A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MARY BOONE AND PETER SAUL

Through her illustrious career, revolutionary gallerist Mary Boone has represented some of the most influential artists of our time. In a rare opportunity, we get to sit in on the conversation between one of America’s best known fine-art painters, artist Peter Saul, and Mary Boone at her gallery located on 5th Avenue in New York City.

Portrait Photography by Dustin Mansyur

From the beginning of her career, Mary Boone made a name for herself as a brash, subversive, enfant terrible of the New York art scene. David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barbara Kruger, Francesco Clemente, Jeff Koons, and Ai WeiWei all have been represented by Boone. Early in her career, Boone revitalized the New York art scene by creating exhibitions for young, unorthodox, avant-garde downtown artists and giving them a new platform made up of influential international collectors. Boone’s keen instinct and bold moves revolutionized the art of dealing, making her the first to have waiting lists of collectors vying to purchase works yet to be created. New York magazine once dubbed Boone “The Queen of the Art Scene”, and now over forty years later and with two New York galleries that remain internationally respected, her crown remains firmly in place.

Of the many controversial artists in Mary Boone’s kingdom, Peter Saul, known for his cartoonish lampoon of American political figures and anti-war commentaries, is perhaps one of the leading contenders. Saul’s fantastic representations of American politics painted in his signature psychedelic, hyper-saturated palette, paired with historical influences and intellectual irreverence, have opened the interpretive, and at times controversial, dialogue between politics and pop culture. Educated in Europe in the 1950’s and keeping his art career under theradar through most of his life, Peter Saul found a champion in Mary Boone, who helped him claim his rightful title as one of the top contemporary artists in the US.

In the library of her uptown gallery in New York City, Iris Covet Book captured a conversation between the notoriously pressshy Mary Boone and Peter Saul as they discuss the history of the gallery, the politics of fine art, and painting Donald Trump.

So, Peter, to start from the beginning, you began your career in Europe in ‘56, correct?

Yes, and I started showing here in New York in 1962; it was my first show in New York City. I’ve been showing all these years but it hadn’t been appreciated until recently. I’ve had some success in Europe over the years, which is great. That’s really kept me going a lot of the time. In the ‘90s I sold a lot of work in Europe, very inexpensively, but for a college professor it seemed like a miracle of finances. Like, “Wow, 20,000 bucks!” You buy a new car and it’s just wonderful. I didn’t look any further than that. I suffered from modesty somewhat, and now I’m much less modest. Now I grumble at small amounts of money. (laughing)

My early days as a gallerist…I mean it was really a hard struggle too. People kind of think it must have been really glamorous. I worked as a secretary at Bykert for Klaus [Kertess], then the gallery closed and I went off on my own in ‘77. And when I was at Bykert, I met an artist named Ross Bleckner. I put him in a group show in Bykert, and he was showing with me and with Paula Cooper. In those days artists would try different galleries and find which one sells, which one fits. So when I opened my own gallery, he introduced me to a lot of his friends from CalArts, and that included David Salle, Eric Fischl, Barbara Kruger, Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons and a lot of other artists. So, I met artists through word of mouth from other artists.

But you have to remember that at the time no one believed in any of the artists I was showing, no one believed in them. No one wanted to see them or hear about them. They were either unknown or too hyped. People didn’t believe in Schnabel or Basquiat or Sally or Fischl, or even Brice Marden. Jean-Michel [Basquiat] and I met when he was 19; he decided he wanted to show in my gallery because he wanted to show with all these other artists who he thought were really good artists. And I was really very, reticent, like, “Is this right?” but he was really a wonderful person, so sweet to me and really a good artist. I showed Francis Picabia in 1983 and got a scathing review from The Times about it.

They’re so dumb!

They said it was a terrible show and that I was just trying to trick the art world. There was this conspiracy theory that I was making fun of art or artists, but eventually they started to believe in them.

It is easy to kind of glamorize things in retrospect, but mostly I like artists that are challenging. I mean, you are challenging. Even though you were not young chronologically, you were really young as an artist. The paintings weren’t just flying off the wall like they are now. It was hard to sell them, but to me you are such a master and such a forward thinker; everybody should want to be grabbing them up. But it takes a long time to make an artist. How were you exposed to the art world in your early career?

Well, I met [art collector] Allan Frumkin, he was very important to me. I accepted a certain amount of money every month for my work. He would show up one day of the year and pick which pieces of mine he wanted and then leave again, and I could do whatever with the ones that were left. This lasted for about 30 years; it was a long relationship. From 1960 through 1990. The last time he arranged a show of my work was ‘97 I believe, so this is 37 years of activity. During this time I took the opportunity to not mess with business. I just enjoyed my life. Unfortunately, I was looking backwards when I decided to be an artist in 1950. I was looking to the 19th century: you have a lot of cigarettes to smoke, wake up late in the morning,  work on your picture, there is a beautiful woman in your life, there is a room you call a studio, you look at the painting, and that’s it. That’s your life, you know. You don’t worry about any business or anything, and I was encouraged in this attitude by my art teachers.

My life was very simple, and not lived fully up until the decision to move to New York City in ‘97, and I thought “Why not normalize my career?” I realized at that point it depends a lot on the artist. You have to present yourself to the buyers, and I hadn’t done this before. I simply hadn’t shown up. I did everything I could to make my paintings attractive and interesting, but I personally didn’t show up, hardly ever. This was weird, and I suddenly realized this was weird, so I said [to myself ], “Hey, from now on, be normal.” So, we showed up. By then I was with Sally, we were in Austin, and I retired from my job at age 66 and came here to proceed with you.

Peter Saul, Nightwatch, 88” by 128”, acrylic/canvas, 1974-1975 ©Peter Saul. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Peter Saul, QuackQuack, Trump, 78” by 120”, acrylic/canvas, 2017 ©Peter Saul. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York

We were meant to be.

A lot of it is just showing up and being a nice person. Sally and I show up, we’re nice people, we get along, and that is very attractive because most of the time artists who are married don’t get along. I didn’t know this, but this is the way it is. This has helped us to be liked by important people in the art world who think we are attractive to work with because we get along with each other. It’s crazy, but it’s the truth. You have to be a nice person.

That’s true!

It’s not enough to make an interesting picture or whatever.

Do you think the newfound appreciation you’ve been experiencing has to do with the times?

I guess so.

I remember remarking at your first show that the average age of the audience was like 22. There was us and then all these 20 year-olds. You have become a mentor to a lot of young artists.

It’s true. It’s a blessing; it’s a good sign.

In speaking of mentorships, influencing and teaching, are there any important mentorships or up-and-coming young artists that you are working with, Peter?

Well for example, Erik Parker is an artist that was in my art class, he showed up at some point in the ‘90s and is now in the art world. He has shown some flexibility, he’s stuck around, and he is now going to have a show at this gallery. So I have him and others from Texas. I don’t know… people introduce themselves to me and say, “I remember your art class!” and then say something I never would have said, but that’s okay, I just let it pass. I don’t concentrate on what has already happened, I try to keep my mind open for the painting I’m working on and that’s pretty much it; I’m not a historian.

Well that’s good, because then you’re not looking in the past, you’re always looking forward.

Yeah it’s important not to get hung up. If you’ve been around for 40 or 50 years, it’s easy to begin getting interested in research into those years, and what did you do and all of that stuff, but that’s deadening. Likewise, I like to show at a gallery where there is one person in charge and it’s not a corporate thing. What I don’t like is when a gallery has a selection of people that is based on age and gender and stuff. When they’re like, “Well, we have four male artists in their 70’s, so we got enough of them. Let’s get three women between the ages of 30 and 40.” That kind of thing is nonsense. I like the individuality of this gallery, that’s why I’m here really.

Oh, I love that you said that! I do think of artists in terms of their individuality, I’m not trying to make a movement. So many of the galleries now are going towards assigning different staff members to artists, and I think it is impersonal. I always thought the greatest thing was becoming friends with the artist and having a relationship.

Yes, we want to, sort of, “skip” the corporate scene, don’t we?

I think that it’s ruining the art world. What are your thoughts on the art world today?

Well, I’m seeing a lot more shows than I want because my wife, Sally Saul, who makes ceramic sculpture, is extremely interested in art and what’s going on. She insists that I see a lot of shows. Today we’re going to the Outsider Art Fair, I think, and then to the Tom Laskowski opening, and then a group show where a painting of mine that belongs to Joe Bradley is being shown. Sally insists on a certain number of days a month we go see art. So, I see more art.

And you live in Germantown, so you have to travel a couple of hours to get here.

Yeah, but it’s relaxing to be on the train. You want to take a pause often from the painting so you can rethink certain areas that you’re working on. Painting for me is a slow thing, it gets done in various stages, it develops. And the next development came clear to me this morning so it can happen tomorrow.

We had a chance to show your recent Trump pieces a few months ago. What has the response been to them and have you experienced any backlash?

No, I don’t think so. I’ve treated Trump tenderly compared to the other Presidents I have painted. The most psychotic looking one was actually one of the first, Nixon. I tore the guy apart like he was in the hands of a serial killer or something: bad news. I hope for no particular response, but Trump is a good subject. I didn’t vote for him anymore than anyone else I know. 83% of New York voted for Hillary. I don’t know why she isn’t President. She won the election, but because of the electoral college she isn’t sitting in the Oval Office. As far as I know, Trump is not aware of me. He probably thinks of me as some loser artist. He looks at my prices and goes “This is cheap! He’s a loser, he’s a loser!”

“It’s fake! It’s fake art!” (both laughing)

No, but I’m not looking for trouble. I’m looking for subject.

For more information visit maryboonegallery.com

MATTHEW STONE

Beginning his career with an involvement in numerous counter-cultural movements, and rising to notoriety as a founding member of the South London art collective, !WOWOW!, Artist and Art Shaman Matthew Stone is bringing bodies together through his life-sized digital paintings.


Photography by Wikkie Hermkens | Styling by Sonny Groo | Interview by Ashleigh Kane

In the early 00s, Matthew Stone took the teachings of Andy Warhol’s Factory era and the concept behind Joseph Beuys’ Social Sculpture and transplanted them to London, where he and a group of friends had just graduated from Camberwell College of Arts. Consciously eschewing the rental market, they founded !WOWOW! and housed it, and themselves, in an abandoned store in South London with a revolving roster of exhibitions, residencies, studios and parties. “When I was young, I had a really strong vision of how I wanted to live my life”, Stone recalls over the phone from his studio in Hackney, “and I was specifically interested in squatting.” Having grown up with his family in a cottage on a canal in Bath, England with no permanent source of electricity – just a generator which Stone says was often not in use – it’s not hard to understand his draw towards other people. Now 35, content with living alone and much less the party animal he once was, Stone’s work is still crowded with bodies. He contributes to his own series titled “Interconnected Echoes” whereby he interviews the people he admires, has participated in several group as well as solo exhibitions, photographed the cover of FKA Twigs’ M3LL155X album cover, and most recently exhibited his life-sized digital paintings at Somerset House under the title Healing With Wounds.

Here he talks to IRIS Covet Book about connection, spirituality, and shares some invaluable advice for young artists.

Upper World Portrait, 2017

Can you talk about the process in which you make your paintings?

I physically paint and then photograph the strokes individually and create really high-resolution images of each brush stroke. Then I cut them out in Photoshop and use them to texture 3D models that I make of people. I’m working in 3D CGI software and using virtual cameras and lighting setups. Then with a printer, they’re finally printed onto linen with a technique that I developed. I only ever print each once so they live like actual paintings in the sense that there is only one of them.

Why did you want to work in a digital realm?

I didn’t want to make something that was backwards facing. I wanted people to look at them in a way that they look at contemporary imagery, in that they have not seen something else exactly like it before. To look at it with that freshness, with those eyes, and then start thinking about their bodies and each other. For a long time, I wondered whether that was through photography, or pushing photography into sculpture. With this technique, I feel like I’ve nailed the method (laughs) and now I can get on with just making paintings. The majority of the work was developing the technique and there were years when I worked on it without showing anyone any development. I went through waves of development without over-excitedly sharing it with everybody, and that was a big education for me.

One of the reasons that I’ve stopped doing lots of other different things and focused on the paintings is because I’ve realized that I can do everything I need to do within other realms, within this world of painting. Because of the way that I work in 3D virtual space, I can’t help but think of them, when I hang them on the wall, as a window into that space. Increasingly, I’m doing things in life-size so as you look at them, you’re looking into a virtual reality or mixed reality.

The people who appear in the paintings are not based on real people, they are completely invented like avatars that I’ve posed and painted. But those figures have started reappearing through different images, so it’s almost as if I’m investing in these metaphysical beings that live in the world that is my painting.

You came to London from Bath at age 18 and began to study at Camberwell College of Arts. What artists did you admire back then?

I wrote my dissertation on the spiritual content in Andy Warhol’s work and argued that you could read a religious trajectory in his work. Then I came across Joseph Beuys and was really interested in his work from a performative perspective. Through him, I developed these ideas around the artist as Shaman.

Were you always intrigued by spirituality?

My mum was a Catholic and as a result – and as a reaction to that – she was very much like, ‘You are not going to be indoctrinated in any way.’ We were left to work that stuff out on our own. Looking back, I had an interest from a very young age in mysticism; The X Files and UFOs, which I feel were very much of the times.

Can you talk about the out of body experiences that you have had?

They’re not something that I had a ton of but there are some significant ones – and I wish I could go into them at will, but I can also go into altered trance-like states. I used to do a series of performances where I would perform under the stage name “The Art Shaman” and the structure of the performance was that I would get a cover band to play Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones, and I would use the song to enter altered states.

What was the significance of Paint It Black?

Maybe something about the drumming. It has this rhythmic pull. In a sense, me talking about myself as a Shaman stemmed from that period. At that time it was very playful, essentially. But people, other artists, have found it intensely problematic. Someone wanted me to publicly apologize – which is almost as pretentious as me calling myself a Shaman (Laughs).

Why did it bother people?

I think they thought that it shouldn’t be a self-bestowed title. There’s definitely a question about using something like that – like spiritual appropriation – but, for me, the word itself, in its contemporary usage, describes behavioural patterns that are different on every continent and so it doesn’t feel super specific as a term, it feels quite general. I’m not trying to cut into any tradition that I’m not a part of. It’s more in an abstract sense that I’m trying to push the boundaries, or trigger thoughts, about the role of the artists and whether that extends beyond an individual creating expensive objects.

I use it to trigger intellectual debate because increasingly I’m interested in intuitive moments of thinking. There are certain points when I’ve thought – because of explaining it, over and over again – ‘why am I doing this?’ and that maybe I should just say that it was a phase, but I realized that me having said it had its own resonance and power anyway and that I have to live with the consequences of that – whether or not they are uncomfortable. More recently, I feel like I’ve gotten a bit more of a practical and personal practice that relates to it – there’s more humility. But I’m not going to take it off my Instagram account.

After university, !WOWOW! was founded. Did that come about because of situational circumstances or was it planned?

When I was young, I had a really strong vision of how I wanted to live my life and I was specifically interested in squatting. In college, I was obsessed with reading about Warhol’s Factory and had this idea of collaborative and collective living. I was thinking about Joseph Beuys’ Social Sculpture, which was the idea of an evolving artwork that was multi-author – it was all of society.

Once we graduated, we were like ‘let’s not pay rent, let’s go and squat!’ and so we started it and invited people in and it spiraled from there. My hope at that time was that people would perceive some of my activities within it as being a kind of living artwork and certainly not one that I’m the only author of. I was really interested in the idea of presenting a network of people as an artwork and I always had a great reticence to concretely transfer that to a gallery – in terms of installing people into a gallery. So yes, it felt like something that was situational in a sense because if you took it out of the environment that it had sprung from, it would become an illustration of it.

Feminine Teachers, 2017

Other People’s Energy, 2017

You mentioned earlier that you want to see if the artist can be more than someone who is just making expensive objects. What do you think the role of the artist is today?

Everyone as an individual has a political responsibility, so obviously, that includes artists. I don’t think my work has ever really been about art or the art world. Obviously, it emerges from the history of art and in lots of ways my work is very much about the history of religious art in terms of the use of the body and flesh, but I feel like my work has always been about interactions between people. Looking at the idea of collaboration over competition. Coexistence and compromise in conflict and how complex networks of power and connection occur. When I was younger I felt like I had the answers for things, but as I go on my thinking changes. Now I know that my thinking will probably change again in the future. I feel, with my work, I’m trying to frame the development of that thinking more than my thinking specifically.

Healing With Wounds featured the Somerset House show titled Utopia. Is utopia something you explore in your work?

I’ve always been interested in the idea of being engaged in developing ideas or using creativity to envision a more just world, but I’ve never claimed to be an activist. Essentially my thinking about optimism and utopias has always been about questioning if these dialogues are useful? Is it better to acknowledge the violence that already exists by making violent work? Or should I, as an artist, focus on promoting visions of a post-violent world? I’ve looked at art and culture that has explicitly been violent and understood it as potentially being part of a critique of violence, but instinctively, I’ve never said, “well I’m going to make violent imagery because that is a way to show people that it’s a bad thing.” I feel uncomfortable thinking in that way and I don’t know if that’s because I’m naive and I can’t deal with reality, or it’s because that type of imagery can be traumatic and does little to destabilise violence.

I go back and forth between thinking about how the power structures unfold in the images I make and how they deal with violence and what they suggest. More recently, I’m realizing that there is a lot of ambiguity in the ways in which you can read the body language of the people in my paintings. That’s quite important because I don’t think the world needs simple illustrations like “violence is bad” because the world is more complex and intelligent than that. If I can create anything where when people look at it and think about what’s happening, then that feels like the more useful contribution. Ultimately, when people look at my work, I want them to feel something and I want them to think about what they feel.

What advice do you have for young people coming up?

I always say, “listen very carefully to the advice that you give others because we verbalize our own insecurities when we criticize other people, when we give them advice.” The other thing is, “pay attention to your own mistakes, they might be the only original ideas you have.”

    Matthew Stone with his dog Beau. Follow Beau @ beauthehound on Instagram 

All art work © Matthew Stone images courtesy of Choi&Lager
For more information visit matthewstone.co.uk

MICKALENE THOMAS

With a dedicated studio practice that spans multiple disciplines, Mickalene Thomas explores and challenges societal understandings of beauty, femininity, and identity through her work. Known for her bodacious collage-style, rhinestone-clad paintings, the refreshingly-uncontrived, artistic mastermind is the embodiment of chaos and control.


Photography and Interview by Dustin Mansyur
Unisex Suit and Shirt by Vivienne Westwood, Sunglasses Artist’s Own

The ground-floor, sprawling, warehouse studio that Mickalene Thomas runs is anything but the archetypal cluttered creative hub one might picture when visiting an artist’s studio. Instead, its organization suggests a need for clarity and control required for the artist to create. Small-scale collages, paper and material remnants drape across a single work surface like a patchwork tablecloth, with a pair of scissors propped suggestively on a roll of electric green tape as a centerpiece to its cacophony of color. In a far corner of the studio, a heavy vinyl curtain is swagged aside revealing a space reminiscent of a car-paint room, the color-spattered work table in the center is cleared with equipment tucked away. Adjacent to it, a barrage of carts are trolleyed up neatly, loaded like pack mules with a rainbow of oil pastels, paint tubes, mixing utensils, and a spectrum of boxed rhinestones. Mickalene pushes one with a generous smear of cobalt paint and a pair of knives towards an unfinished piece that she’s “mucking up”, its wheels singing furiously like an operatic aria of the paint’s destiny. Flanking the walls, large-scale canvases of works-in-progress commune with one another, while awaiting canvases are filed away orderly in gargantuan cabinets. The multi-disciplinary artist needs space to breathe and listen to the dialogue of her work as it banters across the nucleus of the studio floor. A library elicit of her groovy, soulful sets offers an inviting corner to entertain studio visits, but we will stand and talk today as Thomas works on a diptych.

An alumni of Pratt and Yale and a United States Artists Fellow, Mickalene Thomas is a dichotomy of soft-spoken eloquence and outspoken intellect, a juxtaposition that feels arresting and gravitational. With a separate office space that runs the length of the studio and a quarter its width, it’s evident Thomas runs a tight ship over her studio practice and team. The role of boss aside, Mickalene Thomas is a distinguished visual artist, filmmaker, and curator whose work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, and is housed in many permanent collections including Guggenheim, Brooklyn Museum, MoMA PS1 New York, and Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, among others. Her work embraces art-historical, political, and pop-cultural references. Employing the disciplines of photography, painting, collage, sculpture, and installation, her exploration of the complex notions of femininity challenges prevailing definitions of beauty and aesthetic representations of women.

Here IRIS Covet Book shares some studio time with the artist as she articulates on adding to the dialogue of the conventional canon of Western art history.

Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit, 2016

Were there any influencing factors in your childhood that really helped nurture your love of art? What motivated you to pursue this as a life and career for yourself as an artist?

Being raised by an adventurous, industrious and resourceful single mother who exposed me and my brother to art at a very young age. Around the age of 7 to 12, my mother enrolled my brother and I into various art programs in New Jersey and New York. My fondest memories are at both the Newark Museum and the Henry Settlement in the Lower Eastside. In our house there was a constant engagement with art, fashion, and music. My mother’s eldest brother was a trained fashion illustrator. He illustrated for magazines and designed some record covers, as well. I loved looking at his drawings, they remind me of Bill Traylor’s work. The biggest inspiration on this “jersey girl” was New York City.

We ventured to the city on every weekend we could afford, to attend the Met Museum and to see Broadway shows, mostly Off Broadway. My mother surrounded us with her creative friends. They organized house parties and fashion shows around Newark and East Orange. She and several in her group of her friends produced these events. Their parties were called “Better Days” and one of the plays I remember was called Put A Little Sugar in My Bowl. My mom’s friend gave me the script to the play. Looking back and reading the script reminds me of Tyler Perry plays, excluding the religious banter. I guess you might say that art chose me. I’m a product of my mother’s creative environment.

You work in so many different disciplines. You do photography, collage, painting, sculpture, and installation. Presently, what disciplines are you utilizing in your work?

Including performance, video, and the other five disciplines you mentioned, I oscillate among all of these disciplines, depending on the scope of my project, the concept, or idea; eventually making a decision on which discipline is best to execute the idea. Currently, there are two main techniques that are a major thread in my work, which I use in tandem–photography and silkscreen. I employ silkscreen as a way to bring forth the photographic elements into my painting. Silkscreen is used in my work as a tool to convey that language. It’s extremely important to me that the photographic images on the painting, appear as a collaged element rather than literally gluing or pasting a photograph onto the paintings. Photography plays a primary role in my studio practice, and it’s the strongest thread throughout my work. I shoot all of my resources for my work; for found resources, after scanning, them I put them through a photographic process to claim them as my own. What excites me currently as an artist is transforming my photographic images into a painting language. Although, sometimes my photographs and collages serve as blueprints for my paintings. Now I’m thinking about how I could use these disciplines within performance. My new body of work is video based and performative. Working in film has given me license to explore the moving image as the editing process relates to collage.

Combining all these different disciplines…is it in anyway a metaphor for the complexities of your identity?

I think all of our identities are complexed, and these different disciplines provide a platform for me to navigate and explore my identities. As my art morphs and transforms, so do I as a person with my ideas and sense of self. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago, neither is my art. I harbor various complexities in the same way as I oscillate within different disciplines. My mythos isn’t to be defined by the work that I make, in the same way that it’s an extension of myself. I can’t escape the methodologies of these disciplines because they are all pertinent for me to tell my story by any means necessary.

The strongest discipline in my work is photography. I see it as one of the most powerful tools constructing or deconstructing our identities. It’s our own black mirror, within the constructs of us having the need to constantly see ourselves instead of really seeing each other. Photography is it’s own visual language, it’s how we communicate–it’s on all our devices, it’s the new handshake, it’s the how are you today, and our third eye. I’m interested in using the photographic lens and other devices that will allow me to see myself and others.


Unisex Suit and Shirt by Vivienne Westwood, Sunglasses Artist’s Own

Where do you begin? How do you start a piece? During our photo shoot, I noticed there were several smaller collages on a work table.

The small collages are an iteration of my practice through a photographic process. I make a series of collages based on the photographs taken during photo shoots. The collages aren’t necessarily one-to-one with the paintings, they are research, resource, and a discovery into the the process of my paintings. The collages have their own strength that I try to bring into the paintings. The exploration within the collage materials allow me to be uninhabited and free of constraints. The discovery of making the collages is allowing the scissors to do it’s magic by cutting shapes and forms that tell a story with the images that I’m using. All my cut scraps are reusable for new images. I have piles and piles of images and materials, organized and chaos, colored and textured, pattern and glittered, layered and integrated. It’s exciting to think about all of those materials and how they will juxtapose with one another.

How did the rhinestones come to be such a touchstone part of your work?

I started experimenting with rhinestones when I became interested in the notions of pointillism during my time at Yale. In relation to my work, rhinestones seemed to be the most relevant material, and I realized that they provide a perfect combination of content, process, and materials not as an accoutrement. They serve to challenge my ideas of what paintings are, and can be. As my work evolved and developed stronger, the rhinestones started taking on other meanings as I expanded them into my practice.

I love that you really embraced that. Even though you referred to them as non-traditional material, you have given it this life to become its own medium, like oil or acrylic.

They are just as important as the acrylic and oil paint, the silkscreen, the oil sticks, and gestural marks. They play the same role as these materials and formalities. All of the elements or materials that I employ, represent the notions of artifice, constructed ideas, and means of how we consider adornment on ourselves and in our environments. How we can utilize and manipulate them to exude a certain quality, beauty or light. Also, rhinestones are a very interesting material to work with, the challenges are vast, and it possesses a multiplicity of ideas and notions that I feel like I could grow with as an artist. Figuring out how to use them in my paintings, but also as a material like paint is very exciting for me.

All of the collages in the interior spaces that you present within your work…I’m so fascinated by them because they look like such an interesting world to reside within. What does the interior as a subject matter mean for your?

For me, the interiors are just as important as the portraits because I think of interiors as portraitures. I think you can tell a lot about a person by the things they surround themselves with and how they live. There’s this residue of life, of cultural history, of storytelling, and all that is domestic that describes the home. How we surround ourselves to complete who we are, and the home or interior, is one of them; the landscape is another. I’m interested in how we reside within these spaces, and how these spaces tell a story of who we are.

I’m mostly trying to reference my childhood, and the environment that I found to be most comforting and inspiring as a young girl. I don’t necessarily think of it as being representative of a specific cultural or ethnic identity–while that may serve as one of the inspirations, it really is meant to reflect on the extensions of my own identity and history.

You just opened a show at Rice University in Houston that featured one of your installations. Are the installations something that you utilize as an extension of the set from the photographic process, or a three-dimensional form derived from the collages or paintings of the interiors?

Yes they are. In some ways they’re really about me trying to make sense of home. I moved around a lot as a kid, and I think that a home is the constructed safe space for families. One of the things that we identify as the “American dream” is having a home. Most people aspire to obtain home as an object of gratification or fulfillment of success regardless of demographic socially, financially, or culturally. There’s still this overarching aspiration of security once you have a home. My environments started in graduate school, when I was photographing myself. I would put up fabric backdrop to create self portraits. So when I started photographing my mother, I started adding things to the environment to formally figure out the compositions for my paintings. Overtime the blank wall was filled and covered with fabrics and wallpaper. I’ve been doing this for the past 10 years, but it’s just been the past three or four years that these environments have been recently exhibited. This part of my practice has developed and expanded into various iterations site-specifically expanding from tableaus in the corner of my studio into major installations where the viewer can activate the space.


Naomi Looking Forward #2, 2016

 

Installation at Newcomb Art Museum 2017 Variable Dimension

Do you usually have several pieces going simultaneously so that you can take a step back, think about it, and process it while working on another piece?

Yes, I work on several projects and works simultaneously. Sometimes chaotic, and then focused. Each project informs the other, allowing the works to have a strong dialogue between themselves. Sometimes I will struggle with one body of work, but then it makes sense in the other, and the works start speaking to each other, and the challenges erupt and make sense. The experience of making art is that it does not lie to you. It starts speaking to you in a certain way, and you have to listen to it. If you’re honest with yourself.

You take classical subject matter – nudes, portraiture, landscapes, interior spaces – and you re-appropriate them based upon your own cultural vantage point and perspective. When you first began your career how was the work received and has that changed over time?

It’s important to me that my work changes overtime. As I grow as a person I want my art to grow with me. It’s important as an artist to find your own voice and be authentic, and hopefully you’re adding a new dialogue to the discourse, to expand it, and to make it richer. I’m interested in using Western art historical canon by deconstructing the traditional notions of beauty within art. By bringing forth the women and beauty that have been removed from the stories, erased, and rewritten.

Art history is known to be so Eurocentric and non-inclusive.

What I’m excited about is the large circle of African American individuals as art historians: as our leaders within art history who are going to be in the position to allow these discourses to be put forth within the institutions. When you look at museums that start to embrace young African American curators, then there’s a shift because they’re entering a new paradigm that is going to allow new conversations to emerge and change in museums and other institutions. I think we need to encourage people of color to be a part of the creative field if they have that interest. There’s a huge generation of younger creative intellectuals that are coming forth that are really exciting. To me, those are the individuals I’m embracing because those are the people that are going to write our legacies and stories.

Earlier, you spoke about the photographic language acting as a kind of “black mirror”. Is that really what art is then, for you, a way of holding up the mirror to society?

I’ve read some of Lacan’s philosophy and something that really inspired me is his theory of the “mirror stage”. That our innate desire and notion of ourselves is to be validated by others, the desire is to be seen. Therefore, whena person gazes at you,it validates that existence because they’re looking at you. This idea of the gaze is very powerful and the notion of validation, and incorporating its existence into Art. Without it, we don’t see ourselves until others see us, which, in turn, gives us our sense of validation: recognizing something familiar in someone else. When we recognize our familiar selves in others, then things will change [in society].

Empathy is such a scarce quality today. How does this quality affect your work?

There’s always a greater part of empathy in artists. We are the most empathetic people. We are the leaders of the world and are capable of allowing people to become their better selves through our creativity. No matter how egotistical and selfish some artists can be, I think there’s still a greater part of empathy to making art. As an artist, we gift so much of ourselves to the world, the fiber of our existence as artists is to help others see the world through our eyes to create change.

Your work also focuses heavily on our understanding of beauty and expanding that. In fashion advertising the big buzzwords right now are diversity, inclusion…How do you think that society’s understanding of beauty is going to change in the coming decades?

The understanding of beauty today is going to become compacted with a deeper meaning of who you are, not necessarily what you look like.

You have this amazing space. It’s so huge, it’s orderly, and it’s still warm and inviting. It appears that you’re anything but the proverbial starving artist.

(laughter) I am! I am, really! I’m not starving, but I’m always hungry. I’m starving for women to sell their art at the same price point as their male counterparts without complaints of it being too expensive. I’m starving for inclusivity, and for being in the right collections, museums, biennials, on the art historian tongues, in the ear of curators, and working with the best galleries nationally and internationally. I’m starving to see more people of color and women having major retrospectives. I’m starving for auction houses to pay artists residuals.

I’m curious what you’ve had to overcome, either personally or professionally, to get to this place in your career. I feel like creative people often have a strong internal dialogue with themselves.

I persevered throughout my life. Everybody has a story, there was a glimpse of my story told in the documentary I directed about my mother in Happy Birthday To A Beautiful Woman.

What advice, then, would you share with any young person who is wanting to choose this for themselves as a life and career?

Despite your personal obstacles, it’s really important to maintain a strong studio practice and a sense of self.

Do you have a glass ceiling? What does success mean to you?

I once heard someone say, “the sky is not the limit it’s just the view”. There’s no glass ceiling for me because I’m hungry and greedy. One of the quotes that I love by Toni Morrison is “…if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” This is success to me. I can only keep trying to do more than my best.


Hair and Makeup by Nina Soriano using Elemis, Production by Benjamin Price, Special Thanks to Susan Grogan at Mickalene Thomas Studio

All art work © Mickalene Thomas images courtesy of the artist
For more information visit mickalenethomas.com

 

TRACEY EMIN

Once called the “enfant terrible” of the Young British Artists, Tracey Emin’s confessional, autobiographical work fearlessly intimates that the artist is here to stay.


Portrait and Studio Photography by Oli Kearon | Interview by Sarah Nicole Prickett

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In a beautiful new compendium entitled TRACEY EMIN: WORKS 2007-2017  by: Jonathan Jones, published by Rizzoli International Publications, we can view a decade’s worth of work of the prolific and inimitable Tracey Emin. Compiled in close collaboration with the artist and unprecedented in its scope, this definitive book collects ten years of Tracey Emin’s drawings, paintings, sculptures, appliques and embroideries, neons, video stills, and installations. A multimedia artist whose intensely personal work blurs the boundaries between art and life, Emin remains one of the most highly publicized contemporary British artists and continues to stir as much controversy as she has acclaim. A multimedia artist whose intensely personal work blurs the boundaries between art and life, Emin remains one of the most highly publicized contemporary British artists and continues to stir as much controversy as she has acclaim.

Moving chronologically through a prolific decade of work–from major public installations to recent reflective paintings and sculptures–this book shows a coherent vision that defies the idiosyncrasies of Emin’s evolution as an artist. The same mixture of anger, hope, curiosity, and vulnerability that informs her delicate drawings and handwritten neon works can be felt in the darker tones of recent monoprints and the weight of later bronze pieces.

Written by Jonathan Jones, whose text places Emin’s work in a broad art-historical context and sees this recent decade of her artwork as an entry point to examining her full career, this is a beautiful monograph on one of the world’s most influential living artists.

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She is, for enough of us, the first famous, knowable, and wealthy living artist to be a woman. She is the first we could name before we knew quite what art was. Because of this, she has helped decide what we think art is: the outrageous act of doing something because you can, which means that you should. Her sensibilities make crucial sense to the most desirous young artists and writers, mostly young women, but not always. Imitated by dozens, her style has become memetic, which makes it seem more original. It is original as she is. Tracey Emin is permanent.

That’s what she says. The words–here to stay–are stitched in capital letters on one of the blankets she liked to make, in acerbic pastels, from the early 1990s on. This one, titled The Simple Truth, was made in 1994 for the Gramercy Park Hotel Art Fair, where a thirty-year-old Emin slept and showed her work in the same small room and did not feel welcome. I saw it in a book of Emin’s pictures, My Photo Album, which I had not opened since buying it four years ago. Oddly the picture of the blanket took me by surprise. Odd because the ambiguity of “Here to stay,” the provisional, limited idiom of the sojourn turning into a journey’s broad conclusion, is blatantly Emin; and because the early work that is still her most widely known also concerns a bed, namely her bed; and because I had seen pictures of the blankets before and had apparently found this one forgettable. This time its freshness and its near-vulnerability was alarming. I imagined it making people want to cuddle her.

Emin is not generally thought of as an artist whose work keeps one warm at night. The title work in her most recent show, The Memory of Your Touch, is a self-portrait (1997—2016) on another hotel bed, taken from behind as she lies prostrate in red thigh-high stockings. Other works include sculptures, more naked and headless or faceless bodies in jaggy plaster or bronze; paintings that leak cold blood and cloud with the nacreous greys of frozen breath over dysmorphic outlines of the body in chalky blacks; and her signature hand-scrawled pleas in popsicle-pink, slinky tubes of light. Her idols are dead, untouchable, macho like Rodin and Schiele, and we see their relentless impressions on her figures. In her “neons” she is most obviously, saleably herself, and these have become fixtures in expansive hotel lobbies from London to Miami, New York to Istanbul. Most spell out more of her words: You Should Have Loved Me. I Followed You to the Sun. I Dream of Sleep. One, at a hotel in Oslo, traces a humanoid figure, bloated with withering limbs, made and titled in homage to Emin’s favorite painting: Munch’s The Scream. It seems made to induce the nightmare of your life.

Good Red Love, 2014 © Tracey Emin. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy: White Cube

Hers is like a Cinderella story stuck at a minute to twelve. Born like Kate Moss, in Croydon, South London, Emin spent her childhood in the rough-edged seaside town of Margate, where her mother ran a hotel her father owned. At thirteen she was, as she told us in her lacerating memoir, Strangeland, raped in an alley behind a tavern. At twenty-seven she had her first abortion, carrying the killed fetus home in the back of a taxi. Nearing thirty, with a degree from the Royal Academy in London but practically nothing to her name, she burned all the fine little lithographs she used to sign “Miss T.K. Emin” and started over as Tracey qua Tracey. She made five-minute films that looked like very unfunny home videos, like the one titled Why I Never Became a Dancer, which loops through her thwarted adolescence as images of Margate unspool: “The reason why these men wanted to fuck me, a girl of 14, was because they weren’t men. They were less. Less than human. They were pathetic.” It was 1993.

Sick, delicious egoism, paired with ironies that were a bit rich, was all the rage in Emin’s milieu, which included Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, and Anya Gallacio (it was in Artforum’s 1992 cover story on Gallacio that Michael Corris coined the term YBAs, for Young British Artists). Emin and Lucas opened a shop in Brick Lane, painted the walls pink instead of white, and sold t-shirts with “slogans” like Have you wanked me yet? Emin titled her first solo show, facetiously but not self-deprecatingly, My Major Retrospective (1993). Corris called her Sandra Bernhard and Beuys in one body. “Emin’s persona,” he said with emphasis, “is designed to look as though it can take everything life can throw at her.” Messiness, of course, accommodates more mess. When the mess becomes massive it looks like a cover-up, where the crime is ambition; and it’s hard to be sure that ambition is not per se criminal. Only, it’s apparent that when a woman reaches success before losing her sex appeal, her talents are perceived to be strategic, not divine. Emin’s rise inspired some of the art world’s hottest debates over craft, narcissism, and intent. Enviable, she could not be beloved.

In the six years between her “retrospective” and her first (and last) nomination, with My Bed (1999), for the Turner Prize, Emin made a brand out of getting blackout drunk and saying unbelievable things in the press. When she claimed, like she did after one particularly wild televised incident in 1997, to not even remember she’d been on television, the press insinuated she not only remembered but intended doing it–anything for a headline, as if she were both headless and single-minded, or strategically mental. The persona stuck to her work. Colm Toíbín, in a review for British Esquire of Emin’s 20 Years retrospective, about summed it up, saying, “her drawings have a starkness and an aura of desperate loneliness attached to them. Her nudes are drawn with merciless care; they manage to achieve an effect which is spare and plaintive.” He notes the effort in making My Bed “so unglamorous, all tossed, with knickers stained with menstrual blood, among other things, on the floor beside it, the last place you would lie down to rest.”

Emin has been soberish, meaning she drinks wine but not spirits, for eighteen years, and it is no longer her fault that she forgets things. She tries to remember. She is trying to be remembered–as what? Enormous. Great. A vast power. Her work becomes vaguer and vaguer, even as it solidifies and gains mass. Primal scenes dissipate into other people’s myths, words blow up and fuzz into lyricism. Something was lost when she shed the itchy habit of the first-person, shameful confession, when she stopped calling her pieces my that and my this and started saying your, yours, you. It became unclear what she loved. Something, some meaning. I cannot remember either what the meaning is.

My lips moved across your face, 2015 © Tracey Emin. Photo: HV-studio, Brussels. Courtesy Xavier Hufkens

I call Tracey Emin at her studio after lunch, her time. There is the just-caught breath. There is the click of a lighter. Her voice, never mind all the cigarettes, retains the softness of Egyptian cotton. It’s possible, somehow, to hear the ‘e’ in Tracey, the barest flutter of vowel.

She gives a sigh of displeasure at telling me what her days are like, or how they are not alike. Last week she was in Paris, Brussels, Rome. Today she and her team are renovating Emin’s studio, which is over eight thousand feet of former factory space in Spitalfields, East London, with a swimming pool in the basement so she can do laps in the space of a smoke break. Next year the operations will relocate a new, larger space in Margate, where she can swim in the sea. London is “too noisy,” says Emin, “and too full of shopping.” She will wait until night to make, say, the molds for her sculptures, working from one o’clock in the morning until three o’clock, seven o’clock, eight. Then the emails start: “I don’t even know how many emails I get, too many to count, every day. One demand after another. And all these questions.”

Emin has a propensity to feel questioned. She listens badly and is quicker to hate a question than to hear it, perhaps because she assumes her interlocutors think the worst. When I say that she got famous by not sleeping, by seeming to party all night while actually staying up to work, what she hears is the accusation echoed: “I was working then and I’m working now. I don’t like to go out. I never did.” When I ask whether her works begin with shapes or notions or, perhaps, with their titles, which are memorable and seem so definitive, she says: “No, you’re wrong.” Then she considers. “The title is the subject,” she says. “The title or the subject is a loose net that catches things, and whatever fits inside the net stays, if that’s not too pretentious.” Emin has never seemed pretentious. Her most-used words, in conversation, are different forms of work. “All the wildness is in the work,” she says. And, “there is a calmness in me when I am working.” And, “the work is working toward the crescendo of the subject.” When she says that the subject is often a question, it becomes tempting, though unwise, to ask a question containing the word tautological.

Yet Emin must delight in being questionable. A few hours after she hangs up the phone, she says, she will be going out, but only to dinner, and only then to see her friend Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg, the billionaire exmayor of New York, is Emin’s idea of a man who should be leading the free world. She asks, when I express my doubts, whether I prefer having Trump. She says that my not voting in the election was smart, even if it wasn’t a choice but a consequence of being Canadian. She thinks Mark Carney, a Canadian economist who currently serves as Governor of the Bank of England, would make another good President of the United States. There seems to be no useful reply. It occurs to me that Tracey Emin is a Conservative. It occurs to me, in particular, that I once read a story in the Telegraph saying that Tracey Emin feels abused by other artists for voting Tory. “Anyway,” says Emin, “I am going to dinner tonight as a representative of–of myself, not as myself, but as a famous international woman artist.”

When the artist was younger, she did not think of representation, or of being represented. She did not go around calling herself a feminist, and whether she was one is irrelevant to the fact that, as Emin herself has said, she experienced sexism at the hands of institutions and critics. But then, the word feminist was more a term of art than the marketing term it can be today, and it is today that the term sticks more easily to work signed “Tracey Emin.” She is aware that female artists who are younger, prettier, and better off than she was at the start of her career are prone to copping her style: Petra Collins, the photographer, artist, and model who was born in Toronto the year Emin showed her first piece in London, has done a number of pieces spelling out Rihanna lyrics and late-night iMessages in Barbie-pink neons. Emin-lite, I might call it. Emin doesn’t mind. She is not, as a woman, threatened by girl power.

“I don’t mind being imitated when the artist who’s doing it is really young,” she says, not naming names. “It’s natural for young artists to pay homage and even to copy. What annoys me is when people my age who are just copying and trying to make a name off my ideas.” Emin is possessed of a congenital, gentle smirk, which often appears in flash photographs to be something meaner, or darker, like a scowl. It is easy to picture her scowling now. “Number one,” she continues italically, “they’re not going to heaven. Number two, they’re not even artists, they’re a sort of designer. And number three, how can they get any satisfaction out of it? They can’t.”

Emin believes that art is not a task but a vocation. She utters the phrase “doing what you love” as if it’s never been said. She says, as she has said in most recent interviews, that her work is getting better as she ages. Better how? “Stronger.” How does she know? “Because of the pleasure and understanding I find in it.” Have there been any changes to elicit new strength, or understanding? “No, I am the same person.” A breath. Then: “My mother died last year, which changed a lot about how I feel, how I am in the world.” What was the biggest change? “My mother was alive,” says Emin, “and now she’s not.”

Neon and Mirror/Diabond Installation view: The More Of You The More I Love You, Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, 2016 © Tracey Emin. Photo: Sébastien Bozon. Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, White Cube and Xavier Hufkens

She uses the word “my,” and even the word “me,” more seldomly now. In lieu of a diary, which makes her aware of living posthumously and inspires self-censorship, she writes and sends letters to her friends. “I’m the last person in England using the post office,” says Emin, who also believes, despite what the government says, that “they are starting to take the post boxes away.” In the titles of her recent exhibitions, as in her more private writings, the first-person possessive has given way to direct address: “Love is What You Want,” “You Saved Me,” “I Followed You to the Sun.” She got “The Memory of Your Touch” from a moment in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a husband dead and a widow anguished, missing “the touch of him.” Emin, a desirous reader who’s usually too tired to read, has a different book open at every bedside: a biography of Nabokov, whose author she can’t recall; I Love Dick by Chris Kraus; Provence by Lawrence Durrell. The last book she read cover to cover, almost six months ago, she sighs, was the wonderful novel Horse Crazy by Gary Indiana. She remembers a bit near the end, when a woman artist, suffering from myopia, thinks she sees a cute, brooding guy in a tavern; but when she gets close, he turns out to be a stain on the wall.

Her beds are various, scattered between her studio, her home in London, her other home in the South of France, her old family home in Margate. It’s in France where Emin is “self-sufficient, or somewhat self-sufficient.” She has peppers, tomatoes, and courgettes in her garden, and recently she grew her first pumpkins, though they were “not very good.” There are no good restaurants around, so she cooks. I ask for a recipe. She can’t think of one, and then she doesn’t want to. “I thought we were going to talk about my art,” says Emin. “I am not interested in these questions, and by the sounds of it,” referring to the dilatory sound of my voice, “you aren’t either.” I laugh. She laughs less.

We talk about art, and it is nearly the same conversation. She lists the materials in her studio, starting with the Dionysian bronze she loves for its “machoness.” She makes declarations of increasing dependence on herself. She means a “true” self. She also means a “real” self. “Total isolation, surrounded by nature,” says Emin, “is what I need to really work.” Never lonely in the studio, she continues to feel a longing in bed. Whether the longing is for a man is unclear. Not every you is the you of a very romantic pop song. Quieter, larger, is the you of a prayer.

We talk about her husband Stone, who is literally a stone, a piece of rock, and whom she married last spring in the garden in France where she found him. Stone and Emin “are having a nice relationship,” she says, “although long-distance is always tricky.” It occurs to me that I once read a story in the Telegraph saying that Georgia O’Keeffe left her unfaithful husband for a mountain. “God told me,” said O’Keeffe, “that if I painted it enough I could have it.” Emin, when I tell her this, softly repeats: have it. There is a word loved by the master self-portraitist, and painter of flora and fauna, Albrecht Dürer. The word is Konterfei, which means an exact likeness and signified to him the making of something exactly like. “Yes,” says Emin. “Yes.” She exhales at length. “You asked what I’m working on now. That’s what I’m working on. The thing. The thing that it is. That’s the end of the interview.”

STUDIO VISITS – ERIC N. MACK

Eric N. Mack is the rule-breaking artist creating large-scale paintings from unexpected materials and forms into soft-sculpture, expansive figures in space.

Portrait photography by Tiffany Nicholson | Interview by Ashleigh Kane
Coat by Versace, Hat, Shirt, Trousers and Shoes Artist’s Own

Eric N. Mack’s future as an artist was decided at birth, when his mom Lisa Scott and his dad Miller Mack honoured him with the middle name National, after Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. It was there, in the 80’s, that his parents met while his dad worked at the gallery as a plexiglass specialist, building and maintaining the vitrines. A young Eric often went along for the ride, getting to know works by artists such as Vincent Van Gogh in the process. Admittedly, he wanted to “study everything” in order to allow himself to naturally grow inclined to whatever felt right. Eventually he chose to major in sculpture and painting at Yale University School of Art – an institution that artists such as Brice Marden, Chuck Close, and Richard Serra attended, and all of whom Mack admires greatly. He is also a huge fan of Robert Rauschenberg and had the pleasure of working in the late artist’s studio in Florida earlier this year.

Like Rauschenberg, Mack’s own works toy with context and ideas of re-use in order to create new forms – large-scale works that he calls paintings. Constructed from a patchwork of materials and surfaces that push silk, frill, or even an old t-shirt, into new frontiers, Mack forgoes painting’s rectilinear relationship with canvas for infinite new possibilities of presentation. Inspiration comes from his adopted city of New York, which he’s lived in for over a decade, as well as fashion – his dad once owned a clothing store – and art history – a recent fascination is the 1970s French art group Supports/Surfaces. He also places great emphasis on building knowledge.

Beneath the draping, swooping and layering of the surfaces that shape Mack’s canvases, is a melting pot of art academia and consideration for the important contributions of artists who came before him. Even in his spare time, he’s never not looking to build upon his own awareness of New York’s art legacy. Below, he let’s us pick his brain.

A Lesson in Perspective, 2017

Can you talk to us about your studies. What were you interested in?

I wanted to study everything and I had a real interest in the different principles of art; photography, sculpture and painting. I went to an arts high school in Maryland so in college I wanted to continue without having to choose one or the other, and I wanted to be able to develop a natural relationship to art. Immediately when I got to (The Cooper Union) I took all three of those courses. It was really liberating. That school was super important because it was about thought and innovation, and not so much about restriction. By the time I had graduated, painting had become a lot more serious to me in terms of the history and its conceptual concerns. It became a space that was meaningful for me to continue to question, and the results that I came up with made me want to think more in depth about it.

When did you realize that you could make a career out of being an artist?

When I came to New York, I had so many questions. I was so excited to be here because it was my dream place. I interned at a gallery called Rivington Arms in the Lower East Side which was representing Dash Snow at that time and a number of other artists. I wanted to better understand the workings of a gallery, the relationship between an artist and a gallerist, and how an artist could be supported in that way. I was looking at it, not from an artist’s vantage point, but from an administrative aspect. From there, I ended up getting a job in Garth Weiser artist’s studio, and I learned a lot from him. By seeing his process, I learned that people could earn a living from making work, and that if I worked hard enough, it could be a possibility for me as well.

You took a lot of time to develop your foundations as an artist – through art school, research, interning, working for artists, even on the admin side. Why was that important for you to gain that experience?

I think there are times when it’s important that an artwork has academic context, and that the artist is informed and generous about the place that the work comes from, in relationship to art or the history of painting, or a relationship to a previous zeitgeist. People such as Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Richard Serra all came from Yale, and are monumental figures that I look up to.

They went through that training and education and I feel like it was really important for me to do that and make sure that I was here for the long haul and not just being frivolous or superficial.

Previously you’ve referenced Robert Rauschenberg and Sam Gilliam as influences – do they still inspire you or does that lessen as you come into your own as an artist?

I really appreciate art and that’s how I’ve come to be an artist. Rauschenberg is somebody I’ve thought about for a long time and even more so this year because I did a residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, Florida. I got to work in his studio and that was monumental for me. That kind of closeness, to be able to examine the space… it was compelling to be able to see what his brand of innovation afforded him. I gave myself permission to actively think about his legacy after that. But there are others; Basquiat, of course. I would say he is somebody I’ve thought about. He died the year after I was born. I’ve also been thinking of Richard Tuttle – people that have been around for a long time that have served their practices in really strong ways.

Why do you identify specifically as a painter?

It has to do with the lineage that I feel like the work has come from. I see painting as a lot of things, but mostly there’s a relationship to surface and material. I’ve been thinking about the canvas and how painting that revolves around framing contexts that mostly have to do with a rectilinear relationship. I’ve also been thinking about the tools with which we identity as existing with the history of painting. I feel like there hasn’t been much advancement in terms of the apparatus involved with painting, or that any advancement ends up being forgotten in history.

I’ve also been thinking about this movement in Paris called Supports/ Surfaces where painters dealt with space and structure, including surface. Many of these painters are being shown a lot more now, and I see that the work they did as having a part in advancing the technology of painting – in breaking it out of its reductive frame for it to become more tangible and to speak more directly to histories of materiality.

Did you immediately begin working in large scale or was that something you worked up to over time? Was it intimidating to make paintings that large?

I think what I regard as large has changed over time. One of the things I started thinking about after grad school was how to push the identity of the work. One of the biggest moves I made was doing away with the wooden stretcher bar convention that painting has had for a long time. I began moving towards the space in the center of the room.

I’ve long been thinking about monumentality, or about a relationship to a monument, and the challenge for me would be to be able to maintain the kind of detail, care and attitude that the work possesses. So it’s been a constant, very careful, thought process for the work to physically expand. But it feels very natural to the concerns of the work.

You impact the meaning of everyday materials – where do you source or find what you use in your work?

It’s definitely a combination of things because I don’t want there to be one space that could dictate the work’s meaning due to where it comes from. There are times when I buy things from a store, a home goods interior store, or I’ll go to a clothing shop, but mostly it’s thinking about daily tasks and finding something that would be challenging to use as a material. Or something that continues the process of questioning surface and materiality.

So it’s not planned, as in, you don’t go out with an object in mind to bring back?

I go out looking for certain forms. Right now, I’m kind of obsessed with frill – like gathering, ruching – so I’ve been going out looking for it because it ends up having a nice finish. And there’s this relationship with elegance, a kind of frivolity, excess, like Rococo or Baroque. There’s also a supposed coldness to the rigid white wall that often comes with the gallery context, so I’ve been thinking about what would be a really active contradiction of the space.

Palms on Cotton, 2017
 Implied Reebok or Desire for the Northeast Groover, 2016

Are you aware of what the painting’s meaning is before you begin or do you add meaning as you go?

It’s nice to have epiphanies while the piece is developing, but I like to be aware. I think the titles end up dictating a starting point that brings people closer to the work or maybe the titles make it more complex. For me, they end up being a finalizing gesture.

How does New York inspire you and your work?

I live in Harlem and I work in the Bronx, so my daily commute to the studio ends up being really influential. I take note of things or I take little snapshots on my phone. It’s nice to think about the city as a space of inspiration.

What do you do when you’re not creating art?

Even the hobbies that I have can end up relating to the work or end up being really nice points in which I can mine certain aspects from.

Can you talk about the importance of abstraction in your work?

I see abstraction as a strategy. I feel like it has social relationships and also aesthetic relationships. Abstraction ends up being a stand in or a symbol for a more complex idea, or to make something more tangible. An abstraction can be present, but it can also obscure and hide – hide information or hide physicality – and there’s definitely that in my work.

I think a lot about abstraction in relationship to a kind of fragmentation, where I think about pieces and parts that have really explicit origins. This is in relationship to what we were talking about before. Like, where does the work come from? Where does fabric, or whatever it is, come from? It’s mostly about how the fragment reads, how the fragments communicate, and how that can be unified to mean something collectively different, or to communicate some kind of emotional complexity.

Do you think your work comments on the value of art, in that you reuse materials and fabrics and give them new meaning through context?

I think if something can be salvaged and reused and seen in a context that is beautiful or expresses some kind of meaning, then that can be very transformative for the viewer or the maker.

  

Hair by Austin Burns using Oribe, Makeup by Agata Helena @agatahelena using NARS cosmetics, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Production by Benjamin Price

BALTIC Artists’ Award 2017, installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Courtesy: © 2017 BALTIC; Art Work Photography by John McKenzie

For more information visit eric-mack.com

STUDIO VISITS – TALI LENNOX

Away from her newly adopted home of Los Angeles, multidisciplinary artist Tali Lennox takes us inside her New York loft to share her daring, emotional paintings and collages that capture the fleeting nature of memories.

Dress by Burberry
Portrait Photography by Tiffany Nicholson | Interview by Anna Furman

In Tali Lennox’s self portraits, her face is often obscured by charcoal-black facial masks or distorted by bulging eyes and drooly, menacing expressions. When she paints figures, their identities are kept hidden and their facial features are imbued with an abstract, spectral quality. The British-born artist, daughter of singer Annie Lennox and film producer/ director Uri Fruchtmann, has made a name for herself in art and in fashion. At the age of seventeen, Tali began walking runway shows for the likes of Miu Miu and Roberto Cavalli (most recently, she starred in the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur’s tastefully noir-inspired campaign as well as the international campaign for David Webb shot by Inez and Vinoodh).

In 2015, she spent a month in residency at New York’s Catherine Ahnell Gallery, and the following year, mounted an exhibit inside the storied Chelsea Hotel. Both shows explored Western attitudes toward aging and the role memory plays in our collective conscience. She represented grooming habits as odd, culturally specific acts, and took a close look at ordinary gestures (holding a glass, washing one’s face)–encouraging viewers to reexamine their own everyday lives. Elements of Lennox’s portraiture–unusual head-to-body proportions, sanguine facial expressions–invite comparisons to celebrated American painter Alice Neel.

After tragically losing her boyfriend to a kayak accident two years ago, Lennox moved across the country to start a new chapter of her twenties in East Los Angeles. IRIS Covet Book sat down with Tali to chat about maintaining a bicoastal lifestyle, painting in solitude, and our shared admiration for the artist Tracey Emin.

Nose Bleed, 2017

 ‘Inhale the Oasis’ collage, 2016

‘Mood Swings’ Collage, 2016

Hi! How’s your morning been?

Very quiet. My roommates are both away right now so it’s just me in our treehouse-y home. My favorite hours to paint are either first thing in the morning or late at night so that’s what I did. I’ve had a full day of painting reclusiveness.

What are you painting right now?

I’m working on a painting of my friend Lili. It involves blood, tan lines, and pink silk. I’ve been curious about what it is to be a woman capturing other women. I want to gently challenge the viewer’s own awareness of sexuality. I love to paint nudes, skin, boobs… it interests me to figure out how my perspective differs from that of a man’s, which can come from such an objectified angle.

I’ve had a morbid curiosity since I was a child. I’m fascinated with gore and ghosts. I like to add in elements like blood and drool to my recent portraits, to explore the lines of attraction and repulsion. Recently, I posted a picture of spilled red ink on a mattress and it wound up in the newspaper because people thought it was period blood. Men and women were commenting on it–calling it disgusting. I wasn’t even trying to suggest or make a point about period blood when I took the photograph, but it did get me thinking. It’s a little absurd that women have been having periods since the beginning of humanity and yet people still find it so outrageous.

You relocated to Los Angeles from New York, but you still live in both cities. Why did you decide to move?

I’m in Silver Lake mostly. I love having trees outside my window, and the sense of vast space in LA gives my ideas a certain expansiveness. LA is weird and faded. It’s hard to grasp reality here, which I find so inspiring. I go to New York City every couple of months and it’s always just a big slice of cake–in a wonderful and somewhat overwhelming sense.


Dress by Burberry

What do you miss most about NY when you’re away?

Chinatown, the movie theaters, Serendipity, 24-hour delis, the Met, exchanging a hello with a man who looks like Santa Claus who sits outside my building every morning, the raging desire for a strong coffee in the morning.

Your Instagram bio says that you’re a painter slash jellyfish breeder. Jellyfish? Breeder? Please elaborate.

Really the jellyfish breeder thing is just to be silly. I mean, social media should never be taken too seriously. I do have a fascination with sea creatures though. It stems from childhood. I remember being completely hypnotized by fishmongers when I was probably four years old. I loved looking at the fish scales and the variety of colors, and experiencing the strange smells. I would secretly touch the dead fish when no one was looking. I’ve always been curious about the things others might find gross.

Do you have a regular routine for your creative work? Where is your studio?

I have a rough routine, without regular hours. Right now I paint most often from my room, which I like because I can paint at any hour. Sometimes I like to work late into the night. A lot of people like separating themselves from their work, but I find that working where I live heightens my relationship to the paintings. I mean, I literally wake up and fall asleep seeing it, so I really need to like what I’m doing because there’s no escaping it.

Do you listen to music while you’re working or do you prefer silence?

I like to listen to a lot of film soundtracks. Hitchcock soundtracks are great. Jonny Greenwood, Disney scores, Alan Watts and Ram Dass are great when you don’t want to feel like you’re falling down a vortex of isolation. And when I need a little energy, I’ll put on the Fat White Family’s Champagne Holocaust album.

What are you reading right now? Either book or magazine-wise or just a lingering link in your browser tabs?

I’m about to finish Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami–it’s utterly beautiful. For a quick bedtime chapter or two, I’ll read Anaïs Nin.

Tell me about when you first started painting.

I’ve been drawing and painting forever, or at least since I was very young. I was the kind of kid to stay in the art room at school during break time. When I was nineteen, I moved to New York and started to develop my work with oil painting. I had been modeling full time since I was seventeen. I guess I was looking for a sense of identity outside of that world. Painting builds such a private relationship with oneself. It’s lonely and frustrating–but wonderful.

Kaya, 2017

You were raised by world-famous parents– Scottish singer Annie Lennox and producer Uri Fruchtmann – in the UK. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood?

I grew up between north and west London and went to a pretty liberal school called King Alfred’s, where it was encouraged to be open minded and independent. Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was a difference between my mum and anyone else’s. I was raised with pretty strong values.

How has your mom’s creative work influenced your approach to art-making?

My mum came up with all the visual concepts for her videos and took a lot of risks. She has always been unafraid to express herself, which has encouraged me to keep exploring and experimenting.

I love how you painted terry cloth in that series of self-portraits where you’re wearing a bathrobe and charcoal face masks–what other textures or surfaces are you drawn to painting?

I absolutely love painting breasts. Nipples though can take a very, very long time to get right.

You’ve talked about how your painting practice helped you cope with the loss of your boyfriend, who died in 2015 after a tragic kayak accident. Have you found other practices to be helpful for emotional processing and healing?

I talk a LOT. I’m very open with people I trust. I’ve also explored a lot of energy practices, mindfulness, being able to truly sit with one’s emotion, being present with what comes up. I’m all for feeling fully, releasing, and clearing the way.

What visual artists do you look to for inspiration?

It changes all the time, but lately I love looking at Gerald Brockhurst’s paintings. His paintings are eerie and bold and often have an unsettling quality. I love paintings of the past, before so much technology existed, with female subjects. From the Pre-Raphaelite period, John William Waterhouse and from Baroque times, the painter Georges de La Tour. From the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli. Their technical skill and level of imagination is simply mind blowing.

Do you have any upcoming shows or creative projects?

I would love to do video and performance art pieces. And curate experiential art shows. My last show was throughout The Chelsea Hotel, and my aim was to alter the viewer’s perspective of reality. So I’d love to continue mind-bending experiments in obscure locations.

Do you have a dream collaborator? Any particular artist or designer, dead or alive?

I would love to connect with Tracey Emin. I have so much admiration for the vulnerable honesty in her work. Gustav Klimt for his imagination and mad technical skill. And Hieronymus Bosch because he created vast realms, centuries before there was even electricity, and that fucking blows my mind.


Dress by Burberry

Hair by Austin Burns using Oribe, Makeup by Tonya Riner using NARS cosmetics, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Production by Benjamin Price

All artwork © Tali Lennox, images courtesy of the artist

STUDIO VISITS – IVANA BASIC

Equipped with a deftly analytical mind full of dark poetry and a taste for flesh, steel, wax, and bone, Serbian sculptor Ivana Bašić explores the fragility of the human condition and invites you to contemplate life’s end — if only you’re willing.


Portrait Photography by Tiffany Nicholson | Interview by Haley Weiss
Unisex Jacket and Pants by Vivienne Westwood, Shoes Artist’s Own

Our bodies will fail us. We carry that knowledge as they carry us through life. This corporeal contradiction looms in artist Ivana Bašić’s disquieting, stunning work. The 31-year-old suggests the specter of death, whether through figurative sculptures like Stay inside or perish (2016) — which seems to have a force within it that tried to break free, bruising her fragile yet solid physical form — or a performative project like SOMA (ongoing), in which her body is meticulously documented for the creation of a virtual avatar and purchasable 3D model. She ascribes the science fiction bent viewers see in pieces like these to their own fear and avoidance of life’s end, because to her, they’re simply reality. “People have different thresholds of how much they are capable of bearing, at which point they need to go into self-preservation,” explains Bašić. “I think that’s okay. The easiest way for people to digest something is to put it into a narrative, to make a fable out of it. They make up a character, and by making one up they’re announcing that they’re not that character.”

For Bašić, who moved from Belgrade, Serbia to New York in 2010, these works are also deeply personal. She funnels her energy and trauma — much of which can be attributed to her youth spent in a country at war — into her art, pushing herself and her materials to their limits. “I have to fully become them in order to make them, otherwise they wouldn’t feel the way they do,” she explains of the wounded, partial bodies she so often constructs. “It is a lot to become.” Since her June 2017 solo show at New York’s Marlborough Contemporary, titled Through the hum of black velvet sleep, Basic has been in “hibernation mode,” resting her mind after enduring a physically and psychologically punishing production schedule. She worked on the show for six months while maintaining her day job as a designer, and among the material feats she accomplished was suspending her painted wax figures in stainless steel, incubator-like structures, with glass orbs drooping from their necks, for I will lull and rock the ailing light in my marble arms (2017). Now, after recovery and months away from her practice — which by its nature begs draining questions — she is working again, on a new piece for the show titled CRASH TEST, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and opening in Montpellier, France in February. “I’ve gathered my strength to dive back in slowly and carefully,” she tells us at her Brooklyn studio. In 2018 she will be showing her work back home in Belgrade for the first time. “I want that more than anything, really, because the work is fully saturated by my reality there, and I know the audience will feel it and relate to it,” she says. “It would be meaningful to see that something beautiful can come out of it.”

I will lull and rock my ailing light in my marble arms #1, 2017

Population of phantoms resembling me #1, 2016

The difficulty of your material process seems in line conceptually with some of what’s in the work, like this physical bruising or injury on the bodies. Does the production process deepen your conceptual understanding of what you’re doing?

It doesn’t in a way deepen it, it’s just that’s exactly what it is: the pain that I go through is there in the work, it’s a direct translation. The process is extremely difficult since I work with very fragile materials and with time you realize that matter always resists. It resists becoming. It’s like fractals, where my quest for somehow stretching the limits of the body, or pushing back the end of it, needs to become the truth of each of the elements I work with in order for work to come to life. It’s this really complex breakage that happens in your mind, because in order to see the flesh in stone, and in order to see the world in dust — for those things to actually become that — it’s not just pure verbal translation, it is an actual transformation of the matter, which is a really complex process. Inevitably, I think the pieces become everything I am.

How do they become everything you are?

Once, many years ago, I was still really caught up into theory and trying to argue my reasons for why I’m doing things, because I felt like I had to justify them. It’s the initial insecurities that I think any artist goes through; you feel like you have to support everything with pre-existing theories that are all self-referential and don’t really bring much.

I feel like I have come to a point where it all somehow translates into one sentence I was told, which is basically, there is no need to be asserting anything, since the work, like everything that comes out of your hands, will already carry everything that is in you, and it can’t not. It will become what you are, so there is no need to fear. It’s very direct. For my last show I literally didn’t see my sculptures until I installed them into the gallery, and then it was a shock; even though I was making them and lived with them for months I didn’t see them, because I couldn’t step out of myself and look because I was in. And also there was no need to, since they became everything that was in me so much more than I could have ever tried to insert myself, and more than I was even aware of.

If the work is ultimately a reflection of you — you and the work are one and the same on a certain level — tell me how you see your life in your work. How has being in New York affected your work? How did growing up in Serbia affect your work?

None of those things translate directly for me. I don’t make work that is reactive to the outside in any way. I think that for a lot of artists, ‘this body of work is inspired by this, and that body is inspired by that.’ With me, it’s not like that. I have always been on a singular quest.

If I was to articulate one or another [environment], obviously my whole life and my most formative years were back home in Belgrade, which is also where my whole family is. Living there I have always felt a reality of existential fear, the reality of death, which is really something you never experience here [in New York], ever. I feel like the most realistic experience that people have of death here is through TV. It’s a simulation at best, and so there is no gravity to life and to everything else consequently, because that builds a whole system of values around it. Really, really early on I understood that the fragility of [life] is something that you can’t un-know once you know it.


Unisex Suit and Sweater by Vivienne Westwood

In what ways did you come to understand that fragility?

I feel like while I was growing up in Serbia life had been reduced to its barest existence, of people just trying to survive. It was about survival more than anything; happiness felt like a privilege. And there was a lot of bare time. That’s on top of the entire political instability — enemies from the outside, and from the inside of our own government. The [1999 NATO] bombing while I was in Belgrade, sitting in shelters for three months and being bombed several times a day… yet still, it’s not the specific events of it; it’s that you understand what life really is when everything else is taken away.

I think that that has established who I am, and moving away from that and coming here has really propelled some of my fears [about being] able to normalize, as the reality of Belgrade and New York are so extremely different. Here I started to feel the most intense version of all of my fears because on top of the city being as it is, filled with anxiety, there’s the underlying solitude of it, which is undeniable.

The relationship that my mind makes is that death is the ultimate solitude, and so the city only exaggerates all the fears, because even though economically, socially in New York it feels like there is all of this cushioned reality around you, I feel like I’m always in this state of pending the apocalypse of that reality. (laughs)

Would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?

I think both. I often encounter in my life strange situations because of my own naiveté, or some kind of idealism if you will, but then I have enormous capacity to construct the absolute worst scenario that can come out of every situation if my fears kick in. It depends — it’s a balance.

 Stay inside or perish, 2016

(foreground) I will lull and rock my ailing light in my marble arms #2, 2017
(background) A thousand years ago 10 seconds of breath were 40 grams of dust #1, 2017

I want to talk about text as well, because you have these really evocative, poetic titles for most of the works. But often when you’re showing work, the title isn’t going to be directly next to it. So in your mind, what role does that text play?

There are two things: there is the voice of the pieces, and then there is my voice over them. At both my show in London, [Throat wanders down the blade at Annka Kultys Gallery,] and the one at Marlborough [Contemporary, Through the hum of black velvet sleep], I worked on a written piece, which was presented as the voice of the sculptures. In my mind, they are not art. They are fully real for me, and giving them voices is just another way to materialize that.

As far as the titles go, that is sort of my farewell poem to them. It always somehow ends up being something that I had felt when I had dreamt them in my mind, and then I went on this entire quest throughout the universe to find them, and when I found them they were exactly how I imagined them. That name is almost that first moment when I thought of them. I think all the names fit perfectly with the pieces, and naming comes as a last thing in my process because I can’t know the name until I have gone to find them.

What does making art do you for you? Why do you make art, if you were to put it simply?

It was not my conscious choice, as until a couple of years ago I didn’t really even understand what being an artist means and what it entails. Also coming to New York I had realized that for many people it’s a lifestyle. People are just doing it because they can, because they want to make something, because it’s cool, because they don’t know what else to do.

Growing up in Belgrade I had practically no exposure to arts whatsoever, as there was no art scene or market there. Our museums have been closed for 20 years. People were really only trying to put food on their table and didn’t care much about art, so for me art felt like a privilege of rich societies. The fact that this, what I’m doing, belongs in “art,” is because it was the only context in which this thing that I can’t stop doing finally makes sense. I don’t like to call it that. When you call it art, you’ve killed it, as you have announced that it is not reality. And for me it is reality. I do it because I don’t know what to do with myself otherwise. I think fear and pain are the two things that are contained in your body, and they’re pretty much incommunicable; this is my way to try to let others witness them. It makes it a bit easier for me to cope. I think that my fears are not anything special. I think they’re the reality of all of us, so I am just expelling them out and allowing them to be visible. It brings a lot of awareness and brief moments of relief for me. You have to dive so deep in and pull out these things into the light, and then once you do, you have found all these truths, and that changes you. If you make something and it doesn’t change you, it means you haven’t really done anything. It’s my way to understand and be at peace with my own mortality.


Unisex Suit and Sweater by Vivienne Westwood, Shoes Artist’s Own

Hair and Makeup by Agata Helena @ agatahelena using NARS cosmetics, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Production by Benjamin Price

Artwork images from installation in June 2017 at Marlborough Contemporary
For more information visit ivanabasic.com

STUDIO VISITS – RACHEL ROSSIN

Exploring the fine line between reality and our digital avatars, coder-turned-artist Rachel Rossin pulls us into her virtual worlds before ejecting us back out. In the disorientation of the experience we are left to wonder — what is reality?


Portrait Photography by Tiffany Nicholson | Interview by Haley Weiss

Sweater and Shirt by Versace, Skort, Socks and Shoes Artist’s Own

While Rachel Rossin was growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, like many American children of the late ‘90s and early aughts, she read Harry Potter books, cared for her virtual creatures on Neopets, and repeatedly played SkiFree, a game on her mother’s Windows ’95 computer — even though she knew its likely end: “death by yeti.” However, unlike many of her peers, she could code by age eight, although she didn’t yet define it using that term; picking apart websites and hacking video games were simply fun and ordinary activities. “It felt natural, probably in the same way that three year olds now are intuitively using iPhones,” the 30-year-old recalls. “Escapism is natural for some people. Without a lot of access to culture, especially where I grew up, I felt pretty isolated, and so this was my community.”

Years later, after running her own web design company, playing her fair share of Call of Duty, and furthering her technology tool-kit at university, she began translating her digital experiments into art. When she moved to New York in 2010, she was already making “crude” VR (virtual reality) videos using 3D modeling software. By the time of her first-ever solo show, n=7 / The Wake In Heat of Collapse at SIGNAL in 2015, viewers could experience her VR work on an Oculus Rift headset, making their way through the fragmented digital world she created. She also started painting; for her 2015 show LOSSY at Zieher Smith & Horton, she showed a VR piece alongside canvases that recreated scenes from that virtual space. She’s continued to push the medium’s boundaries, showing her work at institutions like The New Museum, where she was a Virtual Reality Fellow.

For her second, recent solo show at SIGNAL, Peak Performance, she thought about body awareness; after building virtual world after virtual world, she felt disembodied, and wanted to work with VR in a way that would allow her to be in touch with her emotions. She modeled 3D environments, as she has in the past, but with an acute awareness of what she was experiencing. Throughout the process she asked: “What does my body feel like in this moment?” From the VR models that resulted, she made paintings, plexiglass sculptures, and aquarium-like tanks — all of which were shown without the original VR experience. Rossin’s work summons the question of where reality lies: on the headset or in person, online or offline, or — the more nebulous, likely conclusion — somewhere in-between.

Mirror Milk, 2015 Lossy, Zieher Smith & Horton, New York, NY Courtesy of Zieher Smith & Horton and the Artist

After, Horizon with Oranges, 2017 Peak Performance, Signal Gallery, New York, NY Photo courtesy of Signal Gallery

Obviously the reality within VR is disorienting, but the moments you put the headset on and take it off are equally as disruptive to your sense of the world. I wonder if you’ve watched people experience your VR projects, and what registers with them that you’ve found interesting?

It’s funny you ask that. The way I tackled this for the SIGNAL show, which was the first time I did a VR show and that was in 2015, is there were things in the VR space that were also art objects in the physical space. Then what people were seeing was also projected up on the wall, so when you exited, which is a pretty sensitive and disorienting time or transition, I had things that were registration points that left a feeling or a residue of what you had experienced in my VR piece. And then with my show LOSSY, those were paintings that were made from the VR piece, so you had an acquaintance with the paintings when you first entered the room, and then after you left the VR piece, you saw that same reference material but now as static windows that you just experienced or felt. That’s always been interesting, because there’s something about the gradient of reality, for lack of a better word, where right now these things are very polar. That’ll probably change, but they’re very binary: you have the virtual world and the physical world. There’s a moment that you can get into very, very quickly that’s in-between those two worlds when you’re making physical objects, and if it’s a show that’s not so much about programming, if it’s a show about that disparity, then that’s what I try to find.

Then there are the pieces that are about programming, like the piece that’s at Kiasma [Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Alembic Cache Passes (Time-snark) (2016)], where it’s time moving. It’s a piece that I’ve been working on for a while. There’s a type of VR where you can map time; I found a way to map time to where a person is in a room, so the piece is aware of where the person is, and that’s sort of the human scrubber of time, and so two-dimensional time becomes three-dimensional time. With that piece, the floor is the same in both worlds. That’s another way I think of trying to find registration points. It’s like putting people through the uncanny valley, squishing them through the uncanny valley. Sometimes, the uncanny valley, the disparity [between the virtual and physical], is pretty brief.

In art it does seem like it’s a binary; something is either multimedia and tech-based or it’s not. But in daily life, that’s not how we experience technology. Our digital and real memories are all intertwined, so I wonder why it is that there’s such a gap in art.

I always think about the advent of the cursor as a parallel to this, because part of that consideration is that it’s natural. You have the advent of the cursor — everything is command line before this moment — and then there’s the advent of the operating system, the advent of GUI, Graphical User Interface. We didn’t have a way to really put ourselves in VR, put ourselves in the digital space, until the cursor was invented. And then, at that moment, there was a representation of our hands that was on the screen that you could use, which is pretty interesting if you think about what’s coming next for us. I really hate making predictions about what’s going to happen in the future because it seems so frivolous, but it does seem like, if I had a gut instinct or a hunch about that, it’ll probably shrink — that disparity, that feeling will naturally shrink with time. I don’t know if that’s fortunately or unfortunately.

Our emotional lives, especially our superego, can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not because it still hurts when whatever slight happens on the Internet, or if there’s a threat made on the Internet, my god, my reptilian brain certainly reacts to that. But our bodies definitely can tell the difference. My body can follow my reptilian brain, but it still feels pretty separate in this sphere, while our emotional lives, our primitive brain and our pheromone brains — our more primal or animal instincts — live in technology pretty seamlessly. That’s kind of incredible because we assume that it’s not like that, but it is. If you just take a temperature of your body in real time, [the reaction to something taking place virtually] is completely the same as in real life, if not increased — the fear is increased, it seems like. I find that to be enchanting in a dark way.


Sweater and Shirt by Versace

For your second show at SIGNAL you don’t have any VR headsets. But the plexiglass pieces, do they follow the same process as the paintings where it begins as a photo, is put into a program, and then is made physical again? What’s the process behind these works?

Not everything starts as a photo. Sometimes it does, but I use almost every tool available, and sometimes it starts with me purely modeling things in 3D. Sometimes I use a VR sculpting program. Sometimes it’s me ripping stuff, like for the Call of Duty piece, Man Mask [(2016)], it’s me literally hacking Call of Duty figures out of their little shells and texturing them. So depending what the body of work is, it’s always going to be different. But for these plexiglass pieces, what they are is VR. I have paintings and then the plexiglass pieces and then there are these strange tanks. The paintings and the plexiglass pieces are made from the same seed, the VR space; we’re using VR as a loose term to talk about 3D microcosms that have their own physics and their own light. What I’m doing is I’m using the same scene [for both the paintings and the plexiglass pieces]. I paint from that microcosm or that VR world that I’ve sculpted, I’m [physically] making paintings of that space, and then I’m printing them out on plexiglass — it’s almost like they’re part three of this gradient. Then I wanted them to begin with the body and then end with the body, so what I did for the plexiglass ones is they’re then blow-torched while I’m nestling in them for as long as I can take it. If it gets too hot I have to leave. But it gets pretty soft, and I sort of hug them around me.

In your mind, how do the aquarium-like sculptures play into this? Because visually they seem like a departure, but there’s something weird going on there that seems similar in a lot of ways to the VR works, like, what’s the original piece, what’s the “real” part of it? How are you thinking about these?

Something about building computers and building machines feels very intimate, like building worlds or building microcosms; they feel like building cities or VR worlds. That’s something that, before I was even coding [as a kid], I was breaking stuff and trying to see how computers worked — bless you, Mom. So I’ve been building computers for a long time, and then I became fascinated with the idea of the show and going back to the body. Of course there’s a little bit of a knee-jerk response in the idea of water combined with some sort of technology; that’s the part of it that’s amusing or silly. But they feel like vivariums or like geological core samples of a VR space.

All of the screens in those tanks are literally the VR spaces; you see them through these very pixelated LED screens. I wanted to make something that very much felt like the body, sort of crudely self-contained, that wasn’t VR, that felt that there was a way of describing the landscape, as aquariums do, really — “here’s a slice of the ocean.”

Timescrubbing, Maquette, 2017 ALT FACTS, Postmasters Gallery, New York, NY Photo courtesy of Brooke Nicholas

Safe Apron, Safe Cape, 2016 My Little Green Leaf at Art In General and Kim, Riga, Latvia Photo by Ansis Starks, Kim and Art in General

You talking about body awareness and the act of forming these plexiglass pieces around your own body is interesting, because it grounds VR in the human form literally. How did you start thinking about body awareness and what made you want to physically cocoon yourself in these pieces to make them more human?

When I was growing up, being online was a safe place despite the perverts. It was this place that I felt like was pretty necessary, like my community was there. There was an adventure. It could be because I’m getting older, but I felt in light of… I don’t know if it was a response to technology or politics, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. I think I was wanting to make work that was more introspective, that was simpler and less about technology and less about process, and more, “These are the tools I have right now.” I wanted to strip it down to something very literal. I’ve been making a lot of VR work and I’ve been existing in VR and in digital spaces because I had back-to-back museum shows, which was amazing, but they were all VR installations. I was existing kind of without a body and then not making anything physically.

I think it was a response internally, and it was also a response to the fact that any time I went on social media or went on to where I thought I had community, it was chaos. Because it was chaos and, frankly, pretty stressful, I started thinking, “What is my response? How do I feel right now as I’m reading this horrific news story or my aunt’s Facebook posts? Right now I just feel like a pile of lungs.” One of the paintings is kind of about that. It was about using fear responses or technology as the prompt for that type of body awareness exercise: I have a fear response, and it’s in a space where I don’t have a body, so what is my body doing? But the baseline of what we’re talking about is that I wanted to make something where the work wasn’t serving technology, technology was serving the work.


Sweater and Shirt by Versace, Skort Artist’s Own

Hair by Austin Burns using Oribe, Makeup by Agata Helena @agatahelena using NARS cosmetics, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Production by Benjamin Price

For more information visit rossin.co

STUDIO VISITS – SAM MCKINNISS

In 2016, Brooklyn-based artist Sam McKinniss made waves in the art world with his sophomore solo show, Egyptian Violet, which featured a memorable, moody portrait of the late musical phenomenon Prince. Known for his signature romantic and sometimes campy color-saturated paintings of baby animals and pop stars, McKinniss walks the line between high and low-brow culture.


 Sweater and Pants by Coach, Shoes and Socks Artist’s Own
Portrait Photography by Tiffany Nicholson | Interview by Anna Furman

Thirty-one-year-old painter Sam McKinniss grew up in a small town in central Connecticut where, as he told me, “there’s an apple orchard and a lot of golf courses and trees and lakes to jump in.” The now Brooklyn-based artist oscillates between sincere admiration for his subjects and a gleeful, ironic take on pop culture–blurring the lines between low and high cultural signs. Disney characters, B-level celebrities, ’80s pop stars, and true-crime characters filter into his work through careful brushstrokes and lush color palettes. In the studio, he listens to baroque opera and pop music (Rostam, SZA, St. Vincent), exclusively.

McKinniss speaks with a sort of world-weary droll, but comes off as anything but–he is attentive to his subjects, and treats each portrait with measured thoughtfulness. On a balmy day in late September, I spoke with McKinniss about his collaboration with singer/songwriter Lorde, the far-reaching influence of late ’60s hippie subcultures, and his upcoming show Daisy Chain in Venice Beach.

Michael Jackson, 2017

Prince (Under the Cherry Moon), 2016

Hi! What are you working on today?

I just started a painting of a lamb smelling some flowers. It’s kind of cute. I recently finished a portrait of JonBenét Ramsey, which might have led me to paint this lamb. She just seems too young to be that made up and that glamorous. She looks so innocent and now she’s so dead–a lamb seems like it would be a nice contrast to her figure.

Maybe generic pictures of cute animals on the internet offset some of the darker, meaner subjects out there or give us some sort of emotional retreat from more violent material.

Tell me about your studio practice.

I like to work every day and I like having a set work day schedule, so I try and start between 10 and 11 and leave by 6 or 7. That way I have time to draw or think out problems, and then look hard at the paintings and decide how they need to be fixed. If I’m going to paint, I need at least four uninterrupted hours. Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down. I want to be a little more thoughtful and courteous to the material. For a couple of years, I would whip through paintings, sometimes finishing one small piece a day. But I’m happier when I take my time and the paint looks better.

What do you mean by “better”?

I mean it in terms of mark-making. Composition–how you design, how you set a picture inside of a rectangle– definitely benefits from taking more time. Every time I hit the canvas with a brush loaded with paint, it’s a succinct moment in real space and time. It can be just one, you know, flick of the wrist. If it’s done exactly right, it looks effortless and the paint can articulate a physical attribute. I’ve noticed that when I’m more patient with a painting, I experience those moments more often. I can touch the canvas with the brush and it sets up gorgeously and it looks like it was just breathed on there. And the paint looks good! It’s important to me that the paint looks good–I want it to be seductive. I want the paint to call attention to itself, almost in an amorous or erotic way. I want the paint to be desired; it has to attract people. It’s sexy when it looks good.

You painted Lorde for her Melodrama album cover. How did that cover project come about?

Last year, a mutual friend put us in touch and she wrote me an email asking if she and I could get together to talk about the album she was working on. She came and visited my studio, saw the work I was making for Egyptian Violet and then described her vision for Melodrama, for which she had total creative control. I agreed to do the cover, which was sincerely a lot of fun for me. The process turned into a very meaningful collaboration.


Sweater and Pants by Coach, Shoes and Socks Artist’s Own

If you were to create an album cover image for another musician, dead or alive, who would you choose?

Prince. But what I’d really like is for someone to soundtrack one of my exhibitions. I won’t say who.

You have an upcoming show at Team Gallery in Venice Beach, opening this winter. It’s called Daisy Chain. Where did that name come from?

Well, I like it as a cliché. Poetically or melodically or something, it appeals to me. Also, in Lana Del Rey’s song ”Summer Bummer”, the lyric is ‘wrap you up in my daisy chain.’ It just seems violent, but also sweet, which basically equals erotic. That album came out in July, which was right when I was getting serious about the focus of this show. ‘Daisy Chain’ just leapt out at me. It seemed appropriate for the kind of pictures that I wanted to look at and make paintings about.

What are the paintings in Daisy Chain about? Are they mostly portraits?

There’s a double-portrait of Lana Del Rey kissing A$AP Rocky that I took from the “National Anthem” music video. There’s a portrait of Drew Barrymore from the mid ’’90s, when she posed nude for Rolling Stone magazine. She’s wearing a pixie cut and her hair is decorated with a daisy chain–like, literally a string of daisies. There’s also a portrait of Joan Didion wearing chic, oversized sunglasses–she looks sort of old, severe, and mature. It’s a recent photo, not from the ’’60s. And there’s a portrait of Beck taken from the Sea Change album cover, which was made by the artist Jeremy Blake. Oh, I also made a portrait of one of the kids from Lord of the Flies, taken from a paperback book cover re-released in the late ’’80s. It was the cover I had when I was in middle school. It’s one of the kids from the island, and he’s wearing a crown of palm leaves or ferns or something.

Did you tailor the subjects of these paintings to fit into a California narrative or did the location of the show affect which subjects you chose to include?

For sure. I was trying to get closer to a California mood. I reread Joan Didion’s The White Album recently and have been listening to a lot of Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life album. I read Helter Skelter, the true crime book about Charles Manson’s trial, and thought about how some of the murders were committed in Venice. I’ve been thinking about violent crime, mass murder, and how we’re living through such a violent era right now. I don’t know if it’s more or less violent than 1967, 1968, or 1969, but I am trying to organize a group of pictures that could be said to reference 1969. I’m looking for elements of the youth culture that have impressed itself upon my consciousness. I want to invoke–in a vague or nebulous way, which is my way–style signifiers derived from a hippie subculture. I’m wondering if there is a counter-culture and if there are alternatives to our dominant political discourse. Can pop culture have a positive impact on political change? Like, does style equal progress, or can it? I don’t have any answers, but the direction that I’m focused on is one that asks if these celebrated figures affect more than just our understanding of style.

Lana & Rocky, 2017

JonBenét, 2017

In your 2016 show Egyptian Violet, the portrait of Prince was understood to be the focal point of the collection. Is there a painting in Daisy Chain that is comparable – as in the rest of the show hinges around it?

I don’t know if that’s for me to say. I knew the painting of Prince was going to create a stir and that people were going to remember it, but I didn’t know that critics or members of the art world were going to decide that it was the focal point of the show. It has been meaningful, for lack of a better word, to try and conceive of a new show after Egyptian Violet. Egyptian Violet was a darker palette and definitely more of a nighttime art show, whereas Daisy Chain is a little sunnier and a bit more daytime. The floral motif marches through work in both and a daisy is certainly a nice contrast to a violet.

I read that you used to work in a floral shop. Can you tell me about the first three jobs you had?

I worked for a florist for a long time when I was in college, and that was really fun. I did a lot of the dumb gay retail shit that gay guys often get trapped doing, especially if they have a creative degree like a BFA. I also worked at a used and antiquarian book store for a while. That was a good job, I read a lot of books on my lunch break.

Do you paint certain photos as practice? Are there exercises you do to stay nimble before diving into another work?

I took a lot of time off this summer and got out of New York City. I was in East Hampton for two weeks and made, like, 4 or 5 drawings a day. It helped me get thematically and conceptually organized so that when it’s time to go back to work, when I walk into the studio, I know what kind of work I want to make. I like to reacquaint myself with drawing and remind myself that it’s a worthwhile and enjoyable activity. It’s good for my hand, my eye, my brain. Also, I go to The Met a lot to study the paintings. I look at the same works over and over again to try and learn them. To be intimate with them.

Do you remember the last thing you took a screengrab of?

Yesterday I screen-grabbed an image from the New York Times front page of video coverage of the Las Vegas shooting. Horrific. Like a frontier scene by Frederic Remington. Awful. I rarely use photojournalism for my work but I admire it quite a lot.

Have there been any words used to describe your paintings that you either disagree with or were surprised by?

To be fair, no. I think all criticism is fair. I don’t think that an artist totally owns a work after he or she puts the work out into a public arena. Some people understand my work to be about nostalgia. That’s fine. There’s totally an argument for that, but I don’t relate to it. I don’t feel nostalgic for when I was a teenager or for any other time in my life, and it’s certainly not why I make paintings. All the images are taken from some moment that I remember, but I don’t know that memory is the same thing as nostalgia.

Is there a subject that you are interested in making work, but haven’t quite figured out how to approach yet? In other words, what subject is next?

Sure. I do a lot of image-gathering and these images kick around in computer folders. Sometimes I print them out and they sit in literal, physical folders on my studio desk. I shuffle through them periodically. I really want to do a painting of Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 2. It just seems really gross and of the moment–in terms of popular celebrity culture making a parlay into national politics. I’ve been thinking about it for at least two years because it seems loaded, even though it’s kind of a cute movie. It just seems really loaded to paint the former Republican governor of California as The Terminator. Or, Maria Shriver’s ex-husband.

That would be a good title for the piece. “Maria Shriver’s Ex-Husband.”

Yeah (laughs) ‡


Sweater  by Coach

Hair by Austin Burns using Oribe, Makeup by Agata Helena @agatahelena using NARS Cosmetics, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Production by Benjamin Price

All artwork © Sam McKinniss, images courtesy of the artist
For more information visit sammckinniss.com

STUDIO VISITS – CAMILLA ENGSTROM

Swedish-born painter Camilla Engström’s work explores autobiographical issues through her lens of humor and figurative expression. With a third solo show that opened earlier this year at Brooklyn’s Cooler Gallery, Engström opens up about processing her anger through phallic symbols, her cartoon-like characters, and her quest for inspiration.


Portrait Photography by Tiffany Nicholson | Interview by Haley Weiss
Dress and shoes by J.W. Anderson

If Camilla Engström were to make a self-portrait, she would draw a rollercoaster. That’s not to say the 28-year-old artist from Örebro, Sweden is out of control; in fact, she’s in tune with her emotions — the ups, downs, and contortions in-between. From moving to New York in 2011 to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, to dropping out in 2013 to pursue a broader art practice, trusting her creative impulses has given her the freedom to build a body of work that includes drawings, paintings, apparel design, and sculpture. In recent months, it’s also meant accepting that she doesn’t know what she’ll do next; when we visit her Brooklyn studio this fall, for example, she says that she’s simply been “releasing pressure” by painting.

“I don’t even know what I’m making,” she admits, assessing the colorful canvases that fill her wall, although there’s one obvious commonality. “It’s just a lot of sausages,” she adds with a laugh. One painting features a long and artfully twisted sausage, while another shows a sausage being stepped on by multiple feet. This new subject is unsurprising given Engström’s history of irreverent, humorous compositions. She explores sexuality, consumption, and the banal (e.g. bathing, cats) with a wink. It began with her roguish alter ego, Husa, the curvy pink figure who’s appeared in Engström’s pieces since she was first sketched years ago. Husa has many activities, including reading or drinking wine while naked on a picnic blanket, and sitting in a reclining chair, drooling, with food resting on her lap. And she, like her creator, is also capable of change; in 2016, at what Engström describes as a “zen” time in her life, she depicted Husa as a contemplative figure. The result was Faces, Engström’s first-ever solo show at Deli Gallery in Queens, in which Husa appears in various states of undress, transforming beneath a sun-like orb. In one painting from that series, Husa disappears entirely, leaving her dress suspended in mid-air, as though she’s transcended the bodies and cultural norms Engström so often points to in her work. It turns out that with an open approach like Engström’s, one recurring figure can address both the commonplace and the ecstatic.

Big Bear, 2017

You’ve described drawing in the past as not actively thinking; you’re just letting it out. Are you surprised by what you make?

Yes, sometimes. I like to start small because that’s less intimidating. That’s usually when I’m like, “Whoa, what’s going on in my head?” For the last few months, I’ve been kind of controlled in the way I’ve been painting. Now I want to be a little bit looser I think, which is frustrating because I wish I could paint the same way and stick to it. I just can’t.

When you’re painting and you’re stricter, does that happen naturally or is it a conscious decision?

It also happens naturally. I think more before I make the painting. Whereas these messy ones, [gestures to sausage paintings] I don’t really think at all, which is nice. I like both ways. With the more controlled ones, I definitely feel like I’m more relaxed, and even though I’m thinking more beforehand, I’m just focused, getting the paint in there. Whereas painting the messy ones, I feel sweaty afterwards; it’s almost like an exercise. I try to make them really quick and I try to make many of them.

Why do you think sausages are reappearing, if you were to do some self-analysis?

Before I used to paint dicks a lot. [Engström published A Book of Dicks in 2016.] I wanted to make a new dick book. I feel like I have so many dicks in my brain; I need to get them out there. I like to turn them into sausages because I feel like I can’t paint the dick. I’m just so mad at dicks right now. Sausages are easier for me to handle. They’re less intimidating.

You said you’re mad at dicks. Could you elaborate on that? Is that a cultural frustration, one with politics, or—

I think it’s politics to be honest. When every hurricane, every disaster happens, I’m just playing with a dick [in my work]. I feel like if we backtrack, it’s all the dicks’ fault. I was just reading about Harvey Weinstein and I want to destroy him. Now he’s destroying himself. How could he do that for so many years? It makes me want to cry but it also makes me so mad. It’s all of that coming to me at the same time.

It also makes me think about when I’ve been sexually harassed by men, and it makes me think about my sister, who’s 10 years younger than me. I just realized, I never said to her, “You have to say no.” I never had the conversation with her: “This is how you deal with a bossy guy.” She’s almost 20 now, and she’s in college and she studies international finance. There are a lot of men there, and they drink and they party all the time.

I was watching her Snapchat almost having a heart attack. That’s when most of that shit happened to me. You’re drunk, you’re with guys, and you feel pressure to be accommodating, and then it all goes downhill. I just texted her today: “We need to have this conversation. You are the boss over your own body and I see how you’re with guys all the time. I’m sure most of them are nice, but even the nicest guy, if he wants something from you and your body, you need to be able to say no.” I wish that our mom had told me that because I feel like maybe I would have been more brave and not so terrified every time. I’m definitely frustrated with the dick this year. I’m hoping next year it will all be about the beautiful vagina.

Do you remember your first drawing of Husa?

Yes. I remember I was looking at a lot on Pinterest at the time — because that’s what you do when you work in fashion, you sit on Pinterest all day (laughs) — and I was looking at all of these sculptures. I wanted to paint a round figure because I had been painting so many fashion illustrations — I was also very influenced by Picasso. Then I started to paint a round figure but it was very serious. It just didn’t feel like me. I was painting her over and over and over again. Then finally I just gave her a face, and it made me giggle, because I could see it come to life. It just all came together and I was like, “Okay, this is my friend that I’m going to paint for a long time.”

Hairier and Hairier, 2017

Dress and shoes by J.W. Anderson


When you moved from fashion to being an “artist,” what was that decision like? Were you tired of fashion; was there a certain attitude you wanted to get away from; what was it?

I was frustrated with fashion. I felt like I was so creative — a typical millennial kid that’s just like, “I deserve more attention.” I wasn’t good at dealing with technical stuff. I could create things, but no one wants the creative person because they already have that. I felt like I was going to explode because I had so much to give but I couldn’t. There was never an opportunity. Then the tasks they gave me were easy but so unfulfilling.

I still love fashion and I love clothes. I think I have like a healthier relationship to fashion now. I feel more relaxed about it. When I left fashion, I didn’t want to leave completely. I still love working with textiles and I did this little embroidery thing with the Swedish brand called Monki; we did a clothing collaboration. I’m sure there are some artists that really don’t want to see their work on clothes, but it makes me so happy.

I know a lot of people won’t be able to buy my work — I could never buy my work — but they could buy a T-shirt. It makes me so happy to see someone wear my T-shirt or tote bag.

What are you inspired by at the moment? Is there anything you’re reading, listening to, seeing?

I took a break for two weeks; I went to Japan. I just got back. I felt like going to Japan was going to change my life and that I was going to come back and be like, “This is what I want to paint now.” It was definitely inspiring to be there, but it just made me more confused.

Had you been there before?

No, it was the first time. I love Yayoi Kusama so I wanted to go there and see her work and see what kind of environment or culture she grew up around. I wanted to experience it. I came back and I was like, “I don’t even know what I want to make anymore.” Sometimes I’ll go see a show and I’ll be so inspired to make something, so it was super frustrating. I’m still inspired by Kusama a lot but it’s almost like I looked at her work too much. I think I need to step back a little bit.

I went to MoMA; I looked at the Louise Bourgeois exhibition. I tried to feel something and I just didn’t. Then I picked up ArtForum; I went through it and I just thought, “Fuck.” You know when you’re inspired, it’s just this feeling, and I haven’t had that feeling yet. I’m going to push myself and try to be inspired by myself. I hope it comes soon because I really need to work — to work with a confidence.

Hairier and Hairier, 2017

Food Coma, 2017

When you say you need to work, you need to as in you have to be making things?

I feel maybe like a guy that hasn’t had sex in a long time; I feel like the energy’s there, the need is there. I’m so frustrated. I feel like I can’t create, like something’s missing. I’ll get there. I reach this point probably like five times a year. I’m okay with it.

Do you force yourself to paint every day? What does your day-to-day life look like?

Yes, I force myself because I feel like I have the energy. If I don’t have the energy, I don’t even try. I just stay at home and cuddle with my cat. But now, because I have all this amped up energy to paint, I force myself because I feel like maybe I’m thinking too much. Maybe I just need to paint and then it will click, and that’s where I’m at right now. I’m hoping that maybe tomorrow or the next day something’s going to happen. We’ll see.

When was the first time you can encountered a work of art while you were growing up?

I grew up with this huge painting that disturbed me so much.

In your house?

Actually it was in my grandfather’s house. It was so big, it had to be the centerpiece. It was dark blue and it was a forest at night and there were animals running away. I remember at night I would always run past that painting, because there was this owl sitting in the middle with its bright yellow eyes staring at me. But then during the day, it was right next to the couch and I had to deal with that painting. When my grandfather died, it moved into our house in the same spot towards the couch. It was really bizarre.

I knew there was something special about that painting, that it wasn’t just a painting or a picture on the wall. It was something that really, really bothered me. It made me feel something, and knowing that a piece of art could make me feel something, that was the first time I understood that it was art, and it was important. Being around that painting for so many years, even the scale of it… It’s always going to be with me.

Dress and shoes by J.W. Anderson

Hair and Makeup by Agata Helena @ agatahelena using NARS cosmetics, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Production by Benjamin Price

All art work © Camilla Engström images courtesy of the artist
For more information visit camilla-engstrom.com