Pauline and I recently had the great pleasure to spend some time in Evan Gruzis’ Red Hook studio. There, he talked about his techniques and inspirations, including Joseph Conrad and the seductive mystery of the tropics.
Alexandre Stipanovich: What's coming up in the world of Evan Gruzis?
Evan Gruzis: I'll be doing a show called 'Exotic Beta' at The Hole, which opens on September 10th. That week, I'll also be presenting 'Shadow Work' at Nicole Klagsbrun Project on 24th Street. Then in the spring of next year, another solo show in Berlin with Duve – Alex Duve. Other than that, I’m doing some commissions and trying to finish everything in time, breaking out into some new mediums.
AS: You seem to use a lot of 80s imagery in your work.
EG: I do – Memphis School, New Wave album covers… I mean, it’s sort of a regurgitation of a lot of constructivist themes – obviously totally vapid in 1980s. But to me, this style is the most visually dramatic abstraction, but with the least amount of content. That’s what’s exciting about it.
AS: There's always something mysterious about your figures, there’s no life in them.
EG: My figures are all mannequins, so there’s no life in my work. Other than some of my celestial figures made from splatter paint. The mannequin series uses an object that is shaped like a human being. So, it’s really a still life with no metaphors. You know, Dutch still lives used to have things like flowers wilting to represent transience and fruits on a table to represent youth. But when you have an object shaped like a human being, it's a still life without metaphor. It’s also a familiar figure, so it’s very pop, in a way. I’m interested in something being a still life and a portrait at the same time.
AS: You mainly use black, but there’s also a lot of light in your paintings.
EG: Yeah, I’d say that the sense of light is the common denominator for all my work.
AS: How did you come up with your technique?
EG: The technique evolved out of a frustration with oil paint. It was taking me too long to make oil paintings, like over a year for one painting. So I switched to a medium I could get a similar sense of light with – ink. And it’s fast drying. Then I realized I could get around the history and theory of painting by working on paper, while retaining the luminosity of something like oil painting. And I love paper. It takes the ink so well, just like getting from here to here [points to work]
– that gradient, is so satisfying for me. However, with painting, It’s nice to have an object that you don’t have to put behind glass. A painting is just there. You don’t have to frame a fucking painting. You don’t have to look through glass.
AS: What about your colors?
As far as colors go, I don’t use earth tones. I want to keep everything looking artificial and relating to the sky, the atmosphere, and nothing that has to do with the horizon or the ground. So you’ll notice that almost everything is floating or weightless in the work. The overarching theme is taking something that’s vapid and making it beautiful. It has to do with the conflict of looking at something that's visually engaging and recognizable because it’s part of a pop culture lexicon, but has no content to it. I’m trying to get at a space where the meaning is up to the viewer and the references are very general.
AS: Your LA Acid series, based on notes you made high on LSD, is interesting. Are all of your paintings influenced by drug experience?
EG: Not directly, no. I try not to put that in there but I thought these pieces warranted it. They were exciting formal projects, and dressing up these images dramatically with color was something that was fun to do. So I think I’ll do more versions of these. But drugs, as a theme, isn’t something I’m excited about. Drug references, in art, overtly refer to a third experience that may or may not be relatable for the viewer. So they represent a kind of separateness, which is a double-edged sword. For the theme to carry meaning, the viewer has to be aware that the artist is aware of how it's being used.
AS: There’s exoticism in your work.
EG: I think so – the American West, the Tropics.
AS: You’ve referenced Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in past interviews. How would you say it relates to this work?
EG: Heart of Darkness
is encountering The Other, you’re going into the exotic. It’s a detailed account of putting your psyche to its limit by dealing with otherness. Maybe more so than Apocalypse Now
, the original Joseph Conrad story really affected me a decade ago, when I was looking for a sense of light in my paintings. I always aimed towards dusk – this liminal space between night and day. There’s no reference point to what time it is. It’s going into the exotic. It’s going deep within. The Conrad story is a metaphor for going into your own mind, into the depths of your fears and what you’re capable of as an animal. That really doesn’t have that much to do with my work, but that feeling of anxiety is something I wanted to evoke.
AS: There’s something enigmatic in your paintings – the palm trees and the noir, detective vibe. Like something is about to happen.
EG: It's more about potential energy than something actually happening, yeah. I think atmosphere is maybe the most important thing.
AS: With the bright neons, there’s also a nightclub kind of feel.
I’m interested in the staging and how light is used to dramatize subject matter rather than what’s happening on the stage. I’m more interested in the physical elements of theater that are phenomenological, rather than the narrative ones.
AS: So it’s the setting more than the character.
EG: Yes, definitely. It’s only the setting and hopefully not the character.
AS: The character can have the magic on their own. He can be cosmic, but he has no personality really. It’s just a magical being.
EG: Just like me – just kidding. I think I have a personality. I don’t know, maybe not. I hope so.
Photos by Pauline Beaudemont. Photos of artwork courtesy of Evan Gruzis.
It Takes Two