This is the transcript of an interview I did for Vision Magazine. It's published in China. (The Chinese love me. Not so much the Americans.) The interview was set up through P.S. 1 and was shot/conducted by CYJO (aka Cindy Hwang.) The article one of a series about artists living in Queens. You can see the spreads here.
I’ve been in Queens since 2004. On a very practical level, it means affordable apartment rent—because of this—the opportunity to sustain a external studio outside of my apartment. In a larger sense, it means ethnic diversity and good food.
Did you experience a big culture shock from growing up in predominantly white Midwest to the ethnic chaos of New York?
Growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana, I was always dissatisfied somehow with the homogeneity of my hometown. I could never quite put my finger on it but I always felt there had to be more . . . texture? Movement? Something. Moving to Chicago was a big change. It’s a great town but it’s a watered down New York. Regardless, I always tried to expose myself to the different areas since I grew up lacking any kind of exposure. Moving to New York wasn’t a huge culture shock from Chicago. Chicago was good practice for living in a real city like New York. What was much more apparent was the amount of stimulation and the noise pollution. I’ve adjusted eventually partly because we have a great studio space in Queens quite close to PS1. Oddly, I have this strange quality of space, time and light that I have never had anywhere else where they was much more space, time and light. Perhaps, it’s because it’s such a rare commodity here.
Well, I guess I don’t really consider that I’m doing illustration although that seems like a dead-end semantic argument since I’m clearly pulling huge inspiration from illustrators. While I was growing up, I was very interested in adventure movies and cartoons (Jonny Quest, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, all of that), comic books and the game Dungeons & Dragons. As a kid, I spent a lot of time exploring these inner landscapes and becoming more familiar with these fantastic epic stories. Dungeons & Dragons set off a small bomb in my brain because it provided a loose structure for creating these imaginary worlds and populating them with weird and fantastic characters and weaving the whole deal into a story. As I went to high school—and for a few years after--I ended up spending a lot of time drawing, and writing—and smoking pot of course--and that recalibrated my sensibilities to some extent. When I figured it was time to move to a bigger city, I attended The American Academy of Art in Chicago. They had a small fine arts program that was very academic in it’s approach, and geared towards learning how to draw the figure, understanding proportion and the anatomy. It made sense to develop the fundamental basis, like a musician learning scales, you know? I was reading a lot of literature about literature and mythology--Carl Jung, The Myth of Sisyphus, and a lot of epic mythology like Kalevala, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the Illiad, Dante’s Inferno, all of that stuff. I never really read any of that with an academic’s eye, you know? I was always just looking for imagery, ideas, etc.
I ended up moving to New York initially to attend The School of Visual Arts. I essentially became interested in creating epic stories where fantastic things happened to this re-occurring cast of characters. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last ten years – trying to find characters that worked for me and giving them the freedom to do what they want in these drawings. As a whole the body of work seems to make sense to me because I have to let the characters do what they need to do. I end up relinquishing control, which drives me nuts sometimes.
Can you describe these epic stories?
I’ve always had a protagonist in all the stories, dating back to the mid-90s. The protagonist initially started out as a vaguely man-shaped amorphous mass, very cartoony/rubbery character—no eyes and an enormous gaping mouth--named The Schlub. The Schlub ever so slightly became a bit more anthropomorphic over the course of forty or fifty drawings, and his name became Silas. (The name—Silas—was the occasional pen name of Winsor McCay, which one of my favorite artists and a fearsome draughtsman.) Finally—over the course of three or four more years--Silas became Zuke, a full-blooded human that, at times, bore a close resemblence to me—Zuke frequently wore the same clothes, shoes and hats that I did. If I had longer hair, so did Zuke. If I had a beard, same for Zuke. If I put on weight, so did Zuke. Zuke was just a regular dude, nothing special about him, and he was often sidelined by the same kind of fears and fallibilities that most of us deal with. More recently, Zuke gained an antagonist, Popular Charlie, in this convoluted story. Popular Charlie that has an enormous bulbous orange head and is essentially dressed in this rubber suit—kind of like a haz-mat [hazardous materials] suit under all of his street clothes. I had this idea of Popular Charlie being some kind of mundane supervillian with no special powers—he can’t fly or shoot lasers or lightning bolts or throw manhole covers or anything--other than this suit that protected him from all of harmful elements in the outer world; I even had this kind of inner vision—accompanied with a few unrealized sketches in a book somewhere—that this suit actually penetrated Charlie’s skull and wrapped around his brain, protecting him from inner dangers as well—fear, self-doubt, etc. Charlie, to me, was this kind of crude blunt instrument--a dull stone axe or something—that just kind of hacked and smashed it way through life like those young lion Wall Street guys. You know, work hard, play hard, then ride a jet ski in Cabo and punch a stripper or something. That kind of guy. I thought the two—Zuke and Charlie—formed a nice contrast. I had Zuke and Charlie competing for the attention of a third character, a woman, Sometimes Girlfriend. It’s was classic scenario of two guys fighting for one woman. This aspect of the story was very autobiographical in a way. Sometimes Girlfriend was based on someone I’d had an on-again-off-again relationship with over the course of six or seven years. Charlie was based less on an actual person so much as all of the external forces that seem to keep people apart—time, distance, poor choices, all of that stuff. So I explored that theme for a few years, partly as a form of therapy I guess, trying to find a way to dismantle the ideas I’d had about that relationship so I could move on.
It slowly occurred to me that Zuke and Popular Charlie are different aspects of the same character. I became more interested visually ditching Zuke in pursing Popular Charlie as a central figure, but marrying the aspects of the two characters in one weird homunculus that had some kind of texture, a mix of fragility and rudeness. You know, like an actual person. In the drawings, Popular Charlie works his way through these impossible situations and, in a sense, I spend a lot of time as an author making fun of him. And the drawings and situations are very much improvised. I normally work with watercolor on paper and I’m committed to what I first put down since I can’t change it. I’ll commit to a rendering one element—a figure, a bit of landscape or science fiction machinery--as perfectly as I can and have the drawing spin out from that one thing without knowing the exact composition or narrative until I finally finish. And, in a sense, that’s how I give them the freedom to do what they need to do. There’s this constant chance going on, this randomness from my everyday influences and observations. It allows the drawings to become assemblages of what’s going on in my life in a way . . . but they’re also filtered through years of accumulated readings, experiences, etc. So the drawings are informed by both the past and the present. It all gets woven together makes little sense to me at the time—I’ve never finished a drawing and said, “That’s EXACTLY what I had in mind!” Sometimes the drawings don’t make a lot of sense until 2 or 3 years afterward since there’s a lot from ur-information that’s expressed, a lot of accumulated commentary on life-to-this-point, which I need a few years to digest and be able to express verbally.
How did you get your work into PS1?
Part of our responsibility as students at SVA was to chose a curator to help advise us and install our thesis show. The curator for our part of the class was Bob Nickas. He was very helpful and supportive. He was affiliated with PS1 and helped us install/curate our graduate exhibition, and he was kind enough to bring Alana Heiss and Klaus Biesenbach to the opening. They went through and picked out my work and the work of 2 other classmates—Bradley Castellanos and Ricky Sears--for exhibition in the spring. It was fortuitous, and I was glad to have my work exposed there.
Is there anything that you’re working on outside of this epic?
I have a habit of keeping my hands busy. What I’ve been doing lately is going to second hand shops, buying picture books or children’s books. And over music and a couple of beers, I’ll very precisely cut out figures and cars and trees and buildings. I can envision perhaps some fantastic collages being made from these cut out images in the future. For now, they are housed in cigar boxes in my studio. I also just finished up a series of postcard drawings, things I would bang out in an hour in the studio, two or three a day. I would then send these postcards to friends I think about but maybe haven’t spoken to in a while. I like the idea that I can harness this isolate practice to help sustain friendships, you know? I also drew and designed an album cover for a friend in LA.
How do you see the art world now?
I can’t see myself in the text based, critical theory-type stuff that I seems so prevalent here in the art world. It seems like there is a very tightly interlocking structure now between curators and a lot of conceptually-based artists. The artists speak a specialized language that the curator understands and the curator then—having formal training in this specialized language—the promotes the work artist in question because it justifies the labor put into the formal training. It find the whole thing a little boring because a bit of a closed loop, a kind of call-and-response song that I don’t have the sheet music for and I don’t really have any interest in learning the song by ear, you know?
I’m very much into drawing as practice, as an act of meditation or scribbly prayer in a sense. I’m very much into the idea of drawing as a way of recording my experiences with the fewest detours between eye and brain and hand. I’m filtering the observations and experiences of an adult through the visual language of a 10 year old that still very much keeps alive these weird inner landscapes and scenarios. I can’t seem to escape it. It seems to have this pull of richness, fantasy and possibility that doesn’t exist in real life. I don’t think of how I’m going to make my work or who is going to view it. It’s a bit antithetical to me. I can’t think about it or somehow the work becomes too self-conscious.