Kathy Grayson (whom we featured back in March) talks with New York artist Evan Gruzis about his deceptively photographic ink paintings, his early influences, and suggested reading for his upcoming exhibition at Deitch Gallery in October.
Can you tell briefly where you have lived the past few years and how those places might appear in or shape your artworks?
Before I lived in New York I lived in Los Angeles. I remember coming 'home' to a warehouse in which my friend and I were essentially squatting - this is right before the condos took over downtown. There was film crew (typical) setting up in the shitty, old alley nearby and they had painted over my door to make it look shittier - fake graffiti over the real graffiti, lit with scary colored lights. They prop department had put out some broken looking crates and someone had smashed some tomatoes on the ground to make it look like a dirty old alley. But that was just it, it already was a dirty old alley! Here were these people making this place look more like an imagined version of itself. And there I was looking at my own door and suddenly not recognizing it. I was in my reality and a fictional version of that reality simultaneously. Wait, what was the question?
Can you mention a bit of the complicated process it takes to make ink paintings that are so deceptively layered and photographic?
I can't tell you all my secrets, but I can tell you there's a liberal use of water. I always stretch my paper and work in big all-encompassing washes. This ensures the flatness of the paper and makes for smooth gradations - that photographic quality. And I'm always thinking about contrast, like: "This part has to be pure white, and this part has to be the slightest bit gray, and this part almost black..." These minute considerations create a sense of light that's believable.
Were you always encouraged to pursue your art or were there setbacks along the way?
My parents encouraged me to do what I was interested in, and for that I'm lucky and grateful. But let's be honest, encouragement doesn't make art. There were many years of just living hand to mouth and figuring it out, trying to make work, trying to get people to see it. Once a gallerist invited me to bring him some images, so I went to his space with a folder of printouts. I gave them to him, and he as he was holding them in his hand he looked me in the eye and said, "Yeah...now's a really really busy time? So...I won't get to look at these for at least six months." I was so stunned I just turned around and walked away.
When you were a younger person who were some early early art influences? Like before you knew all about galleries and museums and the art market?
I was lucky because I was taken to the art museum early in life. I remember being afraid of a Haim Steinbach sculpture that used halloween masks. But my interests were all over the place. As I kid I loved Steve Martin. When I was about five, I would listen to "A Wild and Crazy Guy" and flip out. Then there was MTV. It was mysterious to me - I had to get it at my friends' houses who had cable! My buddy Sam and I would make elaborate drawings based on Peter Gabriel videos. Later, I went through this phase where I was obsessed with Japanese gardens. I remember a diagram in a book I had showing how, in a Western garden, things (like rocks or shrubs) of different heights would be arranged with the stress on order and symmetry. But in a Japanese garden, they would be organized in an intentionally random way, like nature, to create compositions that used scalene triangles. I don't know why, but I always remember that. When I was a teenager, a family friend that knew art gave me some catalogues; Felix Gonzales-Torres, Cindy Sherman, and some others. I was like, "Who are these wild and crazy people"?
Was going to hunter a necessary step in your development?
I think so. I went there with a few years distance from undergrad, hungry to be in New York and ready to start a career in art, which made it all the more valuable to me. I was able to hone my work ethic and get peer feedback - stuff that was hard on my own in LA. Really crucial stuff. Plus, I was able to catch-up on some philosophy - Beaudrillard, Jameson, Lacan, Bourriaud, Adorno, Benjamin, Zizek, Hart & Negri - people like that. Personally, I'm not much of a theory-head, but once you get into the stuff you realize, "Hmm, I can really use this to explain what I'm doing."
What was it like exhibiting work in your first big show in berlin?
Incredible and nerve-wracking. I had never even been to Europe before, so everything was new. My gallery did a great job introducing me to to the city, and I thought the show looked great. I'll admit I was worried about how the show would be received. At the opening I was just amazedly watching people look at the work and trying not to get too drunk. It turned out they liked what they saw. Berlin is a fantastic place for art.
What are you looking forward to about the deitch exhibition in october?
I'm really excited about this one, it's my first solo endeavour in New York! We're going to make an accompanying book that I think will nicely summarize what I'm doing and where I'm going. It's going to be called Dark Systems. I'm just catching a wave of new ideas, so the work will retain it's present quality, but there will be some explorations. I'm feeling fresh about it! Deitch works with some really cool artists so I hope my work lives up. We're inviting everybody to the opening - it's going to be a bash!
If you were to create a "suggested reading" section for your exhibition, what fiction or non fiction would go in tandem with your artworks?
The Informers and Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, The Razor's Edge by W. Sommerset Maughm, Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, The Braindead Megaphone and Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Ask The Dust by John Fante, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix by Eugene Delacroix, and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
You have a tight repertoire of imagery or themes in your work: how do you know when you have exhausted one of them? Or are they inexhaustible to you?
I know I've exhausted my themes when I'm just thinking of ways to recombine them. They've been created for a reason in the work, so they must be deployed for a reason. When I'm just moving them around like letters in Scrabble, I know I've got to go somewhere new.
Are any of these strange beings self-portraits?
They made me promise not to answer that question.
What ways have you approached using color in what is often a monochrome body of work?
Seeing colors happens not only through the eyes, but through association and prior knowledge. For instance, if I draw a digital clock, you're likely to imagine the numbers as red or green. A palm tree, though it's in black and white, is tree colored, brown and green. So, for many things the viewer doesn't need me to tell them what color it is, they already know. When I add real color, it's a rogue accent to make something a color it's not, or to create an area of color that enhances the vividness of the drawing. I guess ultimately for me, color is like that guy you invite to the party only sometimes.
How would you describe the sense of humor that runs through these works? Is it a cynical humour? Black humour? Or is it more optimistic?
I going to take a stand and say that I don't advocate cynicism. Think about it: what does it generate other than negative rhetoric, more cynicism? I want my work to be more open than that. I treat what I do as absurdist and sometimes satirical, modes that have tradition within culture and media. These can often resemble cynicism, and it's tricky not to cross the line. Much of my work is intentionally vapid, but I don't intend it to be negative. I believe that meaning can't be created, only sought after. I view art as creating parameters under which to look for meaning. So, each of my pieces are a void in which the search for meaning occurs. But, like you said, there's a sense of humor. I suppose I feel that the act of viewing art can be satirical. And I'm saying to the viewer, "Here we are together, doing this strange thing, both searching for something. Funny, isn't it?"
What frustrations did you have with oil painting, or was your move to works on paper based on other concerns?
I love oil paintings, but I was taking too in long creating them. I also came up against the history of painting, which was complicating the reception of my work. Some of the furtive irony was obfuscated by the reality of the paint surface. I was inhabiting different characters as I made the paintings, and people, including myself, were getting confused. I had too many ideas and not enough canvas. That's where the paper came in. I like its relationship to the poster, you don't have as many decisions to make concerning it's objecthood. Since I've started making drawings, what few paintings I've made have been very sculptural. I've been interested in Allen McCollum's Surrogate Paintings for a while now - they're just these great art-like objects that have a certain presence. Even though my drawings are fundamentally different on a conceptual level because of their materialism and being representational, I think of them in a similar way - these art-like images that have a certain presence.
What advice would you give young artists who are interested primarily in making works on paper?
Spend some money and explore as many materials as you can. Get good paper and use it all the time. If you're making preparatory sketches on crappy paper and then buying one nice piece of paper for your final version, that's like training for the Indy 500 by driving a minivan around the block. Also, incorporate your mistakes. Don't get discouraged if something goes differently than planned, instead think of it as a unique part of your personal interaction with the materials. Be patient, especially with water-based media. Respect your own work and store it properly. Think of each work not as an image on one side of a piece of paper, but as a whole, as though the paper is an extremely flat sculpture. Some people say to save everything - I disagree. If you have doubts about throwing something away, you should keep it. But, if you absolutely hate something, it's okay to destroy it. It's a good way to remind yourself that it's just a piece of paper.
Be sure to note Evan Gruzis show @Deitch Gallery opening in October '08.
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