of like using Fredrix pre-primed canvases—a ready to go blank slate? Were you primarily interested in a faster way to “paint” with glaze or were you interested in the tiles as ready-mades?  

Yes, it’s kinda like the pre-primed canvases, sort of. The process of choosing the ready-made tile began as a self-examination of what parts of my process were important and what needed to go. In the field of ceramics, often times the process becomes paramount and the end product is a result of that process. I could have spent time making those early tiles; making perfect positives, making molds, then casting the tiles, then firing them (all of which I have done in the past) or I could just get to it and use those tiles. It was liberating to put that aside and focus on what I really wanted to do.  As a side note, what probably made this decision easier is my physical space. Before moving to NYC I had a studio that was about 1000sq/ft. I could focus on my work but I certainly got distracted. With that much space I could indulge in process, and I am glad I had that time but working in a smaller space has forced me to trim the fat and get straight to the idea.

Your work explores both the utilitarian and artistic functions of ceramics.  With your wall works you use a combination of tiles you make and glaze yourself and ready-made tiles that are typically used in bathrooms or kitchens, sourced from a supply store. These elements seem to be at odds with one another. What is your interest in this combination?

I don’t think about the elements being at odds with each other. I start with an idea and try my best to use the right materials and methods to get to the heart of the idea. It doesn’t always work, but I make a lot of work hoping something reveals itself through the process.

The commercial tiles I use are typically used for floor application. Moving them out of that context and onto the wall has allowed for an interesting change, allowing me to explore a material that most people walk over everyday but rarely notice. I really never paid attention to those tile patterns before I started placing them on the wall.

Can you tell me more about your cylindrical works? They seem to simultaneously reference architectural columns and trashcans on the street. Why are they called “Stacks”? What is the importance of the shape of the works?

Cylindrical pieces have been made for centuries. It is one of the primary forms in ceramics and one that all beginning ceramic students learn. I became far more sensitive to this simple form when I was a throwing assistant for Ed Eberle in Pittsburgh.  Helping him throw his forms, the “skin” of the surface became paramount. I use this form as a simple surface to paint on, much like a traditional canvas. I think my brain understands the 3-D form more so than a two-dimensional surface. I feel comfortable with how a line moves around the “corner” and I enjoy how my body is physically engaged with the object.

The “Stack” title is slightly tongue and cheek. Peter Voulkos was such a huge figure in the ceramics field because of his level of production and changing how clay was seen.  However the bravado and performance of his character was something I could deal without. So it’s a slight nod to him but my forms lack his expressionistic, performative showmanship. I have mixed feeling about sharing this. I really don’t tell many people about this because I don’t want it to be seen as an attack of him but at the same time I just don’t get down with the macho thing. So I guess I am contemplating his legacy a little.

Top 10 songs (or albums) on your studio playlist:

This is difficult to answer as everything changes with mood, but my last searches on Spotify were:

  1. Das Racist
  2. Kevin Ha
  3. Wu-Tang
  4. Ariel Pink
  5. Jimi
  6. Metz
  7. Blackout! 
  8. Lorde
  9. Company Corvette
  10. Pissed Jeans
  11. Parque
  12. Jay Z
  13. Run the Jewels