THE ILLUSTRATED APE, ISSUE #27, NOVEMBER 2008, BY JASON ATOMIC
Tell us about your working practice, media, hours, technical stuff. What happens when you walk into your studio, do you listen to music, have a TV tuned to cartoon network turned on in the background etc?
Usually I spend between eight and ten hours a day in my studio but sometimes real life takes over! I try to work a minimum of four hours a day actually working on whatever piece of art I'm involved with at the time and spend as much of the other time as possible taking care of the shit like emails and interviews. I generally start a new piece by pencil drawing a character on a regular size sheet of paper then scanning it into the computer where I can morph it in various Photoshop filters and tools. After that, I start trying to build a narrative around the character by drawing an environment and situation. Once that's done, I determine the size of the canvas and build the stretcher bars and put the canvas over it. I think its very important for painters to build their own canvases because it creates a definite starting point for the creation of this strange object called a painting. At this point I either coat the canvas with gesso or I leave the canvas raw so that I can get an effect similar to watercolor bleeds. A major painting can take between two to six weeks; the longest I have ever worked on a single painting is two months! The most difficult situation is when I've spent a long time on a particular passage of the painting and it turns out to be wrong in the end. It's hell but sometimes I have to paint out sections that may be technically perfect but graphically wrong. Getting too precious about the painting before its finished can be fatal. When I start work each day I put on an internet station and listen to whatever sounds good at the time. Heavy Dub is my favorite but sometimes I need to pick up the pace somewhat so I'll put on some Drum and Bass or Thrash Core. I know some painters who have TV going but keep it pretty simple and may stop work every now and again to check out some YouTube clips or, better yet, porno. I find that looking at porno takes my mind completely away from making art; after I've scoped it for a bit, I can go back to work. Porn is a good, cheap chemical free stimulant!
What is your connection with animation, the inbetweening type images used together to create a fluid, surreal/futurist type narrative within the painting.
Back when I was a kid, my father and I used to watch cartoons together in amazement; I was young and he was an immigrant so neither of us had ever seen anything like then before. If I screwed up during the week I was denied the Saturday morning cartoon session so I learned the value of these bizarre skits early on! Years later in art school I was taught how to take photographs off of the TV and capture several sequential frames of whatever was being broadcast; it seemed natural for me to start by photographing cartoons. The photos I ended up with had captured multiple inbetweening drawings so all of a sudden I had these freaked out, morphed up cartoon characters to work from. The motion capture was particularly interesting to me because at the time I was taking various hallucinogenic substances and 'witnessing" these same distortions while tripping. Later I began to draw my own characters in separate motion sketches and then layer them over each other to get an effect similar to the photographs. Paintings and cartoons are cousins but they are tense relatives; the history of Western painting revolves around the depiction of the most crucial moment in a major event while cartoons are able to show all the events surrounding a critical point. My use of multiple inbetweening drawings is an attempt to expand the narrative beyond the telling of a single event. But, as you point out, I'm hardly the first to try, the Futurist artists of the early 1900s were taking a similar approach in their Dynamist works.
The philosophy behind your use of cartoon animals instead of humans, it seems almost religious and removes the problems of human figurative representations which present distracting race/gender related issues (i.e the "Italian hippy Jesus")
I believe that the human figure has been used in art for so long that the only true avant garde approach is to eliminate it. That vacuum is easily filled with anthropomorphic cartoon characters, We have been programmed to accept them ever since the invention of cinematic animation. If not human, those ur-cartoon characters were often domesticated animals who were acting like humans anyway. One of the reasons for the success of the new global art revolution is that the art audience is ready for this pictorial switch. Furries and anthropomorphic manga characters are perfect examples; Furry fandom is all about those characters' fans denying their own humanity and attempting a species bend. I guess that all of this is religious in that it requires an act of faith to refute the tenet of Art that decrees Figurative Art must always be of the human figure. The irony is that great art addresses human issues so the characters may not have to be human but the narrative has to reflect the human condition. As you mention, race and gender characteristics are irrelevant since those issues don't apply to unisexual non-human cartoon characters. But even so, I included a black cat in one of my paintings and a lot of people took that character to represent a black person and got uptight about what was going on in the painting.
Can you also discuss a little the found painting improvements, it seems to me that you see every painting as a window onto the same 2D universe. When I imagine that your characters seem like invaders into that world & I start to imagine them lurking around behind things in every painting I see, Is that how you feel?
With an "improved" painting, I am basically co-opting another artist's work and asserting my dominion over it by invading their pictorial space with my aesthetic. This is essentially a violent act, similar to the aggressiveness of throwing up a graffiti piece on someone's wall. The reason that I do this kind of work is because in junk stores I find paintings that are excellent depictions of scenes but have no narrative quotient at all. I don't understand how some one can paint a decent painting of say, Niagara or Victoria Falls and not want to include someone going over them in a barrel; that's why I step in and finish the paintings! The paintings that are entirely my own are virtual windows through which one can stick one's head and scope around the depicted universe but I'm not sure if the characters I insert in the found paintings are ambassadors of my Aesthetic Imperialism as you suggest! My own work has a continuity and similarity from painting to painting but each of the Improved Art paintings exists independently of the others.
What kind of collectors buy your paintings?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I had my first show, I didn't expect the large number of lunatics, thieves and drifters that would suddenly become my crew. One asshole came up to me at the opening reception and told me he would only buy my work if I could guarantee that its price would double in five years. Of course, I assured him, with people like you buying my work, its nowhere but up; he then asked for 500 dollars off the price. Another collector bought a painting that had a dog turd in the foreground of the landscape; two months after taking it home they called me and wanted me to paint out the shit. I told him that it was no go; it's like buying a car, check it out before you buy it! But the capper was when a collector called me to see if I would buy back one of the paintings he had bought two years before... at twice the price he had paid! Ridiculous shit!
Where was your first show?
My first solo show was at a gallery called the 01 Gallery in Hollywood but don't let that fool you; it was also a place to score drugs and drink booze after hours. For a while it was also used as a place where call girls could meet their clients and other nights as a rave checkpoint! Somehow the art dealer, John Pochna, managed to get all kinds of big name art mavens to come to his shows, they loved the weird crowd of junkies, famous actors, movie stars and art heroes that filled up the place. One night some guy from the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. was going to show up so I decided to stick around and meet him; I guess he'd been warned about the crowd because he showed up late. Anyway, we went in the back room with him and we all stood around talking to this rather uptight museum director when there was the sound of a toilet flushing in the apartment upstairs. About ten seconds later this stream of shit cascades from a busted pipe in the ceiling and splatters right in front of the Smithsonian dude, going all over his shoes and pants. He just turned and left the fucking gallery! I showed there for years.
I see that you have work in the collections of Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction, the estate of Timothy Leary and Nicholas Cage, did they get your work from the 01?
Cage bought some of my pieces there, he was just driving by the opening, saw my work through the window and came in to buy a few. Pochna had a credit card machine but no slips for it so he ran and got some from the restaurant next door, unbelievable. Anyway, I used to party over at Leary's with Gisela Getty and I was always trying to get Leary to buy something but I could never pin him down, he always had some crazy thing to say that would change the topic completely. I finally made a drawing on the ceiling of his bathroom and stuck another one on his fridge next to the shopping list. Perry lived next door to me for a while and I would sit around his place and make drawings of a rooster he had parading around. That’s how I found out that roosters don't just crow in the morning, they crow all fucking day! Perry used to feed it fried chicken.
Know any scandalous limericks or poems?
It has nothing to do with art but here you go:
There once was a rasta named Charley,
Whose diet consisted soley of barley,
He turned skin and bones,
On his deathbed he groaned,
I and I now go skank with Bob Marley.
What's the most ridiculous thing anyone has said about your work?
At one art opening for a group show some hot chick was really into a painting by some other artist. I was fucked up at the time so I went over and told her that it was mine, giving her all sorts of bullshit about its meaning, how it was done, etc. She nodded in agreement at everything I told her and she then went over to MY painting and began to just shred it, saying it sucked and how much better the other piece was. At that point the dealer came over to introduce me to someone else so my cover was completely blown in the middle of her tirade. We just looked at each other and began to laugh our asses off. She ended up buying my painting; we fucked a few times too.
Why cats? And why no apes?
I paint cats because their history has paralleled that of humans for thousands of years; the Sphinx is a massive sculpture of a cat so there has to be some connection, the ancient Egyptians didn’t bullshit around! When I was growing up we lived in backcountry Texas and people dumped animals in front of our house all the time. A psychiatrist told me once that I painted cats to make up for all the cats my parents took to the vet to be put down; it always starts with your mother, right? One art dealer told a collector that I paint cats because I love pussy; unfortunately the collector was gay and didn’t respond positively to the information. Cats clean themselves; apes are smelly, fucked up non-achievers, very much like human beings. However, one of my favorite books is The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis so that should redeem me somewhat.