“Lights in the Dark”
by Nicole Pasulka
October 31, 2006
Why have you painted all these lights in the dark?
I look at the world and I see a million things I want to paint every day but I keep coming back to light as a subject. I don’t know exactly why. It would probably be pretentious ifI guess it goes all the way back to art school. Ever since then one of my main interests as a painter has been in the power of paint-what oil paint on canvas can do that no other visual media can. In past work I’ve investigated trompe l’oeil, illusionism, hoping to question—or at least suggest paint’s ability to question reality. Lately though it’s light. The old masters, using this beautiful arcane science, found a way for oil paint to create light. Pictures actually glow. Things aren’t just luminous, they actually seem to emanate light. In Western painting, this phenomena is often used to manifest some kind of quasi spiritual event, a bit of assumed piety I co-opt gladly, but I’ve also found the technique useful in my own personal narratives.
We’ve all looked into lit windows at night and imagined the life inside. Why are we so drawn to glowing windows and warm lighting?
I guess it’s primal. Atavistic. The primitive longing we all have for shelter and warmth. Especially if you live in New York City, where unless you’re very wealthy, chances are good you’re feeling some kind of housing insecurity. As an early loft pioneer I know that feeling well, but I guess it’s pretty universal. Like loneliness. Another rich vein-another mother lode for narrative artists of my type.
The late night bodegas always seemed so forlorn to me, even when they were open.
You painted homes in Highland Park, Ill., where you grew up. Are there any other personal experiences represented in these paintings?
Yeah, for this last show I went back to the suburban town I grew up in, where it all began-where the outsider, nose to the glass thing got started. An apt metaphor for an artist. Visually I love houses at night, a topic I’d already explored, so for these I needed more sub-text, more narrative to entertain me through the process of making the paintings. Being there instantly brought it back. Me and my friends driving around and driving around, bored, hating where we were-you know, suburban angst.
I did the Home Sweet Home window painting series around the time I was getting evicted from my loft on Ludlow Street [on the Lower East Side of Manhattan] where I’d lived for 15 years.
You’re well known as a street artist. Why is your gallery work so different in style and theme from your street work?
Funny. To me they don’t seem so different. The way I look at it, most traditional painters in my lineage do something else besides their painting: Usually it’s something faster and more graphic. Rembrandt and Goya did etchings; Degas did pastels. Street art for me is like that, my instant gratification.
For me, it usually doesn’t work to bring my street art into galleries. Those pieces are meant to be seen in person, on location. I’m aware that a legitimate souvenir of that work are the photographs but for some reason they don’t seem to function too well in galleries. They work ok on the internet though. And in print.
My gallery work satisfies a different side of me. The museum rat. Western painting from the 15th to 19th century, the use of oil paint, the way it makes space and light, the phenomenal potential of simple paint on canvas: to me it’s magic. I’m as fascinated by this as I ever was. Sometimes people assume I make the paintings to support myself but, the way it works with me, if that were true, I’d never sell one.
I guess it’s all about balance. I’d go crazy doing just one and not the other.
Has your street work influenced your paintings?
With street art, I get to run through dozens of ideas a year. Usually, with my gallery work, I keep to one line of inquiry; exploring it as thoroughly as I can before moving on. One of the biggest frustrations of being an artist is you have all these ideas and plans but there’s never enough time. Street art lets me reduce at least some of that backlog. I can experiment on the street; I can make mistakes, try different techniques, be wrong. If it doesn’t work, it’s not like my whole year’s wasted.
Your oil paintings look in from outside. As a street artist who also shows in galleries, what’s your relationship to the art world?
It’s odd now because I’m not such an outsider like I used to be. Gallery types are nicer to me now: they don’t forget that they’ve met me like they used to. I still wear the same clothes, and I look the pretty much the same, my work is absolutely the same, but I’m perceived differently and that’s actually kind of enjoyable. I’m not an art world guy, I never will be, but it’s definitely a relief not to be thought of as such a loser.
So, how does it feel to finally be invited to the party?
I suspect that the reason I’m getting a little bit of attention these days-and this isn’t false modesty, I sincerely believe this-is simply because I’m still at it-I’m still standing. Perseverence. My worst character defect, my stubborness, my absolute inability—despite all evidence to the contrary—to admit defeat, turns out to actually has an upside. Hilarious.
I don’t have much patience for art that seems intentionally difficult or exclusive—or boring. Especially boring. I came up through punk rock so my mindset is to be the outsider—anti-elitist, anti-intellectual. I’m aware that my work probably errors the other way, over compensating, and I tend to make things a little too easy and accessible. But I started out like that and every time I’ve tried to fit in, to make my work more “art smart” it’s been a failure. Now, with the rise in so called “lowbrow” artists, people seem to be eagerly embracing art that’s easily understood. My guess is that like me, it’s a reaction against all that dry, dense, intellectual stuff of the ’80s and ’90s. Anyway, people suddenly are interested in what I’m doing, but for years [the attitude was], “if I can get it right away, it can’t be good, I don’t like it.”