Your work is really tied to the East Coast and the punk community. Can you talk about growing up in that community and how you started making flyers / being involved in a music scene, vs other visual art?
I always painted and drew from a young age – basically ever since I can remember - so I was definitely making work before I was part of a punk scene, but when I really came into my style and ethos around making work was when I got involved in punk. I grew up in New Jersey, and the first time I got involved in any kind of punk scene was when I started going to shows in New Brunswick when I was a teenager. There was an amazing scene for house shows there at the time. And I’d also come into the city to go to all-ages shows at ABC No Rio. But it was mostly in Jersey where I felt I was first part of a punk scene, since it was more local, and I started becoming part of a punk community there. I first got asked to do flyers for punk shows at 16 or 17. I finished high school at 17 and took a year off before college, and during that time I was sort of floating around NJ and NY. Going to shows was basically my existence. So that’s when I was really starting to make different kinds of work for punk bands and for shows, and to make zines.
I ended up at RISD for school at 18, but at that time I just didn’t want to be there at all. I’d leave almost every weekend and go down to NY and NJ to go to shows and hang with the punk community that I felt much more a part of than my art school community. I dropped out at the end of my sophomore year, and moved to Brooklyn - part of that was because I wanted to just make my work the way I wanted to make it, not work within the structure of art school assignments. And I also felt like it was crucial for me, art wise but also just mental health wise, to live in the place where I was part of a thriving punk scene - that was so important to me. Even though I made work before I was involved in punk, it was the first time I felt really a part of something and that my work was contextualized. I cared about making accessible work - photocopying flyers and zines, screen printing, other affordable means of production - and being around the energy of the other work that was being made in the punk scene in New York at that time was inspiring to me. That energy and DIY sensibility has always been fundamental to my work and I think it will always be there in some form. Even though I make paintings now, I’m not precious about them I don’t spend a ton of money on materials, and I still love just making drawings on printer paper and photocopying them and screwing around with those - that still might be my favorite thing.
There’s also an element of your work that is in and of itself punk and boundary pushing. Is that just this element of danger that you’re drawn to or do you see that differently?
It’s a little hard for me to articulate and explain my work in this way – I feel like that’s why I make the work, because I don’t have the words for the energy I’m trying to translate. I guess you could describe my work as somewhat punk just in the senses that it’s a bit spontaneous and that it’s uncensored and graphic. Those are all superlatives that might also be associated with that subculture. My work is all really autobiographical and intuitive, born from my experience and my life and what I’ve been through and came up in.
I guess, a lot of those points of genesis are experiences that were kind of dangerous, relatively speaking. It’s kind of funny to me that my work would still read as punk, because I guess, at first thought, moving from making zines and using photocopy scam codes to making paintings on paper that live behind glass doesn’t seem punk. But then looking around my studio, I can see—yeah, that energy is still there regardless, and my personal ethics are definitely still rooted there. That’s all just deeply part of me so it comes through in my work no matter what. But I don’t try to bring that to the table—I am not even aware of the fact that it’s still there until someone asks me about it. It’s not like I was a complete square before I got involved in punk—there’s something inherently a part of me that drew me to that community and caused it to resonate with me—but engaging with that scene for the majority of my life so far did shape who I am.
So as far as whether that energy being a part of me inherently came first, or me engaging with the culture and vibing off it came first, I don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg I feel like it’s probably more of a symbiotic spiraly relationship - but I’m happy it still comes through in my work.
Can you talk about how you got started with zines? I really admired your dedication to having so much of your work be really accessible. Will that always be part of what you do?
Yes, I feel really strongly about continuing to have an amount of accessibility in my work, from piece to piece energetically and then also just financially, not being too precious about what I make. I don’t want to engage so heavily in the culture of scarcity that comes with the art world. This is what first drew me to making zines. I grew up pretty solidly middle class, so my ethos around money my entire life has just been what I imagine is kind of an average American level of frugality – not much indulgence or extravagance. And then coming into the art world is bizarre - there’s just so much money in it. It’s enticing because I’d love to be able to live comfortably off my work, but at the same time, I don’t really believe in being so precious about your work that you price it so high that no one “like me” can afford it, that goes against everything I ever cared about ethically.
Art is amazing, art should be accessible to everyone who wants to own it. For a long time, all my work was quite literally CHEAP for this reason. Recently, as I’ve been starting to make some larger paintings, I’ve tried to strike a balance between figuring out how to price things in a way where I can afford my overhead and pay a gallery commission if I need to AND try to make a living, but where it also isn’t so astronomically expensive that only a millionaire could afford it. I want people with my same life trajectory and same ideals to be able to own my work if they want to. So even if I do have some things that are priced higher because of the nature of the piece, like a big painting, I never want to be in a place where that’s the only kind of work I have available; I want to have more accessible work available as well. More recently, when I’ve been able to sell larger paintings for higher amounts—honestly still low by insane art world standards, but crazy for me—I’ve always tried to make sure I have drawings, multiples and zines, because I love that people like me want my work. I’ve personally never bought an original for more than $200 (although I definitely hope to someday), so I want people in my demographic to be able to have something to choose from ...I think it’s ridiculous to exclude everyone like me.
When I first started making zines, I used a photocopy scam code to get the copies for 1 cent each. I sold the zines for $1 or sometimes $2 if I was feeling fancy!! The highest I ever sold those for was $4 when they were printed in color, which was a little more expensive to make – like, it would cost $1 to make. That culture of being able to say—I spent a ton of time on this drawing, but I made 1000 copies of it and it can end up anywhere, on walls of people’s houses I’ve never met, all over the country, because not only can everyone afford this but it’s actually so cheap that sometimes I or other people would give them away for free – just creating that community of people sharing printed matter was so amazing to me when I became part of zine culture and it still is really important to me. I think that no matter how much I open up my practice and move in different directions with the kinds of work I make, I will always care about being able to simultaneously offer work that is accessibly priced, like zines and prints and smaller drawings. I can’t see myself ever fully moving away from that, I don’t really see a reason to – I think I can do it all at once – make huge paintings and still have $5 zines. Why choose one direction?
Animation by Heather Benjamin.
Music: "Climax One" from "Music for Sensuous Lovers" by Z
As you say, the fine art world is very much about creating scarcity. So being as prolific as you are and spreading it as far as you can is punk in that it’s already in opposition to that?
Yeah, I think that to some people in the fine art world, you can’t have it both ways. I think to some, in order to be a successful artist financially, you have to create some amount of a culture of scarcity around yourself, so the works that are available are high priced and covetable and the galleries will choose who is or isn’t allowed to buy them, etc. I’m just learning about all this, and the more I learn, the more I hate it. Not to say you don’t ever have to make calculated business decisions as an artist, but that level of creating rarity or scarcity in this really manufactured and exclusive way leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t know if this story is true, but I remember someone telling me years ago that Pettibon was making so many quick drawings on scraps of paper for friends or on napkins for people in restaurants, that his gallery gave him a stern talking to – like, to stop doing that in the name of creating scarcity, because you don’t want to flood the market with a ton of cheap or free small pieces of your work, it’ll mess up the strategy of pricing the bigger ones. And I’m like..why would you tell an artist not to do that? Look, he’s still going to sell his bigger works for enough money. He’s going to be fine. Make people who can’t afford your giant works happy with the smaller things they can afford, and make the rich people who want a giant trophy painting happy by selling those to them.
Why can’t we normalize that? The entire world of speculation... the politics of that are all new to me. Now that I’m learning that stuff, I’m like...ew, what?! The craziest things are galleries not selling to certain people...I don’t care who buys my work! If they love it and they want it, let them have it!! I need to make a living. If someone wants to buy my work, awesome. I don’t need to “vet” who owns my paintings. I’m flattered that anyone wants them at all, and my biggest goal ever since I was little was to try to make a living off of doing what I love, which is making art. I’ll do whatever I can to keep working on maintaining that goal. It’s not important to me to vet buyers, I need to sell the damn work to pay the damn rent! I guess this is a little bit of a working class mentality sprinkled into the art world soup. I don’t know if those two things go together, I guess I’m going to find out.
I think zines - in their original, accessible, affordably printed forms anyway - are fundamentally in opposition to the art world’s scarcity culture, which is one reason I love them and love zine culture. I guess they have penetrated the fine art world a bit more in the last few years, but that has more to do with the definition of a zine being broadened and therefore more book projects that are pricier having that name tacked onto them. I’m talking about photocopied, staple bound zines – that you don’t act precious about, that have a coffee stain on them, that have been handed down through like, six different people, that cost $5. Those definitely stand fundamentally in opposition to scarcity culture.
I was so entrenched in zine culture, since it was what I came up through, that I actually didn’t make anything intended to be displayed as a standalone image for years, until several years ago where I felt I wanted to make more singular drawings and paintings. But for years all my work was made from the jump to exist in book or zine format, so it was always drawn at a small scale to either fit on the photocopier bed or on a scanner bed, and always in black line. And with each image, as I was creating it I was thinking about how it related to the image on the facing page. The original drawings were just a step in the process of getting to the final work, which was the zine itself. I wouldn’t exhibit or sell the originals because I hardly even took care of them for a long time. They were like, not important to me considering they were a step in the process. I guess that’s about as in opposition as you can get to the fine art world, a project where the originals are disregarded and the finished product costs a couple bucks and is an open edition that gets reprinted forever. I still make certain zines like this, where the drawings are all intended to finally be a zine. But now I also sometimes make artists books/zines that are collections of reproductions of standalone works in book format.
This idea of artists turning their art into merchandise is really interesting to me. What have you noticed about the demand for physical media throughout the years, especially in regards to the rise of Instagram? What have you learned about yourself in terms of how much to engage with this sort of market aspect of it all?
I’ve dabbled in making some merch here and there over the years like t-shirts, tote bags, stickers. I would maybe drop like, one of those items, once a year. I never did it too much. But a few years ago I realized I have an Instagram following of people who like what I make, but not everyone can afford to buy original work...and zines aren’t something you can “rock”...and people want to feel like they have a piece of something, wear something or just be able to show it off. Myself included! I realized I did really well with small inexpensively priced things like pins and started doing that a little more for a while. And then I dialed it back because I wasn’t feeling too inspired by making objects like that, partially just because designing objects has never really been my main interest – that’s drawing – and partially because there was this moment where all of a sudden a lot of artists, myself included, were making a ton of merch, and it felt a little like, overwhelming. I’ve been tabling at book fairs since 2010, and I’ve seen zine culture change and explode. There was some merch beyond zines and books on peoples’ tables back then, but there’s like *way* more now. You can go to a book fair and there will be multiple tables that are shirts/pins/patches and, like, maybe have one zine. So the definition has expanded, and that’s fine!! It’s cool to be inclusive.
But I stepped back because the scene for that felt a little oversaturated, and I also don’t really feel inspired by making merch. I feel inspired by painting, drawing and book-making. Making a t-shirt actually feels more restrictive to me sometimes. Also, I don’t feel as stressed about this anymore because I’m in a very, I don’t care what people think about me phase but I was a bit more worried about how people were going to perceive me as an artist if I had a ton of merch. Like, what category of artist. I think this is due to a little bit of PTSD I have about being called a “cartoonist” and an “illustrator”, which used to happen a lot more but still does. I think it’s since I made zines for so long that people called me an illustrator. And I was like...what am I illustrating? These are my drawings. And all the master painters did drawings. Not that I mind the word illustrator inherently, but it’s like, I know what they were saying. It’s “cheaper” somehow. It bothered me that I wouldn’t just be called an artist.
There is a weird perception of drawings, and stylized line drawings in particular, that people will then call you an illustrator or a comic artist. And I thought by scaling down the merch I could differentiate myself from illustrators who do make a killing off of prints and merch and devote a lot of energy to that. And I do think that helped carry me into a more fine art context. But these days, I don't really care much—call me an illustrator, fine, I don’t care. I don’t think there is a universal definition for an illustrator. But there are a lot of things I don’t do that make me really not that. I don’t do any work on the computer I barely use Photoshop. I’m literally just painting and drawing all the time— a pretty point blank definition of being an artist. So I do feel chill now about the labels, I just don’t care. Except, cartoonist does get to me I do get fired up when people occasionally call me a cartoonist—when was I ever doing cartoons?!!
What do you see as the main downsides to people sharing art on Instagram?
The biggest downside is the built-in audience, which can also be a good thing in so many ways. But the bad end of it is feeling like you have to keep posting content frequently and entering into this vicious cycle of – I need to make some work to post. What kind of work do people want to see. Will this translate to “the feed”. And that’s so backwards—you need to just make my work and Instagram should just be a secondary thing, an excellent platform for sharing and dissemination but that should not be involved in the actual creation of the work (for my practice, anyway). But it can get swept up to the front in a weird way for a lot of artists. And even if you aren’t feeling that way, you can catch yourself thinking about posting something while you’re working on it. So it can weasel its way into your creative process, which doesn’t feel healthy.
If you make work that doesn’t translate well...what do you do about that? Do you try to make work that translates well? It’s the most important platform for independent artists, so unless you have great gallery representation, what are you going to do? I’m lucky because my work is flat, rectangular and bright. But by the same token, I’ve been censored a lot. I get frustrated because something will get taken down—and then you think, should I just not make work with vaginas in it, because if I lose my account, I’ll lose my whole platform? It’s messy. I don’t want to be thinking about the platform at ANY point in my practice aside from the very end when something’s done and I decide to post it or not, but it does happen sometimes.
There’s so much deliberately sexual content on the internet that doesn’t get censored. And your work which is illustrated, doesn’t seem like it would be violating their terms of service.
I’m actually “literally” not violating their terms of service. If you read the Terms and Conditions fo Instagram, literally the only thing it says about nudity is that photos of nudity are a no-go, but photos of nudity in painting or sculpture are allowed. So as long as it’s not photographic nudity, it should be fine. But, despite that, I’ve had my work flagged and removed several times, even though it’s not a photograph.
You are kind of beholden to this platform, and you’re trying to make work that’s provocative or intense...and you probably do wonder about censoring yourself before you even share it.
Especially now I do. I went a pretty long streak without getting any flags, and I knew I was respecting the guidelines, so I was just posting my most graphic work whenever and however I wanted. But right before coronavirus started, back in February, I got multiple flags and received a note that my account was going to be deleted. And I had a bit of a meltdown, because before the pandemic, losing my Instagram platform still would have been a big hit to my livelihood. But at least there were in–person galleries and hypothetically other physical ways show my work, but now that’s not the case. I’ve Instagrammed since 2012 and I have about 40K followers, and I would never be able to build that up again. It’s literally my only source of income at this point – posting my available work on Instagram and making direct sales, and linking to my webstore on Instagram/advertising other available work and zines there. It’s the only platform I use to disseminate my work and it works for me. And I don’t have gallery representation I’m independent, so I have a few pieces in galleries here and there, but it’s, usually through people DM’ing me and buying directly through me that I make a living.
Hypothetically, before, you could be an emerging small artist without Instagram. But now...it’s like, scary how big of a hit that could be to your career. Fortunately, I posted about what was happening when my account was being threatened to be deleted, and it really boosted my engagement, and that got me a bunch of visibility. I also did manage to talk to some people at Instagram about it. And it seems to have worked out, because I did not get deleted, thankfully. I would be grateful for that anytime, but especially with the pandemic, it has been totally crucial to still have that platform to show my work, make sales, and connect with people, in the wake of mostly everyone’s shows this year being cancelled or postponed.
Regarding Instagram, here’s also a lot of imitation out there. How do you respond to that, and how does the system of IG likes and follows amplify that?
I think that now that there is an image-based social platform, people have more access than ever to seeing what other people are doing and making visually. And yeah, it probably has increased the amount that people are influenced by each others’ work, to put it nicely, or rip each other off – just because there’s more for you to see, more at your fingertips. I’m sure that existed to some extent with Tumblr. And I can imagine before social media that would happen in a gallery. But I’m sure it’s more than ever through Instagram...and I do get people sending me 1-2 things a month that they think looks like my work. I’ll get a DM that’s like “wow, this person is totally ripping you” Usually, I don’t really care, because typically it’s just someone who seems like they might be like, influenced by my work, not completely ripping me. And to me, that isn’t a sin, and it also is inevitable. So unless you’re literally, verbatim copying my work... which I’ve only had happen a couple times – I don’t really care. Most of the time it’s a younger artist who is trying to figure out their voice, soaking up a lot of work and maybe regurgitating some of it a little too literally, and that happens. I don’t think that’s a crime. On the contrary, I think that’s how a lot of young artists find their voice – by studying work made by people they admire. And of course it comes out in the subconscious, especially in this time of so much accessibility to visual influences on the internet. I think the only time I would really be upset by this is if someone with a similar platform size to me was regurgitating my work and making a bunch of money or getting a bunch of visibility from my ideas. So while I do get stuff like this sent to me often, none of it really bothers me. It hasn’t really happened on a scale that would upset me.
Your work deals really largely with ideas of femininity, and you’ve said the women represent a more singular, spiritual avatar for yourself. Do you think your work is deeply personal or is it more about a universal experience for women?
It’s definitely personal. With my work, I am definitely not trying to claim that I know what any aspect of femininity, womanhood or humanity is for anyone else. All I can do is speak from my own experience, thoughts, feelings. It’s diaristic. But I end up hitting on things that may be relatable for other people by doing that, because my experience isn’t so unique that it doesn’t resonate with anyone else. And I really love when that happens, and it’s the most gratifying thing—connecting with people over hard shit that is hard to talk about or communicate. It makes me feel less alone or fucked up. But the point of my work isn’t to make universal statements. In that sense it’s a little selfish - it’s my catharsis. I, like, don’t know what I would do without the release. It’s an incredible added bonus to commune with people over it when someone responds to my work, and to have that connection. I adore that more than most things, but I would not say that is the goal of making the work. I make the work for myself.
If we take emotions to their most extreme—I see a lot of images of trauma or rejection. What is that about?
That visual language evolved for me out of hyperbole as a useful tool to express intense abstract feelings. It’s symbolic. I’m working with a lot of metaphors in my visual language. A lot of what I am trying to convey is intense, or intense to me, so conveying it with intense visual stimuli makes sense to me. But I’m trying to convey emotional experiences that are difficult to convey with language, for me anyway. And sometimes the way to do that is to come up with a dramatic visual representation of something close to how that feeling or that emotion feels in the body. Bugs and spiders crawling everywhere isn’t literal. It’s more that crawling feeling of being so uncomfortable in my skin. With the self harm that’s in my work...I was never a cutter, I didn’t engage in that kind of self-harm… but I do depict it, because I think it is a helpful visual signifier of wanting to crawl out of your skin or tear your body off because you feel disgusted or just to symbolize other kinds of self-harm.
It’s kind of like emojis—to simulate experiences that are emotionally charged.
It’s hyperbolic visual imagery that tries to stand-in for and simulate really intense and challenging emotions that are hard to articulate. I guess I can relate this to punk, going back to that – it’s yet another reason why punk makes sense to me and feels comforting and relatable, the similar usage of, like hyperbole to try to convey intensity. So much artwork for punk albums violent and crazy looking – and not necessarily because it’s, like, glorifying violence or literally about is violence. And so is the music, it can be intense and violent and pumped up to the highest possible extreme, and that’s to convey the intensity of the feelings. Like, not to get all “theory” on punk, but with D-Beat, for example, it’s this fast violent drumbeat that does such an amazing job of conveying this insane intensity and frustration and energy through power and force and repetition. It’s so amped up and exaggerated. And because of that, it’s able to convey all these feelings and it resonates. It’s finding ways to express things that if you keep them inside will eat at you, and finding the most exaggerated expression to get them out and really show the viewer or the listener, like, “it’s THIS intense. It’s THIS bad. I’m THIS angry.” Amping up the language you use in your art, the language of symbols, when you’re trying to convey intensity – turning it up to the highest possible level of intensity, helps people to understand how strongly you really feel.
As you shift toward more non-reproduced work, how has that been, knowing that so much of what you have done has been printed or turning it into a zine?
It’s felt really freeing to make work and not worry about how it's going to be reproduced or printed. I got really sick of thinking about that all the time, or of ONLY doing that. Whether it’ll fit on the photocopy bed, being restricted with a certain amount of colors for reproduction ,etc… there were only certain ways that I could work that I knew I would be happy with. I could make certain kinds of drawings on a certain scale only when I made work only to be reprinted as a zine. And when I started making work that could be its own thing, it was so liberating. I feel like I trained myself to think in a regimented, restricted way in my work because of how I started. So I’m still like that, even if I don’t need to be. I get stuck in a new corner in the studio every year that I have to find my way out of. That’s where I am now, because I got to the point of making bigger paintings with more colors, and it all feels really good and exciting. But now I’m like...why do I only work on paper? Why not on canvas or wood? So I get stuck in one thing, which I feel like comes from my zine-making roots.
Anything new / exciting?
The last couple years have been about scaling up and teaching myself how to paint, and I finally feel like I’m hitting my stride a bit. Up until around 2014 I had only worked on a really small scale, black and white, with pens. So I had to teach myself how to use a brush because I care about my line work. So it took a really long time to learn how to use brushes to get the results I wanted. Every time I would try to go full-steam ahead, it would be a disaster. So I have to scale up step-by-step and teach myself along the way. I have to thoroughly work through whatever I’m working through. Right now I’m making paintings on paper that I’m stoked on, and I’m working up to painting bigger on different surfaces. Works on paper are the most accessible thing, but if you want to take care of it, framing is expensive. And that adds onto the whole accessibility dilemma. So maybe painting on canvas or wood makes more sense because the thing just exists on it’s own, it’s simple. After making exclusively multiples for so long, being like...this is the one image, just this, feels nice.
A big personal issue I have regarding my work—people interpreting it as really, really sex-positive, body-positive, sexy or sexual, horny work. Which is honestly just… not where it’s coming from. That’s a huge oversimplification. It’s from a much darker and more complicated place, that secure encompasses all of those things, but not just those things.. There’s a whole spectrum. Ultimately, my work deals more with the abject, and with trauma and self hatred, than it does with body positivity and self love. But all of those things are in there… but yeah, it’s not just like, “I’m horny and I make sexy work”, that’s the biggest cringe to me. I’ve especially run into that with men’s perceptions of my work, forever, which then expand to a perception of me. Where I get DMs and emails that are like… the worst possible example was someone asking me to do a record cover, and when I asked for them to send the music and inspiration over so that I could give him my rates, he said, “Cool, yeah I was hoping I could pay you in cunnilingus.” Like, they think they can just talk to me like that, and propose that to me, because of the nature of my work and the assumptions you’re making about me because of it. There’s no other reason you would feel comfortable saying this to me. This happens constantly. So I’ve had a lot of people think that because I make the work I do I’m really horny and super down. And it’s actually the opposite—I almost never date. And it’s weird because these interactions with men about my work that end up this way, it activates the same shame and confusion that my work is coming from in the first place. It’s really complicated and upsetting. The biggest misconception is people thinking my work is just on the body-positive / sex-positive end of the spectrum, and not a much larger picture of what it feels like to live in a woman’s body and be perceived as a woman in the world.