I think one of the most intriguing thing about your works are the colours you use. There is a dream like state to them. Do you touch on the dream world in your work and bring that element into it?
The colours are intuitive as far as how I select them. I’d like to think of a more psychological place instead of a dream world. I’m not going for a fantasy-like setting but more about the images you get when you close your eyes where there’s a black void and images start to submerge. A lot of things lend themselves to that like how all the figures in my paintings are on pedestals with no real backdrop. There is no landscape or interior behind them – they’re kind of just floating in this space, so I think of that as more of a mental or psychological space.
Is that why you never show their faces? They’re almost always hidden.
I wanted to paint a portrait of somebody without any of the key signifiers such as the face,
race and gender, so all you’re left with is the silhouette. The figure is set up as a still life scenario with these objects displayed around their feet. I always go to the person’s home and together we collect these objects that they live with and that has some sentimental meaning or perhaps they’ve just lived with it for a while, like a house plant. These things are the “debris” of life. I paint a portrait of someone through the objects they surround themselves with, through the “debris”. It’s not as literal as a traditional portrait to digest but I think it gives you a richer understanding of who they are as a person and what they’re about. The skin colour is also hidden, they’re either a synthetic yellow, or pink and orange to cover up the race of the figure. This forces the viewer to forget about the usual superficial signifiers we associate with a portrait and focus on decoding the portrait via the objects they live with.
There is also a reference to the idea of veiling both of the content and also the veiling of women in the Muslim world, keeping things private and protected. I’m thinking about that quite a bit. When I go to Dubai, I always find it interesting when you see a woman wearing a burka next to someone wearing a mini skirt and they live harmoniously. For me, the juxtaposition of the two is really interesting and trying to figure out who the person is under the protective veil. I don’t try to hide from that in my work… it does influence it, even though the work isn’t specifically about that.
So, is that where you get your inspiration from before each series of work or exhibition? From people and the objects they surround themselves with?
Yes, every single painting is of a real person that I either know very well or someone I have interacted with. I’ve actually gone into their homes and all of the objects are real. There’s a filtering process afterwards where I manipulate the photos and simplify scenarios. I edit and add objects and make a digital collage for every painting. But during the painting process I give myself the freedom to edit the painting as far as colour or pattern and visual references are concerned. My editing process is very similar to how history is edited where a person that’s writing it is changing and manipulating it to suit their selfish needs. My selfish need is to make a painting that I feel like it can stand on its own. So, if I have to manipulate an object or change the colour of a blanket over somebody’s head, I give myself the liberty to do that. They’re portraits but they’re skewed. It’s like when we meet someone and we bring our personal experiences to who we think they are. I’m trying to keep it as sincere as possible and part of that sincerity is giving myself the freedom to manipulate who they are.
The titles of your paintings make reference to the metaphysical. You use words such as ‘Infinity’, ‘Portal’, ‘The sun and the moon align’ – which is such a great title. What are you drawing from?
Part of it is that and part of it is going back to some of the psychological themes I’m interested in. The titles of most of my figurative paintings directly refer to who the person is so, it becomes another coded part of the narrative. The paintings are like coded puzzles I’ve created that the viewer has to visually unravel over a period of time. The titles are very much the same way where I’m taking words or descriptions from my interactions and creating titles that maybe only me and that person will understand. I want someone to live with my painting for a year and have a moment of discovery after that initial year. To look at one corner and see something they’ve never seen before.
So much thought must go into it because that must take a lot of time to put all of that together…
It does but a lot of it comes quickly. When I start to interact with people and discuss the objects and their histories, ideas will come to me. For example, if someone has their ancestry in Norway, that will peak my interest. There’s a specific painting right now that has a Norwegian snowflake pattern on it that didn’t exist in the person’s home. When I researched patterns from Norway, I came across a rich history of geometric snowflake patterns, so I used that and it gave me the idea to incorporate that into the title too.
I come from an abstract painting background, which is very intuitive and process oriented and with these new works, there’s some rigid structure that I have to abide to such as what the person looks like and the shape of their body. So I’m combining these two processes together and there’s this dialogue between control and chaos, or planning and accidents. That makes for a richer painting.
What are your thoughts on art in the digital age we are living in right now? What is your relationship to technology and how does that influence your work?
I have no fear of technology and embrace it. I’m a big fan of using Facebook to connect with people and growing your art community as well as your audience. I’ve met artists that I’ve become real life friends with. I also love Instagram and use it as a visual diary of what’s going on in my studio. I just had a show in San Francisco at the Gallery Wendi Norris where people came up to me and told me they were following my works on Instagram before the opening. For me, that enriches the art viewing experience. I love following other artists too and seeing the techniques they use.
I also use technology as part of my direct painting process as I come from a background in graphic design. I manipulate photos digitally and I collage them. So, I use it as another tool just as I would use another tube of paint.
Can you tell us more about your work at Beautiful Decay and what the vision behind that?
Beautiful Decay was a publication I started as a teenager with my neighbour, Jay Littleton.
After a couple of issues we stopped it. I decided to start it again as a project after I left undergraduate school to publicise art work that I liked and wasn’t seeing out there, interviewing artists I didn’t have access to in books. This was before many artists had blogs or websites so information on young artists was scarce. Over time it kept getting bigger and bigger and before I knew it, it wasn’t an art school project anymore but a fully blown publication with an international distribution. The content was an extension of my studio practice and always revolved around art, design and sub-culture but over the years, as I matured the content matured with it and started to focus more on art. I recently decided to stop regularly printing the magazine just to have more time to focus on my own work. So now, there’s an online blog with contributors from all over the world. The website has shown to be more popular than the printed publications themselves as the reach is so much wider.
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
I’m working on a suite of eight-large scale portraits for my show in December at The Third Line. I wanted to deal with the history of commission portraiture specifically, but kind of turn it on its head. I created a contract between the eight collectors who agreed to this project where before starting any work, I would ask them to pick out from three different sizes of canvases I dictated and pay for the painting upfront. I would then go to their homes and do my regular process of creating this narrative portrait of them. However, during the entire painting process, these collectors wouldn’t have any input or even see the painting that I’m working on.
Historically, the commissioned portraiture involved the artist becoming a tool to realise the vision of the collector. So, there’s a rich history of the collectors manipulating what the painting would look like and how they were being depicted. I wanted to take back the power into the artist’s hands and be in complete control of what the image looks like. It’s interesting because the collectors are putting their trust in the artist, where historically, that wasn’t the case.
The collectors will see their paintings for the first time at the opening. So, there could be eight collectors who are very happy and excited to see their work or hate their portraits. I like the tension that that creates both for the collector and the artist. I’m not trying to make a bad painting or upset the collector, my goal is for them to walk in and cry tears of joy…
In all my works, I like to take these traditional tropes and turn them on their head in some way.
It’s the same thing with the floral still life paintings that I’m doing, which are based on a traditional painting from the Dutch and Flemish golden age. I’m manipulating and re-appropriating them by taking digital cut outs from the scanned images, which are then used as collage elements in the new paintings. So, my paintings have remnants of the original source material but they’re completely remixed; it’s almost like an indirect collaboration with some of these master painters from the 1800’s.
What was your educational background and how did it have an influence on your work? Looking back, how important was it for you to have had that background?
I got my BFA in Baltimore, from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). It’s a very good art institution and one of the oldest in the country. I had two key professors, Claudia Matzko and Karl Connolly who brought the New York and LA art world into the classroom and expanded my horizons and ambitions. They showed me this huge world I didn’t even know about.
Karl taught traditional figurative painting, which I wasn’t interested in at all but I kept taking his classes. He saw I was a hard worker and let me do whatever I wanted to. It’s funny because at that time, he taught me how to do glaze painting and I’d never use it and now I’m doing glaze painting – it finally effected my work! So, that was an amazing experience and really important. When you’re learning technique it gives you time to think. If you’re serious about your practice and about being an artist, having that interaction with other artists, instructors, with reading material really helps to open you to what’s out there.
I also went to UCLA graduate school for painting and drawing. They had a dream team of world-class artists instructing you there and taught you more about how to think rather than technique. It took several years to figure out what graduate school specifically was about as I was only 22 years old. I had studio visits with John Baldessari, who was one of my professors, Cathy Opie, Matthew Barney. So, to have these powerful art figures come in can be overwhelming at that age. It was a lot to take in and took time to digest and come into the work that I’m doing now.
Final question, what word of advice or guidance could you give to students and aspiring artists especially those who are living out in the Middle Eastern region and who want to get their work out there and make a living as an artist?
There are some very basic things that everyone should do such as reading and seeing as much art as you can while you’re still in school. If you want to be an artist, you have to know what’s going in that industry. When I teach or do studio visits, I always ask the artist what other artists they’re looking at. Another thing that can be really helpful is having something as basic as a website. It’s a tool and should be easy to use and navigate, not over-complicated. My wife actually started an online platform to build websites for artists after she would hear me complain about how unprofessional some of the websites I would be looking at were. She created an app called, MadewithColor.com, that allows you to build your website without using any coding, so it’s easy and super inexpensive. It’s a great tool and I use it for my own website. Having a business card, going to openings…
these are all inexpensive and so many opportunities come out of it.
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Interview by Nina Mahdavi.
All images are courtesy of the artist and The Third Line.