INTERVIEWS

JUXTAPOZ MAGAZINE

January 2015
Interview by Evan Pricco

One thing I liked in our conversation was you talking about Cooper Union in the late 1970s. You were a punk rock kid, and the punk rock thing to do at Cooper Union at that time was to paint figuratively. Please, tell me a little about art school at that point.

Yes, it wasn’t too long ago that painting figuratively was considered rebellious—if it was considered at all. Crazy as this sounds now, but when I was a student, painting with technical facility, depicting beauty (unless it was ironic), and accessibility (especially accessibility), were forbidden—completely off the table if you wanted to succeed in art school and eventually show in decent galleries. You have to love the irony: Modern art’s very genesis sprang from its rejection of academic realist painting; and now it’s the modernists who have become the establishment, and the realist painters a transgressive force for change.

With all this going on, as much as I disliked art school, I can see how I benefited from my time there—even if it was mostly as a contrarian in training. In high school I’d been led to believe that the study of traditional painting techniques was a common jumping off point to more personal types of expression (think Picasso and Duchamp); but for some reason (probably my punk hair and clothes), the in-crowd at school considered my type of tight, facile realism to be threatening. It’s still hard for me to even talk about this—I don’t think I ever have publicly—but this event was so traumatic and formative that it bears mentioning. One night my studio at Cooper Union was attacked and my paintings vandalized. I never found out who did it. It was a few weeks later that I committed my first “illegal” artwork, painting graffiti fires up and down the back stairwells at Cooper Union.

Not being a New Yorker yet, I couldn’t get over how zealous and parochial, and how, well, personally everyone took their opinions. But as I hung out in the punk clubs and became more and more converted to those (zealous, parochial) attitudes, I could see that my romantic dream of becoming an artist was just another competitive career grind like fashion or advertising. Young artists who were ambitious and well connected (and usually attractive) and were good at marketing themselves and who aligned themselves with what was currently in vogue were rewarded with attention and shows—regardless of the quality or originality of their work. Even back then I knew that life wasn’t fair; deep down I understood that success, especially in creative fields, has always been a rigged game—famously more about who you know than anything else. But still my resentments were festering and I began to wonder about alternatives to the gallery system.

Around this time is when I started playing in bands. And then, after I got out of school, part of the reason I painted those tightly realistic and blatantly pretty little hummingbirds on the street was that I was just over it, I wanted to say, “Fuck it”, I don’t need anyone’s permission, I can do whatever I want. Punk rock had opened my eyes enough for me to understand that art could be about more than providing expensive wall candy for rich people: it could actually speak truth to power (usually with a message of, “You suck,” or “You’ve totally failed us”). I was young and invulnerable so I was fine scraping by with rent paying jobs, doing street art, and playing in bands that would never make it.

Were kids aware at that point, and I mean art school kids at Cooper Union, that something was beginning to happen on the streets, as in graffiti.

Definitely. I mean we all rode the subways to work and school and it’s be hard to imagine any young artist could see those trains rolling into the stations and not be at least a little affected. This was pre-Beastie Boys and Keith Haring though. For art school kids to have started tagging with spray paint was still a ways away. Those trains were definitely the big hammer that cracked me open though. I was in complete awe of those artists, and still am. When I started doing my own thing on the streets I was super careful not to tread on their turf—aesthetic or actual. Not only would it would have seemed phony for a guy like me to be bombing with spray paint, but the way the streets were back then, I probably would have gotten my ass kicked.

When did you start in the street? Was your work influenced by perhaps the early punk zine and flyer days, or were you just trying other forms of intervention and just straight up experimentation?

My first street works were in the late 1970’s. Band posters were definitely dominating the street-scape and since I was in bands I did my share of wheat-pasting. But my big influence, beside the graffiteed trains, punk rock, and a few grown-up artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Charles Simonds, were the Situationists. At some point I’d copied in my sketchbook excerpts from a 1960’s book “The Society of Spectacle” by Guy DeBord. What I took from it all (and still do) was that artists should provide moments that shock the spectator out of their passivity, moments that urge them towards a more creative and awakened life.

What did your paintings look like at this time?

After a year or so of hummingbirds and all the attention that got me I realized I had to either move on to new subjects or I’d forever become the hummingbird guy. With my mistrust of success this was actually an easy decision. All along I’d been systematically trying to learn how to paint figuratively. I was cycling through various realist painting styles: Flemish precisionism, thick gestural bravura brushstrokes, dark academic glazes—I was consciously acquiring a wide range of representational experience as a jumping off point. By this point though I was pretty sure old master style realism was the direction I’d be heading.

You were in bands throughout this time, right?

Yes. Noise bands—post No New York. A very unique and intense scene. I had my own group with a revolving set of friends and a job (of sorts) playing in a few of Glenn Branca’s large ensembles. I knew next to nothing about the right way to play keyboards which was considered an asset back then. Besides being an incredibly fun and extreme thing to be doing in your twenties, it was great for me because I got to tour Europe and visit the old master museums.

How much does music influence your decision to paint these mosh paintings?

Music has definitely been an important influence. And not just the energy and passion and authenticity of punk and hardcore that drives the mosh pit paintings: Bob Dylan, Brian Eno, Agnostic Front: these guys have been as much in the back of my mind when I’m painting as Titian, Velazquez, and Fab 5 Freddy.

Talk about the process of the mosh paintings, and now, some of the new rave paintings you are working on? What is your night out look like when getting some body of work together? Talk about the energy in a mosh pit versus a rave?

Mosh pits are more violent of course, but it’s a ritualized violence: there’s real threat (and real injury) but there are codes of behavior—an organizing principle to the mayhem. To get it right I have to photograph from practically inside the action, which I really enjoy. This is definitely a contact sport though, and I usually come home with some bruises or contusions. Last night I photographed a concert by my favorite hardcore band, Vision of Disorder, and I took some pretty hard hits. I’m ok but my camera isn’t doing too well.

Raves are definitely a more voyeuristic experience for me. Even though I’m more in the background, it’s still a deeply physical process: the sub-woofers in these clubs could be used by the CIA at their black sites. And in a similar way to the hardcore concerts, the people are in a private transfixed state that I’m hesitant to disturb with my flash. Thankfully though the lights and music are so invasive that hardly anyone seems to notice me. Nothing against the white boys with the tattoos, but I can’t tell you how invigorating it is to be exploring these raves now. Just painting people of color is such a relief; and I’m completely fascinated by the gender benders and their dualities. There’s a cultural resonance there that I think is still highly charged.

At both venues, if it’s a good band or DJ, and a good crowd I start photographing and slip into the moment (and the melee) and improbable amounts of time passes without me. Which is something I dearly love. Then I drag my plunder home and hole up with Photoshop, which is another lovely lost world for me. Puzzling together the compositions can take months. After I have the digital file printed in monochrome on the canvas comes the long hard slog of the actual painting, a gestational feat which to be honest is ridiculously difficult, but never becomes routine.

Maybe this is too general, but what sort painter would you consider yourself to be? Are you interested photorealism as a genre?

Technically I’m an academic realist, what the impressionists used to mockingly refer to as a Pompier—because of the way the academic artists back then, who mostly did ponderous history pieces, lovingly rendered the reflections on the roman soldiers’ helmets. These helmets apparently resembled the headgear the French firefighters, or Pompiers, wore at the time.

In any case, my primary pictorial goal is to create utterly believable light, space and presence—especially presence—like those technically brilliant but largely forgotten salon artists did. One of the main things that attracts me about these guys is the anonymity of their technique—how the artist’s brand and ego are sublimated, how the picture’s chief objective isn’t about who did it (unlike these days), but more about the narratives or visual fancies they’re presenting us with.

I’ve always been obsessed by what those salon guys could do with oil paint. And how poignant their failures as artists were. In fact, I’d have to say that their ending up in the dustbin of history has had an almost motivational effect on me. I totally understand why their names have been forgotten, but I’m still convinced that something as profound as this way of painting can be a vital part of today’s cultural dialogue.

Photo realism is mildly interesting to me. There’s lots of great painters working in that niche, and as an art student I was glad to have something contemporary I could relate to. But traditional photo-realism has always ultimately seemed to be about flatness and emotional distance, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m going for.

What is the hardest part of the human body to paint?

Ah, finally, an easy question. The soul.

Is realism a skill that you acquired, or were you naturally talented with an affinity to realism?

Yeah, I was the guy in my high school that could draw. I can’t say I ever recall anyone accusing me of being a prodigy or anything though. But whatever aptitude I had, it was enough to get me accepted into fancy eastern art schools. I loved figure drawing and found out that solid draftsmanship was the common starting point for artists I admired. As I said earlier, the usual path was to use this classical education as a jumping off point to more expressive or less literal approaches to making art. I stuck with the realism though.

Early on the punk in me figured out that realist painting made the establishment art world of the time weirdly uncomfortable. I mean it was bizarre how those sweet little hummingbirds were regarded with such polite loathing—like I was some kind of mud person, or gate crasher at the country club. Those tight smiles from gallerists and curators—that ‘nice to meet you, now please leave’ look—that, as much as anything, galvanized me into making realism my life’s work.

You have seen the trends of the art world fluctuate over the years. Have you seen anything like Street Art and the way it completely became this populist movement?

Yeah, I’ve been famously wrong about this. Back in about 2004 I was on a street art panel with Marc and Sarah Schiller of the Wooster Collective. We were discussing the possibilities of this exciting new art movement and I, as the elder statesman in the room, felt it my duty to bloviate a bit and remind everyone of that old saying, “What is in fashion must inevitably go out of fashion”. So yeah, I was wrong. I didn’t understand how seismically the paradigm was shifting. And in my defense, who could have foreseen this? It’s unprecedented. Up until then, the trend cycle of art movements had always ran a rough corollary to those in music or fashion or hairstyles. Then came digital technology and the internet and everything changed. All of a sudden the quality of your work mattered more than who you knew or what you looked like. This first bona-fide art movement that’s been independent of high culture’s mediation has outlasted and been out-liked by anything we ever dreamed of. Seriously, I don’t think abstract expressionism or even cubism has had as long a run as this.

These days when I visit contemporary art museums I can’t help but get the feeling that sometimes all I’m doing is walking around and checking off top brands, as in, “Look, they’ve got a so and so…and hey, there’s an early what’s-her-name”. The art on the wall is beginning to seem like footnotes from some other culture’s art history, or worse, like the museum trustees’ investment portfolio. Don’t get me wrong, there’s usually some amazing inspiring art, but after my own experiences with the energy and accessibility of the urban art world, modern art museums have begun to seem more and more like Late Capitalism’s overstuffed closets…mostly featuring past seasons’ of the emperor’s new clothes.

One of the things that is interesting to me is that there are people in the world who know the mosh paintings but not the street art, and vice versa. What sort of freedom does that give you?

A lot of artists I admire have had dual practices: Warhol made films, Degas sculptures, Rembrandt was a master printmaker, etc. For me, and I’m guessing those guys, multiple disciplines has a balancing effect. The figurative paintings I do, especially the mosh pit group ones are just too difficult and soul crushing for me to spend my entire life at. And the street art is too dangerous and physically draining. What I do is focus on one of these until I get completely sick of it—and I mean literally nauseated—then I switch. With my obsessive work habits I’m pretty sure I would have burned out years ago if I hadn’t stumbled on this nice little safety valve.

In my case there’s also something to be said for the freedom that comes from not being too successful. We’ve all seen how destructive that kind of pressure can be on an artist. I’d like to think that by now I could handle it (and a little more money) but in the past I’ve had my problems so I’m not really sure. Besides, who’s got time for all those fancy cocktail parties and award ceremonies? I’ve got a three year old, who frankly, is a lot more interesting than all that. Career-wise, where I am these days is fine. I get regular validation but I’m still as driven and hungry and full of productive anxiety as I’ve ever been (although again, maybe a tiny bit more cash wouldn’t hurt).

In September I did a street art collaboration advocating against animal agricultural practices with PETA UK. I installed non-permissional trompe l’oeil grates and windows with farm animals behind them, but I also ended up making a bunch of painted cast-resin chicken feet and planting them around London. It wasn’t until we were almost finished with the lengthy and complicated and frustrating process of figuring out how to cast the chicken feet that it dawned on me that I was making sculptures. This just made me so happy. I mean talk about freedom! I was doing something totally new—something I knew absolutely nothing about. I was a complete beginner. At my age.

My last question, and an easy one: when you walk into a museum full of paintings, what is your feeling?

If it’s 19th century or older paintings, I’m a lunatic. I’m like one of those sports hooligans going to see their home team play in the championship. The moment I hit the galleries I slip into an altered state. Seriously. My pulse quickens, my eyes widen, all extraneous noises shut off. These guys on the walls are more than my teachers, or what I aspire to be when (or if) I grow up: they’re the serious, real apostles of my faith. In my day to day life, whenever doubts assail me, and I wonder why I’m inside all day chained to an easel, I remember this place, this mental museum and how utterly engaged I am there—I remember there’s a place on earth where spending a life making paintings makes total sense. Naturally the idea follows that one day it’d be nice to hang there as more than a spectator, but honestly I’m not the type to let myself indulge in thoughts like that. Although I do love how Lucian Freud had carte blanche to visit the National Gallery after hours. That’s an ambition I could get behind.

Dan Witz

Punk rock had opened my eyes enough for me to understand that art could be about more than providing expensive wall candy for rich people: it could actually speak truth to power (usually with a message of, “you suck,” or “you’ve totally failed us”)

After I got out of school, part of the reason I painted those tightly realistic hummingbirds on the street was that I just wanted to say, “Fuck it”, I don’t need anyone’s permission, I can do whatever I want.

Early on the punk in me figured out that realist painting made the establishment art world of the time weirdly uncomfortable. I mean it was bizarre how those sweet little hummingbirds were regarded with such polite loathing—like I was some kind of mud person, or gate crasher at the country club. Those tight smiles from gallerists and curators—that ‘nice to meet you, now please leave’ look—that, as much as anything, galvanized me into making realism my life’s work.

…after my own experiences with the energy and relevance in my own corner of the urban art world, modern art museums have begun to seem more and more like Late Capitalism’s overstuffed closets…mostly featuring past seasons’ of the emperor’s new clothes.