Frank in his Fort Greene, Brooklyn studio.
Frank Webster is a Brooklyn based painter, and all around sharp guy. We visited his studio on a balmy day in December for issue #12. It was a great place to reflect on the apocalypse.
Interview by Cheap & Plastique‘s Heather Morgan. Please see more of Frank’s work here.
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?
Frank I’ve been in New York for about 20 years. Most of it has been spent in Brooklyn. I originally came to the East Coast from Chicago to get my MFA at Rutgers. I attended Skowhegan right after graduation and moved to the city shortly afterwards.
C & P: You maintain a studio in Fort Greene, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood since you have been in this location?
Frank I’ve watched a pretty dramatic change occur in my time here. The building I have my studio in was just sold to a group of investors for over $160 million dollars. I think it’s unlikely I will be in this space much longer. It’s a fairly common story New Yorkers of all walks of life face as we try to deal with the phenomenon of gentrification. When I first moved to Fort Greene the area near the Navy Yard was a dangerous no man’s land with a reputation for crime. Now it is part of something called the “tech triangle” in real-estate-speak. Scarcity has made it in demand as office space despite the lack of amenities and poor transportation service.
A Volcanic Crater, 2015, watercolor on paper, 9” x 12”
C & P: Your work definitely has an “end of the world” feeling to me, whether you take the city for your subject matter, or you are out in nature. Do you think we are doomed?
Frank That’s an interesting question. Existentially of course as individuals we are—we all have about a 70 year expiration date, if we’re lucky. As a species I think we have a lot better prospects. Most of our current problems regarding our environment are the result of human ingenuity. If I didn’t think that ingenuity could be used to correct these problems I’d probably pass over conditions in silence. So contradictorily, I guess I’m really a bit of an bright-eyed optimist. Infer irony if you like.
C & P: Your earlier work seems to draw comparison between nature and the objects and architecture we have built, to melancholy effect. Your current series seem more wholly immersed in the landscape (in Iceland).
What prompted this shift, and do you find it satisfying to work in this way?
Frank I tend to see my work as a long running project so it all seems as part of a greater whole to me. The architecture work always had a topographic quality about it—a sort of catalogue of the landscape of the modern built environment at its most vernacular level. “How had America been altered by the great wave of suburbs of the later half of the last century?” for instance. More recent work has started examining a natural landscape without architecture, a place with a highway but without strip malls. It is in a northern region (the north Atlantic) where some of the most dramatic effects of climate change are beginning to be seen. It also is a place of unearthly beauty—fascinating geologically and historically, the wellspring of European colonization of the New World with a rich and influential literary legacy. I find it satisfying thus far but really feel like I’m at the beginning of something with a lot of loose ends to tie up and questions to answer.
Plastic Bags, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 80″
Apartment Building, Tokyo, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 44″
C & P: The Iceland series is connected to your earlier work by a deep sense of solitude. Even in Tokyo, your work is free of humans. Why is that?
Frank I have been a long time fan of the romantics who were the first to really grapple with a non-anthropocentric view of the world, communion with nature and the beauty of solitude. When I get this question I always am reminded of one of my favorite paintings: The Wanderer above the Mists by Caspar David Friedrich. This painting is significant for coming up with the compositional device of a figure with his back turned to the viewer to communicate contemplation of the sublime. In my paintings I think of the figurative subject as being the viewer who is placed in a scene by yours truly (the painter) to contemplate said scene. So my paintings all have a human as part of their compositional mechanics—that human just happens to be you.
C & P: This isolation seems to be the emblematic of our civilization. Do you consider your work political?
Frank Certainly alienation is one of the most well documented hallmarks of postmodern society. I personally think that sense of isolation has paradoxically increased in this period of constant contact and social media. I see a general rootlessness and sense a growing insecurity and a feeling of economic disenfranchisement. Of course the great danger here in the United States is political apathy in the face of this larger social alienation. It’s important to combat this tendency. So yes I think my work has political undertones even if it isn’t of the banners and barricades variety.
C & P: The earliest work I have seen of yours goes back about a decade, very minimalist paintings of strip malls and other suburban horrors, rendered purposefully, cheerily lifeless and geometric. Tell us about your connection to minimalism. Have you always had a minimalist sensibility?
Frank I have a bit of a love hate relationship with minimalism. I recently visited Marfa and was really taken with the grounded-ness of Donald Judd’s vision. But I also see how that aesthetic has been applied or misapplied in consumerism and it’s tendency to erase eccentricity and cultural nuance. (Post minimalist/feminist art nailed that second point pretty well, in my opinion.) Personally I try to keep things as simple as possible. But of course the world is a complicated place and complexity has it’s way of creeping into the most straight forward situations…
C & P: Your paint seems to be heightening the drama in more recent work, exploring the surface more. How does the sublime fit into a dim worldview?
Frank The sublime is interesting because it is not necessarily beautiful. Burke’s original concept of the sublime included what was most definitely NOT pleasurable, what was awesomely terrifying or downright ugly. As an idea it has been a powerful tool to free artists from their role as interior decorators. Any art that assumes a more conceptual attitude ultimately draws it’s strength from the stance of the sublime as a counter to the merely beautiful.
C & P: It is definitely oxymoronic to present a lush, beautiful painting that depicts barbed wire and an ugly, hulking tower block of a building. Is beauty important? Is it there to console the viewer or to lure them into a nightmarish hellscape? What sort of journey do you ideally wish for viewers of your work?
Frank Beauty is of great importance and ultimately there is nothing wrong with beauty. And yes, of course, it can be a tool to seduce a viewer into confronting some experience they’d rather avoid. A spoonful of sugar? Maybe. I’d avoid prescribing an experience for a viewer of my work, but I’ve always felt that catharsis was one of the most powerful emotions evoked by any work of art. Think of a late Rothko… that unspeakable beauty, calm and sadness… “Nightmarish hellscape?” Thank you, I’m flattered.
C & P: We met in an art show at a strip bar and had a funny conversation about Jean Rollin and exploitation cinema. Rollin in particular creates some stunning visuals. Do you draw on film as an influence?
Frank I LOVE Jean Rollin and his goofy post-surrealist, gothic comic book universe. I think his movies have had a lot of influence on a number of contemporary artists. He was able to find the freedom to deal with taboo and out-there subjects as long as he just tossed a sex scene in the flick to guarantee distribution in porn theaters. Georges Bataille was his godfather. But yes, his visuals are amazing. He was a real poet of the eye. He is interesting in that his mise-en-scéne is often the most interesting things about the films. I’ve made a few paintings based on transition scenes in his movies. I feel like I’m saying I read Playboy for the articles but I really enjoy his pornographic horror films for the landscapes he sets them in—that might be the most decadently subversive thing I can say about his art. (Sort of like going to a strip club to look at paintings.)
There are a lot of filmmakers I look at as influences. Michelangelo Antonioni comes to mind as someone I was inspired by early on in my career and still holds a special place in my heart. I’m also very interested in the off-beat auteur films of the ‘70s, when the director was considered an artist and low budget films were still the norm.
C & P: When painting the landscape, you get a sense of the infinite by virtue of expansive space or endless tree branches. How do you personally know when a painting is finished?
Frank It’s tough. I like to work on large paintings slowly so there is a temptation to say something is done prematurely. But ultimately a bit more time pays off in better results. I want a painting to have that infinite and expansive feeling but to also feel that somehow it just accidentally happened. Sometimes it can take forever to find that happenstance moment.
C & P: What are some paintings that you like to revisit, in museums or collections?
Frank I have a lot of artists I look at, but a recent discovery I made when visiting Vienna was Richard Gerstl, the proto-expressionist. Unfortunately, today he is probably more famous for his youthful suicide and affair with Arnold Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde but I loved the directness and urgency of his landscape paintings. His self-portraits are chilling and among the best of the first half of the 20th century. He is under appreciated today so I’ll mention him now.
C & P: What are you working on right now?
Frank I’m playing around with oil paint after a long period of working exclusively with water-based media. Right now I’m making small oil studies which I hope to develop into large-scale works. Studio or not, I’m a wily artist and will figure out a way to make my vision happen—whether an army of “international real-estate investors” likes it or not.
Artist portrait and studio shots by Violet Shuraka. All artwork ©Frank Webster.
Kelsey in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn studio.
Cheap & Plastique‘s Violet Shuraka interviews Brooklyn-based artist Kelsey Henderson for issue #12. Portraits and studio shots by Violet Shuraka. All artwork ©Kelsey Henderson. See more of Kelsey’s work here.
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?
Kelsey: I moved here in 2006, so in September it will have been 10 years. Wow.
I moved here knowing I needed to be around driven and motivated people. Wanted
a dose of healthy competitive drive to keep me going and not complacent.
C & P: Your studio has been located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 2011, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood over the past few years?
Kelsey: Of course, it’s constantly changing but I hardly focus on that stuff till it hits me in the face like now—losing my studio of 7 years and realizing how messed up the price of studios in the area are. Charging apartment prices for commercial spaces shows a lack of appreciation for the arts and that the primary focus is on money, which really bums me out.
C & P: Much of your work consists of figurative oil paintings. How long have you been painting the figure? What first interested you in the figure as subject matter?
Kelsey: All my life I’ve focused on people. It’s my natural instinct and one of my favorite things to do. If there’s something that draws me in about someone, I like giving myself the time to look at and study them. Plus I find it to be challenging technically, which I enjoy. It’s good to do things that aren’t easy.
C & P: Who are the people in your paintings? Do you ever paint from a live model or do you utilize imagery from pop culture (or unpopular culture) as your subjects?
Kelsey: I used to only work from life since that’s how I was taught to work. I think it was a good practice when I was in school to create a strong relationship between my hands and eyes, but once I started becoming more conceptually focused it wasn’t necessary. Now I work from photos that I take or found photos. Whether or not I know the person directly in the paintings I want to make sure that it’s more about the message I’m making with the image vs. a formal portrait painting.
C & P: The figures that show up in your most recent work have shifted from portraits of friends/people you know to paintings of imagined ‘zine covers, which include both figures and text. You have said the images of people in this series are taken from old video cassette covers, hardcore music videos, punk magazine layouts and the text in the paintings is from various vintage pin up/erotic magazine covers. What inspired this change in the subject matter of your work?
Kelsey: That’s not all true… Most of the figures painted in this series are found by searching through 70-90s subculture images. Some being famous people, others who are not. Mostly just from photos taken from people involved in the scene at the time. And the layout and the text comes from old porn magazines. I’m pretty much making fake magazines that I wish existed, that I’d love to buy. Creating a different sense of idealism or desire than what the mainstream suggests.
C & P: Some titles of the current body of work in your studio are Teenage Extreme (tagged with Hot Straight Edge Boys), Pleasure—Number One In Excitement, Punished, Suck, Teenager in Action, which are all quite sexually suggestive. The figure that is matched up with the various title is usually a punk/hardcore/skinhead boy or girl. What draws you to the denizens of these particular underground subcultures? Do you think the underground is particularly sexually liberated?
Kelsey: I’m more focused on shifting the sexual read of the text and giving it a different reading. Which is why I don’t want to use any old porn magazines that blatantly say “SEX” “PORN” etc… I like the double play on the text… But if the painting says “Teenage Extreme” and it’s and image of a hardcore straightedge younger guy singing as hard as he can… then that text is more about a kid being hard.
On the flip side, clearly, I do want to play with the fantasized aspect of the porn magazines. These are forms of beauty that I’m drawn to, that I’m sincerely attracted to… I’m also aware of our culture’s (especially in fashion) detached rip offs and pulls from these subcultures as well—which totally turns me off.
So I’m playing with a lot of different aspects with this work and I have a lot to say about it all, which is why I know it’s important to make.
C & P: You mentioned Bruce La Bruce as an influence. His film and photography work also eroticize skinhead and punk subcultures. He was involved in the punk scene in Toronto in the early 90s, producing underground fanzines, making manifestos, and expressing his politics through a do-it-yourself style. What do you think draws you both to politically incorrect imagery and to and society’s “outsiders”?
Kelsey: I don’t think I said that. I had only recently (tho I’m not proud to admit) seen a couple of his films or looked into his work after starting my recent work. I was actually relieved I hadn’t seen his work before because it felt similar to my Crocodiles video that I made… and it may have influenced me if I had seen it prior, but I’m happy I’ve seen it now.
I love outsiders because I think a level of rebellion is important in life. The world and the people in it can’t grow without being challenged and aware that there are things beyond the norm.
C & P: Your painting technique on your most recent work calls to mind artists such as John Baldessari and Gerhard Richter, with your reduced palette and the inclusion of text. Are you responsive to these artists?
Kelsey: I mean I always loved Gerhard Richter, but with this particular body of work it feels very personal and sincere so I’m kind of stuck in my own bubble right now. I’ve always loved text and words so it’s been a really satisfying moment for me to combine these loves.
C & P: Music seems to play an important role in both your day to day life and your artwork. Are there certain bands that you will listen to for inspiration while painting? Has music always been so important to you?
Kelsey: What I listen to when I’m painting depends on my mood. I usually try to stick with something upbeat or dance-y to keep myself in the zone and energized. I don’t want to end up crying or anything while I’m working (ha ha!)
When I was a kid music wasn’t as important to me. I liked it but it didn’t hit the deep chords in my body and soul that it does today. I think the shift happened in high school when I listened to the widest range of music I’ve ever listened to—from requiems to jazz to classic rock to electronic music etc, etc… That’s when it became incredibly important to me and strongly instinctual to knowing what I liked.
C & P: A lot of people claim that New York is “dead” artistically and musically but I emphatically disagree. Do you feel that there is still a vibrant underground scene in New York City?
Kelsey: 100%. I think anyone who says it’s dead has stopped going to shows or stopped checking out scenes they didnt know about. There’s A LOT of amazing music being made right now in New York that isn’t well known.
C & P: You recently directed videos for the band Soft Moon and Crocodiles. How did the collaboration come about? How did the bands approach you to direct? Is directing something that you’d like to do more of in the future?
Kelsey: It was a nice trickle effect. I had been working on my own video projects that I’ve previewed in brief clips on Instagram. Then I was approached by my now friend Brandon from Crocodiles about using what he had seen for a video and I felt it best to create something specific for it and luckily both he and Chuck were both kind and trusting enough to let me make whatever I wanted with some discussed themes in mind. And from that I got the attention of Marco Rapisarda, who is The Soft Moon’s manager, and was asked to make a video for them.
I’ve always wanted to make music videos, I daydream about them all the time when I’m listening to music on my own—creating visuals in my head—so it was a wonderful experience. Would love to make more in the future.
C & P: Tell me a little bit about your “Yearbook/Yearfuck Class of 2015” photo project that I see you have started on Instagram. Is this directly related to the music video projects you have been working on?
Kelsey: That project is more connected to my newer paintings that I’ve been making. Creating false realities and showing subcultures as the mainstream way of life. Ultimately showing the rest of the world that within a subculture, we are the norm and the rest of the world is on the outside? Showing my reality, etc… I’m intending, and hoping, to show all of my recent work in one large show and also putting it all together in a book.
The idea came from being inspired by my friends and the people around me but knowing I had no time to paint them all. So I created the fake yearbook idea as a time capsule and spoof on the world we grew up in, creating the dream Class of 2015.
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?
Kelsey: When I’m on a role, I’ll get there in time for a late lunch (getting to order food from places that don’t deliver to my apt., ha ha) and then usually leave no later than 10 PM. I’ve got a pup so I always have to schedule my days around her but it’s not too much of a hassle and I like having my nights to be social since I’m alone all day. I mostly just go in, put some music on and get working.
C & P: Are you 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…?
Kelsey: If anything I guess random internet rabbit hole searches are the most inspiring and then would come my daily life… Taking what I see and experience and then romantically reflecting on it all and trying to show what’s in my head in that light. I do love looking at other artist’s work but in honesty I don’t do it very much. (someone should slap my wrist for that, ha!)
C & P: What projects are you working on now? Where can we see your work in the near future?
Kelsey: I’m still working on the fake magazine paintings, videos, and photos. It’s a big project I’m trying to make, connecting all of those things so it will take some time. The best place for now is Instagram @pallidspell and from there I’ll announce any shows etc…
Jesse in his Bushwick, Brooklyn studio.
Cheap & Plastique’s Heather Morgan interviews Brooklyn-based artist Jesse McCloskey for issue #12. Portraits and studio shots by Violet Shuraka. All artwork ©Jesse McCloskey. See more of Jesse’s work here.
Various works in 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?
Jesse: Actually, I live in Manhattan and paint in Brooklyn. I’ve had a cheap place on First Avenue forever. I came to New York in 1987 to attend graduate school at Parsons, where I got my MFA.
C & P: You have maintained a studio on the edge of Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn since the nineties, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood since you have been in this location?
Jesse: I got my first studio in Williamsburg around 1995, I think. It was on Lorimer and Bayard, facing the running track across the street from McCarren Pool. But they sold it for condos so now I’m at my current location on Grand and Morgan. It’s also changing rapidly, with new billboards for “Eyewear” nearby so I think I’ll have to move again soon but you know we’re survivors so I’ll come up with something hopefully!
C & P: You make darkly romantic paintings by layering and drawing, sometimes carving back into cut shapes of paper. The first time I saw your work I was blown away by not being sure of what I was looking at, how it was done. How did you arrive at this process?
Jesse: I remember my teacher Ben Martinez at the Swain School of Design, telling me Giacometti would draw and erase so much that he would rub holes into his drawings. I wondered why he didn’t just glue on a patch of paper and keep going.
I make paintings by cutting out painted paper shapes then adhering it to a canvas, I often paint on top of that, making changes until the picture comes together. Sometimes I use knives, digging down into the floorboards of the work to see if I left something useful down there. On occasion it reveals a helpful color or form. (Sometimes it’s best old decisions remained buried.)
I didn’t plan on making pictures this way, but the surface had become dead from over working so I added a slab of paper and then I had a patch over as well as a new shape and color to deal with and I just went with it.
I think it’s important to have the “Fuck It” moment. Where you don’t give a fuck about another fuckin’ painting so you just fuck it up and it forces you out for what ever pretense you’ve talked yourself into.
Ann is Salem
C & P: Your work presents a world of witches and demons, seductive and tormented figures. Sometimes it feels like you are tapping into powerful, ancient myths, and sometimes it reads as allegory for the artistic process. Tell us about the characters that are inhabiting your work, what they mean to you.
Jesse: I remember a few years ago a Christian conservative was losing a senate race in Maryland. In a last ditch effort, she said in a campaign ad, “ I am not a witch.”.It confirmed what people from New England, like myself, have always known, that our superstitions are so close to the surface. It’s only a steady supply of food, water, and electricity that keeps us from burning people or pressing scapegoats to death with field stones.
I don’t know who shows up in my paintings. They are the acting company of my desires and anxieties. They change costumes and masks but it’s the same group in different garb. My job as an artist is to make them a comfortable place to rage.
C & P: I know you to be a relentlessly driven painter. Talking with you about your progress on individual paintings, it almost sounds as though you are battling them. Does this passionate approach to producing the work inform the narratives within
Jesse: I love that Johnny Cash song, “I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.” My process is always the same and it’s kinda awful really, I start out on a tear with all the hope and expectation that I finally know what I’m doing, only to find that I don’t. The painting is alive! Then dead, then dead but not without hope, then yes, it’s hopeless. Then not! It changes and changes mask after mask until months later it suddenly snaps into place and the picture is at a point where it can’t get any better or worse. I do not change them for the sake of changing them, but I am obsessed with getting them right.
It does inform and build the narrative, in that if I believe in anything it’s this, that if I make a painting, drawing, some kind of art, whatever, then I destroy, not for the sake of destroying it but by pushing it until it’s a mess, then I really own the work/process. I gotta make it, kill it and bring it back. I might be terrified, like so many artists in New York, of losing my studio but I’m not afraid of making a mess in there. Forcing the painting come to me as much as I come to it.
C & P: I heard your still life once described (by me) as “a Cezanne if you set it on fire.” Describe some of your influences and how your use of these materials pushes past those influences.
Jesse: The Italians like Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto and De Kooning really are my most important influences (mainly how De Kooning, himself, processed the Italians). I love the muscle car paintings they put together with such an economy of means. Everything in these artist’s pictures has a purpose to the greater whole. I believe this comes from building and pulling apart each element in a composition until it works for the greater good. Certainly its how De Kooning made pictures. I remember you and I talking about how great artists don’t show you how to make a decent painting, they show you how to arrive at one. The materials are built for speed, I can and often do change a picture drastically in one evening. It’s thrilling really, the material and it’s application become extensions of my visual mind and I think my dusty dead friends would approve.
C & P: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist when you were growing up on a horse farm in Massachusetts? Were themes of New England—the gothic landscape, witches and hapless sinners—always present in your work?
Jesse: When I was 4, my mother bought me “The Christmas Mouse” It’s a coloring book that tells of a little mouse that makes his own Christmas by stealing from the people whose house he lives in. Kind of an odd message for a child now that I think of it. Then again the only advice my mother ever gave me was “Never live within your means, you’ll never have anything.” Well, the coloring book looked great, so off I went to be a painter.
Yes, my work has always been drawn to the dark. The Satanic tint to New England fueled my early visual imagination. And the demonology and superstitious slant of late medieval early Renaissance painting formed a seamless link in my mind to Italian painting and beyond.
C & P: There is a very gleeful and mischievous quality to your work. When taking on themes of death, sex and the torment of the soul, do you think it is important not to be too serious?
Jesse: For me I do think it’s best to sit on the fence between humour and alarm. That’s why I’m drawn to the classic New England witch. It’s both comical and alarming. It the Blair Witch as well as a consumerized pop culture symbol. Used beautifully, if unsuccessfully, both ways by would-be senators from Maryland.
Drawings in studio
C & P: Your female nudes are erotically charged and quite self-possessed and the males are usually trapped in struggle or have the grotesque face of a rascal-y demon. As a woman, I really enjoy this about your work! I get the sense that no one is really winning though, in the struggle for power in your world.
Jesse: The great painter and my friend and teacher the late Paul Georges was painting one day when he was asked what he wanted for lunch, he didn’t hear the question so he was asked again and again each time a bit louder and with more annoyed insistence. Finally he was asked “What do you want?!” He raised his arms and head to the skylight above and with brush in hand said “I want to be free!” Me too.
C & P: I would describe your palette as “stained glass”; you don’t shy away from primary colors and your compositions are illuminated and accentuated with heavy black lines. Does your work comment on the sacred?
Jesse: De Kooning spoke of “The sexuality of doubt.” What a spectacular phrase! I understand it as the erotic charge of uncertainty. If my work contains a vein of the scared it’s in being clear in uncertainty. That regardless of the endless possibilities, clarity of conviction in painting is the difference between being artistic and being an artist.
C & P: While we are on the subject of religion, your personal pantheon seems to begin and end at Mick and Keith. Their lithe bodies take center stage on door of your studio. What do they represent to you and to your painting?
Jesse: The public image of the 70s Mick and Keith have been fascination from my earliest memories back in my little home town of Plympton, Massachusetts. I was drawn to the gender bending bone thin bodies and what I saw as it’s demonic power. It represents freedom to me, a glimpse of another world, another place where misfits were revered and sexual roles not clearly defined. And yet my love for the image of Rolling Stones is deeply personal, I don’t wanna know anything about their private lives, it’s none of my business. It’s the illusion I’m drawn to. I wont talk to someone if they wanna impress me with detailed knowledge of Stone trivia, I’m not interested in any of that. I feed on the dark lyrics of “Sway” and “Memo From Turner” to turn me on. Remember that passage in “A Death in Venice” where the narrator writes about how if the public knew the true inspiration for so much of the art they love they would confused, horrified and repulsed? Some stones are best not looked under.
Jesse in his studio
C & P: What is on your easel right now? Are you killing it, or are you laying on the floor beneath it with a bourbon soaked rag?
Jesse: As you know all to well, Heather, our old brick studio building heats up like the pizza ovens on the Lower East Side, it takes days to cool down. The painting being yanked around is of a blond wig that morphs into yellow pumps with snakes and a palette. As well as a Tudor rose and some other stuff. Today It’s a mess, I am not killing it. I only have some Vermouth so that’s no good. My next show was cancelled, my gallery dropped me, I don’t remember the last time I sold something. But ya know, whatever, I’m gonna attack this painting again and it will give it up.
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.
Anthony in his Brooklyn studio.
Cheap & Plastique’s Violet Shuraka interviews Brooklyn-based artist Anthony Miler for issue #12. All studio images and portraits by Violet Shuraka. All artwork © Anthony Miler. See more of Anthony’s work here.
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.
Issue 11 of Cheap & Plastique is now available, in it’s entirety, on Issuu. If you like pretending to flip through a magazine on thee internet do please have a look, plenty of things to entertain your eyeballs in this issue! CLICK HERE to be magically transported to Issuu land.
All studio photos © Violet Shuraka.
Cheap & Plastique’s Violet Shuraka had a studio visit and photo shoot with NYC-based artist Kelsey Shwetz last month. Kelsey gave C & P a quick tour of her space, posed for some photos, and answered some questions about her work via an email interview after the studio visit. See more of Kelsey’s work here.
C & P: You live and work in NYC. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York?
Kelsey: I’ve lived here for precisely two years now. For me, moving from Montreal to New York represented unexplored avenues and possibility for expansion, artistically and personally. New York was in my mind this big dendritic mass of newness and opportunity that I would have to navigate, and that was thrilling.
C & P: Currently your studio is in Chelsea but you said that you are most likely moving it to Bushwick, Brooklyn in the very near future. Do you believe that more and more NY galleries will move out of Chelsea and the NY art world will be centered in and around Bushwick?
Kelsey: Yes, I will either move my studio to Bushwick or Greenpoint. A few galleries are making the move from Chelsea to Bushwick, but I don’t believe a giant exodus will happen any time soon. It is this curious thing where art is being made in Bushwick (or Gowanus or Greenpoint or Ridgewood) while many prominent galleries and most of the art fairs are located in the city. There are some fantastic galleries in Bushwick, and I think certainly Bushwick can be considered the center of where art is being made in New York.
C & P: You are also very involved in the Bushwick Art Crit Group, currently serving as Director of Exhibitions. Could you tell us a bit about the organization? Are all of the BACG presenting artists Brooklyn residents? How do you select the artists for each monthly crit?
Kelsey: Sure! Bushwick Art Crit Group is a non-profit organization committed to supporting and fostering development of Bushwick-based artists. We’ve been around since March 2013 and have recently expanded our monthly Crit programme to include exhibitions, participation in art fairs (Echo, SELECT fair at Art Basel) and panel discussions, which is very exciting! Not every presenting artist is a Brooklyn resident, but the vast majority are. In terms of selecting artists, it has all been about existing connections and relationships, which I think is really beautiful. What I mean by that is, it’s artists we already know and love, or it is an artist who came to a crit and approached us later wanting to present, or it is an artist you meet at a bar and think their work is really great and want them to speak about it, that kind of thing.
C & P: Next month at BACG you will be on a panel with the Guerilla Girls talking about the current state of the art world in relation to female artists. Could you tell us a bit more about this event?
Kelsey: I am so thrilled to be co-organizing and moderating this Feminist panel! We are honored to count Frieda Kahlo of the Guerrilla Girls as one of our panelists. What we’ll be addressing is the strategies that we, as self-identifying feminists/pro-feminists and artists, employ to identify, subvert, and oppose structural patriarchy in the Arts with particular examples of how we do so in our current practices. The panelists will also identify obstacles they deem most crucial to solve/ find most relevant. In having this panel, what we’re aware of is the importance of presenting an inclusive, representative voice in all Feminist dialogues. So we recognize the duty we have to use our platform at BACG to make space for those who would not necessarily have the privilege of such an opportunity. Thus, we’re viewing audience participation and discussion as a key part of our programme’s structure. I truly believe a lively discourse with all perspectives represented is not only fair and right and important, but key to progress and solidarity.
C & P: The current body of work in your studio consists of figurative oil paintings. How long have you been painting the figure? What interests you in painting a subject that has been painted throughout history, reaching as far back to the first cave paintings, in such a traditional medium as oil paint?
Kelsey: To be fair, I’ve been painting the figure since I was a child as we all have—those terrible watercolor paint sets where the yellow always ends up this greenish brown—but I have been addressing the figure formally and seriously in my practice for seven years. The fact that the figure in art is nothing new- but rather completely integrated into representation and expression since (as you’ve pointed out) the dawn of time is precisely what interests me. I’m very much attracted to classical realist portraiture, and this is referenced in my work. I paint the figure because I like looking at the figure, I like dealing with flesh, and expression, and the lines of the body. I’m also very aware that the medium of painting figures itself has historically been used as a kind of moral compass and aesthetic tastemaking device. So the kinds of bodies and concepts these figures illustrate (be it religious devotion, bravery in combat, virginal modesty) that we see depicted throughout history are both proposing and reinforcing what is ideal and correct socially. I like to borrow from the power of Art, and particularly oil paint on canvas and figurative work, and present concepts that aren’t completely represented or integrated or celebrated in our modern climate. Things like menstruation, the female gaze, non-intrusive or performative male sexuality, and empowered female sexual expression.
C & P: The term “feminism” is thrown around a lot these days with ignorant starlets declaring its obsolescence and Beyonce posing in front of the giant letters. Do you see your work as contributing to this conversation?
Kelsey: I sincerely hope so. We—as Feminists and allies—are all contributing to this conversation in radical and different and meaningful ways. What I endeavor to do with my painting practice is to visually represent kinds of things I feel are important to have a dialogue about—or to integrate into our collective consciousness—in a lush and beautiful and classical way. More than anything I’m interested in having these conversations with people who wouldn’t normally seek a Feminist dialogue out. If a person who doesn’t identify as Feminist walks into an art gallery and sees one of my pieces on the wall and goes away with a different perception, like “menstruation is normal and beautiful and ok to see and talk about!” then that’s a step in the right direction.
C & P: Looking around your studio I saw the works Madonna with Child (from 2014), Satisfaction (2014), Morning (Devotion) (from 2013), Self Portrait II (2013), Model with Bird (Albert St. Studio) (2013), and Lara with Book (2013). In all of these works there is a solitary figure, sometimes the subject is looking up from what they are doing, directly confronting the viewer of the canvas, and at other times the figures are lost in their own moment and the viewer is able to sneak a peek into their world, they seem unaware of a human presence. Is the subject of the painting engaged in a larger narrative or would you like the painting to be seen as a snapshot of a moment?
Kelsey: It is both, for me, depending on the painting. For example, Satisfaction is steeped in a larger narrative, as is Morning (Devotion) and Self Portrait II. In these works I am trying to illustrate a larger thesis or idea and the figures are helping with that. Other works like Lara with Book, Madonna with Child, and Model with Bird are more about capturing a specific person, their tendencies, their expression, in a particular moment. A true portrait in that sense.
C & P: In your paintings the subjects are often experiencing pleasure or presenting themselves in an overtly sexual pose. All of the figures seem strong willed and not embarrassed by their sexuality. Frequently, throughout history, we see male artists painting and photographing the female nude. We see less women artists painting or photographing the male nude yet you have taken on the subject. The men you have chosen to paint frequently have erections or are involved in a sexual act (such as pleasing a woman). Why have you chosen to paint the male nude in an explicit way? Where do you see the viewer’s place in relation to these figures?
Kelsey: I often see the male nude represented in popular culture and fine art as either devoid of sexuality (as in Roman and Greek sculpture) or firmly rooted in machismo (as in, everywhere). This simply is not a representative or inclusive view of male sexuality. When I do present a male nude he is illustrating the whole other end of the glorious spectrum that comprises human sexuality and expression. My male nudes are tender, demure, worshipful, shy, private, even passive. In the same way, I endeavor to fill in the gaps of the representation of feminine sexuality; my female nudes are overt, assertive, direct, unapologetic, or completely unconcerned with the viewer. In some works (Worship, The Triumph (curiosity), First Period, Treats) the viewer’s POV is intentionally constructed to reinforce the female gaze. That is, the viewer accesses the work as if they were one taking the photo of the moment happening to them. And in these cases the thing happening to them is intrinsically connected to having a female body (like menstruating or having your pussy eaten). There can be no debate that these are works illustrate the female gaze.
C & P: What inspires you to make a self portrait? How often do you paint self portraits?
Are the people you paint your friends, your lovers, or hired models? A combination of all three? Do you prefer painting one type of subject over another?
Kelsey: Self Portrait II was painted in an artist’s residency program I attended in New Mexico, in a tiny remote town. So, during this period there was a lot of reflection and self-evaluation, and facing myself and my work. A self portrait seemed appropriate. Plus, no one in the town would model without clothing for me! Everyone I paint is someone with whom I have a relationship with; I’ve never hired a model or painted a stranger. For me this is important because when you are intimate with someone you understand expressions they make or catch mannerisms that you can translate to the work that a stranger might miss. I think the painting becomes more full and complex when you understand your model.
C & P: Do you generally prefer to paint from a live model? Do you also utilize figures from photographs 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?
Kelsey: There is nothing I like more than to paint from life, but more often than not I am painting from a photographic source simply because it allows me more freedom in my work. I don’t have to coordinate schedules or take breaks or struggle to create the same expression or pose as the last sitting (as you have to do while working with a live model). I do however shoot all of my models if I am using a photographic source; it’s important to me to be married to all aspects of the process. I do feel there is a great difference between a painting done from a live model and one done from a static source. In the case of the former, the subject is always shifting, always breathing and moving slightly and sometimes in the space of an hour they’ve shifted their pose so cumulatively and drastically you have to recalibrate. Thus, you are capturing a sum total of them—of all of their little movements and microexpressions. In the end it may be a less technically representative portrait, but it might be a more sincere likeness.
C & P: Could you describe your process when beginning a new piece? Do you ever create a preliminary drawing first or do you begin working directly on the canvas?
Kelsey: I do create a preliminary drawing, but it is done directly on the canvas. So, in the majority of my paintings the process is: a grid, then a drawing of the figure and some of the background details, then a ground layer of a rusty, coppery brown where the figure will be, some preliminary background color blocking, then the white highlights of the figure, then the shadows, then the pinks, then a layer of a whitish Naples Yellowish paint for the flesh, then a final layer of white highlights. And in between these layers of the figure I’m developing the background. I had a tendency before to paint the figure entirely first, then add the background in later. I’ve stop doing this and have strived to create a more balanced composition throughout a painting’s development. I like the idea of covering the white canvas as soon as possible so that at any time throughout the process the painting could ostensibly look finished.
C & P: In your most recent work you seem to be paying more attention to the small details and patterns in the backgrounds of the paintings, like with Madonna with Child. In the older work the backgrounds tend to consist of blocks of solid colors or very loosely painted patterns. How do you think these changes affect the way your work is read?
Kelsey: Hmm, good question. I hope that these more developed backgrounds will help my paintings to look more integrated. That in some cases elements of the background are just as crucial and important as the figure itself. Where in the case of previous works with more blocky colors, or even solid colors, the point of the painting was the figure. The background was just support.
Satisfaction, 58″x58″, Oil on Canvas Board, 2014, photo © K. Shwetz
C & P: You were also experimenting on your newest canvas by applying a cut out pattern directly to the canvas. Do you think you might experiment more with including mixed media into your paintings? How does the collaging of materials interplay with your subject matter?
Kelsey: Ha! The evening after you left my studio I ripped that cut-off pattern off of my painting, sanded the reddish paint that was behind it off, painted it white, and started painting a pattern from scratch for the background. Many, many mixed media artist will disagree with me vehemently here but for me applying a fabric or paper patterned element is quick visual gratification. That is, for my work applying a pre-patterned element doesn’t add anything significant conceptually that painting that same design from scratch would add. So maybe I should not be lazy and just paint it! So goes my line of reasoning. It’s like some exacting Victorian exercise in discipline and devotion. Plus I do intrinsically love making colors, translating delicious silk and creamy whites and lace through oil paint.
C & P: What projects are you working on now?
Kelsey: The piece I’m working on now is very exciting for me because it is a bit of a visual departure from my general body of work. I have this dear copy of 1000 Nudes (published by Taschen) which is this incredible compilation of erotic and pornographic photos from the mid-nineteenth century to the early 20th century. They are all gorgeous photographs—beautiful graceful lines, sumptuous flesh—but they’re all in black and white. I find the visual aesthetic of black and white figurative photos very arresting. I think because in this case they are less explicit—the flush of a cheek or the reddish stain of a lip or the pinkish tones of a breast all must be imagined—projected—by the viewer. So anyways, the figures in the piece I’m working on now will be in black and white. The only color will be in the background. I’m thinking of subverting the balance between background and figure. And I’ve found this great photo of vintage wallpaper (also in black and white) that I’m translating to color.
I’m also in the process of curating a booth for SELECT Fair in Miami on behalf of BACG. Christopher Stout (the founder of BACG) and I have selected some really fantastic artists: Alison Brady, Beata Chrzanowska, Eric Gottshall, Lisa Levy, Phoenix Lindsey-Hall, Meryl Meisler, Andrew Cornell Robinson, Thomas Stevenson, Drew Van Diest, and Andrea Wolf. I am truly honored to be working (and showing) with them.
Portrait and studio shots by Violet Shuraka.
I had a studio visit and photo shoot with Brooklyn-based artist Ted McGrath last month for Cheap & Plastique #11. Then we had a nice chat about living in Greenpoint, music, inspiration, and art via email. See more of Ted’s work here.
C & P: Where are you from?
Ted: Just outside of Philadelphia.
C & P: You currently live and keep a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How long have you lived here?
Ted: I moved to Brooklyn in 1998 and I’ve lived in Greenpoint since 2002.
C & P: What do you like most about living here?
Ted: I have the last affordable apartment! Seriously though, when I moved in it was a much more low key neighborhood, and you really had a sense of it being this crazy secret, it was relatively clean, there are some beautiful blocks and way back when it was super affordable. It felt almost suburban, it was so quiet, but you could walk or ride to Williamsburg in no time and taking the trains through Queens got you into the city pretty fast. Now there’s all this nightlife and shopping, like a new bar opening on every corner every week and that aspect of the area is starting to get a liiiittttle homogenous. Blah blah. That’s all well documented and argued over and doesn’t answer your question. At this point, I’ve been here for 12 years and it really feels like home. The greater community of artists and musicians out here is a fantastic and supportive one, and all things considered the dining options out here are incredible.
C & P: What is your favorite spot in Greenpoint?
Ted: In general, my studio. Corny as that sounds. Or the roof of my apartment building.
C & P: For music?
Ted: We’re currently blessed with a glut of incredible record shops all within blocks of each other. Academy, Co-Op 87, Permanent and Captured Tracks are where I’m spending the most time / $$$ presently.
C & P: For food?
Ted: River Styx or Achilles Heel. It feels insane actually saying that based on the names. Apparently if you open a bar or restaurant in Greenpoint with a Greco-Roman mythological name, it’ll turn out pretty great.
C & P: For artistic inspiration?
Ted: I’m really lucky to have a lot of friends and colleagues living and working in the neighborhood, so usually it comes from hanging out in our studios and apartments, passing around books and records and the like.
C & P: Currently your studio is in the Pencil Factory, where many other creatives (both artists, musicians, and illustrators) work. Do you feel that being in this particular building and studio space inspires you and your work?
Ted: I’ve worked out of that building off and on for the last 7 years or so. I think I primarily enjoy it because its a block and a half away from my apartment which makes working late into the night or early in the morning less daunting. Also the super and his staff are just great folks, and I really love the unit that I’m in. It’s kind of unfinished, there are these huge pipes running down the middle of the room and all over the ceiling which I find really attractive, and it has these fantastic old doors that look like something out of a barn or an old church. Lotta character. Good working vibes.
C & P: Are you friends with others in the building? Is there any collaboration between tenants?
Ted: I’m friends with a lot of folks in the building and I know a lot of the more illustration and design-centric folks collaborate together on things now and again. I’m excited because one such friend of mine is putting together some short animations and asked me to score them, which I’ve only really dabbled with in the past, but I’m really excited to dig into that.
C & P: You studied at Pratt Institute. Did you study illustration or fine art at school, or both?
Ted: I studied illustration and design, but I was fortunate to have these great teachers that were constantly encouraging the students in general to soak up as much of the overall general art world as possible, and a lot of them were (and still are) active and dialed into the contemporary art scene. There was also a lot of mandatory cross disciplinary structure in that curriculum which I’m increasingly grateful for with each passing year. At the time though, I was a little freaked out because I ended up graduating with an unwieldy “illustration” portfolio of fairly large semi abstract canvases with no clear editorial slant. It was great and confusing.
C & P: Did you always know that you would be involved in a creative field as an adult when you were young?
Ted: I think so, yeah. As a kid I really wanted to get into comics but quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for it when I got to school.
C & P: Recently you made the decision to pursue fine art and put your illustration business on the back burner for a bit. What made you decide to do this?
Ted: It just felt like the right thing to do. I had this realization where I discovered what really excited me about making visual art had very little to do with making good illustrations, at least the way that economy and community function now. So after 2 years of walking around in a near perpetual state of stress and grumpiness, I started edging towards moth-balling that practice in early 2013. The more steps I took towards getting out of it the better I felt. And that’s said without nastiness or bitterness either.
C & P: Do you still take on illustration commissions if asked?
Ted: Time permitting and depending on the client or story (or $$$), certainly.
C & P: I know that you created artwork for the band These Are Powers in the past (and was also a member), has your work found it’s way onto other music packaging or music-related projects?
Ted: Absolutely. I’ve designed record sleeves and posters for a lot of bands and venues in the greater New York area, and I have murals at Death By Audio and The Silent Barn. I really love being part of that wider community.
C & P: Have you always played music? Does music influence your artwork?
Ted: I’ve always played music. I grew up in a verrrrry music-centric household. My dad’s a brilliant pianist and guitar player and my mom, though the visual artist of the two of them, played piano and cello for a while. I’ve lately tried to think about how I make music more with respect to the visual art. Because I never received any truly “formal” musical training, it’s a lot easier for me to be intuitive and spontaneous with songs and recording than painting, where you can sort of psych yourself out with issues of “correctness” and quality. Like “this had better be the best brush stroke I’ve ever laid down, says your college tuition and every decision you’ve made in the past about anything ever!!! AAAAAHHH!!!!” I’ve been a lot better lately about NOT getting into that headspace with painting and it’s been great. I’m much more forgiving of my work when I’m making music too, so I’m trying to manage my time better so I can work on all of this stuff and not feel like a crazy person. Listening-wise, I usually have music on in the studio, but not anything too demanding or that I haven’t almost completely internalized. Good time tunes unless I’m just not in the mood, you know? Been real into American, pre-63 oldies lately, doo-wop, early RNR.
C & P: What is your process like when creating artwork in your studio? Do you work on multiple pieces at once?
Ted: I like to work quickly. I’ll work on 2 or 3 things at once, it helps me not overwork them, takes a little of that above mentioned stress out of the equation. I like to attack a piece, get it right to the point where it feels just undercooked and then get it out of the way. Start another. Rinse and repeat ’til I make something I know is either truly awful, or hopefully, coming together into something exciting faster than usual. Then I take a break and let my eyes refresh.
C & P: What medium do you most frequently use in your paintings? Oil? Acrylic? Is there ever an element of collage in your work?
Ted: I like oil paint and ink and spray paint and pencils and oil sticks. Collage wise, sometimes I’ll use the good pieces of bad paintings in other pieces rather than try to recreate those moments of serendipity, which rarely even pans out in mirco.
C & P: You also keep a sketchbook (I have seen an interview with you online where you drew all of the answers!) Have you always kept a sketchbook? Do you look to the sketchbook when creating work in your studio, or does your studio work come from different place in your brain/body?
Ted: I started actively keeping sketchbooks somewhere between my 2nd and 3rd years at Pratt, primarily because I felt like I was really behind everyone else and needed just more fundamental practice. So I started keeping tiny ones with me at all times and bigger ones to mess with at home, primarily just as exercise. As a result, when I completed some pages that felt more “finished” or polished it was really exciting, and they became these cool artist books after a while. Then I kinda felt like I became “the sketchbook guy” which is fine but also had it’s moments of stifling limitation. I still keep the small ones around, but they’ve become more lists and random bits of info or actual preparatory sketches for bigger pieces, as opposed to life drawing. The big painty ones primarily only get used or worked on when I’m on vacation at this point. I just started to get bored or feel like it was becoming a repetitive process with diminishing returns, I couldn’t tell if I was making anything good in them anymore.
C & P: Who would you say are your biggest artistic influences?
Ted: I like Max Beckmann and John Singer Sargeant and Amy Sillman. Leon Golub. Cy Twombly, Jamie Wyeth.
C & P: Is there a time/place that you would rather live in than the current?
Ted: Nah, the best place to be is here, the best time to be is now.
C & P: Or one where you could be transported back via time machine to spend a few weeks hanging out and spying…
Ted: Oh I dunno, New York in the 70s or 80s? Sure. But I think if you get too romantic about that stuff it crushes your ability to enjoy the present.
C & P: Do you feel that NYC is still the best place on the planet to pursue a career in the arts?
Ted: Oh, I have no idea. For the time being, I’m happy here and I feel like I’m making the work I want to make both visually and musically. You can make yourself a little bonkers pondering the endless choose your own adventureness of geography or social scenes or whatnot especially these days. I try not to worry about it, keep me nose to the grindstone, take care of the work and hope it takes care of me.
C & P: Would you consider moving elsewhere?
Ted: Like I said for now, no. The moon if we ever get that sort of thing up and running. I mean, who wouldn’t wanna live on the moon for a minute?
Tonya’s portrait by Violet Shuraka.
I had a studio visit and photo shoot with Brooklyn-based art director Tonya Douraghy last month for Cheap & Plastique #11. Then we had a nice chat about living in Greenpoint, travel, inspiration, and design via email. See more of Tonya’s work here.
C & P: Where are you from?
Tonya: I grew up in beautiful Almaden Valley in San Jose, California.
C & P: What made you leave the West Coast for NYC?
Tonya: I left San Francisco for New York in 2008 to get my MFA at the School of Visual Arts. After that things sort of fell into place professionally, and I decided to stick around.
C & P: Now you are living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How long have you lived here?
Tonya: Three years.
C & P: What do you like most about living in Greenpoint?
Tonya: I think my little corner in north Greenpoint is just about perfect at the moment. I love living a block from the water, and the views of the Manhattan skyline are spectacular. There’s a unique energy to the place, partly the legacy of disused industrial spaces. And so many hidden gems.
Tonya’s desk in her studio.
C & P: What are your Greenpoint favorites? For dinner:
Tonya: Five Leaves, Paulie Gee’s, Alameda.
C & P: For a whiskey:
Tonya: The Pencil Factory is a old standby.
C & P: For design/artistic inspiration:
Tonya: Going for a run through the neighborhood.
C & P: For relaxation:
Tonya: Taking in the view where Java Street meets the East River, with the feral cats.
C & P: Did you always know that you would be involved in a creative field when you were young?
Tonya: I suppose so, but I always thought it would be in journalism.
C & P: When did you decide to study graphic design?
Tonya: Freshman year of college, after being disappointed in the journalism classes I was taking. I was lucky enough to be at UC Davis, one of the few public universities in California that had a design program. The fact that my program allowed me to study both textile and graphic design in tandem was hugely appealing.
Art direction and design for Vanity Fair. Typography by Alex Trochut.
C & P: You have worked at a variety of magazines in NYC over the past few years and you are currently working as a freelance art director at Vanity Fair Magazine. What led you to want to go into editorial design?
Tonya: It was a very unconscious decision on my part. I sort of fell into it after I got my MFA and grew to love it. I think my interests and attitude are well suited to magazines, though I don’t really think of myself as an editorial designer.
Art direction and design for the Design*Sponge Summer Newspaper, in collaboration with Alanna MacGowan.
C & P: You also take on freelance design assignments through The Dye Lab, a 2 person design studio you run with your friend, Alanna MacGowan, who lives in Seattle. Tell me a bit about the Dye Lab. How did you decide to form this studio with such a far away friend? How long has the Dye Lab existed? What is your design process like when working on a project together?
Tonya: The start of TDL was very organic. It grew out of our close friendship during college. At school we were both more interested in textile design than visual communications, and we were the punks breaking into the dye lab at night, silkscreening on any kind of surface we could think of. Now Alanna and I live 2,856 miles away from each other, so collaborating on projects has been a great excuse for us to hang out together virtually between Seattle and Brooklyn. And I think our talents complement each other pretty well.
C & P: What is inspiring to you design-wise at the moment?
Tonya: I’ve been a little bored with what’s going on in graphic design, but there are definitely some standouts. Spin, the British studio, is a perennial favorite. Every issue of IL Magazine is pretty spectacular. I think most of my inspiration comes from seeing what friends in the design scene are doing outside of their jobs, just for the love of making things.
Editorial design for New York magazine.
C & P: Is there a certain time of day when you feel most creative?
Tonya: In the morning, after a good night’s sleep.
C & P: Who are your biggest artistic/design influences?
Tonya: That’s tough to define. But some important ones, in no deliberate order: Orson Welles. Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Herb Lubalin. Twen Magazine. Terence Conran’s vintage interiors. My dad. Sheila Hicks. Gyöngy Laky. Zadie Smith. Plants. Ceramics. And just the weird unexpected moments that happen every day.
Editorial design for New York magazine. Photograph by Platon.
C & P: You have traveled to many far away places over the past couple of years. What is your favorite thing about each place? Turkey?
Tonya: The mix of so many cultural influences all in one place. It’s the best of everything.
C & P: Morocco?
Tonya: Tiled courtyards in old houses. Walking through the medina.
C & P: Thailand?
Tonya: The people. And getting Thai iced coffees made on the street.
C & P: Cambodia?
Tonya: Temples in the jungle. Stories of tigers.
C & P: Iran?
Tonya: Family. The feeling of being connected to a place that is so different from my everyday life in New York. The traditional architecture in general and my grandparents’ house in particular.
C & P: Do you feel that travel inspires you as a designer?
Tonya: Of course.
C & P: What is your next travel destination?
Editorial design for The New York Times Magazine.
C & P: What are you working on right now? Do you have any creative non-design-related side projects?
Tonya: For better or worse, for me everything is design-related in some way. I recently took up watercolor painting, a good excuse to get away from the computer.
C & P: What would you do if you were not a designer?