Salman in his Bushwick, Brooklyn studio.
C & P: You live and work in Brooklyn, NYC. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York originally?
Salman: I’ve been here for almost nine years now.
I came to NYC for school and to look for a job at a gallery in Chelsea after graduating from Ohio Weslyan in 2006 with BFA. I ended up doing marketing for a magazine called NY Art Magazine (that recently died down) and knew for sure that I never wanted to work in an office environment again.
C & P: You have maintained a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2011, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood over the past few years?
Salman: Oh yes. It’s like a creeping self conscious American Montmartre, spreading trade in a new disguise: Art.
C & P: You also spend time in Lahore, Pakistan (where you are from) every year. Do you have a studio there as well? Is there a big art community in Lahore?
Salman: A small, tightly-knit community, yes. It centers around government run school with a gorgeous colonial building. It’s called the National College of Art or NCA, where new talent is fostered and where most teachers are ambitious artists who have at least a local cult following and sometimes international recognition.
I do have a studio in Lahore. Space and time are cheaper there so I have a cavernous, light-filled set-up there.
C & P: The current body of work in your studio consists mainly of figurative oil paintings. How long have you been painting the figure? What first interested you in painting a subject that has been revisited again and again throughout art history?
Salman: I’ll always make pictures of the body in some sense. I didn’t choose to visit the subject. I was always drawing in school notebooks for fun then I became very good at it, making pictures of the body became almost a ritual for me.
C & P: You painting technique calls to mind the old masters of Europe, could you talk a bit about your decision to depict the figure, generally a subject of Western art, through your non-Western eye in this Old Master style?
Salman: I think that was the result of me, as someone from the Third World, arriving in a museum of the First World, which was filled with an unfathomable number of gorgeous pictures.
I was overwhelmed by this experience and felt something akin to rapture, totally inspired by the largely Christian pictures, which made me want to compete with the hundreds of dead aesthetes!
C & P: Does your work inform a certain kind of audience or do you think your work can be seen, understood, and appreciated by anyone?
Salman: The more specific narrative pieces work with certain scenarios and kinds of people that are very local to South Asia so I believe the paintings create more magic when they are shown there. Otherwise I feel the pictures are totally accessible to everyone, because, in the end, they are about the yummy-ness of paint and surface.
C & P: Who are the people in your paintings? Do you ever paint from a live model? Or do you utilize imagery of figures from advertising, film, commercials, and photography as your subjects? Do you feel that a painting created by observing a live model differs greatly from one painted using photographic or collaged sources?
Salman: Yes, I think the kind of figurative painting I like, whether its Realist or Expressionist, is better achieved with a live model. A photograph is already two dimensional (and don’t even get me started on the uselessness of Photorealism).
The object and the eye keep shifting slightly from one glance to the next with a live model. Though I’ve now moved on to a kind of painting in which I don’t use any source material at all.
C & P: Do you ever paint self portraits?
Salman: I have in the past. At this point I’m so used to my own features I have to struggle to paint faces that don’t look like mine.
C & P: Is there a narrative running through your work?
Salman: Yes. There are several narratives:
a) the idiosyncrasy of being from a Post-Colonial culture, having the added baggage of being from a culture that is perceived to be in a state of decay or turmoil, the baggage and profound understanding that comes from imagining myself as a kind of representative of that part of the world and mingling the best of what’s happening in Bushwick with that of Lahore and Karachi.
b) making fun of the wish to be a painter (in the European sense) from South Asia. Toying with the idea, the need to be progressive, the need for beauty/ aesthetic.
c) the boredom and excitement of being an artist, and working in Bushwick and living in the East Village.
C & P: Your show “The Happy Servant,” at Aicon Gallery in May of 2013, was the first body of work that I saw of yours. I really enjoyed the humor in these paintings—glamour and poverty co-existing side by side, everyone depicted wearing large smiles. Do you think your sense of humor or satire regarding the class-divides in the region is something shared amongst South Asians in general or is this more of a subversive way of handling the subject that could possibly be upsetting to some people?
Salman: It isn’t shared at all. it’s completely ignored because it’s useless (profitless) to most people. For those pictures I wanted to mine the haunting qualities of a smile to allude to a darker sensibility.
C & P: Your paintings from this series seem to be about fantasies, both as lived by well-off individuals and as dreamed by those of the lower-classes. What cultural forces do you think inform these two sets of fantasies? Do they come out of Bollywood or Western-centric advertising marketed towards South Asians? How do they differ from one another and do they go both ways? That is to say, are the servants and those they serve both projecting things onto each other that may not be their actual realties?
Salman: Totally. Both fantasies are informed by South Asian fiction/ literature, contemporary novels like Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Other Rooms, Other Wonders and Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke. A lot of the little vignettes I pick up are from books when they are not autobiographical. I consider the resulting paintings to be fantasies, ideas, not related to the real objective world.
C & P: Spending as much time in Pakistan as you do, could you talk about the violence and social and political deterioration there that seem to be getting worse every week? Do you think there is still hope for open discussion and secularism or is the country reaching a tipping point from which it might not come back for some time? What do you think this entails for the future of visual art, specifically in a city like Karachi? Will there be a point where artists are the next voices under threat of being silenced?
Salman: Everyone is under threat there. But all is made myopic and confusing and beside the point with the all pervasive desperation of poverty . There’s a new tipping point for violence every two years in Pakistan and I think this will flounder for a decade before anything becomes concrete. This should be a good time for artists to show ambition, and compete and debate and bring different kinds of people together to create the kind of classless and heady atmosphere which fosters debate about contemporary art, resistance to tyranny, liberty.
I don’t think artists will be in any more danger than any other vocal person in the public domain. Cartoonists and satirists are people always in danger there. In general, contemporary art is usually too subtle, or too clever, or nonsensical to offend a hundred-and-fifty or so ignorant people or the sharp-eyed intelligence agencies.
C & P: Could you describe your process when beginning a new piece? Do you create a preliminary drawing(s) first or do you begin working directly on the canvas?
Salman: At the moment, I approach a primed canvas which is under-painted with a usually olive green acrylic with tubs of different colored oil paint. I have a vague idea of the picture I want to make. I draw with the brush without a preliminary drawing on the surface of the canvas. Sometimes I have separate preliminary drawings on paper.
C & P: Currently you have a bunch of medium sized works in your studio and one very large piece. How did you decide to work on this larger canvas and how is it different working at this size rather than at a more human scale? Do you feel that your painting style has loosened up when working so large? Do you think you will eventually do more work at this size?
Salman: On a larger scale I use my elbow instead of my wrist to draw and paint. The decisions made on this scale are definitely more impromptu. I like the risk and excitement of that. I think I’ll always oscillate between large and precious scale.
C & P: Describe a studio day. Is there a certain time of the day when you work best and are most productive? Do you have certain habits that you stick to in regards to your art making schedule?
Salman: I kind of meditate with iced coffee on the train from my place in East Village to my studio in Bushwick, thinking about what I’m going to do, what it will look like, what will the 20 or so paintings look like together up on walls, what feeling will they evoke when they’re done. I’m a morning person so anything I do in the morning is the best, most efficient thing I do all day. After lunch it slowly goes downhill. I haven’t spoken to my parents in too long, or I have to run to the bank. The best studio days are when I have a stretch of at least 10 hours of complete freedom from rent, errands, and especially phone calls.
C & P: Do you feel more influenced by looking at the work of other painters and artists or do you feel that you are more stimulated by the massive amount of visual information you are exposed to on a daily basis in the city, through advertising, the internet, television, etc?
Salman: I respond to both, I feel.
C & P: Who are some painters you admire whose influence might not be readily apparent in your work?
Salman: I really like Jules de Balincourt, some of Hernan Bas and Ahmed Alsoudani’s pictures.
C & P: What projects are you working on now? Where can we see your work in the near future?
Salman: I’m working for a show of paintings at Aicon Gallery this fall. The ideas are still building up so let’s see where it goes.
Came across the work of Estonian photographer Alexander Gronsky today and am quite enjoying it. See more of his work here.
From Norlisk series
From Pastoral series
From Less Than One series
Tuesday night inspiration/entertainment:
Das Triadische Ballet, Oskar Schlemmer, 1922, as reimagined by Margarete Hasting, Franz Schömbs, and Georg Verden with cinematographer Kurt Gewissen, 1968.
Sam in his Bushwick, Brooklyn studio.
C & P: You live and work in Brooklyn, NY. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York?
Sam: I’ve been living and working in Brooklyn for about 5 years. I came here from Colorado partially because this poet Bob Holman convinced me I needed to be here. I don’t think it took much convincing though. I wanted to be in a community of creative people, and Brooklyn really seemed like the place to move.
Beckett, 2014, acrylic, glass tile, mirror, fused glass, 14k gold tile on wood, 62″ x 52″ inches
C & P: Do you feel a connection to artists such as Jenny Holzer and Lawrence Weiner or any other artists creating language-based works?
Sam: I like both Holzer and Weiner a lot. They both declare things in their work, and I think their work needs to be clear and concise. I am not that interested in making declarations. The poetry tends to get lost, I like things to stay a bit more elusive.
C & P: You are both painter and poet, in the traditional sense of sheafs of paper with hand- and typewritten verse. Which medium came first for you?
How did you end up incorporating words into your abstract paintings?
Sam: Words have always been important to me, they are something I’ve always believed in, because they are definitive yet remain elusive. Painting came first. I grew up in mom’s painting studio, and was always surrounded by paintings. I really didn’t find poetry until I went to Naropa University for college. I incorporated everything into one practice because I felt divided, like I had a poet life and a painter life, when what I wanted was an artist life. It really came together in grad school at Brooklyn College. I wanted to push myself to really create a flexible practice that was rooted in poetry. Everything for me starts in poetry and evolves from there.
Get Dirty, 2014 acrylic, glass tile, and fused glass on wood, 40″ x 30″ inches
C & P: Your work is loaded with contradiction, in visual terms (the gritty versus pretty) and in terms of your statement (“I can’t go on/I must go on.”) The effect is a sort of cheery anxiety. What is your feeling about the power of these juxtapositions? Do they reflect your worldview or speak to a general condition?
Sam: I like the tension that these juxtapositions create. I think there is a world view of opposites represented in my work. I don’t think it is always a
conscience move, but it’s something I do often. There is a power to the tension between black and white. Everything can exist between. I’m most interested in possibilities and creating work that offers this.
All In, 2014, acrylic and glass tile on wood, 24″ x 30″ inches
C & P: The legibility of the text in your paintings varies, sometimes the writing is backwards or upside down. Is a certain inscrutability part of your message?
Sam: I don’t want people to get the work too quickly, a large part of the work is sitting with it, and seeing what’s there. The more difficult they are to read the longer people stay with the work. If I can hold someone’s attention through a painting for a minute or two I tend to think it’s successful.
Boom, 2013, acrylic and glass tile on wood, 12″ x 9” inches
C & P: There is a very street feeling to your work. You spell out words with
glittering tiles like a subway mosaic; the scrawling shape of the letters and your saturated palette also refers to graffiti. Is this the distillation of your life as a New York City painter or do other influences come into play?
Sam: I walk a lot in the city, sometimes I’ll just spend a day walking. I wouldn’t say my work is a distillation of my life in NYC but living and working here has influenced my work. I do love the subway mosaics. I also probably spend too much of my time hanging out with poets, but I find them really refreshing, because poets don’t become poets to have a career, they are just poets. It reminds me that there is a lineage and a world that isn’t about one’s career. Sometimes the artist side of the art world can feel overwhelming careerist, poets kind of balance me out, and remind me why I wanted to be an artist in the 1st place.
THINGS, 2014, acrylic, glass tile, dichroic glass, fused glass on wood 60″ x 48″ inches
C & P: Tell us about The Poet Sculpture. Does performance add a dimension to the painting as well as to the written word?
Sam: The Poet Sculpture is a performance and a sculpture. It is activated by the poets who interact with it. I invite poets to perform on the sculpture and ask them to move the individual boxes around, and to stand on them.
Each “soapbox” was designed for a influential writer who has passed away. So there is a thread of lineage that connects the past to the present. In a way the sculpture creates a large visual poem that is very related to the paintings, but at the same time it is the “soapbox” for the poet.
What Chu Hiding, 2014, acrylic and glass tile on wood, 20″ x 16″ inches
C & P: The sumptuousness of paint inlaid with glittering tile—these objects are disco beautiful—which is used very playfully to extol exuberance (“Light up the night”) or to mask our dread (“everybody’s got something to hide”). What do you think about the effect of beauty on the viewer in interpreting these different ideas?
Sam: Good question! I think beauty is intoxicating and usually lies, but at the same time we all want to believe the lie. You can’t always trust what’s on the surface. I like playing with that tension. What’s beauty and what’s a lie, what’s too good to be true. I think the viewer instantly loves beauty, but then starts to question why, and that’s where the poetry comes in.
Nowhere Bus, 2014, acrylic and glass tile on wood, 48″ x 60″ inches
Simple Country Girl, 2013, acrylic and glass tile on wood, 46″ x 76″ inches
C & P: Your piece Boom naturally calls Basquiat to mind. Your work often seems to allude to the bright and frenetic, to action. Tell us about some of the other sources for your text.
Sam: Basquiat and I both like words. The text comes from all over the place.
Sometimes I simply appropriate a text, for example, in Simple Country Girl all the text came from Taylor Mead. He passed away a few years ago and I made a painting for him, I took two of his poems as the text in the painting, the underpainting actually spells out his name, but it’s impossible to read, and the title of the painting is the title of his last book. So if you knew Taylor there are little clues to figure out the painting was made for him. Other times I write a text from scratch, an example would be America Dreams.
Forget, 2014, acrylic, mirror, dichroic glass, and glass tile, 40″ x 36″ inches
C & P: What projects are you working on now? Will we be able to see your work in person anywhere in the near future?
Sam: I have a solo exhibition this fall at Freight and Volume, and a performance project coming up this summer at Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Pony Boy, 2014,acrylic and glass tile on wood, 12″ x 9″ inches
Anthony in his Brooklyn studio.
C & P: You live and work in Brooklyn, NY. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York?
Anthony: I’ve been in NY for 10 years now. New York brought me to New York, grad school paved a way for me to arrive here and stay for a bit.
C & P: Can you imagine leaving NY for another place at this point in your life? What might tempt you away? Do you feel inspired by New York City itself?
Anthony: I always want to get away, but just for a bit. Wouldn’t most of us be tempted away to a Mediterranean climate if we didn’t still need to stay in closer physical contact with this place for many reasons?
In terms of feeling inspired, I’ve never believed much in inspiration. Not sure why, but I suspect that notion is on some other side of a luxury of boredom.
C & P: Have the places that you grew up (Toledo, Ohio and Adrian, Michigan) influenced your decision to become an artist and/or your work? Did you know that you would be involved in the arts from an early age?
Anthony: I don’t think so, and no.
Maybe the isolation felt in those places effected the person, which in turn must effect the social and political positions. At an early age I didn’t know what was what. I drew a lot because I loved it. I didn’t know what an artist was. I’d like to think some of that can be preserved, doing the thing because one loves it, and so far it seems possible.
C & P: You have an amazing studio in Bushwick/Ridgewood and have been there since 2011, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood over the past few years?
Anthony: The first year was pretty desolate, which I loved. Gradually it’s been getting busier, more art kids seem to be moving in. Last year it must have doubled. And now a new studio building is opening on my block. Hmmm…
C & P: Do you predict that more NYC galleries will move out of Chelsea and the Lower East Side to Brooklyn? Can you envision the NY art world being centered in Brooklyn eventually?
Anthony: I think galleries that aren’t centered in blue-chip work will have to move out of Chelsea eventually. The rent must be going crazy. I heard the Luncheonette is closing, which is sad. But I don’t see Brooklyn becoming a center. Sadly, it looks like permanent physical space may be less important for staging exhibitions, as fairs and online platforms keep growing at the present rate. Maybe a rigorous approach to pop-ups could be interesting, if done well. I think Brooklyn will keep growing as a place to spend time and money on good food, despite the gross over-proliferation of mediocre ‘approved’ murals…
C & P: The work I saw in your studio consists of a mixture of figurative oil paintings—ranging in size from very large, over 10 feet in height, to much smaller in scale—drawings (lots and lots of them!), and some mixed media works. Has the figure always been the main subject matter in your work?
Anthony: Not always directly. But in some way perhaps the figure has always indirectly been involved. Over a decade ago I was making these minimal, fluid, process based paintings with biting conceptual attitudes about them. These were very much oriented around and involved the body, both in how the fetish object oriented itself to the viewer, and in how they were made. So, body/figure even in its literal absence… These days it is more of a pictorial use.
C & P: Could you describe your process when beginning a new work on canvas? How do you decide at which size you will work? What are the different stages you go through before you know a painting is complete? How many pieces might you be working on simultaneously?
Anthony: I don’t know where to begin here. Which may be similar to the process, so I just begin. Using whatever resources are there. I don’t predetermine rhyme or reason. In fact I go out of my way to avoid pre-emptive controls too rigidly described in textual language. Although it’s still important that I’m aware of much of what is operating functionally or materially in overarching ways, things that I’ve agreed upon with the work.
C & P: When starting a new painting do you reference your drawings or do you begin working directly on the canvas without any reference point? Does it vary from piece to piece?
Anthony: This varies. And the success of it varies as well. I like to live with things for a long time. This way you see it like someone else who will live with it. You see it in so many different mind states, and it has to be able to stand up to these different states. As far as sketching before hand, it’s becoming more and more part of my process, but I still keep it at arms length in different ways, because the images must be alive, there cannot be a feeling of stasis from copying. Collage has become for me a form of planning shapes and lines that often end up being attached instead of re-drawn.
C & P: You sometimes work on the floor (and maybe move the piece onto the wall at some point or vice versa) and you do not mind your work “getting dirty” by being walked across by humans (and kitties), whereas many artists treat their art as if it is very precious and have a “no touch” rule in place for others besides themselves. Are you making a statement about process and/or the art world by treating your canvases in this manner?
Anthony: Yes, I’m consciously aware there are many things in operation here. I’m glad some of these are noticeable. These are the very things that are precious, no?
C & P: Your work combines abstract forms with expressionistic, child-like, sometimes cartoonish, painting/drawing of the figure and of faces, with a gritty application of a variety of mediums. The energy you expel while creating the work shows through in the aggressive scribbles and gestural brushstrokes, which combine to form your subject matter. It seems that you are very active while creating, many of your canvases look as though they have been assaulted. I don’t imagine you sitting still, painting in small details with tiny brushes. Is this a realistic description of how you work? Do you consider the creation of a work a performative action?
Anthony: It’s a pretty accurate description of process. I might slightly disagree with certain aspects of the visual description.
And at times I definitely do my share of sitting. As a counter-narrative—I remember recently contemplating covering just a square inch on one part of a painting. This contemplation went on for a few days and then finally on the 4th or 5th day I applied the mark with the drying brush that still lay on the floor from a painting session days before. It took maybe 10 seconds, but those ten seconds changed everything, at least to me. Those 10 seconds, though hardly an assault, embodied all the fulfillment of a successful day of painting. It was a feeling of solving something. But yes, usually it’s much more active. I think in dedicated consistent practice, action can reveal a different and in some ways more poignant intelligence, with cautionary layers peeled back or abandoned altogether.
C & P: Your works range from extremely colorful to monochromatic. A lot of the larger canvases currently in your studio are black and white. Do you go through phases where work tends to stay within a particular color palette or does your use (or non-use) of color depend on your mood on a particular day?
Anthony: I don’t know about mood. I think reasoning is faceted, sort of knit like a fabric through and through. It must be, no? I remember times when I worked mainly in black and white because of monetary cost, on both sides—having no money for paint and the also having plenty of paint so wanting to abandon the obvious.
C & P: What helps you to develop your ideas?
Anthony: Working, looking.
C & P: Do you feel more influenced by looking at the work of other painters and artists or do you feel that you are more stimulated by the massive amount of visual information you are exposed to on a daily basis, through advertising, the internet, television, etc?
Anthony: More influenced or more stimulated. I’m not sure, and I’m not sure it’s the same question. I actually don’t feel like I have a massive amount of stimulation from media. Its presence is there, sure, looming almost in threat, as an option, but I spend a lot of time alone, or away from it as well. I spend more time watching the sky than I do videos, ads, social media etc. This choice makes me happy.
C & P: Who are the characters that appear in your paintings/drawings? Are they your friends, lovers? Are they self-portraits? Are these characters based on strangers you might have seen in the street? Do the figures mostly come from your imagination? Or some combination of all of the above?
Anthony: Lovers are, at times, a large part, and are the only way I can make any sense of the word ‘inspiration’. Rarely friends. Never strangers. Never monsters. Never aliens. I’m firmly engaged with humans. I’m firmly engaged in making paintings. Not interested in fantasy. But most often these characters are simply made through the circumstance of shapes. No matter what the figure is, even if it’s clearly an animal, such as a dog or horse, I think they exhibit emotions that are clearly human. Sometimes almost apologetically so…
C & P: Many of the figures also possess both male and female sexual characteristics (a figure might have breasts and a penis with long hair). Do you consider the gender of your subject or are the figures assigned sexual “parts” randomly?
Anthony: Not random.
C & P: Is there a narrative running through your work?
Anthony: Some individual images can be narrative-like in ways, and as a side, I am cultivating a visual language over time, which then has aspects of visual vocabulary so could in various ways construct narratives and meta-narratives, but this isn’t a primary focus. A lot of care is taken in deciding certain overarching aspects of the work as a whole. I don’t know how to explain this at all clearly in a brief setting like this because I don’t want to name something and give people the opportunity to run with it singularly, simplified, or generalized. Reality is too faceted and cultural work too important to generalize and wade around in language like this wetting our feet, and again there are so many risks even in saying this. These paradigms between action and question are always present, wondering how many doors we close with the force needed to make meaningful headway. Have I gone off track already? Whatever, I think a lot about what it means to me to be painting at this time. What appearance of meaningful participation in culture might look like at this moment. I think the terms I’d like to use would be alarming to many, but I think it’s necessary, and at the same time I’m not yet prepared speak accurately in words about violence, protest, cultural abrasion, desperation, etc…, and I’m still mining ideas about positive uses of existentialist thought. This is some of what I think about, or talk about with friends. Narrative?
I don’t know. I’m interested in our functional narrative as humans, and the possibilities of painting’s material narratives in the many faceted ways it may operate synonymous to weaponry within its means. I don’t mean to fancifully try and claim more territory for painting or for artists than their due, but I of course want to maximize its agency as well as my own.
C & P: Is there a certain time of the day when you work best and are most productive? Do you have certain habits that you stick to in regards to your art making schedule?
Anthony: No, except that I try to work every day. Accidentally waking up at 4am and working are sometimes the most productive days, but more often I work in the afternoon and evening. In the mornings I often work on small drawings by a window.
C & P: What ultimately do you want people to walk away from your work feeling or thinking?
Anthony: If they walk away feeling and thinking then that is enough.
It seems too many things have me just walking away.
C & P: You told me that you were going to start working more on sculptural work. What sort of materials do you envision using in this work?
Anthony: I’ve been working with cardboard for awhile now, and used to work with plaster and wood some a few years ago. I’d imagine some combination of these, and clay. I’ve been really wanting to get back into clay for quite some time. Haven’t worked with it since undergrad.
C & P: What projects are you working on now? Do you have any shows up currently or in the near future?
Anthony: Yes, currently working on a small book of images, and planning a solo booth at NADA this May with the Bushwick gallery ART 3. Quite excited for these next few months.
Don in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn studio.
C & P: Your watercolors are peculiarly evocative, I get a whiff of history, pulp, and the mythological bound together. What stories and sources of imagery attract you most?
Don: I am partial to heroic gender bending busty chicks, wearing low cut shirts and cargo pants held up by belts with huge buckles, swinging swords, and bottles of rum, especially on fantasy galleons. However, I also like stories where I can reverse gender roles most often associated with men. They can involve a messed up but essential journey where some desperate or obsessed soul in the course of it makes a discovery. Eroticism is inevitable and if I were to pin it down I say it owes something to the depiction of ecstatic disarray in savage Pirates movies from 1950s, and unsettling films like Antonioni’s “Blow Up” or Milton Moses Ginsberg’s “Coming Apart”. And I cannot forget Greek Myths and what an updated personal context for them might look like.
I watch old film noir for the images of detectives with self-esteem issues seeking out answers yet trudging through the sordid back streets of fringe society. My series of Redressed She Pirates is very successful, whose imagined freedom in domestic settings is razor sharp and worn at the hip. Stories with situations to yearn for, yet prudently not be allowed to engage in. My subjects are meant to suggest strangers or casual acquaintances.
Imagery for these stories are in my head but are cobbled to life in my photo sampling collages from collected sources in fashion magazines, 70s Sears and Sotheby’s catalogs, nautical books, how-to photography manuals. It is not always obvious here; odd family vacation snapshots found adrift of their context at flea markets or eBay. I collect all these, as needed, for what has an appeal to my thoughts for rendering; often the best of these photos are someone’s snapshots of just an instant. Same can be said of vintage British 1970s pinup magazines with pretense to a costumed story line or an aspect of an interview with a model that always undresses her; my goal is about fusing historical and contemporary styles to create challenges that tend to find and tie a metaphor for art towards gender bending and back again towards art history.
C & P: Your studio is a paradise of yellowed and curling paper, bits of old wood, stacks of vintage mags, and your copious drawings and watercolors. Tell us about your process for constructing images and how found material informs your work.
Don: My artistic process begins when photo snapshots pile up in my studio. There is a photo pile scattered all over the floor around my table, gathered over months. I think the foundation of my paintings and sculptures rest on the anxiety of this uncertainty in photos adrift of their contexts. I am working on several works at once: there might be as many as half a dozen works in various materials and stages of completion around the studio. However, everything has a meticulous cut photo collage that it proceeds from.
I find old and new photographic references on eBay or on recycling day in the neighborhood. I gravitate towards photos that have a juicy specific source and time that is evident as soon as you see them. It could be just the style of the paper, the lighting, the haircut, the interior, or clothing. When I have stacked up a couple dozen finished collages, I stop and sort out those that offer exciting feverish, or off-kilter compositions. The collages are only stepping stones, yet some become exciting artifacts when I finish.
Don at work.
These, I draw from, for the next week or two, using charcoal on paper. The style is loose and traditional; I like the dusty powder barely clinging to the paper. This rendered rapport with the collage distills the separate photo sources into a distorted complexity with palpable intensity. I love this drawing part; it feels good, actually, and psychologically like a life drawing session does. It homogenizes and frees the figure of the collages’ identity.
As I transfer the selected compositions to canvas or sculpture the tension between the egos within the sources emerge, the period of the photos falls away, something is lost and something else enters imparting on the whole a visceral proposal. Somewhere in that the idea of the sculpture will be. All nonessentials fall away with this process. I often find funny combinations that poke fun at cubist formality made up entirely of female body parts reassembled and about to engage in some unknown physical act; simultaneously sexual, revelatory, or most funny if generally alluding to an unknown skilled labor or trade.
Then there are the sculpting materials I work with to speak about; the found objects for the bases that the clay sculptures are mounted on; here I am trying to make a plinth with just a few words—a table, chairs, book, stool, turntable, dream catcher, etc. I am letting the base become a setting for the modeling with out modeling it. It is in this effort limited to just a stacking process until the sculpture feels like it is complete.
C & P: The sensuality of oil paint is used to enticing effect in your lascivious imagery of female nudes and semi-nudes. How do you feel about the different effects as you work images across various media—collage, drawing, painting, and sculpture? Do the materials present differing interpretations to the viewer? Which is your preferred medium?
Don: I prefer watercolor and oil paint up until recently as it just came so easily for me. The collages are the most anxious and conceptual maybe because I am a little repulsed that they are least removed from their sources; oscillating between cut parts and fetishist visions of women’s reshaped form. However, for the moment, the clay modeled sculptures, which I am having the most success with, allow me to display an ambiguity in the figure and Her being observed as shattered cannot be resolved completely, the reason I like it might be it is yet strangely organic and cannot be so neatly understood. I am trying to perfect this as a volatile talisman like image. It has interesting kinship with public statues; the phantomic aspects of public statuary that seem to want to step off the pedestal and take part in the sidewalk procession.
C & P: Your recent work is populated by women who embody a broad array of characteristics (pardon the pun!), from the powerful to the fragile, the self-questioning to the self-assured. Men appear less frequently and often as a foil for the women. Tell us about these characters and what makes women the perfect symbol for the struggles that your figures are experiencing?
Don: I don’t often know why I am doing something or why I like it. I want it to tell me something.
There’s no one-to-one correspondence between any kind of inner experience I’m having and the women are having; whatever I sculpt or draw, the woman as a fashion symbol allows me to ask the viewer to question whether or not the ideal body is worth aspiring to. The use I make of the symbol subverts the assumption that the ideal body is inherently good and perhaps as a castrative Medusa the ideal is both severed and severing.
In our world, the woman form is at once sexist and feminist, real and surreal, unsettling and seductive. She can be used to represent me. It is crucial that it is a woman, for its symbolic quality much like the pirate is; as a murderer, a thief, a colorful hero of adventure stories, she is a deeply fractured symbol.
The longer I make art, however, the more mysterious I find the relation between the objects I choose and lived experience. There is always a male foil within the works as either an object, a parrot, the sea, a pistol, a case of beer, framed picture on the wall, or a distant ship, The male body is just not as visually interesting a form when it is not muscular. When it is muscular it projects too much simple machismo that as yet I have nothing to say anything about.
However, if she is not me then I am the guy detective in the noir film seeking the truth and the girl is at once the answer, the trigger for the menace, and the unattainable beauty emerging from the shadows. So that’s a perfect symbol of a problem to be solved.
C & P: Your drawing is very fluid and playful, a sly cover for the almost monstrous transformations taking place in the figures in your recent work. How do you describe what these figures are going through?
Don: They are wrestling within simultaneous egos from divergent moments in their timeline. They are being cobbled together like a Frankenstein bride; bits salvaged from yet corpses of art history and contemporary culture. They feel for and are expectant for the spark of life waiting to ignite upon them. And in this shape shifting entropy they mirror the current ever-stranger versions of virtual reality as related to the human body.
C & P: You have a keen sense of the absurd. What kind of interplay between whimsy and heavier themes is at work in your work? Where would you ideally like to fall, if this were a spectrum?
Don: I like the tragic but I cannot get there, so I opt for humor to find it. The current work is partly an absurdist Hogarthian analysis of beauty. In our world there is an oppressive demand for idealization that is projected upon the female form; a body impossible to achieve in reality yet brutally tangible in the symbolic spirit.
My first aim is to find a tension between drifting elements of source materials that suggest a story. And to then follow that story’s formation, until I can jump to working out a complimentary formal or color narrative that carries the whole to a satisfying conclusion. Where I would like to end up is to release myself of fears and what my emotions need at that time, which is usually on the side of humor, as it is a bit like a role playing game.
C & P: We have talked about our shared interest in providing an experience which can be provocative and unsettling. What relationship do you envision between the viewer and the figures in your recent work?
Don: Where the unconscious rolls with the tide, face down. I want to help people come to terms with their instincts. Go back and forth between yearnings and discomfort signaling newness in the romantic pursuit; a rejection of accepted social mores in figures concerned in a different world without belonging or defining an actual place or time.
I want to get an engagement as identification, with or without sympathy for the image, a recognition of the memory, and then see the offering is sensually empowering but necessitates accepting the formally naughty grotesque mess as a liberating journey again and again. The work as a metaphor for making art.
The historical figure (classical) is present, yet the mythical, spiritual and exuberantly naked (that initially seems escapist) overwhelms. I am not interested in apolitical nostalgia or kitsch, instead I connect to the more transgressive gender identities.
I like to think of art as mischievously toying with old romantic equations, Classical mathematics, and realist skepticism, a pastoral alternative, memories of my deepest child hood.
C & P: What are some painters you admire whose influence might not be readily apparent in your work?
Don: Maria Lassnig, Giorgio de Chirico, Daumier, Gustave Moreau, Hans Balding Gruen, and Reg Butler’s sculptures from 1968!
C & P: Occasionally, The Artist appears in your drawings, jovially toiling before an easel. To what degree do you see yourself in these ironic and romantic depictions?
Don: I see them as a witty self critique of the art world, myself and as a vehicle for charting the “artists” path from private to public life that often ends in obscurity. I think I am converting my own self-consciousness into the viewers as an accessory to the crime. They double as my pit crew and cheer me on as the instigator manifesting the trouble with subject insularity that preceeds me in the search for a subject to paint about. Tongue in cheek homesickness for art school and its insularity that these works pine for.
C & P: We talked about your facility with various materials, are there other media you are interested in exploring, such as film or installation, in conjunction with painting?
Don: Installation and short films were apart of my past and I dream of another opportunity of pursuing it within a show yet have not had the means or momentum yet. Perhaps this year I will find the venue.
C & P: Your work contains distillation of a variety of imagery from Rococo painting to porn and comics, it seems almost timeless. Do you think you would be making similar work if you lived in another time or place, or do you think there is something that connects you very directly to New York City in the present day?
Don: I don’t think gender-bending work can survive in many places like here in NYC. Nor do I think irreverent work would either. The more emotive methods we employ in our works still need the context of this big city to support us because the attitude here is one of strength.
I could not do this art anywhere else. The stimulation of the art of my friends here and the cities’ close-knit cultural fabric is causal in ways I don’t understand but this work emerged, soon after I arrived, from work that was previously imitative and less connected to the world. But I don’t know, my biggest collectors are in Germany; a place I have never been.
C & P: What is on your easel right now?
Don: Two things: a canvas with a jazz musician pausing in his music while a woman serves him a John the Baptist on a platter. And on the sculpture stand a clay work of a two headed woman, with one smaller and short haired blonde head looking off in contemplation while the other head, long haired and black, yells into her own crotch.
From In Secret, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
Cheap & Plastique‘s Violet Shuraka interviews Berlin-based photographer
Friederike Von Rauch for issue #12. See more of Friederike’s work here.
C & P: You live and work in Berlin. How long have you been working there?
Friederike: My whole life, I grew up in former West Berlin, but I work wherever my projects take me.
C & P: Where do you photograph your various series? Is each series shot in a different location?
Friederike: Most series include a variety of different locations. Within the series I often switch the place. So for example for my series Sleeping Beauties I selected museums in Europe. The Transept series deals with churches of postwar modernism in Germany, Ash on the other hand is shot only in Iceland.
C & P: What inspires you to make a body of work about a particular space/place? Are these spaces that are accessible to all or do you seek out permission to photograph certain areas that are maybe hidden/off limits from public view?
Friederike: Most of the time I have seen a location and keep it in the back of my head until suddenly it seems exactly the right time to base a project around it.
A public and well-known place can generate this sort of fascination, if the particularity of the architecture or history of the place creates a special atmosphere.
I think this one moment of enchantment is what it takes to pique my curiosity. Many places you can simply visit, but many require painstaking preparation and permissions to gain access to for a photography project.
From In Secret, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
C & P: Is there any architectural space or place that you have always wanted to photograph?
Friederike: There are still quite a few, most of the time my creative work only starts after tedious process to gain permission.
For it to even happen at all, you need a certain amount of patience. So, really, everything is still possible!
C & P: Many of your photographs capture light cascading down a wall or in a corner of a room, various abstract details within an interior, details that many may not notice when passing through a space. What interests you about architecture and the small details that emerge when a space is looked at in a certain angle and with certain light? Are you more interested in the details rather than a place as a whole?
Friederike: …I am not sure since it is only through the whole architecture of a building I’m there at all. Then, however, and especially lately, it pulls me into corners, walls, and little details that I seem to notice. But initially I have to free myself of all stimulatory sensations, which can take awhile. When I do see my motive, I recognize it straight away, and then its meaning becomes clear to me—even more if it has been sitting there right in front of me the whole time.
For example: I find something that seems interesting at first, but that is not worth photographing. Then, something changes unexpectedly—the light, perhaps—and it might just happen that suddenly I am mesmerized by the whole setting.
From Neues Museum, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
C & P: There is a certain mood evoked through light and shadow in the spaces you choose to photograph. What draws your eye to these minimal, abstracted, geometric, compositions?
Friederike: It is as if I am not looking for it, but just find it. I then feel a moment of relief. Reduction and pureness is what attracts me.
C & P: The light in your images is very beautiful. Do you ever use artificial lighting or are all your images shot utilizing only natural light?
Friederike: I use the given light which can be natural light, but also artificial. What I never do, however, is to light the setting myself.
I am infatuated and surprised by light and its effect on me. I love to observe the light on nearly invisible and subtle areas.
C & P: Do you shoot on film or with a digital SLR? Do you use the computer as a tool when creating your images? Do you ever edit an image in Photoshop or are we seeing a print of what is created in a negative?
Friederike: I work analogue, so classic on negative, but then I switch to digital, I scan my negative and print digitally.
Certainly I change little things, but the real work is, however, while taking pictures.
From Transept, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
From Transept, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
C & P: You often shoot concrete walls and concrete structures. Many find concrete to be ugly and brutal, however, your images of concrete are quite the opposite. What attracts you to concrete as a surface?
Friederike: Frankly, I never had difficulties with concrete, I find the material very beautiful—from very coarse to very fine.
I love the gray color and the aging process. Maybe concrete is underestimated?
C & P: You have some photo series that are shot in Iceland. One series consisting of Icelandic landscapes, Ash Iceland, is especially beautiful. Did you travel to Iceland specifically to make a body of work there? Have you developed a special relationship with Iceland, as many photographers do, because of it’s extraordinary natural beauty and magical light?
Friederike: Yes, I actually applied for a residency in Iceland, because it has attracted me so much. Since then I have made 2 big trips there. The country has an unseen sky and an infinite emptiness and otherness. The light is really out of this world.
From Ash Iceland, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
C & P: Which part of Iceland are the Ash Iceland photographs shot in?
Friederike: Directly on the volcano in Iceland, the one responsible for the large ash cloud over Europe in 2010 (Eyjafjallajökull Volcano).
C & P: Many of your image series seem like fading dream sequences. Would you like the viewer to develop a narrative when viewing your photographs or would you prefer the images to be looked at individually as abstract compositions?
Friederike: I see them as a independent, not a narrative composition, the images also work in isolation from their series. How one looks at them, is up to the viewer.
C & P: Generally there are no humans in your photographs. Is there a reason for this absence? Have you ever photographed people? Would you ever consider including people within the frame of one of your images?
Friederike: The fact there are hardly any people in the photographs has to do with my devotion to places and my wish to dedicate my full attention to the space.
Practically, I prefer to work alone and in complete silence so, when possible, outside of public opening hours. So far it does not interest me to integrate people in my work, but their marks you can see very well.
From In Secret, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
C & P: Could you describe the process of working on the series In Secret?
Friederike: The Neues Museum Project from 2009 has kicked off this series.
Two years later, I followed an invitation to Dresden where I was working for one week, totally undisturbed in the old picture gallery.
By then I was infected. The majority of these images were taken in museums: places that preserve, reflect and exhibit Europe’s cultural history, such as art galleries, sculpture depots, restoration studios, archives, and other similar spaces—The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, BOZAR in Brussels, the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden, and the New Palace in Potsdam, as well as the Academia di Belle Arti and Palazzo Grimani in Venice—are all featured.
C & P: Sieveking Verlag published a book of these photographs titled In Secret in 2013. Was this your first book? Do you enjoy the process of creating a book?
Friederike: This is my 3rd book.
My first book Sites was published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, showing works from Berlin, Brussels, and Rotterdam, my 2nd book features images taken of the New Museum in Berlin.
The 3rd book, In Secret, brings together the work of the Sleeping Beauties and the Transept series with a few other images.
Making a book is always a big challenge for the artist—the selection of images, design, papers, text, and printing is pure stress—and it is very important to find a partner who you can trust. I was very pleased with and felt supported by Sieveking Verlag.
From Sites, All images © Friederike Von Rauch
C & P: There seems to have been a reemergence in the popularity of the photo book in the past few years. Do you have a preference to which way you view photographs, do you prefer seeing a photographer’s prints in a gallery setting versus reproductions in art book form?
Friederike: That’s not a equal comparison. I work very long and hard until I produce the perfect print on just the right paper.
I do find the photo book a wonderful independent medium to show my work. However, the offset does not correspond to the original and that’s a good thing.
C & P: What are your thoughts about photographers utilizing Instagram? Do you have an Instagram account?
Friederike: I do not have an Instagram account, nor an opinion about it
C & P: You exhibited photographs in a 2 person show at i-8 in Reykjavik, Iceland in December, what work did you show? And how did the collaboration with this painter come about?
Friederike: It was a show of my work along with the artwork of my friend, Eggert Pétursson. Eggert paints, I photograph and the collaboration was really new and exciting for me, several works from the past 5 years were on display.
C & P: What projects are you working on currently?
Friederike: I’m working on a series with monasteries. I am, of course, searching out the monasteries according to their architecture, but the ability to live and work there at the same time while completing the work is wonderful, this allows me to respond directly to light and atmosphere.
I really love this Forgotten Iowa photography project by photographer Cody Weber.
First of all half of my family live in Iowa, many whom I have never met. I am interested in seeing this place that continues to be a mystery to me. I have also documented many of the small towns of my home state, Massachusetts, as well as those in New York, over the past 20 years.
The scenes look similar in NY state, Massachusetts, and Iowa; crumbling structures, abandoned properties, blue skies, empty streets, bored kids. A real feeling of loneliness exists in these places.
People have gone. The younger generations continue to leave these small towns for the city to make a more exciting and prosperous (?) life for themselves.
Having lived in New York City for over ten years now the feeling that maybe it is time to go back to a smaller town has been popping up in my mind much more frequently lately.
The cities have become too expensive for us to live in, why not take over one of these abandoned spaces and start anew?
All images © Cody Weber.
I like these kids!
Cheap & Plastique‘s favorite artworks at The Armory Show:
Enoc Perez, Galerie Nathalie Obadia.
Daniel Buren, Galerie Kamel Mennour.
Raymond Pettibon, Regen Projects.
Sverre Bjertnaes, Galleri Brandstrup.
Shafic Abboud, Galerie Claude Lemand.
Ayman Yossri Daydban, ATHR Gallery.
Peter Liversidge, Sean Kelly Gallery.
Antony Gormley and Frank Thiel, Sean Kelly Gallery.
Sam Falls, Galerie Eva Presenhuber.
Ulla van Brandenburg, Produzentengalerie Hamburg.