Reflecting on the past 3 1/2 years I proposed a montage that I felt told the story and the history quite well. Some found it too opinionated. It’s hard to convey the depth of a historically catastrophic administration in 3 minutes.
I’ve been asked why I chose to make the above piece regarding racism. I didn’t exactly. I made a piece called “The Residue of Arrogance” which was mostly about my growing discontent with the United States and my choice to spend most of my time abroad. That decision had a lot to do with the direction in which my country has moved post 9/11. Certainly racism plays a role in those objections, but it was a much broader view of many consequences. The thing that I find most interesting about the piece is what it has shown me. Many people have concluded that the piece is about racism. I imagine it has to do with my choice of using an African American model. Had I used a white model, I assume people’s reading of it would be different. However, based on people’s reactions, it is entirely clear how most people view the United States. Juxtapose an American Flag and an African American and the conclusion many people will make is that it is, of course, about racism. That’s how connected the image of the United States is to racism, it’s something people assume. What I was trying to convey was an erosion of freedoms and self censorship in a post 9/11 America. However, even in 2017 (which is when I made the original piece) the simple addition of a different skin color leads many people to assume an entirely different meaning. So, in it’s conception it wasn’t focused on racism, but in it’s reception it has become very much about race. This is how the piece talks back to me about it’s context. As an artist, you begin to see the complexity of representation. In my mind the figure in the piece was simply an individual, an American. Yet because the figure is African American, to many people, the “individual” becomes a representation of an entire race of people. Isn’t that exactly what racism is? When people’s individual identity is eclipsed by their race?
As an artist I have always been fascinated with knockoffs. In the 90’s I would peruse the stalls of Canal Street in lower Manhattan sifting through piles of fake Rolexes in search of the best watch $10 could buy. In the 2000’s I would stock up on knockoff Calvin Klein underwear in Hong Kong for $2 a pair versus the genuine article at $22 a pair. In many cases I liked the knockoffs better. For example, real Calvin Klein underwear came only in a few select colors. The knockoffs, however, came in every color you could imagine. The fake Rolexes were available with these cool flex wristbands that Rolex never made. My fascination was with how often knockoffs also evolve. Copying is not just copying, it is also the doorway to creating.
In 2018 I spent two months at Jardin Orange, an artist residency in Shenzhen, China. Shenzhen is China’s Silicon Valley, and most likely where your iPhone or laptop were manufactured. It’s been at the center of the ongoing battle over intellectual property theft between the U.S. and China for the past couple decades.
In the 70’s, Shenzhen was little more than a fishing village. Then in 1979, it became one of five special economic zones in China, their first experiments with market capitalism. By the early 2000’s it was manufacturing 90% of the world’s electronics. Today, it is an international hub of tech innovation. It’s difficult to comprehend a city that has transformed itself at breakneck speed for the past four decades. Part of my job as an artist is to attempt to understand the places I travel to, and bring that understanding into my work, but Shenzhen was surreal to me. I am from Oakland, CA. I watched for 24 years as the eastern span of the Bay Bridge was replaced after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake – 24 years to replace half a bridge! In that time, Shenzhen had gone from a city of 647,000 to a city of 10,873,000 residents. By 2020, Shenzhen based companies like Huawei were outselling iPhone, and positioned to dominate 5G technology. Tencent had become not only the world’s largest video game company, but one of the largest social media platforms. Just 10 years ago, Shenzhen was more infamous for it’s “Shanzhai”, or counterfeit electronics; cheap knockoffs aimed at markets that could not afford the Western originals.
Shenzhen is also home to “Dafen Village”. Dafen is a painting village. An urban village, or neighborhood, in the middle of the city. It is the place where, at one point, an estimated 60% of the world’s oil paintings were being painted. Hundreds of shops, usually with 2-3 painters working, line the labyrinth of the small streets. Painters overflow into alley ways, stalls, and onto the sidewalks. The surrounding streets have art supplies, framing, and canvas stretching services. It is a biosphere for painting.
Much of what you see strolling Dafen are copies. Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso – even Keith Haring and Warhol copies sit alongside Chinese favorites Yue Minjun and Chen Wenling. Another big part of what you see is what I call lobby art. The art you see at hotels and office buildings; generic landscapes, florals, abstracts, elephants etc. The art you never notice, because it’s designed to be completely unobtrusive. It only exists because it stands out even less then a completely bare wall. Lastly, there are custom portraits. Wandering through Dafen, you’ll see 40 painters a day staring at cell phone screens, painting wedding and family portraits. I was amazed at how efficient and accurate many of then were. Considering many of them have probably painted 10 hours a day for the past 15 years, it would stand to reason. Painting there seems to be treated more as skilled labor and a source of income than it is as art. The painters range in talent from pretty awful to damn near masterful. The painters at Dafen are like the “Shanzhai” of art. Creating inexpensive knockoffs for a market with more limited budgets.
I decided to do an experiment at Dafen Village to help me better understand Shenzhen as a city. I brought a poster I had designed to Dafen and hired a painter to copy it. It was a poster I had designed years ago, and as a street artist, I had wheat pasted on countless walls around the world.
I chose the poster for specific reasons; first, it had been created on a computer and had never actually been painted before. Secondly, it was mass produced on a web press, an inexpensive printing method generally used for newspapers. The evolution of knockoffs usually takes something of a relatively high quality and reproduces it in a cheaper or lower quality manner. My experiment was the opposite. I took a cheap mass produced poster and commissioned a hand-painted oil painting on canvas. The mere act of copying it in this manner would create something new.
I chose a small painting stall at random from the hundreds of shops in Dafen. Inside was a man in his early 20’s. I showed him the poster I wanted copied. Let me preface this by explaining that I speak zero Mandarin, and these painters, for the most part, speak zero English. However, this was 2018 and technology had already solved this problem. WECHAT, the most popular texting app in China, has a built in translator, so here’s how it works: you walk into a shop and display your wechat QR code on your phone. The shop owner scans it, and you become “friends”– now you can talk. When you type the shop owner a message, they can read it in Chinese, and when they reply, you can read it in English. It’s an odd interaction. You’re standing 18 inches from someone, both looking at your phones texting back and forth. It may seem impersonal, but 20 years ago we would not be able to communicate at all and this entire experiment wouldn’t be possible. We agree on a price of $55 USD to make the painting. He tells me it’ll be done in about a week and he’ll text me. Five days later I get a message. The painter boastfully tells me he is finished and the effect is PERFECT!
It was better than expected for $55 and the cheap poster was now an oil painting on canvas. By copying the cheap poster, we had actually created something of greater value. The evolution needed to continue though. I walked about 2 blocks, picked another random shop and handed the shop owner my newly received painting along with my phone displaying my QR code. “Can you copy this?” I text. He nodded and quoted me a price. The second painter was now making a copy of a copy. I did this for 7 weeks, picking up each subsequent copy and turning it over to another painter. The third painter copied the second version, the fourth painter copied the third version, and so on. By the sixth painting, I had something very different than what I started with. Even when the goal was to produce a facsimile, we unavoidably, either through miscommunication, artistic license or bad technique, had moved far from the original.
A friend in China warned me that if I took work to be copied at Dafen it was likely they would continue to copy it. That seemed unlikely to me. I responded, however, “Wouldn’t that be great? The image would continue to evolve and change in ways I would never have considered”. The artist in me appreciates the philosophy of the “Shanzhai” because within it exists the core understanding that imitation fosters innovation. Imitation is a cornerstone of learning, particularly to anyone who’s studied art. My time in Shenzhen forced me to examine these ideas both in art and in the discourse about intellectual property. At the core of both, there is merely an idea. Ideas should not be heirlooms tucked away and preserved or only occasionally observed. Ideas, should be more like children. Something we give the best of ourselves to and send out in the world to change and grow in ways we never imagined. When we look condescendingly upon the forger, or the counterfeit object as a desecration of the original, we are ignoring the possibility of evolution or innovation. We are ignoring that as individuals, or as a generation even, we have finite resources to cultivate an idea. For any idea to continue growing, whether it be cultural or technological, it will need to be taken up by the next individual or generation and fed a new source of perspectives, skill sets, and inspirations.
Shenzhen and it’s Shanzai philosophy are often debased by Western culture. Partially because, in my opinion, it audaciously stands as the apprentice positioned to surpass the master, in part, because it understands copying is the doorway to creating, if you choose to walk through it.
“Without Excuse” is a piece I made while I was at the Jardin Orange artist residency in Shenzhen, China in 2018.
I spent a lot of time in Shenzhen, roaming around abandoned buildings collecting old signs and posters and billboards. I don’t read Chinese, so I had no idea what was written on any of these things. I also never asked anyone to interpret any of it until pieces were completed. What I was trying to do was tell something about a place through what was discarded or left behind, while also juxtaposing that with some of my salvage portraits. Much of the material in this piece came from an abandoned office building at the beginning of August 2018. By the time I left Shenzhen, the building was well on it’s way to being apartments. Things change fast in Shenzhen.
The original piece is 50×66 inches (125 x 168cm) on a section of vinyl billboard I found being used as a tarp in the abandoned office building. The title “Without Excuse” comes from the line of small text just to the left of the figures head which literally says “Refuse to accept excuse” which was pinned to an office wall. The large main text in red and blue translates as “wonderful exquisite life”. Additional pieces collaged onto the piece read “Crane for rent”, “Make more money”, “Good business and prosperity”, and there is even a small newspaper headline about “President Xi”. In some ways these discarded things do describe the ethos of Shenzhen. Shenzhen was China’s first Special Economic Zone, an experiment by China with market capitalism. It is literally a manufactured city. In 1979 in was little more then a fishing village with a population of 60,000. 40 years later, it is a city of 13 million and the manufacturing center of the world. Shenzhen is at the center of China’s exponential economic growth. It is a boomtown like no other. In many ways the random text I collected illustrate the dream that Shenzhen presented; hard work, wealth, business development. In that sense, it was my most successful experiment in telling the story of a place by combining random discarded things. Things whose meanings were only told to me after the piece was finished. The addition of the Salvage portrait makes the piece a cautionary tale about the fragility of that unbridled growth. The age old boom to bust scenario that we never really seem to accept as more than coincidental or circumstantial.
Each of these prints have been hand painted and contain the number of the edition in Chinese characters at the bottom right corner. Near the left edge, the edition number is also painted into the existing background in English. Making these 40 variations was one of the most enjoyable studio projects I have done in recent years.
In the end of October of this year I lost my neighbor and friend of 25 years, Arthur Monroe. I met Arthur in 1994 when I was a kid and had recently moved into my live/work space in East Oakland. I liked Arthur right away, mostly because I was an arrogant over assured young man and Arthur saw right through it. He had an easy way about him and at the same time let you know that, in his opinion, you didn’t know shit about shit. Arthur was actually an important man, whereas I just thought I was. He’d drop names of friends you’d only read of in books, he knew the stories, and could sling some good bullshit. Arthur was an impressive painter and also the registrar at the Oakland museum.
Arthur was a big man he had an intimidating presence. Well into old age he’d haul stack after stack of wood up the stairs to fuel his wood burning stove. The owners of the building had long ago removed all the wood burning stoves from the building and forbid this type of heating. Except for Arthur, because they knew, as everyone did, you couldn’t tell Arthur what to do….ever.
Arthur was one of the first guys to organize artists in Oakland to petition the city and request that artists be able to occupy the vacant factories here. These were the first Live/Work spaces in Oakland. He had lived in the building since 1978. He knew every tenant who passed through in all those years, and all the stories. He was the building historian. When anyone had a question about what this place used to be, or who used to live here, the response was always the same, “You’d have to ask Arthur”. I remember one day leaving my studio to find Arthur and a fairly small Asian guy moving a Grand Piano up the stairs. They seemed a bit understaffed so I volunteered my help. The 3 of us moved that bitch one stair at a time until we got it to the top. It still sits in Arthur’s studio. Once you moved a Grand piano with a guy, no matter what disagreements may come in the future (and Arthur and I had plenty of disagreements) there is always a voice in the back of your head that says “he’s a solid guy, we may disagree, but he’s a solid guy”. I had that voice with Arthur and I suspect he had that voice with me.
I’ll miss sitting around the BBQ and hearing his stories, about the Korean war, about New York in the 50’s, about painting and about the never ending battle of citizens to assert their constitutional rights.
In recent years Arthur’s memory started getting a bit foggy. At first I could tell he was pissed. He’d come by my studio asking for a spare key because he’d locked himself out, seemingly agitated. Over time something really quite beautiful happened, he stopped being pissed. Not just about his memory, but about lots of things. He settled into his aging in an amazingly dignified way. He accepted it. Much of his bravado and combativeness evaporated until there was just Arthur. A delightful older guy, carrying a smile and pleasure to be around. Sure he was a bit foggy on the details, but ultimately, in those last years I felt I had a real privilege to see who Arthur really was. I was lucky to know him and I will miss him.
New salvage cans go on sale January 8th at 9am PST HERE. I made this series of cans when I was in China last year. I had been waiting for supplies to arrive for to start working on larger pieces. The residency where I was had kept all their empty spray cans. I started making these small pieces from the used spray cans. It wasn’t anything I planned, I just had an unexpected amount of free time waiting for my materials to arrive so I worked with what was available. I often make pieces from recycled materials for many reasons. First off I like that I am using material that would otherwise be discarded and end up in a landfill. Also there is a previous history to these objects. A purpose and a separate life that existed before they, by chance, ended up being used to create something new. Their discarded quality mirrors some of the characters i create in the Salvage portraits. It makes more sense to me than a piece of white canvas.
These are 15 individual pieces. They are not editioned multiples. Each is hand done and there is only one of each. They are signed and dated on the bottom of the can.
In July, I traveled from Paris, with Nite Owl, to Lurcy-Lévis in the center of France to participate in Street Art City. Street Art City is a complex of buildings that were once some kind of training facility for the phone company (or something like that), and has long since been abandoned. About 3 years ago the new owners started inviting urban artists to come to the complex and make murals, do installations and create a room at hotel 128. Hotel 128 is an old dormitory type building containing 128 small individual rooms on 4 floors. Every room has been taken over by an artist. Below is mine.
I worked, as much as possible, with existing materials from the room. Shower doors, broken sinks, clusters of light bulbs. An important aspect for me was to reapply sections of the removed wallpaper over areas of the portraits. I didn’t want these to feel as though they had been installed, but rather that these images were always there, under that veneer of wallpaper. I wanted the images to feel as if they perhaps predated the buildings utilitarian phase and were now, after all these years, uncovered. That idea runs parallel to the idea of the salvage portraits. Presenting not an evolutionary change, but a regression. Presenting atavisms. Traits in people that had long been dormant, strands of DNA that still exist is us, but have become obsolete in a post modern civilization. Traits that still exist under the facade of civilized society, which can be reawakened, given an extreme environmental change.
On the radiator in the room I wrote “Entering a period of consequences” as a sort of warning about the fragility of all these structures we have grown dependent on.
It was an interesting week, surrounded by these images in this tiny room, in an abandoned building miles from anything.
Lurcy-Lévis is centered in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Getting cigarettes was a 90 minute walk round trip. Surrounded by Corn and Cows, an ironic place to showcase urban art. It offers many artists a place to work free from the distractions of ordinary life, urban life; it’s peaceful. That said, places like this scare me, rural places. I am not a country person. It’s too quiet, it gets too dark at night- it’s too summer-camp slasher movie for me. It took some acclamation on my part. But being outside of your comfort zone is always a good thing.
I got to spend some unrushed time with the homies Nite Owl and Rachel Riot. Also got to know a few solid guys from Barcelona Sebastien Waknine, Simón Vázquez and Zeso. Making art is obviously the reason I travel as much as I do. The thing I value the most about that travel is the people I meet, the stories they tell and these unlikely little places like Lurcy-Lévis that I would have never seen if I wasn’t making art
These pieces go on sale May 14th at 9am PST. Cacophony is 18×18 inches laser cut 3/4 inch acrylic stacked in 3 layers. GFL-5 is an 18×18 inch print on 290gsm Moab fine art paper. They are available HERE
ABOUT THE PIECES
The Goldfish girl (who is the same
character as the bike girl) was created almost a decade ago. I often
revisit it, and she has been longest continuing character I’ve
created. I often write back stories for these characters to help me
create the pieces, but they are generally never shared with the
The Goldfish girl was born in mainland China, and raised mostly by a single father. Her mother passed away when she was 18 months old from cancer. She was often very ill as a child, and was eventually diagnosed with a compromised immune system disorder, although a precise diagnosis was never given. However, something even as harmless as a common cold would escalate to further respiratory complications or pneumonia rather quickly as her body had no defense mechanism against these things. This is the reason for always wearing the mask and gloves. She was hospitalized often and resuscitated several times as a child. As a result, she could not attend school with other children and was home schooled by her father.
Her father bred
Goldfish for a living and taught her that trade as a kid. They worked
side by side and rarely had visitors because of her condition.
Goldfish rarely occur in nature, and are actually a result of a
genetic mutation in silver carp. Because of their beautiful color and
rarity, they began being bred and sold about 1500 years ago. They
are, for the most part, a result of steering the hand of nature.
Often being extremely ill and also losing her mother made her childhood difficult. As most children do, she tried to find a reason for her misfortune, a reason for why all this had happened to her and her father. Eventually, she believed that her illness and her mother’s cancer were a punishment by nature. A curse for toying with nature by breeding goldfish. Her family had toyed with nature, and she believed that now, nature was toying with them. She never shared that thought with her father because she felt it would indirectly place the blame for all this misfortune on him.
When she was 11 and
extremely ill and hospitalized, she asked her father “Why don’t I
just give up? This is too hard. I think we need to accept that this
is my fate; it is my fate to die” Her father became angry and
replied “Fate? Do you know what fate is? It is the result of a life
unattended, it is what happens when you do nothing” He needed to
give her a reason to keep trying, a challenge. He continued “We can
cheat fate, create our own fate and all you have to do to cheat fate
is live another day. Every day that you do that, you have won, not
That was the conversation that shaped
the rest of her life, that was her mission, to survive and deny
nature its punishment.
Eventually, her father passed away as well. Needing to make a living and also to taunt fate she illegally immigrated to Hong Kong. There is a famous goldfish market in Mong Kok on Tung Choi street, but it’s commonly called goldfish street. With a compromised immune system the most dangerous thing to her was other people. As a challenge to fate she moved to one of the most densely populated cities in the world. She got a stall on Tung Choi street. This is her challenge, to taunt fate and win, becoming the master of her own fate.
These images are vignettes of her life in Hong Kong. I’ve never given the character a name. Often the pieces are accompanied by the text “I have a name, but it doesn’t matter” That phrase is to express her belief that life is not about who we are, life is about what we do. She is pictured always alone. Sometimes she is on a bike as crowded public transportation poses to big a risk. Sometimes she is pictured with a boombox because music becomes a central companion to her mostly solitary life. In the piece Cacophony I wanted her to literally be surrounded by the city. There are many more specifics to the story, but I wanted this character to be a vehicle for ideas about self determination, finding meaning in life and playing the hand you are dealt even when it’s a piss poor hand. In some way I think I tried to create a character that embodied a lot of traits I aspire to. To remind myself.
Memorandum is both a a record and a reminder for the future. It functions for me in this duality.
These portraits allow me to express a vision, a warning and a reminder. A reminder about consequence and about perseverance and strength. I came to Paris 6 weeks ago, shot 57 photographic portraits and filmed 10 video portraits. A catalog of sorts. I photographed friends, and friends of friends. The selection of people was quite random and in no way curated. Every person photographed is in the exhibition.
Each one is a collaboration between myself and the subject in which the subject is both exposed and simultaneously fictionalized.
That is the collaboration. Taking what is inherent to the subject and also projecting what I am trying to convey regarding the future and possible outcomes.
Together we create portraits of people who don’t exist in a circumstance that has yet to occur. The portraits are an invitation to the viewer to find themselves – or a part of themselves – in these images. There are also an invitation to more closely examine the consequences of our current means.
On a more personal level, it is a record – or document – of a place and time. The people I’ve met… my friends… and Paris in 2018. This function will not be realized until some point in the future. A point at which my memories of this time fade, the conversations become harder to recall and the details evaporate. This will be my record, my mnemonic device.
A note to my future self.
‘Memorandum’ opens at GCA Gallery on Friday 7th December, 18:00 to 21:00 and runs until Saturday 19th January 2019.
GCA Gallery can be found at 2 place Farhat Hached, 75013 Paris, France.
To enquire about any of the pieces for sale, including those featured here, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / Tel: +33 6 09 07 75 99 / gcagallery.fr