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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues
SEPT 2021 Issue
Art In Conversation

Avery Singer with Jason Rosenfeld

“If you’re making art as a contemporary artist, you should just be trying to make something that hasn’t been thought of before, that has a real stake in authorship, in originality, and offers a unique conception of the world.”

Portrait of Avery Singer, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Avery Singer, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
On View
Hauser & Wirth
Reality Ender
September 9 – October 10, 2021
New York

Reality Ender, Avery Singer’s first solo show in her hometown of New York in four years and her first with Hauser & Wirth, runs from September 9 to October 30. I visited her Brooklyn studio back in January of this year when she was just beginning to make works for the show—there were large canvases being primed with gesso arrayed along the studio walls and a couple of nearly-finished pictures. We met for this conversation in the studio in early August. Her distinctive acrylic paintings—the products of digital design, masking with tape and liquid rubber, and industrial and hand-wielded airbrushes—evoke whole and cacophonous worlds of visual experience.

Jason Rosenfeld (Rail): A kid who spends all their time in the gym is called a gym rat. Would you call yourself a film rat? Were you someone who really went hard for film from a young age?

Singer: Yes, totally. My dad, Greg Singer, worked off hours, nights, and weekends at MoMA where he was the projectionist. As a kid I would visit him there on weekends so I would have more time with him. I spent a huge part of my childhood in the basement of MoMA in the projection booth.

Rail: So those were his off hours. What did he do otherwise? He was pursuing his art?

Singer: I grew up in a loft downtown in TriBeCa that my parents have been in since 1978. They fixed it up. Half of it is their art studio and the other half was an open plan living space, which is how everyone lived in lofts. My parents are painters and my mom, Janet Kusmierski, also worked as a film projectionist. She worked at Film Forum. So I have her old Film Forum jacket.

Avery Singer, <em>China Chalet</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 100 1/4 x 120 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.
Avery Singer, China Chalet, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 100 1/4 x 120 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Rail: Your parents worked at the two treasures of American cinema, central institutions.

Singer: I love the Film Forum. I love the double bill.

Rail: Yes, you go all day.

Singer: You go all day. There's some freak next to you taking off his shoes. Then the guy behind him starts yelling at him for taking off his shoes. Just dealing with all these weird people.

Rail: It's like being with family. You went to Stuyvesant High School. Were you thrown into a STEM program? Or was that something you were seeking out?

Singer: I wanted to be a mathematician for a really long time or a computer scientist. I was a pretty nerdy kid.

Rail: What's the new term for that? For nerdy kid?

Singer: I don't know.

Rail: It’s a positive thing, now.

Singer: I want the nerds to take over the world.

Rail: We need a better spin.

Singer: “High functioning!”

Rail: High functioning. [Laughter] Okay. You were a high-functioning kid who was into math and science from the get-go.

Singer: I was into coding, chess, math, reading. I was in my own little world. I started coding my own websites when I was eight. And all I really wanted for Hanukkah, Christmas were science kits from Edmund Scientific, a catalog I remember getting in elementary school. It was so much cooler than what we were doing in school. I usually was really bored in school because I felt I had already mastered what we were learning about years ago. I needed my own way to stimulate my mind.

Avery Singer, <em>Happening</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 95 1/4 x 85 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.
Avery Singer, Happening, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 95 1/4 x 85 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Rail: Was it more than build-your-own volcano?

Singer: They were science kits involving chemistry. But the coolest one I got was a robot building kit so I could build my own little robot and learn about circuitry. I liked Isaac Asimov. I loved I, Robot. My aunt actually remarried a computer scientist, and I remember he told me I would probably like Isaac Asimov. So in the second grade I was reading all the Isaac Asimov I could find.

Rail: That is high functioning! Did you feel Stuyvesant was a great place for you, that it allowed you to blossom in that area of study?

Singer: I went to public school in New York City. I was intellectually understimulated in school until I got to Stuyvesant where I was academically challenged for the first time. It was a revelation to me. I didn't know that school could be difficult. I remember seeing “Gothic Literature” as a course offering and feeling unbelievable amounts of joy, as I had never encountered that as a topic before. But at Stuyvesant I realized I wanted to be an artist, because that was the most abstract and cerebral thing I could do. There weren't many other students who were allowed to pursue that by their parents because most of the students immigrated from another country and their parents put insane loads of pressure on them to go into a professional field that would yield a high income, such as a doctor or a lawyer. Most of the students lived below the poverty line. It served as an incredible example to me. I gained my strong work ethic from both my parents and these students. They showed me how I could build a successful life from nothing, on hard work, grit, and sheer determination.

Rail: Have you found that that’s been the case for your friends from there? Have they all followed that path?

Singer: They all became doctors.

Rail: They actually did? The self-fulfilling prophecy!

Singer: Or they work in finance and academia.

Rail: Right.

Singer: I had friends at Stuyvesant who really loved art and were curious about it, but they had to do things such as the Intel Science Competition instead of taking a life drawing class, and they had to win. Their families didn’t give them the option of not winning. I had a kind of loose beatnik upbringing. I never had that kind of direction at home. My parents’ only advice to me in life was to never become an artist. I was just doing whatever it is that I wanted to do, whenever I wanted, in my spare time. At Stuyvesant the only art offering was a watercolor techniques class, which was just learning how to like take the droplet down the page and make a gradient [Laughs].

Rail: You're still working with droplets.

Avery Singer, <em>Wig & JUUL</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 85 1/4 x 95 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.
Avery Singer, Wig & JUUL, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 85 1/4 x 95 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Singer: Yes. During high school I took free Cooper Union outreach program life drawing classes. I always loved figure drawing, because I was so bored as a kid in the summer. My parents were looking for a way to save money instead of sending me to summer camp, so I would find things to do that were cheaper than day camp that were more interesting to me. One summer I took a class at the Museum of Natural History. And then the next summer I asked if I could do figure drawing at the Art Students League. That's when I was 11. I started doing figure drawing every summer and I loved it. We would draw from the model. The instructor presented diagrams on human anatomy, to show every single muscle, at what proportion, how you start the drawing, and this and that.

Rail: You went to Cooper Union undergrad from 2005 to 2010. Did that feel like a natural progression from Stuyvesant, since it combined tech and fine art instruction? Can you characterize Cooper in the late 2000s?

Singer: I partied a lot. I worked really hard. I didn't sleep. It's such a small program that it's kind of like a cult. You form these lifelong bonds with people. It's 60 kids per class. So you get to know everyone super well. You watch them all do their senior show and go through their stress and drama. I was way more challenged than I was at Stuyvesant, but in a totally different way. Stuyvesant had been training me to think in very logical ways, and art is not logical, it's abstract and critical. You see your ideas instead of verbalizing them, and you solve riddles of philosophical thinking visually. I learned how to think differently, which is really important.

Rail: Were there certain teachers who you felt you connected with?

Singer: Yeah, I love Niki Logis, who's retired now. She was an older woman teaching sculpture who was just full of aphorisms about art that I'll hold on to for the rest of my life. I use her wisdom all the time.

Rail: She introduced you to sculpture in a fundamental way?

Singer: Yes, and how to open your mind to be an artist, how to let go of the life script and just think freely.

Rail: A far cry from a STEM education at Stuyvesant, which is so focused.

Singer: There's actually a ton of intellectual freedom in science and math. But it didn't have that magic for me anymore.

Rail: Did Cooper have a kind of ethos, did you get a sense of which way the curriculum was pushing you in that period?

Singer: It was about what you wanted to do with it. I just didn't want to do painting or printmaking, or drawing, or photography. Because I thought the conversations were really boring and limited. I went down the more conceptual art, sculpture, performance art path, because I was more stimulated by the way people were thinking about their work. And I made a lot of my friends in those places.

Rail: In a way it’s like a liberal arts college, where you go and you have you take all different kinds of things, and then you find your path.

Singer: The foundation year, the first year, they try to teach you some technique. But they don't make you specialize in a medium. They let you keep it open.

Rail: What was it like being in Frankfurt in 2008 at the Städelschule, Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Kunst, in terms of academics?

Singer: That place is just so open ended, the teacher is basically not even there, per the European model. [Laughs] So I partied the whole time. I was staying in the student housing, which was in an industrial park next to a methadone clinic and a Roma encampment. And I got chased on the street constantly.

Rail: Did you ever think you wanted to leave?

Singer: I ended up leaving! [Laughs] I dropped out. I went to Berlin with all my stuff and I worked in a bar and in a gallery.

Rail: You eventually had your first ever show in Berlin, at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler. How did that come about?

Avery Singer, <em>Sculptor & Robespierre</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 100 1/4 x 80 7/8 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.
Avery Singer, Sculptor & Robespierre, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 100 1/4 x 80 7/8 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Singer: I made some good friends at the Städelschule. That was a golden time there because so many of the students then have become incredible exhibiting artists. My peers were Jana Euler, Simon Denny, Daniel Keller, Nik Kosmas, Simon Fujiwara. I dropped out of a program that had all of these amazing artists! That is how I met my first gallerist. Daniel Keller was at Städelschule with me. We were the youngest students there and we were both American Jews, so we connected. I graduated from Cooper in 2010. I took a hitchhiking trip for three months, came back with no money, slept on a cot in my mom's studio, worked in a bar, and made enough to move. Then in the beginning of 2011 I got a space in the Bronx, renovated it myself, and started working, making small drawings on paper, which I then started doing in airbrush. And then I began doing it on Masonite. This was pre-Instagram. I would post photos of what I was working on on Facebook. Daniel was following me and after a while, he said, “Your stuff is so great, do you want to meet my art dealer?” I did a studio visit with Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in 2012, and then they offered me my first show.

Rail: I was looking at your Instagram, and your early posts show your very first works as they were developing, such as Performance Artists (2012).1 It's like watching you create your initial idea there. And there are only, don't take this the wrong way, but there are around 10 likes, right?

Singer: Yes, there's 10 likes [Laughs]. Because I had no followers!

Rail: It's wonderful to be able to trace your thought process, as you're filling that whole studio space with these big works, which you then had to ship to Germany. Things sort of snowballed from there.

Singer: I did my show in Berlin with Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany and Nadine Zeidler in 2013. It got a lot of interest from curators in Europe, and it gave me opportunities to do institutional shows. I worked with Beatrix Ruf on exhibitions at Kunsthalle Zürich and at the Stedelijk Museum. She was bold enough to give me tons of space at a very young age, because as a 25- or 26-year-old artist, you're normally going to be given the tiny project space. But she would give me half of the museum, or wherever it was she was working, and then leave me alone to my own devices. I owe a lot of my development and ability to make large-scale exhibitions and books to her because she gave me those opportunities. She's really critical and rigorous. Amadeo and Nadine and Beatrix were foundational to me being able to exhibit my work.

Rail: How many works are in the new show at Hauser and Wirth?

Singer: Between 10 to 15 new paintings. Some will be as small as 9 by 12 inches. And then some will be as large as JUUL Smoke here in the studio, which is 100 inches tall by 120 inches wide.

Avery Singer, <em>Bird Bar (study)</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 9 x 12 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.
Avery Singer, Bird Bar (study), 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 9 x 12 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Rail: Are there separate themes on the second and the fifth floors of 22nd Street?

Singer: In my mind there are, but my belief is you really have to look at the work in the space to determine the hang of the exhibitions. I usually go in with an idea. And what ends up being executed is something else.

Rail: The exhibit is accompanied by a 24-page interview between you and Isabelle Graw. It's very down to earth. I hope people will read it. And 542 West 22nd is a grand space. Do you see that as sort of a challenge, the size of the rooms that you're working with?

Singer: Not really, because I've done bigger shows with Beatrix. I've handled more square footage before. I feel confident that I know what to do with that amount of space.

Rail: You've done interesting installs with pictures in the middle of the floor, displayed really low down to the ground. Are you planning anything like that?

Singer: I have something in mind, but I'm not going to intervene in the architecture. The text that I produced with Isabelle Graw is going to be a big part of the show. There's going to be a QR code and you can flip the pages. It's going to look like an opera book.

​​Rail: QR codes have been fantastic for gallery exhibitions because they save paper, of course, but also you walk around with your phone, and you can look at the stuff and think about it. And much more content can be put in there. It complements the work. It’s an advance.

Singer: We're actually going to print a pamphlet also. I think 500 of them, and have them in the bookstore. I'm designing it right now.

Rail: So do you want to talk about the “vitalistic fantasy”? I was thinking about Graw’s idea, of the “vitalistic fantasy” from her book, The Love of Painting (2018), about how the viewer can reconstruct the expressive formation of the artwork. But at the same time, it occurs to me that artists put up roadblocks to that, like Frans Hals or the Impressionists with respect to the idea of making a picture look like it was painted quickly. We now know from conservation analysis that Hals's pictures were painted as slowly as van Eyck’s, same with many Impressionist works. That it was an absolute fiction in a way, to give you a sense of that kind of expressiveness. Or there are the Pre-Raphaelites in England, who insisted that they painted on wet white ground. We now know this is bullshit. They used it in little sections, but they wanted to act like they were working like van Eyck did in the past. So do these examples go against this idea, that in fact the artist is both collaborating with the viewer and putting up a little bit of a roadblock? Or maybe it’s more of a challenge to the viewer, saying that you can’t decode actually entirely what I’m doing. But that’s part of the magic of it.

Singer: There are a lot of examples of the precursor to this idea. What I understand of her idea of what constitutes a “vitalistic fantasy” through European art history, can be seen in Rembrandt, in The Night Watch (1642). There's a flag that's draped in the middle ground, and it’s painted hastily.

Rail: With chiaroscuro so it comes forward and it jumps out at you.

Singer: Yes, it's just brown brushwork. It's very messy, very expressionistic. And it gives the painting its mood. It's important, but you don't really focus on it. If it had been depicted as realistically as the people in the painting, the painting would be eviscerated of its thematic urgency. You look at the flag in the painting and can feel his mind concocting a risky and successful artistic decision. It’s a couple hundred years ahead of its time.

Rail: And it is opposed to the rest of the work, such as the garments on the lieutenant and captain, which are meticulously built up through impasto and layers, so that you can see the effort.

Singer: Yes. In the Golden Age they're trying to show you hyper-realistic droplets on a glass, and Rembrandt's literally engaging with almost pure abstraction. It's very different from other people painting at the time.

Rail: In your work you're similarly operating in a kind of zone between abstraction and figuration, which is where a lot of artists are right now. Cecily Brown and Jenny Saville, they're playing with that constantly. Visibility, invisibility, and facture, which is the thing that seems to be absent from your process. Do you feel you're working in those two modes? Two modes that, in a way, no longer apply. Realism versus abstraction, we talk about them now in an abstract sense.

Singer: I don't consciously make abstract paintings. They may end up looking that way to people, but I have very layered and detailed imagery.

Rail: But if you think of Brown, she starts from a resolved image, and then abstracts it, and in Saville's recent show at Gagosian, she starts from abstraction, and then tries to resolve it. They are two different gambits. You begin with an image, though it’s not necessarily something extant. It’s something that you’ve crafted that is visible or recognizable. And then you play with that. It’s not a deconstruction because it’s addition, in a sense. Just thinking about the process, you could describe your works as abstraction, but not abstract.

Singer: I’m not really trying to engage with abstraction, as an art historical movement. Maybe, actually, I am, in the rubber layers.

Rail: Do you want to walk over there?

Avery Singer, <em>JUUL Smoke</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 100 1/4 x 120 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.
Avery Singer, JUUL Smoke, 2021. Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 100 1/4 x 120 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Singer: Sure! This one is called JUUL Smoke. From the vape pen. The layer of pure abstraction is this rubber that is applied and then removed after something has been painted on top of it.

Rail: And how does that function differently from masking?

Singer: It's the same thing. It’s liquid masking.

Rail: You kind of use the masking tape almost like drawing. People should seek out videos of you working, there are a few online, and they can see that. But the rubber, when you remove the masking tape, it hasn't affected what's underneath it, right?

Singer: Exactly.

Rail: So why would you choose one over the other? Because it gives you more pliancy in making outlines or forms?

Singer: Well, there is the liquid form of masking, and then there is a rigid form. They look very different.

Rail: One is more about linearity and angles, and one is more about curves and flow. But can you just show me the parts where there was rubber?

Singer: All these black lines are where there was rubber sprayed on, and there are other sections where it got splashed on. The rubber is the line. You're just seeing the black gesso underneath.

Rail: It gives you the opportunity to make these forms without actually drawing the line. But you are drawing with the rubber, which goes on how? Do you put the support on the floor or on the tabletop and apply?

Singer: No, I just spray it on. I stand in front of it and spray it. Or I stand in front of it and kind of splatter it on. Or draw it on. Like finger painting.

Rail: It ends up resembling the burr in etching, in a drypoint. When Rembrandt made drypoint etchings he did not use acid, he actually gouged the surface himself with the needle. And it gives the line a softness. How do you do that? It's kind of magical.

Singer: It's just the atomization of the liquid. It sprays, so it’s softer looking the further away you spray it, and it gets crisper the closer you are.

Rail: Do you use the rubber for shadows?

Singer: No.

Rail: In this work, there are these kinds of traces of shadow or atmosphere or smoke down at the bottom, but that's from spray painting?

Singer: Yes, there’s just shadows in the smoke. The smoke is thicker in some places and more diffuse in others. And there’s a hand in the lower center, fingers, and then the cuff of a shirt.

Rail: Is this a fragment of an image that you shot, or that you took from somewhere?

Singer: I made this image digitally, in video game software called Daz 3D.

Rail: Which you've been using for a couple of years now. I look at your early work, like Performance Artists, and I immediately think of Minecraft. Those kinds of blocky figures with holodeck backgrounds. Did you ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation?

Singer: Yes.

Rail: I think of the Holodeck with the gridded walls and floor, which then hosts a kind of reality, so there's that play between the geometry of the room and then the fabrication of the real. But has the grid vanished from this recent work?

Singer: Yes, because the software is three-dimensional. It produces different types of imagery. You have curves and atmosphere, which I don't have in the SketchUp files that I started using years ago.

Rail: There's a different kind of freedom. These are extraordinary because they really do kind of engulf you, and they draw you in, especially with the balance of the tone. I've been reading Marcia B. Hall's book on The Power of Color (2019). She discusses the invention of chiaroscuro, the use of tone, or unione, which is another mode of kind of leveling of tone in these kinds of pictures. Are there works in the show, though, that have more of a color sense? More of a high color key?

Singer: Yes, there are works with a lot of color. I did a lot of detail on the skin of the faces for the portraits, and I added scars, and blood. But even a Philip Guston painting is primarily Caucasian flesh and blood tone, and these works involve a similar color palette. It's just realized in a totally different way.

Rail: And the technique of airbrushing—I did some reading into it—is almost 100 years old. We can’t think of it as something that's new-ish anymore.

Singer: Yes. I’ve seen some Cubist works that look like the artists used sprayed paint application.

Rail: Or some function of it, right?

Singer: Yeah. They sprayed something.

Rail: Yes, because you know they painted seltzer bottles, which atomize, right? I always wondered about that, if Cubists used it. Have you ever seen Hedda Sterne's work? She was part of the Ab-Ex movement. There was a great Sterne up at the Whitney, New York, N.Y. 1955 (1955). And it reminded me of your studio here in Brooklyn, with the el train visible from the windows. She did all these scenes of el trains. And she used spray paint. They’re amazing. They look like proto-graffiti. Most people who write about your work discuss airbrushing as something that’s used in advertising and on vans, but it is now part of the range of options for artists who are working today.

Singer: Definitely. When I was starting out, I felt Jana Euler and I were the only painters using airbrush. And now like everyone is airbrushing. [Laughs]

Rail: Absolutely. We've had great shows in the city, such as the Laura Owens exhibit at the Whitney, which you wrote a beautiful piece about.2

Singer: Thank you.

Rail: It was fantastic. It was insightful. It was a great example of art criticism and appreciation. I was thinking about such impactful shows, and the effect that they have on young artists, because I remember in the ’90s we had all these retrospectives in New York of Twombly, Pollock, Rothko, in Philadelphia Barnett Newman, Gottlieb pictographs, all the Ab-Ex artists—Krasner, great show at Brooklyn in ’99. And I think they had a huge effect on young artists who could see tons of paintings on a large scale, abstract, color field, whatever. And that’s one reason why painting, to a degree, especially in New York, has made a real comeback, although we know people have been painting all this time, right? The Whitney did a good in-house show in 2017 on painting in the ’80s.3 It wasn’t that it did not exist, just that people weren’t writing critically about it. But a lot of young artists have dedicatedly taken up painting in the last two decades. Can you think of any shows that you feel like had an impact on you?

Singer: When I was a teenager, I went to Mass MoCA and I saw a Paul Chan video that was utilizing early video game graphics as a medium for creating an artistic narrative, fusing Fourier's utopian philosophy with Henry Darger imagery.4

Rail: And animating it? I’ve seen that.

Singer: It's very panoramic.

Rail: Yes. And all the little figures and moving. How old were you?

Singer: Maybe 15.

Rail: And you were interested in Fourier?

Singer: Yes I was! I love that Chan work. That is one of the most inspiring museum artworks that I've ever seen to this day. I thought it was incredible. As a teenager, I also really liked the more homegrown East Village experimental cinema shot on Super 8 cameras, because I was using a Super 8 camera, and I would go to this hole in the wall to get it processed in the East Village. There is a whole movement in film history of making small-gauge independent film downtown. And then when I was an art student in New York in 2009, I saw Albert Oehlen's black-and-white computer painting show. I had not been interested in contemporary painting until I saw that show.5 And I realized, oh, this medium is actually really powerful, if you use it right.

Rail: So there's another instance of something which sort of opened your mind to different possibilities.

Singer: Yes.

Rail: I did not see that Oehlen show at Skarstedt gallery. But I saw the New Museum Oehlen show, which was amazing. That introduced me to what he was doing and how protean he was as an artist.

Singer: Yes, that's a really good term to describe it, protean.

Rail: In a way, the change between what you were doing eight years ago and what you're doing now is similarly protean. You always want to try to keep yourself fresh, doing something new and experimenting with whatever comes around. Artists always use technology. You are a prime example of that. Different programs, material, what’s the big spray-painting machine called?

Singer: The Michelangelo/ArtRobo.

Rail: The name is kind of weird.

Singer: It’s terrible!

Rail: But it makes sense, because the machine is more interested in the figure or the form than the environments, right? And Michelangelo was the same way, he didn't care about background, he didn’t care about atmospheric perspective. He cared about the body, the figure. In his Last Judgment, the body creates the space. So in a way the machine is correctly named, in terms of what it’s meant to do. But you’re sort of subverting that, in the way you use it. Because you are interested in the entirety of the canvas, in the back and forth of it. And in the leveling out of space to a degree.

Singer: Yes. A lot of painters actually don’t care about the background as much as they do the foreground. It’s pretty common to see. It’s a tendency.

Rail: Certainly that is an absolutely consistent thing going on in contemporary portraiture. As in Amy Sherald’s work. The background is important, but not in a tactile way. It's important in terms of its hue.

Singer: We're more interested in her figures and what they're doing or not doing. Yes.

Avery Singer, <em>White Claw 18th C. Variety Pack (Lard)</em>, 2021. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.
Avery Singer, White Claw 18th C. Variety Pack (Lard), 2021. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer.

Rail: I want to talk about the NFT. You did this NFT called White Claw 18th C. Variety Pack. [Laughter] It was released by SuperRare, and it was bought by someone named Lee Quan Yew. This is the only work in his collection from SuperRare. He describes himself as being from Neo-Singapore. And he has a mantra on his site, which reads, "Every person, genius or moron, has a right to reproduce themselves."6

Singer: [Laughs]

Rail: The NFT itself is interesting. It’s a form of animation, which seems to be bearing fruit in your work from the kind of stuff you’re talking about that you liked early on, and through your interest in film and your mother’s animated work and all kinds of other things.

Singer: I redesigned the White Claw can’s label so that there’s a giant bird with a giant claw. And then I made the flavors these sort of 18th-century French flavors.

Rail: Fowl, Gruel, Lard, Penance, and Purslane, which I don't think you can get as a Snapple flavor.

Singer: [Laughter] No.

Rail: How does the NFT relate to the other works that you've been doing?

Singer: These cans are in a lot of the works, the paintings in the present show.

Rail: In bar scenes.

Singer: Yes, and then the backdrop is a tablecloth that I made for one of the paintings that has stains and Sharpie scribblings on it. Bar napkin drawings. So I just combined a few of the things I already made for my paintings and made a looping animation showing you different flavors.

Rail: Then rotating the can and the drifting smoke from the Juul?

Singer: Yes, it's just looping. And it’s showing you the different flavors. I just thought it was funny. It’s the only one I’ve done. I have some ideas for more. I would like to do a fundraiser. I want to focus on endometriosis research or something along those lines, women’s pelvic diseases and disorders, but I haven't really found a research program that I would want to donate the funds to yet. Women’s pain is often shrugged off and unacknowledged, and we suffer for years with conditions that are treatable. By the time a woman gets in to see an endometriosis surgeon, she’s probably been suffering acutely for 8–10 years. This is unacceptable. I’ve suffered from acute pelvic pain since childhood. I somehow learned to live with it, until last year when it really began to take over my life on a daily basis. I also have an ultra-rare spinal disease, which I’m in the process of figuring out a treatment plan for. I think I’ve had it my whole life, and have finally been diagnosed at age 33. It’s called Tarlov Cyst Disease.

Rail: How do you feel, by the way?

Singer: I'm doing a bit better from the endometriosis operation, but I’m still suffering immensely from the spinal disease. I hope I can be successfully treated for that this year.

Rail: This is something that you've shared on your Instagram and you’ve tried to raise awareness about.

Singer: Endometriosis is a systemic disease. It causes a lot of other problems and affects you from your head to your feet. I would love to support medical research. A pelvic MRI should be offered on a semi-regular basis to women of reproductive age because 10% of women have it. Tarlov Cyst Disease can be identified on MRI as well, although most of the medical community ignores these cysts as incidental findings. With the health stuff that came up, and finishing the show, we've had a lot of issues technically with the printer. I didn't have time to make more NFTs now. So hopefully in the fall I can do an NFT benefit.

Rail: In terms of a digital work, your NFT, what does Lee Quan Yew do with it?

Singer: [Laughs] I have no idea. The curator of SuperRare invited me to release an NFT, so I said sure. Let's do it. Lee Kuan Yew is the name of a deceased Singaporean Prime Minister. I'm in the crypto community. And I was asking my friends in crypto, why would this person name themselves after this guy? And they said that Lee Quan Yew was an incredible Prime Minister because he brought Singapore into great prosperity over the course of his life.

Rail: Post-British Empire.

Singer: Yes. So he's actually kind of idolized in the crypto world as if he did such an amazing job as a Prime Minister.

Rail: I'm interested in the use aspect of NFTs. When someone buys one of your paintings from Hauser—a foundation, a museum, hopefully for somewhere where people can see it—even in a private home it will be displayed. But the curious thing for me and a lot of art historians is what do you do with a digital NFT? How do you, for want of a better word, enjoy it? It’s clear how you can share it. But how do you live with it? Is it a screen on the wall?

Singer: It could be.

Rail: Is it a screensaver?

Singer: Some people are showing them on necklaces. The crypto bling, the crypto whale would have like a blingy necklace with the screen showing their NFT collection.

Rail: What does the animation look like blown up? You know, 100 by 120 inches?

Singer: I don't know. I've never looked at it that way.

Rail: So do you conceive of a scale for it?

Singer: No. There was one NFT project that I thought was really well displayed called K21.7 They got a bunch of contemporary artists to produce NFTs for them in a very nicely displayed format on the website with releases, so they release one to three NFTs at a time. They also showed them on a giant screen in Shibuya Crossing. But I was curious to see what happens if I make an NFT, release it into the crypto world, to see where it ends up, what happens to it. It was really just an experiment for me.

Rail: And it got snapped up.

Singer: Yeah, by a dead Singaporean Prime Minister.

Rail: What more could you ask for? [Laughter] It’s ideal.

Singer: The crypto world is so different. I love the crypto world. I think I like it because it's nerdy.

Rail: Yes, well, it’s high function.

Singer: I’m kind of back with my nerd crew, when I’m in that world.

Rail: I don’t know if it’s a nerd crew. It’s a skill set for millennials and onward.

Singer: They’re very nerdy. [Laughter]

Rail: I want to ask you about the question of style in your work. Is that something you ever think about? We're at the point now where in contemporary art we can talk about expressiveness, emotion to a degree, even sentiment, qualities that used to be, when I was in grad school, really dirty words. You couldn’t go there, towards elements that actually were about a kind of connectivity. But style seems like something that’s still sort of resisted by the establishment. Do you think about that at all, of yourself as pursuing a kind of style?

Singer: I just hope I would be creating my own. And not relying on someone else’s.

Rail: Period style is to a degree resemblance to things that are closely related. It’s something that is a marker of its moment. Your works very much feel like they’re of their moment. I am wondering if that’s a conscious thing, or if it’s just a combination of the tech, and the materials, the new themes—whether it’s White Claw, bars, Robespierre, JUUL smoke, which leads you on a certain path.

Singer: If you're making art as a contemporary artist, you should just be trying to make something that hasn’t been thought of before, that has a real stake in authorship, in originality, and offers a unique conception of the world. That’s what I try to do. I don’t try to filter my ideas. I just follow them, see what happens with them.

Rail: There’s a reactiveness in it.

Singer: Yes. I want to be authentic. And not self-conscious.

Rail: Right. And the title of the show is Reality Ender. But it’s just kind of, I think of Ender's Game [Laughter], dystopian anti-reality films, such as The Matrix, or I know you’re a big Mel Brooks fan. He’s all about contradicting reality. It’s all about creating a different sort of world in a way, even though it resembles ours. Reality Ender—there’s a gamesmanship in it. It is suggestive.

Singer: Escaping reality is really fun. [Laughs] I like it!

Rail: Especially in the last year and a half.

Singer: I wish I could escape reality all the time.

  1. @thoughtsondeck
  2. Text zur Kunst, Avery Singer, March 2018: https://www.owenslaura.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2018-Texte-Zur-Kunst-March.pdf
  3. I reviewed it in the Brooklyn Rail of March 2017: https://brooklynrail.org/2017/03/artseen/Fast-Forward-Painting-From-the-1980s
  4. Chan’s work is Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization (2000-2003) exhibited in Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History, Mass MoCA, May 27, 2006-April 22, 2007.
  5. Albert Oehlen, Computer Paintings, Skarstedt, New York, April 24-May 30, 2009.
  6. https://superrare.com/artwork-v2/white-claw-18th-c.-variety-pack-23877
  7. https://k21.kanon.art

Contributor

Jason Rosenfeld

Jason Rosenfeld Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.

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SEPT 2021

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