Friday, February 29, 2008

Interview: Evan Venegas

Last fall, I stumbled onto a small shop and gallery in Long Island City that was showing the work of an artist whose work really impressed me. It was the work of Evan Venegas.

I decided to ask him a few questions about his work, so here's my conversation with him:

--"Broadway Boogie Woogie," 1943; Museum of Modern Art

Ryan Witte: Who are some of your greatest influences from the history of Art? In reading your statement about taking inspiration from the city, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie pieces popped into my head, though obviously your work is very different from his.

Evan Venegas: The more I learn about an artist who broke new ground, the more I am inspired by their work: Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Impressionism; Kandinsky for writing "Concerning the Spirituality in Art," a book that changed the way I see art; Gustave Courbet for being the rebel who invented the Avant Garde; Ad Reinhardt for painting the last painting! Just to name a few.

RW: I see you're inspired by electronic music; me, too. What/ who are you listening to a lot lately?

EV: I listen to Sunday Soul every Sunday (internet broadcast), I listen to Dub Reggae, and anything that my brother Onionz is working on in his studio. Electronic music is so broad and I like that title. My brother always laughs when people try to label his sound and I understand why. I think that is really limiting to label what an artist is doing.

RW: Do you usually have music playing while you paint?

EV: I do, I also really like listening to talk radio, like informative programs such as "Please Explain" on WNYC. During the summer I will always listen to the Mets game on the radio, that is probably my favorite. You know baseball is not the most fast paced game in the world, so the commentators have a real knack for keeping the crowd interested during the lulls of the game.

RW: What kind of studio space do you have and is it in Long Island City? What kind of environment do you consider most conducive to your work?

EV: I do have a studio in LIC and I really like it. I have all the things I need here and it is very comfortable. It takes me a little bit of time to get situated in a new space, maybe a couple of months to a year. Things work really well when I don't have to think about where my paints or brushes are and it becomes like a natural instinct; this way I don't have to break my concentration. I have to have a place where I can make coffee and tea.

--"42BW," oil on canvas, 2008

--"ISLET," oil on wood, 2008

--"OUTOL," oil on canvas, 2008

RW: I see your process is akin to stream-of-consciousness, but the sort of "objects" in your work often look fairly complex, geometrically. Do you have an image in your head before you begin and let it evolve on the canvas, or do you just sort of start painting and see where it goes?

EV: Well, that is an interesting question because I can't really answer either of those with a "yes" or "no." Sometimes I have a glimpse in my mind of some images before I start painting. Then once I start working, I don't paint what I visualized in the past, but sometimes those images come through. I do sort of build on things; I don't just let things evolve without directing it the way I want. I did in the past just paint in a way where images just flowed uncontrollably. I noticed that I was painting the same painting over and over. Maybe I still am now. These days though, I do build over existing shapes and work more three-dimensionally; that has expanded a lot of what I do.

--"CONSTRUCT-C," latex on wood, 2006

--"PB3," oil on wood, 2007

--"PORTEA," oil on canvas, 2008

RW: Your forms are also very sculptural, in a way. Have you done any work in three dimensions, or are you more intrigued by, say, the mysterious, ambiguous quality the forms take because they're represented in paint?

EV: Well, I have done some 3-D pieces and some of the stuff I am doing in the studio is more sculptural. I do really love the flat plane that is a "canvas;” it has a special place in my heart.

RW: Working on wood seems to give your recent work a real sharpness and clarity, while oil is a somewhat warm, organic medium. Does that relationship complement this idea of the human experience of the city, or is there another reason you've been working with these materials?

EV: Well, I do like to switch it up; it sort of keeps me on my toes. I haven't been able to use oils for a little bit now, as I have switched to acrylics due to an allergy. I started using oils when I was twelve and I guess it sort of caught up to me. I love canvas for painterly organic pieces, this allows for the paint to really speak and where I feel that I can really express myself with the medium. With wood, I find that I get a more graphic hard-edged result, so I'll use that when I am feeling like I want crisp shapes that do lean more towards the industrial side. I don't find myself consciously deciding which one to use, unless I have a specific reason. I find that for smaller scale work I like to work on wood and for larger scale I like to work on canvas, maybe because the canvas is lighter.

--"PB3," oil on wood, 2007

--"ALG," oil on canvas, 2008

--"DSTR," oil on canvas, 2008

RW: In my first correspondence, I said some of your pieces look like the inside of the body of a cyborg. Is there something there about our experience of ourselves, bodies, in the city--in a highly mechanized, digital age--or was I way off base?

EV: You aren't off base at all. The shape constructions I use are all influenced by the urban surroundings. The human body is a big part of the fabric that makes up the cityscape, although I am not painting representationally, at all. I do notice that sometimes a soft, rounded, delicate, yet heavy shape is necessary to bring together the painting that I am working on. That sort of shape I equate to a human symbol, maybe it's an appendage or intricate detail. Sometimes the symbols are intricate, like the way eyelashes whimsically flow and repeat themselves alongside each other.

--"WIRING," oil on wood, 2008

--"SCRB1," Giclee print, 2008

The digital question you raise is interesting. I know that visually I draw a lot from the Industrial, the way plumbing was built 50 years ago and how bricks were laid. I think we interact differently within the digital realm than with the concrete objects of the city. I am inspired by digital technology and how it is changing our culture. That is some of what I am doing in my new work like "SCRB1" and "WIRING;" the objects are isolated and contained. I sometimes see how the digital age makes us way more complex as individuals, yet we seem to have become so much more isolated.

RW: I see you went to Parsons. So did I, for one semester anyway. Wasn't that Color Theory class with all the Color-aid paper insane?

EV: Oh, yeah. I'm really glad I was there for Foundation Year. I learned so much in those classes. I was there for only Foundation and I was glad to get that training. The San Francisco Art Institute was almost a polar opposite, where we were given almost no structure and complete freedom. I learned so much from the professional artists helping me to understand my vision and how to make that my primary goal.

Venegas has prints and also t-shirts at his online shop, by the way. I got one of the shirts, they're quite nice.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Friday, February 22, 2008

Your Gallery

One of my favorite groups of designers, CITIZEN:Citizen, has just launched a new blog that I think is extremely interesting.  It's called Virtually Mine.  Here's an explanation from their press release:

In opposition to current trends of glamorising design as elitist and expensive work, Virtually Mine celebrates the everyday and the personal asking one to rethink their possessions and explore how they value the objects in their life.

For the exhibition in Houston, visitors were invited to bring their own objects or designs into the gallery. Each item was photographed, recorded, tagged with a unique ID and added to the digital archive. Each guest was also asked to write about what the object meant to him or her. This information and the objects digital record was then uploaded to the virtual archive.

This whole idea truly calls into question the qualifications of good design.  Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" was very possibly the most important work of art in the 20th-Century, because it said "it is art, only and precisely because an artist says it's art."  C:C is almost taking that back away from the world of Design by divorcing the objects' value from beauty and aesthetics, and handing it over to things like Use, History, and Memory.  It also poses an important question about what the role of the curator really should be.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fires Old and New

Oh, holy cow.

First, somebody sets this on fire:
--Photo: Sean in Japan

The Namdaemun (Sungnyemun) Gate in Seoul, Korea.  This thing was built in 1398.  1398.  That number doesn't even look like a year.  Over six-hundred years ago.  The oldest wooden structure in Korea.  What kind of low-life scum puts a match to something like that?  I mean, really.  If it makes any sense, I almost hope it was an act of well-structured political rebellion rather than just some punk kid with no respect for beauty or history.

And then this burns to a blackened crisp:
The VilLA NM by UNStudio

The phrase "modern masterpiece" has come up, and that's certainly debatable.  What's for certain is that this house was devastatingly cool. UNS got one fantastic client who really let them be as expressive and free as they liked.  The interiors looked like something out of a late-1960s Science-Fiction film, but at times were surprisingly warm.  It sat on the site like a glimmering cybernetic jewel.

If nothing else, VilLA NM was extremely NOW.  This one had only been standing for a year.  One year.  Ironic it may be, but I almost find that every bit as tragic.  Like the death of a newborn baby, it never even got a chance to live.

And it's not even like they were just damaged by fire.  Both of them were completely devastated.

The Namdaemun I think I read they're going to try to rebuild.  But you can obviously never really get that ancient complexity, creak and groan, the comforting smell, or power of that astonishing Asian wood-frame construction back again.  It's just gone.  VilLA NM I'm sure will never be rebuilt, but nor should it.  It was a moment in time, and so new, it would be silly to try to recreate it now.  It would make a lot more sense to do something brand new to 2008, rather than bring 2006 back.

It's a smoky dark week for Architectural History, that's for sure.

Namdaemun Gate 1398-2008
VilLA NM 2006-2008
May they R.I.P.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thoughts on Transportation

Highways, historically, have a strange effect.  The more you build, the more cars there will be to fill them up.  NYC--and especially Manhattan--resists automobiles like no other city.  Not its residents, so much, but just the practicalities: parking is a nightmare or ridiculously expensive or so far from where you're going it's hardly worth it, traffic can be so bad you could get to your destination faster by walking, the huge number of pedestrians themselves (who have absolute right-of-way, always) cause traffic blockage.  But Robert Moses' highways and bridges did what they do, despite all that.

So why doesn't the same thing happen with mass transit systems?  So many cities build them and they end up being all but a complete failure.  Obviously a city like Los Angeles resists public transportation.  But that kind of resistance made no difference to car owners commuting to NYC.  "They don't go where the commuters need them to go" isn't exactly a valid reason, either, because in the early days of rail travel, whole towns grew up around where the rails were laid, not the other way around.  

Maybe that's the problem, though.  The trains may take you from where you live to where you work, but then you're stuck, in a city like LA (and plenty of others).  Work out at the gym before going to the office?  You have to drive there.  Need a carton of milk on the way home?  You have to drive there.  No PTS could realistically go to all those places.

It's kind of a Catch 22, in fact.  Businesses would have no reason to expect a PTS to be successful and provide a steady source of customers, so they don't group themselves around transit hubs.  Because there aren't conveniences grouped around transit hubs, the PTS remains useless to commuters.  I can't help thinking that cycle could be made to spin the other direction, though.  If all sorts of little businesses (gyms, dry cleaners, small groceries, newsstands, coffee shops and cafes, banks, cellphone dealers) were given tax breaks or whatever else to grow in those kind of areas, it could potentially work, I believe.

Ryan Witte

Tiny Cork Chairs

This is so cute!

Design Within Reach held a contest to see what kind of a chair people could make using nothing but the foil, wire, and cork from two champagne bottles.

A friend of mine and I always laugh and ask "Within Reach of whom?" because their stuff really isn't all that cheap.  They do have a great line, though, and this is a really awesome contest.  I wish they'd shown more of the entries on their website, but I guess we'll just have to go to see them in person.  I might haul myself all the way over to Brooklyn tonight except that it's like -20° out there at this point.  And it would appear to be tonight only that they're on display.

It's hard also to get a feeling of scale, but they must be incredibly tiny if they're carved out of a champagne cork, etc...but the entries look SO precise.  I just don't know how they did it.

Ryan Witte

Monday, February 4, 2008

Another Paul Rudolph Masterpiece

During the late House & Garden Magazine's "Design Happening," I went to see this townhouse by Paul Rudolph, completed in 1994.  If this series of lectures and events is any indication, it's no wonder the publication went out of business; the whole thing was run extremely poorly.  The woman organizing this particular one was just beyond rude.

One of the speakers was an historian, Donald Albrecht, who knew quite a lot about Rudolph, the other was Rudolph's lighting designer, Ernst Wagner, who also still lives in the house.  My friend and I had arrived a bit early, and were the first ones there. Wagner let us in and was really very, very sweet and hospitable.

The house is on East 58th Street, if I remember correctly.  Rudolph evidently had another house on Beekman Place where he spent most of his time, but he used this address to play around and test out different ideas.

Click on the pictures for larger views.

It was revealed later that the front facade actually reads as the interior of the house in section: the arrangement of all the floors and circulation routes and everything else, all the way to the back.

Living/ Music Room/ Library:

If you look closely, the white horizontal sort of shelves in front of the glassware are actually stairs leading up to the second floor:

TV Room/ Dining/ Back Terrace:

All images ©2007, Heidi Gelover and Ryan Witte