Bad Sin Frutas: An Interview With Painter Morgan Mandalay

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text and photographs by Summer Bowie

Are you staring directly into the mouth of the beast, or are you indeed sitting inside said mouth, observing the surreal landscape below? This is just one of the many visual homonyms that are ever-present in the works of Morgan Mandalay. For his first solo exhibition at Klowden Mann in Los Angeles, the Chicago-based artist has painted worlds that are rife with reference to human figuration, though only vaguely, in the form of phantom hands clutching at tree branches, or humanoid eyeballs peeking through leaves. Traces of our existence are evident in the still life formations of pitted fruits, or in fish hung by twine, and most conspicuously in the presence of a large brick wall. Otherwise, these worlds seem to be inhabited by fruit and flora that rot and burn on the vine, trees that seem to bear both lemons and pears simultaneously; a world where omniscient angels are standing by for either the sake of protection and salvation, or eternal damnation. Bad Sin Frutas tells a story of exile using the memetic power of the Garden of Eden as a template for processing the Mandalay family’s exile from Cuba, and it does so in a time of global refugee crises. As far as its temporal grounding, Morgan sighs with a reticence to use the term “post Anthropic” when he points to what this world might be gesturing towards. The mild humiliation on his part seems to come from two places. The first might be a feeling of sounding trite, knowing that the post Anthropocene is a well-explored subject in contemporary art. The second might be that he and I have known each other since we were teenagers in San Diego, or perhaps, we only know each other as teenagers, and having only recently reconnected, he knows this is a term that our teenage selves would find grossly didactic. To me, it seems a perfect paradox for this parallel universe we seem to be inhabiting where the past is constantly colliding with the present, further perplexing our sense of the future. I got a chance to preview the show with Morgan and talk about his perpetual use of quizzical homonyms, his nomadic life as an artist, and the interdependent qualities of one’s creative and administrative efforts.

SUMMER BOWIE: Let’s just start with the title of the show, Bad Sin Frutas. Can you tell me a bit about it’s meaning? Is it Bad Sin [Spanish pronunciation] Frutas, or Bad Sin [English pronunciation] Frutas?

MANDALAY: (laughs) Yeah, I mean that’s it. Well, my titles are generally a play on language and scrambling language, or a play with the mutability of meaning, as an extension of understanding a fluid self. Language, in whatever form, be it written, spoken, painted or whatever, as a kind of marker of self. "Norman Amygdala" was an anagram of my name, "Scene of Shipwreck", "Thank you squash banana. I'm not an ape, you are"…they’re all plays on homonym or mistranslation. Originally I’d been thinking the show should be called “Sin Frutas,” but I was also toying with “Bad.” My partner (Kim-Anh Schreiber) is who suggested the merger and I think it was way more effective. Bad Sin Frutas

BOWIE: You have a multi-pupiled demon that started showing up in your work in 2017, in this series of works they appear but are hidden in lean layers, can you tell me a bit about where that came from?

MANDALAY: Right, the cherubim. They come from the book of Ezekiel and they appear to be demons, but they’re actually angels who guard the gates to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. They’re described as having multiple faces, and the multiple pupils convey the motion of their eyes, which are all-seeing, and constantly observing and judging and protecting.

BOWIE: So, they were basically like the Biblical Big Brother? (laughs) When you say cherubim, the image in my mind is that of a bored, chubby baby.

MANDALAY: Well, yeah we have a very diluted idea of angels nowadays, but in the order of angels there are cherubim, seraphim, the throne, archangels, and four others. The seraphim are usually depicted with six wings and the cherubim have four wings. They all have different purposes that they serve, and were we to have grown up in Europe during the Middle Ages, we would more likely be familiar with the types of angels represented in these Biblical paintings, and the roles that they play in the Bible. However, we grew up on Touched By An Angel, and City of Angels, and Michael, and Angels in the Outfield, so at this point most of us are imagining someone sexy with washboard abs or, yeah, the like…Rococo fat Cupid baby.

BOWIE: Can you talk about Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” and how that fits into your work?

MANDALAY: Sure thing. I think I alluded to my interest in homonym before­––a thing that looks like one thing and means another, or can hold two meanings at once. Lots of people seem very certain in their beliefs, and part of those beliefs is that the opposing beliefs are certainly wrong. And hell, some things are wrong, of course. I’m not some extreme moral relativist but…some things can look like one thing and mean something else. “The Raft of the Medusa,” previously titled “Scene of Shipwreck,” is a painting that could be two events. It could be sunset or it could be sunrise because there’s nothing in the painting to tell us which direction we are pointed. The ship on the horizon, silhouetted, could be coming closer or going away. The people of the raft are either being saved, or they’re being left to die. It all depends on how much you know about an obscure piece of 18th century French history that at the time seemed important enough to be commemorated on a giant canvas, in basically Géricault’s only well-known painting, and then travelled around England.

BOWIE: And what about the role of still life in these works?  

MANDALAY: Kind of the same answer. But also I like that still life painting was, and in many ways maybe still is, the “lesser-than” form of painting. When I started making still lifes I would do it with my leftover paints on my palette, or with the pigment sludge at the bottom of my turpentine jar. They’re….I don’t know, humble.

BOWIE: Sure. There’s definitely something to be said for Manny Farber’s “termite art” approach. After living, studying and working in San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, New York and Chicago, do you feel as though the dramatic change in settings/scenes has affected your work?

MANDALAY: Yes and no. I think not knowing what I am, or stability has definitely shaped my work. I think my work often doesn’t know what it is. My paintings, I hope, are always similarly trying to locate themselves, or asking the viewer to join in that attempt.

More directly I can say, I’ve certainly picked up nuggets along the way or been affected differently by where I was. San Diego is my home and everything I guess stems from there. In San Francisco, I think I always go back to studying with Keith Boadwee specifically as formative. When I dropped out of SFAI and moved to Portland, that’s where I guess I really dove into paintings as my primary mode of making, and then spent the next 5 years learning more about that in San Diego. Somewhere between San Diego and Chicago probably taught me everything about being a part of a community of artists, and running a space as a way I enjoyed being a community member.

 BOWIE: That’s right. You went back to San Diego and opened your own gallery, SPF 15. Can you talk about the intention behind that gallery?

MANDALAY: I wanted to have a space that spoke to the locality. In terms of programming, I wanted to create a program that would bring people to San Diego, and show artists from San Diego alongside these other artists that are doing interesting things. Obviously, I benefit from that as well. I wanted to be able to be in San Diego, and be an artist, and not disappear. There was a talk that Tyson Reeder gave when I was living in Chicago. I often would harken back to on this—talking about all the projects that he and his brother Scott did in Milwaukee in the early 2000s. Really before the easy access of Instagram, it was a way of being visible, doing these projects and inviting people to this city that they potentially aren’t thinking of as an “art city,” but one that has abundant resources. To me, that was part of it too, he referred to it as a telephone line to the outside world. SPF15 was a telephone line to the outside world.

BOWIE: What does it stand for again? I remember you telling me once that the intention was to do exactly 15 exhibitions... 

MANDALAY: It was Sunday Project For 15 exhibitions. We’ve done 14, so there’s still one to go. We did a few fairs and things like that too, but those don’t count as proper, nomadic beach exhibitions. 

BOWIE: Do you think you’d ever like to go back to curating and running a gallery space?

MANDALAY: Yeah, I think about it a lot. To me it’s a part of being in a community. It’s really hard for me to separate that from my overall practice, or I don’t know, personhood.

BOWIE: Was it ever weird, switching hats from being the artist to the dealer?

MANDALAY: No, it should be weird, but as an artist, one of the things I get to do is make decisions about what I want to see in the world, and as a gallerist or curator, that’s part of what I’m doing too. Hopefully, creating thoughtful exhibitions, working with artists that I really believe in that add to the overall diversity of aesthetics, but also...that I want to see. Seeing is a big part of it. Both have these invisible administrative arms to them. Being an artist, there’s plenty of administrative work as well. I learned a lot about being an artist, in terms of the professional side of it, from being on the administrative side of running spaces. I don’t think of them as all that different. One hand washes the other.

BOWIE: What brought you back to Chicago?

MANDALAY: My partner is getting her PhD at Northwestern. It’s good…it’s cold. But our apartment is beautiful and my studio is next to our bedroom. And I’m working at a radical progressive studio here, Arts of Life, working with an amazing group of artists with developmental disabilities.

BOWIE: The color palette of this series of works feels very different from previous works, almost like Southern California after a massive fire. Can you talk about that?

MANDALAY: I live in Chicago now. I needed some color. No, for a while I’ve been making somewhat monochromatic paintings or just…darker. But I used to use a lot of color and I think I couldn’t tell if I was making good paintings or just pretty colored paintings so for a few years I thought I needed to strip them of candy sweet colors. But I feel really confident about these paintings. I’ve tried to deploy color meaningfully and more as a lure than as the fish.

BOWIE: I remember you being a drama kid in high school, how were you introduced to painting?

MANDALAY: It’s true! Oh my god, yeah. I don’t know if you remember this but I got to direct this one act that Neil and Serop, and I (to a lesser degree) wrote together called Schizophrenia. I think that had a really lasting impact on me. It really was like, the only art I did, and then I went to art school at SFAI. Which is its own long story.

It took me a long time to circle back to theater in my work. I think I was having a conversation with someone about the history of canvas, like, the material and realized that canvas had played this massive role, not just in art but in globalization (as sails), and theater as well, as traveling set pieces. Like, canvas is all about nomadism. I started imagining my paintings as stage flats and got to realize this in Italy with Kim-Anh Schreiber, my partner and amazing writer. We collaborated on a piece called “Meatloaf,” in which a ghost couple float from home to home for 500 years trying to decide what to make for dinner.

BOWIE: That’s hilarious. Do you see yourself branching out into other media at any point?

MANDALAY: Not really. I think the past few couple of shows, this one and the recent exhibition at BWSMX in Mexico City, are the first shows in a long while that were just rectangles hanging on walls. Pictures. And I quite liked those shows. Maybe I’m getting more boring, or maybe I’m getting a better idea of what I want, or I’m maybe just feeling more confident. Like, I love working with other people, but it’s been really nice to just trust that my paintings are doing enough heavy lifting all on their own, thank you very much. Ha.

BOWIE: What’s next?

MANDALAY: To quote a line from “Meatloaf,” “the future, the future, you’ll never be ready.”

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The Nonconformist: An Interview of Painter Duncan Hannah

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photograph and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

A painter of imaginative worlds of youthful frolic and abandon by trade, Duncan Hannah is a natural-born gentleman of letters and raconteur. He has a lot of stories to tell, like the time he introduced Nico to the band Television at CBGB. Or the time he wound up in a limo with David Bowie, Brian Ferry, and Andy Warhol. Or the time Patti Smith wrote a poem about him. Or the time that Lou Reed asked him to shit on his face at Max’s Kansas City. But Hannah wasn’t always at the right place at the right time, he was also at the wrong place at the wrong time. Growing up in Minneapolis, smoking weed, and taking acid, Hannah yearned for the bright lights and big city. Obsessed with literature, obsessed with the libidinal forces that consumed him, and obsessed with French and Italian New Wave films, Hannah’s figurative oil paintings have that new car smell circa 1935. They are electric, new but vintage, eternal but corporeal, vague but crystal clear, flesh-toned and coated with a fresh wax of nostalgia. Imagine Edward Hopper’s loneliness caught in a tornado with the masturbatory fantasies of a teenager – Michel Poiccard's bush and tush pinups taped to the mirror of a celluloid sex dream. I caught up with Hannah before the opening of his exhibition and West Coast book release at Parker Gallery in Los Angeles.

Oliver MAXWELL Kupper: Let’s start off with Cinemabilia in New York.  Was that 1970? 

DUNCAN HANNAH: That was probably the spring of '74, because I went to Parsons, and Parsons was right above Cinemabilia. So I just swung in. I was nuts about foreign cinema. So I'd say, "Let me see your Alain Delon file. Terry Ork, who owned the place, would go, "Richie! Alain Delon." Richie was Richard Hell – he worked there. I'd get a big pile of stills and then I'd say, "Could I get these?" And Terry would say, "Just take 'em." 

And you used those for reference?

Yeah. I wanted to make paintings like French movies that felt kind of pregnant with danger and romance. But unlike film noir I didn't want them to be too heavy. Because the French are – it's kind of lighter. And it happens in broad daylight. Breathless is a great example. 

I love the way Belmondo touches his lips in that movie. Alain Delon was another great actor. There's a
photograph of you, I think it's in your studio maybe, and you look sort of like Alain Delon! 

A little friendlier than Alain Delon. He's got those icy blue eyes.

He has very steely blue eyes. And a very steely look.

Yeah and he is...He killed his bodyguard. And got away with it.

That's wild. I didn't know that at all. 

I don't know if you can print this, but he had an orgy club and Pompidou was part of the club. Pompidou's wife was kind of a swinger, nympho, and Pompidou apparently had a huge penis. But anyhow, Alain Delon secretly filmed all of his orgy things behind a two-way mirror. So he shot his bodyguard with his gun, a Luger, wrapped him up in a tarpaulin that said, "Alain Delon," on it.

Smart.

[Laughs] He drove to the outskirts of Paris and just threw him in the dump. And so the dump guys found his corpse with a bullet. So there could only be one suspect: him. His bodyguard had been blackmailing him, because he got jealous of how rich Delon was. And I think Delon was kind of a dick too, so he was just like, "Fuck you, I'm so sick of working for you. Gimme something." But Delon was completely unruffled, and nobody could figure out why. Why is he being so cool? I mean it's completely in character. So Pompidou stepped in and said, "Case dismissed. There is no case." And the country, especially all the lefties, just said, "What? Different rules for rich and powerful people, that ain't right. Fuck you pigs." 

I wanted to talk a little bit about your upbringing. It seems like being a rebel started suiting you a lot more than conforming. Especially against a lot of these strict, postwar,
Midwestern values. Where do you think that rebellion came from?

I was fine with everything until, I don't know, maybe I started smoking pot at fourteen or fifteen. That was a great eye-opener. My grades immediately plummeted. And then pot led to everything else eventually. I also always wanted to be an artist, which is nonconformist. Anyhow, my dad was a lawyer, and he thought, "Well, he'll be an architect. He'll be something.

Was there ever an ounce of thought of becoming a lawyer or anything
like that?

Not at all. Not a nano second. 



But it seemed like your artwork was your own way of finding your identity. The realism in your art – was it a way to ground you in a way?

Yeah I would say that.  If you'd asked me when I was twenty, "Will you paint like that?" I doubt it. I just kind of grew into it. But it took a while, because I was just absorbing, you know Fillmore posters, and Zap Comix, and Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. There was just so much coming in that it could've gone in many different directions. 

You were mainly studying abstract expressionists, right?

I went to Bard, and my teachers were Color Field painters. But I took art history, which was great, because you see this continuum and how it all fits together. Which was new to me. When I was a kid, I'd go to the MoMA and you look at all this different stuff and you think, "How does it fit together? I should know this. I'm gonna be an artist, but I don't get it." But then when you take art history, you kind of get it. One thing leads into another and you go, "Ohh." The reason I was confused by that is because, you know some particular painting, it's just that I don't like it. It's just my subjective take and it's okay not to like it. But now I know how it fits in. But anyhow, when it got to the late '40s and you get to de Kooning, I just went, "Wow."

You had these other tastes and interests that were completely opposite and modern in a way. 

Yeah, I was really attracted to being narrative. And I could just see I was gonna be a third-rate abstract painter. I mean it was fun, but I just thought, "It's not me." So I thought my voice was elsewhere. And figurative painting, you don't need an outside challenge, because it's challenging in and of itself. Because I wasn't trained to paint the way I am. So, I was just looking at dead painters and trying to figure out what they did. 

Like Hopper?

Yeah, like Hopper. And wondering: Why is there so much psychology? His paintings were so pregnant with something. 

There's an anxiousness about them. And a loneliness.

Yeah, and a kind of mistrust. Whose side are you on, and who can you trust? And how can you put that in a painting? I realized that film and books travel through time. If you want to make a movie about Los Angeles in 1939, no problem. But if a contemporary painter paints Los Angeles in 1939, it's called, “nostalgic," or "retro," or something, which just doesn't seem fair. So as long as you do it well, you can transcend it. I love period stuff. And I thought, "Why can't painters do that too?"

I think your paintings are interesting because there's a distinct contemporary feel to them, even though they're retrospective. They look more like fantasies in a way...

Yeah it's not quite real. I remember when I was like ten, I went to Europe for the first time and it felt really foreign. I loved that feeling. And it gave me some sense of what the world would be like when I actually became an adult at twenty-one. It'll be like this. Anyhow, then I grew up. Things change and it's not really the way you thought it would be. But I thought, that feeling I had when I was ten, and also the future being kind of friendly, it was gonna be great. [Laughs]

It feels like you were yearning to get out of the Midwest and go to the big city.

Yeah, as fast as I could. Clearly, Minneapolis was, for me, nowhere to stay. I went to New York when I was seven, with my parents. We were staying at the Waldorf, and I remember standing under the Marquee on Park Avenue, looking at the yellow cabs going back and forth, and just thinking with absolute certainty, "Oh, I get it. So this is where you come to live." And I never wavered.

You have endless incredible stories. And you're an obsessive collector of personal ephemera, too. Your diaries were full of everything.

And physical memorabilia too. I mean I am, I've always been a collector of all kinds of stuff. 

And the writing seems that way. It seems like a collection of streams of consciousness...

I suppose that's it. You collect records and drawings, and you collect conversations, and you collect memories and you collect dirty jokes. You collect all kinds of things. I guess I hate to let things slip through my fingers. 

Keeping all these moments recorded, did you feel like you were living through a sort of historical time? 

I'd have to say no. Except, I wanted to be in swinging London, with the Yardbirds and the Who. I don't know, that was really appealing. I was born too late. When this started happening I thought, "Well, this is pretty good too." But, I never thought it would cross over. But then, you know, Blondie and Talking Heads got signed and then they'd be gone for a year. Then you'd see them on TV, and you'd read about them in Melody Maker or some French pop magazine, and you'd go, "Wow. These are not our bands anymore. These bands belong to the world." It's working. 

Even Patti Smith too. It seemed like Patti was so niche.

Yeah she’s a poet. 


Inspired by Rimbaud. 

I think I saw one of her first gigs, when she had Lenny, and she was very embarrassed about it. Like she was pretending to be a rockstar. "I'm just gonna pretend to be a rockstar, just for this one song. So I'm bringing out Lenny Kaye!" And of course we all loved Nuggets. Yay, Lenny Kaye! And it was so primitive. She'd do a Marvelettes song. And you'd just go, "Oh, that's charming." Who would've thought? It was like a magic trick. Also, because she was in love with rock
stars, then to become a rock star gradually, right in front of your eyes.

It's really fascinating. And people think about that era of being just purely punk and people in tatters.

Real punk is something I've barely listened to. And even when I did, it's fun, but it's not really my kind of music. Except something like the Stooges, it transcends punk. As Danny Fields said, it's like our "Wagner" or something. And I thought, "Yeah, it kind of is." 

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Danny Fields was sort of a big part of your evolution. He seemed to introduce you to a lot of different people in New York. 

Yeah. My editor said, "Y'know, I kind of get tired of your antics with your decadent friends, until you move to New York and meet Danny Fields. He's the straw that stirs the drink." And I don't exactly know what that means, but it sounds good. 

It totally makes sense. It seems that way. You read it, and it's amazing, it's riveting, and then...

Well then I think it just kicks in. All those people I've been reading about and listening to, fantasizing about, there they are. And he had the magic key. And they all loved him. He was so respected. 

Do you still paint upside down? I read somewhere that you paint upside down. 

Oh, well I don't get upside down, but yeah I do turn the painting upside down. And it's very helpful. And then the other trick is you hold a mirror against it so you can see it backwards. And you can see a flaw immediately. Because you've gotten so used to it. But that was the one thing — not the one thing — that I really learned from my abstract teachers: is just keep turning it.
Because the painting should be as strong formally as it is narratively. It's to prevent you from painting a picture. I mean pictures are fine, but you're painting a painting. And painting
has its own rules. And if you forget that, it's weaker.

It doesn't hold up the narrative as well if it sucks formally.

Yeah and it's even good to bring the narrative down. Like if details get lost or something. That's fine and hopefully it becomes archetypal in some kind of way.

The viewer can better create the picture in their own head. 

Well that's exactly it. It's more generous that way. If you don't nail everything down for the viewer, they know that. I mean I always think it's funny painting reflections in water, or reflections on anything, because it looks so difficult, but actually doing it is really simple. You just mimic what's nearby. And the viewer fills it in. They know exactly what that is. So you don't even have to flesh it out much. You have to suggest it and the viewer does the rest. 

I think that's why the Renaissance painters were so brilliant. 

Yeah and then the viewer's more engaged too. Because they've actually contributed to it. Whereas like a photorealist, they leave you absolutely nothing to do. It just leaves me cold. Because yeah, that looks impossible to do, but who cares?

Going back to the book, what made you decide to publish the diaries? Did they come to you?

I had an offer from an archive dealer to sell my archives to some big library. And I was sixty-three at the time maybe. I thought, "Ooh, I'm not done with them." I'd never read them, and I'd been meaning to do something for about ten years. And I thought, this is the time. So I started editing.
Salvaging what was salvageable. And then there was a New York Times article about me, because I had a show in Chinatown. And they were asking me how I liked the Patti Smith book and I said, "Yeah, I liked it. It wasn't quite my experience, but maybe I'll write my own." And it was completely off the cuff. So it's funny that he threw that in, but then an editor at Random House saw, who owned one of my paintings, and I knew very slightly, and he said, "Hey, if you actually do that, let me have first peek." I thought he was being polite. After a few months, I thought, "I should get him out of the way." So I sent him forty pages, waited for him to say, "Oh, I'm so busy, I don't know when I'll get to this but thanks a lot." But he wrote right back and said, "This is great. Send me more." So I sent him another one-hundred pages. And then he just said, "Alright, meet me for breakfast tomorrow." And this guy's a famous editor. He did David Foster Wallace. Like real writers. [Laughs] And I thought, "What?" 

Well this is real writing, I think that you have – you could have been a novelist, you could have been a short story writer. 

That's really nice to hear, but it's impossible for me to see it like that. Anyhow, he just said, "I'm
gonna sell it to Knopf. This is great. And, there is no primary document of the '70s that's like this. This is so different from a memoir. It has an immediacy to it that those other books don't have." And I said, "Okay." And he said, "So just finish up..." And he warned me, he said, "This is very — are you ready for this? Because you're, like, naked."

I like that he warned you afterwards.

Well, it was kind of in the process, but he said, "You know you're laying yourself open." And there's a lawyer to protect other people in it. So we concealed identities. I said, "I don't know. I don't think I'm that bad in it. So why not?" Also, I love this kind of book. I love when an author tells the truth. And I always feel so grateful. And they don't all do it. I mean if you don't tell the truth, who cares? It's just not that interesting. So I thought, well it's my ace in the hole, that it's just tawdry as it is.

But it also has a lot of...the tawdriness of it adds to the depth in a way. And I think that you had a sort of very keen way of observing what was around you. It really did seem grounding. 

Yeah, I think that's right, it was a way of equilibrium. And if I could write it down, it didn't mean that it was that bad or I was still in possession of my wits or something. I think that's probably right. 

I mean there's a lot of blackouts. There's a lot of lapses in memory and small lapses in judgment. But you always sort of bounce back to things. And you're still alive. You're still around. 

Well I'm surprised that the tone is kind of consistent from the beginning to the end. And I didn't expect that. I thought it would be kind of all over the place. Because I remember — if I'd written a memoir, I would've thought, "Oh, that's the time when I was trying on identities and we were all very pretentious and phonies a lot of the time." But I didn't find it like that. It doesn't seem like that. 

It seemed authentic. You seemed like a journalist in your own life. You seem like you were on an assignment.

And that myself is my experiment in a way. 

And you sort of become a fixture in the history of a lot of people's lives. I think that's what's so
interesting about painters. You can enter different worlds.

Yeah. Not something I necessarily thought about. But it does provide you, as long as you're in the mix somehow, you don't have to be David Hockney. But if you're in there, it just keeps ever-changing. It's fascinating. So, that's really good. And that is one thing I really wanted: access to that world that seemed out of reach when I was twelve. And then eventually it wasn't. 

What was the process of curating this show? Because it seemed like it goes back a little bit to your earlier work.

When Sam Parker opened his gallery, he said, "Let's have a show." Actually, I've had a bunch of shows lately. I've shown in Amsterdam, Paris, two in New York, and then this, all in a year. And it was all based on the inventory that I had. So that was good. I mean I paint a lot. I paint every day of the week if I can. So it just builds up. And not all painters I know do that. And they'll call and say, "What're you doing?" "Painting." "Got a show?" "No, just painting." And they go, "Oh, good for you." Regardless of shows. And also I paint better if I don't have a deadline or a destination. So if it has no purpose other than to turn me on that week – that’s usually the best.

Well, I like the world you are creating with your paintings – your imagination is rich.

I mean, sometimes I'll be painting in a heatwave in the summer and I'll paint a car in the snow. It's clearly escapism for me. It's a blizzard in January and I'm painting the Riviera. As long as you've got desires and whims and eccentricities, I just think, exploit them. And then the other thing is, which I think most artists agree with, is that you don't have to start with a good idea, all you've got to do is get engaged. And you don't start with this flourish of virtuosity. I don't anyhow. You can start with a mistake and then you make another mistake. And then you have to correct those. And after you've corrected enough mistakes, suddenly it starts happening. And you're connected to this thing. That has its own rules. And your deal is to try to figure out what those rules are and follow them. Or not follow them. That to me
is creativity.

This interview was published in Autre Issue 5 (Summer 2018). Purchase here.

Art in the Age of Death Metal: An Interview of Philip Hinge

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Text and Photographs by Adam Lehrer

As demonstrated by his first New York solo show entitled Darkzone Martyrium at GCA Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Philip Hinge has an inherent talent to cloak the absurdities of contemporary life in a lush, art history-informed presentation. His paintings make use of wildly colorful brushstrokes, heady layering, and a unique interplay between the figurative and the abstract to present humorous and bizarre images that play on the viewer’s knowledge of pop culture and fine art. There is a lot going on in these paintings, to say the least. Hinge is a conceptual artist, but he understands that painting is at its most effective when there is something in the paintings that is inviting and can pull the everyday viewer in. “It allows the viewer kinda to get into it and kind of feel it,” says Hinge between sips of a beer at GCA. “It disarms the viewer and allows them to have genuine experiences with the work.”

Hinge is 28 years old, stands at about 6 foot 3, and has medium-length slick hair, well-defined cheekbones, and a winning grin. Guiding me through his new show wearing slim denim cropped over some shit kicker boots, an Emperor t-shirt, and a large billowing brown overcoat, it becomes clear immediately that this guy could become a massive success in an art world that likes its artists hip, young, attractive and marketable. But his work is far too sincere and bizarre in a way for Hinge to find any undeserving success. The GCA show is divided between recent paintings and painted chairs that adorn the gallery’s ceilings. Hinge’s paintings welcome the viewer in with rich, colorful brush strokes and light humor that belies a macabre and unsettling hidden tone. He has managed to express his personal tastes while making sense of them in a cultural context. “For painting, you have this backlog of people who’ve done it better so when you’re introduced to it and taught it, you are automatically trying to figure out how to stand out. It’s almost this huge burden,” says Hinge. “With painting, specifically, it’s like you either fight your way out of that or you succumb to the pressure of it, or you get around it and explore all the things you’re interested in while still creating a unique voice.” Hinge and I spoke at length about his current show at GCA, the misunderstood genius of Paul Verhoeven, the sexual psychology of Balthus, and the joys of extreme music and black metal.

ADAM LEHRER: From your paintings I often get a sense of a young artist trying to make sense of the vast swath of imagery that we’re faced with in the digital age. Are you trying to make sense of the world through painting? 

PHILIP HINGE: I think that’s a pretty fair statement for most of us making stuff. We’re all kind of in the same pot, getting kicked around and looking for a coping mechanism.

You grew up in Jersey and I know you were drawing as a kid but what sparked your interest in visual culture? 

I think it was movies. I grew up fairly sheltered. I would get to see a movie and it was such a great experience. This was back in VHS days and we didn’t have a lot of those around so I would draw and try to recreate my experiences watching movies. I’d see Star Wars and then draw Star Wars for the next year. You get this initial rush of recognizing shapes and figures and then you get more into how can you make it look better so that other people can respect it more and get on board with it. 

You use a lot of black metal characters in the work, did deconstructing heavy metal imagery come from a genuine interest in it? 

Oh, hell yeah. When I was a kid I was in a death metal band and it was the first music that genuinely terrified me. I got some black metal CDs when I was fourteen and one had a pentagram on it and everything: introductory level black metal, like Dimmu Borgir, which is probably all a fourteen-year-old can handle. And I came from a Christian background so it was all terrifying at first. And then as you get older and age with it and remain really involved with it - as far as always looking for new stuff - and you then see how sad it is. This group of people who are constantly trying to alienate themselves. Trying to be more extreme and inventive, right down to the clownish face paint. They want so badly to be taken seriously but when it falls flat it really falls flat. There’s something to that I like: the failure of black metal is what makes it great. 

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Yeah, it was definitely the first music I got into by myself. Did you ever read Terrorizer Magazine? It’s an amazing UK metal magazine, or it used to be amazing anyways. I remember in ‘99 they had written about the new Emperor album, Prometheus, which at the time was way too extreme for me. I couldn’t even listen to a song, but I wanted to like it. 

I did the same thing. Coming from my Dimmu Borgir album I did a Google search for bands similar to Dimmu Borgir and it was like “Emperor” so I went to Best Buy and bought an Emperor CD and it was Wrath of the Tyrant. So the early stuff, no production quality. 

Like they’re trying to do a symphonic thing but they don’t have enough money to make it happen

Yeah, like a ninety dollar synth. I hated it at the time but it was the type of thing where I spent fifteen dollars of my fifteen-year-old money on it. So it was really important. And then I loved it. You dig your feet in and listen to it in the car ride home with your buddies and they’re like “this sucks” and you’re like “no, you suck.” 

 

I read that you once wanted to be Balthus? When did you stop wanting to be Balthus and start to realize who you wanted to be? 

I was eighteen when I got to art school and had no art training. Painting was the one thing I could do. So, I get to school and have no education, I don’t know much; I knew Rubens and Caravaggio and stuff like that. So the professor is taking us through first semester, and it was kind of boring stuff and he pulls up this Balthus and it was the one of the Salon with a little girl on the couch kind of reclined, she’s asleep from reading, and then there’s a girl who’s kind of bent over by the table on the floor reading a book and he was like “so if you substitute the table that’s hitting the girl on the couch mid-level with the little girl on the floor it’s two little girls engaging in oral sex.” This sort of compositional weird game. Balthus had to have known. I don’t think he was an active pedophile but he thought about it all the dang time. 

Well I think it’s admirable in a way. Sexuality is the most powerful emotion in a human so if he found an outlet to express his sickness in a way that wasn’t hurting anyone, maybe that’s okay. Do we condemn thoughts or actions? 

I always talk about it this way: so you have Degas and you have Balthus. The interesting thing about Balthus is that he has this profound psychology in his paintings. It’s just clear there’s something not right here. But then you look at Degas who was definitely having sex with fourteen and fifteen-year-old belly dancers and his paintings are easy; there’s an ease and okay-ness and security in his paintings that has something to do with the lack of inhibition. It’s like he has no qualms about sleeping with fifteen-year-olds, as opposed to Balthus who’s just like “ah, I’m a Catholic, I can’t be thinking these things.” So it did make it more interesting. 

Right, it creates a mood. 

Yeah, that was an introduction to the magic of painting. And so for a long time I was chasing that. I’d make these images that were kind of surface level colorful and bright and kind of friendly if you’re not really looking. It was just a total wack-off. A lot of what I was trying to get at with those was how we should be critical of Balthus in a way, for being a creep, but then I realized that in my own right I was just perpetuating all this stuff. And then it was like, “okay, I’m actually just making creepy paintings.” 

Right, that’s asking the viewer to really go deep. 

Yeah, we’re reaching too far. So then I did the first black metal figure and it was this kind of sad male figure. I realized painting doesn’t just have to be sexually repressed pseudo-narrative in the landscape. It can be everything. I think that’s kind of how we get to everything I’ve been doing now. 

I like that reading of Balthus though. I feel the same way about Woody Allen movies. If you watch Manhattan, it’s impossible to not read into that knowing what he’s all about.

It’s the funniest thing because I don’t watch Woody Allen movies for that reason. Just out of protest. I never saw Woody Allen outside the context of knowing his back story so it was just too hard and weird. Why is it acceptable in film and painting? So it’s this weird thing of does an artist have to be a good person to make good art? Ultimately, no.  

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I read that you were early on into Odd Nerdrum and Eric Fischl and then later went through a big Grace Hartigan phase. Do you think that any three of those influenced your practice?

As far as the only one who’s still around, Grace Hartigan - I keep her on the bookshelves. Regarding Odd Nerdrum and Eric Fischl, they were entry level. It was good to see those people at the right time and then it was also good to be like okay I don’t really need these people anymore. It’s like relationships. You have all these arty relationships. You know, it’s like Odd Nerdrum for six months, Eric Fischl for six months. Quick flings. You cast them aside and you move on to Jasper Johns. Then you find Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner. These are more sustainable relationships and then they dissolve as serious interests and then they still stay around so they’re sort of in your friend pool. Odd Nerdrum, you banish to the deep depths. There’s no room. 

I do get really obsessed with certain artists, though.

Oh totally, yeah that’s totally natural to fall into it. And that’s kind of the magic of this whole thing: you can’t stop thinking about it.

We were talking before about people who refer to your work as happy, your work does have an inviting sense to it. Is it intentional to invite the viewer in?

I think it’s important because a lot of art willingly or unwillingly operates in this notion of elitism or like this preconceived “you must be this intelligent to enjoy...” you know?

That got really big, especially recently with guys like Dash Snow who was like, “I’m gonna jizz on a bunch of New York Post’s and if you don’t get it then you don’t get it.” I loved Dash Snow but there is a kind of snobbery in that and a play on the gullibility of the art world.

Having things be a little inviting is nice because you don’t want to shut people off; the colors are bright so initially maybe you get into that. Or like the composition, things are kind of nice looking.

I read that you’re a big Paul Verhoeven fan.

Yeah, he’s the best

That’s cool, I love him too. But I also see a parallel in the work almost. You know he was this mathematician and a high art guy but he applied his ability to trash and I feel like you portray sort of smutty imagery, whether it’s black metal imagery or porno mags, but you portray it almost gleefully and humorously. Are you interested at all in elevating trash?

I think what I got interested in through Paul Verhoeven’s work was if you look at it from one angle, you can totally buy that he’s type A. But if you look at it from some other angle he’s type B. You are asking, “Who is this guy?” What does he really believe in? So there’s this interplay between sincerity and cynicism. It’s like, either he’s really putting one over on us, or he’s dead serious about this shit. When Starship Troopers came out, everyone thought he was a Nazi propagandist you know? But he was really critiquing America and cautioning America about a fascist trajectory. 15 years later he’s considered a genius. I think in painting it’s the same thing: people can’t place me through the work. As far as this high and low thing, I think it’s important for painting, and this goes back to accessibility. It should be accessible, and by taking the highest ideas down a peg and elevating the lowest stuff, you put the work in a good position to be consumed. You can cloak weird art historical references amongst images remembered from your comic books when you were 5 years old.

There’s this great documentary about Cindy Sherman and it shows her in her studio, setting up her scene, and she’s vibing out to the Velvet Underground and she has Texas Chainsaw Massacre on in the background. Super inspiring. Do you find that the movies you watch and the music you listen to ever bleeds into the aesthetic of the thing you’re working on?

I guess obviously with the black metal thing, that was a big intrusion, and a welcome one. It’s just important to have noise. So if you can create noise that distracts you enough to get you into that weird space – you know when you have trouble sleeping because it’s too quiet? And so you turn on the TV and then you’re asleep? It’s the same way in the studio. I’ll go to the studio and put an album on and then the album will end after 40 minutes and if I’m really involved, and that album got me into a stream of good ideas, then I don’t put on another. Distraction can be a test. If I’m actually getting distracted by something then that means I need to reexamine how I’m feeling that day and get my head back in the game.

 

Ritualized Catharsis: An Interview of Hyon Gyon

text by Adam Lehrer

South Korean New York-based visual artist and painter Hyon Gyon’s Chinatown studio is hard to miss. Walking down Canal Street past the skateboarders that grind the rails along the bike path at the bottom of the Manhattan side of the Manhattan bridge, the markets that smell ripe of fish and assorted edible sea creatures, and the dizzyingly busy intersection of a diverse population, you finally take a right on Eldridge Street. Quite visibly from the opposite end of the block your eye catches an out-of-place looking two floor building with a massive sign that reads “Hyon Gyon.” The building looks more like a hut or a place of worship than an emerging visual artist’s studio. Considering Gyon’s aesthetic and work, that notion could feel rather deliberate on part of the artist. But talking to Gyon for any length of time quickly dispels that notion. Her studio is just an outgrowth of her practice, and her practice lacks any grand conceptual conceit. She channels energy into her art. What you see is simply what has come out of her.

Inside that studio is a visual world perhaps even more rarified and indicative of Gyon’s work than the locale’s exterior. The first floor is half work space and half gallery displaying several of Gyon’s large-scale and quite spectacular paintings that combine the markings of abstract expressionism and traditional Korean shamanistic imagery alongside Gyon’s scattered work materials. The room is accented by vibrant Korean carpets that cover almost the entirety of the floor. Upstairs, Gyon maintains a sizable collection of art and design books and has been stockpiling an assortments of garments that Gyon has taken to painting, deconstructing, and refashioning. At the center of the artifacts and tasteful junk is Gyon herself: ethereally beautiful, petite, and adorned in a sparkly pink top over a Rolling Stones t-shirt, she abstractly resembles the ideas that flow out of her in her work.

Gyon was attending university when she decided to be an artist professionally. Initially interested in fashion and having even worked at a studio that designed traditional Korean garments, Gyon’s decision to work in the fine arts was catapulted by the death of her grandmother. When Gyon’s grandmother passed, her family took part in a gut (pronounced: “goot”) ritual for her; in these ceremonies, a Korean shaman leads a series of sacrifices, physical gestures and prayers to the gods that theoretically enable a peaceful transition for the human spirit to leave the physical plane and enter into the spiritual plane. But in a more tangibly relatable manner, the gut ritual serves the purpose of allowing the deceased’s loved ones to move on. To purge negativity. To experience catharsis. That ritualized catharsis had a deep impact on Gyon, and she knew then that she had found her subject manner. “It’s hard to describe what happened to me,” says Gyon referring to her catharsis felt during the gut ritual. “Something in me had changed. I knew that I wanted people to experience emotion through my work.”

Gyon focuses on bold paintings and abstract sculptures with textile elements that use the faces and bodies of monstrous characters, or “incarnations” as she calls them, that are emblematic of specific emotions from the wide scale of human feeling. After working and developing her practice in Japan for 13 years, Gyon moved to New York in 2013 on a residency supported by her new dealers at Shin Gallery. The residency first resulted in a pop-up show entitled Hyon Gyon and The Factory that referenced Warhol and saw Gyon producing at truly Warholian (or should we say Herculean?) rates. This year, Shin included Gyon’s work alongside titans like Balthus and Salvador Dali in a group show entitled I Wanna Be Me that used its Sex Pistols aping title to celebrate utterly personal expression in a world of appropriation. But the greatest testament to Gyon’s talents at this juncture was her first eponymous Shin Gallery solo show that ran over the summer. The centerpiece of the show was the sculptural Headpiece that saw Gyon applying oil paints to pillows. Every pillow was its own face unlike any of the other faces and, according to Gyon, each represented a human emotion. The stacking of the pillows on top of one another and fashioning them to collide into one another was emblematic of any single human being’s psychology: chaotic and disorganized but still working together to create a definable whole. While so much of the conceptual art world explores the anxiety and paranoia that technology has unleashed upon the world populace, Gyon looks toward a concept that is, if not divine, than spiritual. Her work is awake and tapped into something that lives above the cacophony of daily existence. I had to talk to her.

LEHRER: What were you going through emotionally while in university that led you to transition into creating art works?

Gyon: During my first master course, I was working through my own personal experiences with my grandmother having just passed and that prompted me to focus on my work. I was enjoying making art, but really didn’t know what I wanted to make and I wasn’t sure what my subject matter would be. I was looking for something. We held a a “gut” ritual for her and that had a big impact on me.

LEHRER: Obviously having your grandmother pass away is an emotional event, but what was it about the ceremony specifically that you connected with making artwork?

Gyon: I was not very close with my grandmother.  I was not a good grandchild. I did very bad things to her. I regretted this. After she passed away, I couldn’t do anything for her. It made me so sad and I wanted to meet her again. 

LEHRER: So you felt making art somehow would connect you to your grandmother in the way that you couldn’t while she was alive?

Gyon: Yes. During the Guy Ceremony, I felt I could meet my grandmother, like I could talk to my grandmother. I had such negative emotions in my mind and after the ceremony, they were gone. Not completely gone, but my emotions changed.

LEHRER: Your artwork is obviously very emotional. I was curious, I read that as a child, you liked burning textiles and that this became a part of your process later on. For you, was that destructive act also a creative act?

Gyon: Mhmm

LEHRER: Could you explain that a little bit?

Gyon: As a kid, I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to play with my friends. I just wanted to be alone. My mom had a lot of fabrics and I wanted to do something with them. Draw, paint, write. But, I used a lighter. It didn’t work. It all burned

LEHRER: I’ve read articles about the fashion designer Margiela when he was still around.

Gyon: I love him

LEHRER: When people asked why he sent ripped clothing down the runway, he said for him ripping clothes is just another creative act. It’s like you’re destroying something to create something else. 

GYON: I use that process, always. When I make a painting, I’ll destroy it, remake it, destroy it. It’s much better in the end. 

LEHRER: Your work has been broken down into these five different ideas: Incarnations, hair which I guess is a metaphor for life and how life can continue after death, the stigma of the shaman lifestyle of being ostracized or put away from your community, but called upon for important funerals and things like that, and catharsis. That sounds very specific. What sort of lead you to focus on these five ideas?

Gyon: I don’t think it’s so specific. It’s about life and death. Happy or unhappy.

LEHRER: So many contemporary artists now are dealing with the paranoia surrounding the digital age and surveillance technology. But your work is still dealing with the big themes of life, death, and spirituality. Obviously you have have a laptop and Wi-Fi, but do you feel yourself consciously disconnecting from technology to get in touch with your work?

Gyon: I’m not a huge technology person.

LEHRER: That helps

Gyon: I have to use laptop, i have to use iPhone. Instagram brought you and I together, it has a power. It’s so amazing. I use it, but I am very human.

LEHRER: Are you religious or just spiritual?

Gyon: I don’t have any religion. Shamans aren’t about religion, they are spiritual. 

LEHRER: Right, and they can be like medicine men too? Healers? 

Gyon: Yes, healers. That’s why I’m interested. I’m not very interested in religions. I mean, I used to go to church and used to go to Temple. You know, the Temple is a very interesting place in Chinatown. 

LEHRER: I was wondering, too, because your work does have elements of abstract expressionism and also some figuration to it, were you influenced at all by the conventional schools of art history? Are you trying to blend these concepts of ritual with the traditions of art history?

Gyon: Blend. Everything is hybrid. I always use juxtaposition—so high culture and low culture. I am always trying to juxtapose emotion and culture. My work does not just focus on shamanism. 

LEHRER: Yeah, because it still is in the context of contemporary art and art history and things like that. So for some of your work, Headcount for instance, when I first saw it I was amazed by the way it almost implies an explosive imagination. How do all those faces and characters appear to you? And how do they flow out of you?

Gyon: They just came out. And each piece is different, with different faces. I didn’t make them as a portrait, I just filled them in with emotions. I was transformed by other people. It just came out. 

LEHRER: Do you think that they’re all feelings? 

Gyon: Yes. I don’t know, it just came out and I can’t explain why. I made it by myself. 

LEHRER: You don’t use assistants or anything? 

Gyon: Some people helped me with the sewing and stuffing the cotton, but basically I do it by myself. 

LEHRER: That’s what’s so interesting about art criticism is that sometimes we take meaning from the work that’s so much different than what’s intended. 

Gyon: So different, yeah. And I really hate that people want to know what the meaning of the painting is, of these characters. It’s too much for me. I really don’t want to explain everything, every marking

LEHRER: One thing I did want to ask you though is you used to design traditional Korean garments? When did you notice the potential in those fabrics for other creative purposes? 

Gyon: I always loved clothing. I always loved the fabrics. I wanted to be a designer more than a painter. I don’t know why I’m a painter. That experience was really amazing. I didn’t even want to be an artist because I thought that it was impossible to live as one. I just went to the interview and had no idea how to make the clothing, I still can’t do it, but the designer hired me because I was really good with using color and good at drawing. And so that’s how I started working there. It was amazing. Amazing. I didn’t know how beautiful the traditional Korean dresses were. I’m very proud of it. It’s super inspiring. I mean, that’s why I went to Japan, because I wanted to study fashion. 


Follow Hyon Gyon on Instagram. text and interview by Adam Lehrer