with Louis Gropman
You have a new book coming out this spring-In Plain View- spanning thirty years of your artwork, “illegal and otherwise”. Tell us about the title.
I like the title because it sounds like a real Barnes and Noble type book, very professional; and since most people haven’t heard of me, and my street art’s been out there in plain view for 30 years, which I guess is an intriguing idea, it kind of sets the hook to reel you in and give you the show.
Three decades of work places you starting out in NYC in ’78. Where were you from and what brought you to New York?
I was born in Chicago and grew up north of the city in a nice Ferris Bueller suburb . After a year at RISD I moved to NYC to go to Cooper Union.
Describe the city as you found it.
Totally fucked up. A mess. Burnt out buildings. Burnt out cars. Absolutely unsupervised too. The cops were simply not around. Going for a walk anywhere below 14th St. was an adventure. In a way it was great-the freedom-but it was also kind of stressful, watching your back all the time.
What had the greatest impact on you when you arrived?
Probably the glaring contrast of how boring the establishment art was (white male minimalists in white galleries) and how awesome and sexy the punk and street culture was-
What or who were your early influences? What did they inspire in you?
Most of my childhood art heroes were self destructive types, dark horses, drunks, addicts; most of them seemed to burn for a couple years of intense genius then flame out dramatically. I really admired that back then. The world’s a fucked up place, suffering’s the only honest response to that, so burn bright, then out. I’m not saying I was planning an early exit exactly, but I did think that the only worthwhile art came from ‘the edge’, a precarious place, so my teens and early twenties were pretty extreme.
But you can see how primed I was to move to NYC in ’78 when punk was peaking. Seeing the Clash, the Ramones, Devo, the kids breakdancing, the graffiti bombed trains, the punks on St. Marks-in comparison art school seemed kind of whitebread and out of touch.
And most art in the galleries turned out to be a huge let down-a gated community, a private club for old white people designed to maintain the value of their investments and keep the riff raff (like me) out. From what I could tell, to make a career in that world, it didn’t seem to matter how good or original your work was, most importantly you needed to curry favor, be ‘taken up’, and meet and impress the right people. Often there was a predatory sexual element involved (well, among my young depraved friends at least). In any case this was not my idea of burning bright. I began doing street art, and me and my artist friends, we all started bands, which, between shitty jobs, is what I did for the next 7 or 8 years.
What was your band called?
I was in a few of my own that hopefully no one will remember but, like a lot of downtown musicians at the time I played in a couple of Glenn Branca’s ensembles. A very intense experience. Branca was someone I really admired .
How did music and art interact in the downtown scene during the late ’70s and ’80s?
Since we all lived in shitholes we went out every night. Before the East Village gallery scene got going the only place to show our work was in bars and clubs. Often the same places our bands played in. As I recall the artwork rarely sold but we got in free and exhibiting artists got drink tickets. Drink tickets were a extremely significant factor crucial to the development of the downtown scene of the late ’70s and ‘early 80’s.
And how did the anti establishment punk rock ethos permeate your approach to art?
By the time I got here punk rock had already become the establishment. Our little downtown bubble came after that, influenced more by the NO New York bands DNA, Lydia Lunch, Theoretical Girls etc. Officially we were known as “noise” bands, the apotheosis of which was the Noise Fest of 1981. In that scene making it or getting signed wasn’t really an option; originality was the goal. Anyone trying to be marketable or having rock star ambitions seemed bizarre and embarrassing.
Since no one was buying, there was no temptation to compromise or please anyone but ourselves. When my band played I’m pretty sure the people who enjoyed themselves the most were the musicians. So I got the experience of living as an artist for the pure fun of it. Eventually I was able to let go of much of my success programming, to see beyond that, and get the first glimmerings of how radical it would be if art weren’t just a product to market and sell.
Rejection was the overreaching attitude-rebelling against whatever you had. But mostly of course we were rejecting people who didn’t want us. In this case, not so much the music industry, which was an alien planet, but rejection of our future as artists, serving art dealers, curators and critics.
Is that what led you to graffiti?
My friends and I idolized the artists that were bombing the subway trains. I thought it would be funny if I could tell girls in bars I was a graffiti artist-which would have been really strange back then because I was white and not from that world-and then when they asked what my tag was I’d show them these tiny hyperrealistic paintings of hummingbirds. Contrarian humor…umm…I guess you had to be there. But I began to paint life sized very detailed hummingbirds on walls below 14th St.
How did you come up with hummingbirds?
At first the reason I chose the hummingbird was because it hovered, which made visual sense, but then, after doing a couple I began to realize what I’d stumbled upon, a monster-load of possibilities I’m still mining.
The piece was called “The Birds of Manhattan”, but the working title in the beginning was, “Love in the Ruins”. I’ve always been attracted to situations of sustained simultaneous opposites, like in portraits when the person has sad eyes and a happy mouth, or Dharma Punx (Namaste, motherfucker).
What was the response from passersby? From the police? From other graffiti writers?
Each bird took a couple of hours to paint so I had a lot of interaction with passersby. People were almost always supportive. Excited even. Often there’d be a small crowd watching and commenting. The cops, when they’d bother to stop, would usually let me finish painting. Remember, this is 1979.
I’ve always had good respectful relations with graffiti writers, never going over their work and whenever possible gratefully acknowledging their influence. I never could have done the kind of work I do if it wasn’t for them.
How did the hoodies come about, and what kind of course did that series set you on?
Before I did the hoodies in 1994 I did street art every summer, but was either touring or too pre-occupied with survival issues to sustain any kind of series. Then in the summer of 1994 I put up about 70 of these hoody characters on the lower east side of NYC. They’re retouched photo silk screens, the last of my analog projects. A lot of people assumed it’s an anti-drug message because I put them up in the drug selling areas, but my intention was much different. At that time New York City was a pretty sad place. Crime, homelessness, rampant drug dealing and addiction were running the streets; alarming numbers of people were fading away with AIDS. To me it seemed like the end days, the plague years. I conceived of that character as a high sign of the times, an archetype of despair. Actually, the working title for that piece was “Plague Angels”.
I have to say here that most of the theoretical side of my work gets figured out after I see what I’ve been doing. I mean I had an instinct about that image. I understood its possibilities but came up with the embellishments and fancy talk afterwards.
Anyway, it was such a satisfying project that it totally re-ignited my desire to do street art in a serious way. After ’94 street art became my focus. The next year, after seeing how amazing the graffitied walls looked in the hoody documentation pictures, I started experimenting with homemade stickers that interacted with the layers of faded tagging.
In 1996 after seeing how spatial and surreal the wall environments became when I put a few stickers up, I hit on the airbrush idea, and started on the Trompe L’Oeil (fool the eye) series. Around this same time I spent some time in Europe at the old master museums and started developing my mosh pit style and making large heavily baroque studio paintings.
By 2000 I was getting pushed out of my lower east side loft by gentrification so I decided to do a hummingbirds redux as a way of closing the circle on my Manhattan days.
What brought you to explore different situations with light playing off darkness, from your portraits of lamps to nightscapes to World Trade Center shrines?
In 2002, the summer after the 9/11 attacks I did a series of trompe l’oeil votive shrines installed on light poles, all emanating from ground zero. From this experience I’d become interested in different old master techniques used to paint light. It was amazing to me how they could not just simulate light in paintings, but actually create it. Their canvasses glow. Some even seem to produce light. This became the main topic of my studio work. It wasn’t until years later that I understood how my youthful obsession with darkness and self-destruction had finally brought me around to this attraction to light.
There’s this fascinating link between your subject matter and medium; like in the gritty realism of your mosh pits rendered in baroque style and then the beautifully detailed hummingbirds painted on decrepit doorways. How has the connection between art tradition and contemporary artistic avenues coalesced in your work?
I’ve always been a realist. Early in my education I discovered that figurative study was the common starting point for artists that I admired-even modernist or avant-garde ones like Picasso and Duchamp. The usual path is to use this classical education as a jumping off point to more expressive or less literal approaches to making art. I stuck with the realism though. I’ve never gotten over how cool it is to make space and light and time occur on a flat surface.
These days, my jumping off point is about trying to make my stuff even more realistic-past the point of what’s been possible in the past. I mean isn’t this what we’re supposed to be doing-pushing on to new forms? To this end I experiment with various digital and photographic aids; I experiment with new technologies and blend them with old master techniques. In fact a lot of my street works are more photoshop than paint. To me this isn’t heresy or a contradiction (although it’s definitely contrarian). Different times demand different approaches.
I’ve always told myself that if it were possible that the real object or experience would express what I wanted to say, then I’d use it. Failing that I always believed that if a photo would work-if pure photography would satisfy my needs-I’d gladly use a photo. I’ve come close, but it hasn’t happened. I guess I’m really a painter at heart. I need to add something handmade and human, to tweak the image, to add expression and depth or my stuff doesn’t come to life.
How has your use of location changed over the years?
In 2002 I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and have been blanketing this and surrounding neighborhoods ever since. A few years ago it began to seem a bit saturated here so I’ve taken my work on the road. LA, San Francisco, London, Copenhagen, wherever I am, I put up work. I just got back from a drive-about down south and put up stuff all along the way. My hope is that even if you never get to see one of my pieces, wherever you are, you’ll keep an eye open just in case.
At what point did you start putting tromp l’oeiles on Ugly New Buildings?
2008. In the past couple of years my Brooklyn working class neighborhood has been basically torn down and cheesy moderne luxury condo buildings have been thrown up everywhere. Four on my block alone. It’s kind of fucked up if you live here, but on the bright side these new surfaces and settings have been fun to work with. And that old disenfranchisement theme’s always a fertile one for me.
Do you lament how the city’s cleaned up? Is there nostalgia for the New York you were first introduced to?
Not really. I’m glad the environment here isn’t static. It keeps us awake. And lean. Some people miss the old days here, but not me. I especially don’t miss the fear, the violence. Ok, the squalor was fun but I’m fine with that getting re-zoned to the outer boroughs. Seriously, the sanitizing of the city and the subsequent increase in police presence has probably been the single most important influence on my work. Every year, as real estate values climb and the police get more aggressive, I have to change my strategies, adjust my technique so I spend less time exposed. Which gets me thinking in new ways. So it’s a challenge that’s kept me evolving and forces me to lift my game.
While the penalties for graffiti have become more severe, its acceptance has only strengthened as street art has made its move into the museum. Has your relationship with the formal art world changed with this shift?
Not really. My relationships with the formal art world have always been pretty distant. Cordial, but neither side has yet to really feel the love.
What music are you listening to these days?
Shuffle. To me Ipod shuffle is the most interesting development in music to come along since sampling. we’re all listening to these chance playlists, these random collisions in our music collections, skipping through eras and genres in often weirdly prescient ways. I say, “Obey Shuffle. It is Wise.
Do you feel like having this book come out closes the chapters of your work since ’78?
God no. Why do you say that? Is it supposed to? I mean I hope not; I’m having a total blast doing this stuff. Actually, I’m using the book promotion trips as a chance to expand my horizons, to hit Europe hard, and vandalize whatever city anyone wants to bring me to.