Your compositional approach brings us back to Caravaggio where enlightened figures emerge from flat backgrounds. In an age in which we dare to experiment more techniques and supports why did you choose to express your art with such a classical current?
After all the years that I’ve been painting, the simple fact that mere paint on a flat surface can create light, and space, and energy, and so much more, is still a miracle to me—it never gets old and never fails to make painting an adventure. But my temperament is not really that of a traditional academic painter. Probably because my formative years as an artist occurred during the wild west New York City of the early 1980’s. My art student days took place in the midst of all the crime and social failure and unbridled insanity of the lower east side…and all the creative energy of punk rock, graffiti, and street art that emerged out of the rubble. After that, the idea of spending one’s art life in a classical vacuum seemed effete and self indulgent—and a choice I’d seriously regret when I got to be the age I am now.
But classical realism never gets old for me. While it’s true I use traditional academic painting techniques, and really love looking at that kind of painting, my goal has always been to utilize the miracle of academic painting’s presence (and it’s seductiveness) for my own less traditional narratives.
Do you believe that traditional art can be more easily spread because it is more understandable than other forms of art such as conceptual, performance or others?
Believe it or not, in the early 1980’s, realism and traditional picture space—or, god forbid, beauty—were some of the worst art crimes an artist could commit. I’m talking, instant and permanent banishment from the art world. As a rebellious art student and punk rocker, compelled to search out the counter-narrative, I wondered why—I mean, if the art establishment was so passionately against realism, there had to be something threatening there. But then the internet happened. And realistic painting—easily read and enjoyed on a small screen—became wildly popular. Granted, with no critical standards other than the marketplace, sentimentalism, kitsch, and easy emotion became an issue, but on the opposite of the spectrum, back in the days when contemporary art’s accessibility was controlled by critics and other gatekeepers, art’s ability to be an agent of any kind of social change was limited. So it’s no surprise to me that with the rise of the internet and the end of centralized power, art has gone in a lot of fun and unpredictable directions, and previously marginalized genres like realism and street art seem to be flourishing happily and outlasting the requisite resets of fashion.
One thing that emerges from your work and your series is certainly the use of light – natural or artificial like Georges de La Tour. How do you study the subjects and where do you get the information you need for the realization of your work?
I’ve got a great life/art-hack going. Because of my long career in street art, I get invited to work and travel the world a lot—at others’ expense. Part of my residency requirements always leave room for me to spend some time in the local old master museum. When I get back home to my studio, while I’m painting, a sublimated part of me is making decisions influenced by all the great art I’ve absorbed. In my case it’s usually old master enchantments, especially how they paint light, but it’s also the endlessly creative ways they handle paint, and color, and space—and other things that I’m not even aware of until it appears on my canvas.
Your works tell of various existential sections. Looking at the mosh pits series in concerts, what attracted you to them? In anthropology, this could be defined as the abandonment of consciousness by instincts of primordial fury.
Battles, orgies, baroque frenzies… bodies at their extremes…It’s an enduring motif in art. For the academic painters well into the 18th century multi-figure compositions were the genre of highest aspiration. My mosh pits, raves etc. are my way of connecting to this tradition. Again, it never gets old to me how mere shapes arranged on a flat surface can evoke such emotion and energy.
In my 20’s when I was in bands, I had a lot of fun, but I understood that it wasn’t serious. Knowing my career as a professional touring musician would be a limited run, I thought a lot about whether it would be possible to bring the euphoric intensity of performing to my real calling, painting. While on tour, during the day I visited many of Europe’s great old master art museums, and then at night at the concerts I’d find myself in the middle of some pretty extreme situations. After I retired, the farther I got away from it, the two experiences began to merge and I realized that many of those old master artists were trying to capture that “abandonment of consciousness by instincts of primordial fury” as you say. Working out the technical problems of how to paint that kind of insanity is an ongoing challenge, but photographing in the middle of mosh pits more than satisfied my concern that my art life wouldn’t have the same kind of risk and adrenaline that performing had.
Among others, this series was also used by Dior for some of its garments. How did this collaboration between art and fashion take place?
Out of the blue. Definitely not one of those insider art world, it’s all about who you know kind of things. The director of Dior, Kris Van Aasche saw my work on line and bought one, and asked for images of more, which arrived, while, I’m guessing, they were brainstorming about their new collection.
Focusing on the series of street art Actual Victims, is it more a criticism to society or does it simply highlight its vices and errors? And does the fact of it being available to as many people as possible enhances its meaning rather than if it were in a gallery?
Most of my public work for the last 15 years has had a social agenda. The street art series, “Actual Victims”, was sponsored by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and directed at the US National Institute of Health. At the time the NIH was conducting a program of brutal psychological experiments on baby primates. PETA had obtained the lab pictures of the monkeys being tortured and they were heartbreaking. I’d already worked with PETA UK on a street art project promoting awareness about the environmental sins and needless cruelty involved with animal agriculture, so when PETA USA reached out about the baby monkey cruelty, I gladly got involved. In 2015 I installed about 20 un-sanctioned interventions in Washington DC around the national mall and other points of high pedestrian traffic. Eventually, the publicity from all sides shamed the NIH into discontinuing the program. Street art by its nature, being on the public commons, seems like an obvious mode of activism—not just because lots of outside the art-bubble people experience it, but by the considerable publicity and social media attention it attracts.
By observing your works, you can compare them with other artists. Figures and portraits are reminiscent of Andres Serrano’s photographs, Nightscapes of Hopper’s solitude and Gregory Crewdson’s large-format photographs, Lamps and Interiors vibrate like Mark Rothko’s works and recall scenes from the mind of David Lynch. What emotions do you want to get from the viewer?
I do often wonder what my various art heroes would think about my work. Fortunately they’re mostly dead and I’ll never have to find out. Thoughts about the contemporary viewer are not much on my mind when I’m involved in a painting. It’s a curious blindspot of mine. Maybe because I’ve been doing this awhile, and have heard so many puzzling reactions to my work—good and bad—that I’ve had to totally let go of anticipating what the viewers or collectors will think. Sometimes, after considerable effort and dark nights of the creative soul, I’ll finish a painting or series, and my wife will mention politely that it’s “pretty dark” or, “I’m not sure who would want this in their home”, and I’ll realize (again) that she’s right, and I’d totally neglected to consider the artwork’s future after I’m done with it. On the other hand, many times I’ll be positive a piece checks all the boxes and will succeed with a particular audience, and be a significant achievement or whatever, and the response will be tepid or worse. So yeah, not a great business or marketing mind at work here. My bank account is usually empty and my storage racks are full.
In October, your first solo exhibition will be held at the Wunderkammern gallery in Milan. With what criteria did you select the works for the Italian public?
We’re calling the show, “American Baroque”. It will be a selection of recent mosh pits, raves and other crowd paintings, all referencing my ongoing debt to the Italian baroque.
Among other things, the gallery has decided to inaugurate their new Milanese headquarters with your exhibition, this must make you feel proud?
I’ve never been to Milan and I’m excited to show in the new space. Over the last few years I’ve had a very satisfying relationship with the Wunderkammern team—they’ve been a crucial part of my support structure. I also value them as friends, and am eternally grateful to them for bringing me to exotic places, where I get to feed on the local museums.
The future is unknown, but what will come after Milan? Are you already working on other projects / series?
Besides the ongoing activism of the street installations—this year focusing on Trump immigration policies (a version of which I’ll be dropping around Milan as well)—I’ve been photographing people carrying on at a local Brooklyn soul club, whose patrons are largely people of color. It’s taken me too long to realize this (all those white guys with tattooes), but non-caucasians have a much broader variety of skin temperature, which offers a lot of new technical options to compose with.. No one’s quite the same in this world. Also there’s a joyful and incredibly focussed sense of baroque abandonment in the club that nicely parallels the mosh pits and raves.