1. Having been surrounded by the many different art movements over your long career which form of art do you see dominating today?
The identifying element of my paintings is cats, sometimes they are involved in the painting’s main event and other times they are just spectators. When first I paired these characters with hot rods my paintings fit in a genre called Kustom Kulture; later, when I changed the focus to other issues, critics described my work as Low Brow and/or Pop Surrealism. This variety of terminology is basically describing the same thing, which makes me question the whole idea of “movements” and linear progress in the art world.
My partners in Low Brow were all convinced that their representational imagery and skillful painting would eventually become the dominant art movement of the new millennium. But Street Art effectively shoved Low Brow to the back of the room. Still, many of the Graf artists have a great deal of respect for the Low Brow artists because we made it easier for them to get galleries since collectors had begun to appreciate Reactionary/Populist art.
I believe that filmic sequential imagery is the dominant art form. As one young art hater told me, “I don’t like looking at a painting because no matter how long I look at it, nothing happens.”
2. What is it about Lowbrow art that make people so fascinated with it?
The fascination is about nostalgia. The images and narrative of early Lowbrow referred to the Pop culture of when many of the artists and most of the collectors had matured. As kids, a lot of art collectors had once tried to get every Odd Rod bubblegum card; now that Lowbrow was in the galleries they wanted every pinup and hot rod painting. But video games and graffiti are the new starting points, not Saturday morning cartoons and car culture.
When I did the cover art for the MGMT album Congratulations, Sony leaked the cover image before releasing any of the musical tracks. My art became the focus of brief but intense criticism and I was surprised that people complained the cover looked like a video game from the ‘90s, something I would have thought they’d appreciate as emblematic of their childhood. Anyway, as time passed my cover just became part of irreversible reality, timeless.
3. How do you get ideas for your pieces? Are you a big cartoon fan?
Generally I start with no specific narrative in mind, just a drawing of a character engaged in some sort of action. Of course there are situations where I know exactly what I want to do way in advance, but often that gets derailed. Its funny that these characters I make end up directing me, sort of like a bunch of Frankenstein’s monsters.
When I was young my father made it a point to bring me cartoon books from the public library, stuff like The Best of New Yorker Cartoons, 1946. These books were filled with single panel cartoons, most with captions, some without. I learned from such cartoons how to get a complex idea across with only one image, something that I didn’t get from paintings in a museum, oddly enough.
4. Please explain to us how you come up with your brilliantly crazy ideas for your pieces?
I have always felt that the best art reveals some aspect of the human condition. Consequently my ideas usually revolve around an issue or event common to all the different viewers of the painting. The twist is that I eschew the human figure, using cartoon characters instead to get my message across. But in order to create a bitchen painting with a fully developed narrative I often resort to strong personal experience; after all, some people say that the best art is autobiographical. My more psychedelic paintings are direct references to specific drug experiences, since once the sanctity of an image has been broken I see no reason to return it to a previous state. What happens in that situation is that the paintings become about the distortion of a character and not the story.
When I was in Slovenia I needed a lemon for my meal but no one could figure out what I wanted until I drew a picture of it! To a certain extent, the use of images is the only global language. Use it.
5. Although your artwork hits the funny bone...there also seems to be some kind of weird tragedy going on. What are you showing us?
Funny jokes often involve tragic events; after all, someone gets punched in every punch line! But seriously folks, I use humor to seduce people and sneak serious messages into their brain. A painting of a black man and a white man fighting is a loaded image but two dueling cats of different colors is only that at first glance; it helps to be oblique, people don’t expect subtlety.
The longer I live the more appalling things I encounter, which makes me believe that life is essentially tragic. But there’s no use in overtly promoting that viewpoint. I prefer to brighten people up from their own personal tragedies with some Lowbrow humor.
7. Can you tell us what your pieces mean to you?
I attended art school back in the late 70s because I was interested in changing the status quo of “fine art”, just like the punk musicians taking music in a new direction. But it wasn’t until I met other Lowbrow artists that I began to feel I was on the right track. So, once my need for critical approval was satisfied I began to think of tactics to make my living by selling paintings. When I look back now at over thirty years at the easel my paintings are representations of a life well spent.
8. Where do you see yourself 1 year from now? Will you always do this kind of work or are you willing to experiment?
A few years ago I had gotten so good at my technique that working in my studio was about the most boring thing to do other than wait in line to get in another line. I finally decided to explore the grey area between abstraction and representation by taking an image as close as possible to being unrecognizable but still leaving just enough so that it was evident what was going on. I managed to mix it all up proper and after a few stinkers the paintings all got interesting again. Fortunately the right people agreed, and I had a new and different audience.
All I ever really wanted to do was become a painter in the classical sense. Paint and do nothing else.
9. Did you learn anything you didn’t already know in art school?
Going to the Otis Art Institute put my art production on a schedule for the first time and figuring out the skill necessary to cope with that was the most important thing I learned. To make a long story short, I dropped out of art school and began trying to get my paintings in shows. By then I had I realized from the volume of art being made in schools and shown in the galleries that the last thing the world needed was another shitty piece of art so I decided to make a painting only if I felt that its existence was crucial, vital to the reality around me. But the most important thing I discovered about art making hit me after I left school: that when I finished a painting there would be no marching band outside playing a fanfare, no dancing girls; in fact, nobody else would give a shit, it’s strictly a personal triumph.
11. Can you give any advice to the new breed of artists trying to make it today?
An artist should always have a clean suit ready to wear… and own a pickup truck.