Joshua Abelow is an artist living and working in New York. He runs ART BLOG ART BLOG, which functions as a blog, a website, and a newspaper. Abelow uses absurd humor, geometric abstraction, expressive figuration, repetition, and text to create works with layered meaning. Abelow recently sat down with painter and writer Jason Stopa to discuss his work and upcoming exhibit at James Fuentes. His show is entitled, Abelow on Delancey, and runs from October 10 through November 10, 2013.
Jason Stopa (Rail): Looking at the paintings you have on the walls here in your house, I feel they carry an explicit joke that one just gets, followed by an inside joke. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit?
Joshua Abelow: For a while I guess I felt like the joke was on me [Laughs.] You know, trying to be a painter—it’s difficult and, well, the joke is still on me—but now I’m sharing the joke with other people. When you say an “inside joke” I think you may mean that people who know a lot about painting or went to art school and are steeped in that art-historical stuff would be more cued into certain jokey elements in the work.
Rail: Particularly in this painting [referring to a work in Abelow’s house] with the words “HAR HAR HAR HAR,” it’s the sound of the laugh and then it’s repeated and descending vertically on the painting. I begin thinking about what the joke means in terms of what the painting is. So there’s a double joke, a knowing wink and a nod, like a “you get it?” kind of thing.
Abelow: There’s definitely the quick read, and then there’s a more maniacal side to it because of the obsessiveness and the repetition. I think that the more maniacal side of it is what interests me personally.
Rail: Are you a maniacal guy? [Laughs.]
Abelow: I don’t know.
Rail: On one level the joke is humorous, but because it’s repetitive it stops being funny and it gets a little scary or sad, depending on the joke.
Abelow: Well, I also wanted—and this is just one example—but I think in general with pretty much all of my paintings I try to, through the use of fairly traditional painterly concerns—color, surface, composition—just, you know, like seductive oil paint, I try to draw somebody in but then I like to slap them in the face with something that’s butting up against the very thing that maybe made somebody want to look at the painting in the first place. This painting—there’s some drips and stains—it could even be in conversation with a Rothko.
Rail: There is a color field quality to it.
Abelow: With “HAR HAR HAR HAR” it begs the question: who is the painting laughing at? Is the artist laughing at himself or is the painting laughing at the viewer who is trying to think about what the painting means? I think it’s funny that the painting would not only mock the maker but also the viewer.
Rail: As if the painting has an agenda itself, it’s autonomous, and has its own attitude about it?
Abelow: Yes. The meaning of the painting is determined, to a large extent, by what it is next to or near it, like in this room for example, the painting is next to Brian Belott’s Cat. [Laughs.]
Rail: Something that’s interesting about the way that you work is that the context upon which things are placed changes the meaning of the object. Meaning is not fixed—everything has fluidity in that everything relates to something else. Some artists may start off saying that they’re a certain kind of painter, or they only work in sculpture, etc.—a much more linear way of working. How did you start working in this way?
Abelow: A huge shift happened for me when I stopped trying to make big paintings, and by that I mean paintings that contain all the information. When I was younger I wanted to put the whole world into the painting. Later, my thinking evolved and I decided to start making smaller work. Placing things next to one another to create meaning became really natural. I especially noticed that when I started putting text into some of the paintings. When I was in grad school at Cranbrook, I noticed that the way the work was placed in the room completely altered the conversation during the crit and that became really, really fascinating.
Rail: Tell me about the work that you’re making for this show that you’ve got at James Fuentes?
Abelow: I had this great studio in Chelsea all summer where I had the opportunity to make some bigger work—nothing huge, but bigger than usual. The last show I had there was over two years ago and the bulk of the works were 12 by 9 inch paintings and then some 24 by 18 inch paintings. This time there’s going to be a good number of paintings which are 40 by 30 inches—paintings with text that directly refer to my blog, ART BLOG ART BLOG. In conjunction with this show, I’m doing a book called Art Time—the background of the pages in the book are composed of screenshots from my blog during a four year period. I took these screenshots and then I jumbled them up so time is not linear. A lot of the paintings and drawings in this show are going to be put on top of these ART BLOG ART BLOG backgrounds. I also have 17 new pencil drawings at the framers right now for the show.
Rail: Do you think about surrealism, or that time period a lot?
Abelow: Yeah I do. I think about Picabia and the “Vache” period of Magritte in particular. I’ve appropriated their work from various time periods and put it directly into my drawings. Of course, when I say “appropriate” I mean I open up a book and I use it as reference material to make a drawing—my drawing isn’t going to be an exact replica—I’m not pulling out the projector, that’s not my objective. I’m just looking at their work to get the wheels going upstairs. It’s a way of inserting myself into an art-historical moment and then pulling out. I’ve seen a lot of rare Magritte’s—there’s the Magritte that everybody knows and then there’s this Magritte that is incredibly weird and kind of like a secret. I think some of the stuff that’s less recognizable is pretty great.
Rail: Often, the works that haven’t received as much attention in an artists’ oeuvre, at this point, are the ones that our generation seems to be most curious about.
Rail: We got art history in the sense of “These are the greatest hits of…” say, Rothko.
Abelow: Yeah, you do the Art History 101 lecture and you get the big names and the major works. That’s what’s exciting about moving to New York or Berlin—every day you can find something you’ve never seen.
Rail: There are other things that creep into the work that are pretty funny. When I was in your studio I saw a few paintings of a stick figure with a giant boner…
Abelow: [Laughs.] Yeah, he’s going to show up a lot in the show!
Rail: [Laughter.] Do you want to talk about that a little? The stick man? And there was another series of phone numbers?
Abelow: A lot of the text-based work started at Cranbook. The first text-based piece I did was 72 oil paintings on linen hanging in a grid. The text alternated, “HANG ME HANG ME HANG ME HANG ME” and “HARDER FASTER HARDER FASTER.” And I liked that there were all these different ways you could read it. Like there were implications of suicide and I was also thinking about the painting’s desire: what do the paintings want to do? The paintings want to hang. And then I like that the word “HARDER” was broken up so that it also said “HAR” over and over again, which acted as a cue to the fact that there was some humor going on. Another text-based idea that I started developing was the “Call Me” paintings. I would write “Call Me” on the painting and then I thought, well instead of just writing “Call Me,” I’m going to literally paint my cell phone number. I liked how that could be performative in the sense that it sort of dared somebody to call or text me—a stranger. And I thought that was kind of interesting. They started out on monochrome backgrounds. I put the idea away for about a year and then I came back to it when I started making these little geometric paintings in 2010. I tried to set up visual rhythms with the arrangements of the work. I’d have a few paintings on the wall—geometric, geometric, geometric, and then a self-portrait. Or, geometric, geometric, geometric, and then something with text on it. The oddball painting was there to undermine the system. I started painting the phone number directly on top of the geometric abstractions, which I saw as a way of defacing or vandalizing the painting and also disrupting the logic of this pure abstraction that people seem to put on a pedestal. So, that’s where that idea came from. At the same time that I was developing these little geometric paintings, I was starting to push these absurd, satirical self-portrait drawings of the Artist with a capital A. Over time, the character with the beanie and the cigarette, “the painter,” evolved into this idea of “the performer” which is where this stick figure man with the big hands, the funny shoes, the top hat, and the giant dick is coming from. It’s the idea of art making as a kind of perverse performance.
Rail: There’s this idea of the artist that’s been around for a long time that you were just describing: living in bohemia on the margins of society. It’s something that’s been around since the late 19th century, coming out of romanticism. And now we live in a world that’s really different. In some ways it’s still the same, but the artist struggles to have that bubble around them, that mystery…
Abelow: The bubble of solitude?
Rail: Yeah, I mean especially in New York. I think in other places it’s different, but in New York you wind up having this very visible life. You’re going to openings, you’re engaging with other artists, writers, curators. Sometimes you just want some space and quiet. But, if you become a full recluse, you’d kind of cut yourself off from—
Rail: Opportunities, yeah. With our generation, there’s thousands of people coming out of art programs, versus maybe 20 or 30 years ago where it was a much smaller number. In a sense, you almost kind of have to get on stage and perform a little bit.
Abelow: Absolutely. That’s exactly where I’m coming from with that idea. I also think that there’s—I don’t know—I mean everybody’s thinking about it, so I hate to talk about it because it’s such a “hot buzz topic” or whatever, but, you know the Internet is really changing everything. If you make a painting, or a drawing, or a sculpture, or whatever you make, and either you have a gallery or you want a gallery, and you want to participate in the contemporary art conversation, of course the first thing that’s going to happen is that the work is going to be photographed and turned into a JPEG and/or a TIF file. It’s also going to be blogged, or e-mailed, or put on a website. And then these things, these images of images are then traveling around, because of course, as soon as you put something on the Internet, it’s kind of like this weird, open free-for-all. So, talking about text in my work again, I made a painting about a year ago that said, “BLOG ME.” A lot of the things I end up pushing forward in my work make me kind of cringe. Like inside I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is the worst possible thing to do.” And then of course I think, “Oh I have to do it and I have to do a lot of it.” So when I did that “BLOG ME” painting it was really interesting because as soon as I put it on the Internet, it got re-blogged 250 times or something like that. It’s kind of like that Baldessari thing, those paintings that list instructions or descriptions—of course, mine’s not a list, it’s just two words—but then all these strangers are doing it, doing it, doing it. It’s just very strange, you know?
Rail: Your paintings have this aspect, either something’s being asked of the viewer or the painting is telling somebody to do something. There’s an activity-based thing involved.
Abelow: Sure, I like that.
Rail: It's an interesting way for painting to operate, not only to talk about itself, but to try to talk to other people, literally. Especially in a time where people are giving very, very limited attention to things. Your work is hooking them with humor, before they have to digest the painting. It’s kind of a way of loudly calling somebody’s attention. Speaking of how the Internet’s changed how we view the world—I’ve noticed how when I first got the Internet and I would only check my e-mail maybe once or twice a day.
Abelow: That was early 2000s?
Rail: Yeah, maybe early 2000s. I was still in undergrad. And now I find myself checking email all the time. And I usually have multiple windows open. I might even be looking at the same image on different websites. It’s altered our subjectivity so much that it has fractured our sense of undivided attention. Like if something is not immediately grabbing your attention, it’s all good, ‘cause you’ve got other things you’re doing at the same time. Your work tackles this. You’re doing serial paintings that also have a call-and-response dimension.
Abelow: Yeah. The other thing that’s going to be part of this show is that I’m doing another paper—you saw the first ART BLOG newspaper that I put out, right?
Abelow: Yeah, so now I’m doing round two. I put the first one out in Spring 2013, as part of the Petrella’s Imports project. Petrella’s Imports was this project that happened over the summer in a newsstand at Bowery and Canal, where this group of artists had the newsstand and basically made it—rather than a traditional newsstand—a newsstand for artists’ printed matter and I think maybe they sold bottled water. I forget exactly. Like artists’ bottled water. Anyway, they asked me if I wanted to be a part of the project because they wanted to have some artists who had Internet material that they could then turn back into printed material, which I loved because I love having this ART BLOG ART BLOG moniker, and then, messing around with what it is. Like, oh it’s a newspaper, it’s a gallery, it’s a what-the-fuck-is-it, you know what I mean?
Abelow: And so to be able to turn my blog into a newspaper was really exciting. One of the things that was also really great about this was I got to interview Gene Beery who I’ve gotten to know via the Internet over the past year and a half or so. And he sends me—anybody who looks at my blog regularly knows that he’s on it like every couple days, because he’s always sending me these bizarre photographs, often they have text. I just—I really like the work. Anyway, so this new publication I’m going to do is going to be the same format as the old one: all black and white, trying to have the same mixture of text and image, well-known artists alongside lesser known or emerging, dead, alive, whatever. Peter Halley is contributing this great essay titled, “The Frozen Land,” which was first published in 1984. I don’t know what people have read or haven’t read—but I think a lot of younger artists maybe haven’t seen this essay, and the ideas in the essay are great. Ideas that are super relevant to what people are thinking about right now, so I’m excited to put that in this kind of blog/newspaper/exhibition context. In the essay, he’s talking about how new technologies are basically freezing time. And I also got a friend of mine to interview a painter named Richard Bosman, I don’t know if you know him?
Rail: I know the name, but not the work.
Abelow: Yeah, he’s a little bit older. He has these paintings from the ‘80s, which are really weird. There are two paintings that are going to be in the newspaper; one’s called, “Arrow in the Eye,” and it’s literally a man with an arrow in his eye and he’s bleeding and his face is all mangled up, and then another painting is called “Drowning Man,” and it’s this great woodcut from 1981 or ’82, of a man drowning, and it’s just amazing. His work is really kind of dark and comical—of course I relate to that. In the first issue I interviewed Gene, and then moving forward I want to keep this thing like a game of telephone. So in the second issue, Gene is interviewing Jamian Juliano-Villani, and I just got the transcript from that and it’s hilarious.
Rail: [Laughs.] I bet it is.
Abelow: And then, down the road, when I can get the funds to do another one, Jamian will interview somebody. I like the connectivity of that, and that I can sort of put these connections in play, but then they go off and have a life of their own, and it’s completely out of my control. When Gene and Jamian did the interview they did it via a phone call. Gene taped it with an old-fashioned cassette tape recorder. And then Gene mailed the cassette from Sutter Creek, California, where he lives, to Brooklyn. Next, Jamian transcribed it and came over here, and then I edited it. So there are all these level of removal. It was just really exciting for me to have this older artist, Gene, who’s kind of an obscure figure, you know? A lot of people don’t know about his work. He’s a great artist. And then Jamian, who just came to New York about a year ago or so and she’s really hitting the ground running. There’s a lot of excitement building around her work right now. And both their work deals with the absurd, and a brute kind of honesty. I thought they would have a very interesting conversation. [Laughs.]
Rail: I like those two combined—he’s kind of got this out-there, Beat Generation thing going on, and she’s got this like really wild personality, you know?
Abelow: Yeah, exactly, exactly.