Biff Elrod is a versatile artist who lives in New York City and North Carolina. He’s perhaps best known for his murals www.biffelrod.com that grace some public spaces seen by thousands and thousands of people each day. For me, his work has a wistful, nostalgic quality, but Elrod will have none of that. Read on and find out why he says (and now I agree) his work is as contemporary as it gets.
MICHAEL: Hey Biff, I have lots to ask you, so let's get right to it. First, your work is very nostalgic. You appear to be intrigued by the 1950s-60s perhaps? What's up with that?
BIFF: I consider myself a painter of now. In no way do I long for the past to return in the present. So, I'm not into nostalgia at all for its own sake. I’m just looking for strategic input and this can include sources that are not directly associated with the present moment. Many source image components derive from periods well before my memory, others just prior to painting. I'm also interested in sources that stimulate emotionally. I believe this can translate directly to production value and therefore, to the voltage of the viewer's response. Because I'm looking for resonance, if it looks nostalgic and that leads to further interest, ok. But I'm not chasing "the old days" during production of the painting. Nor am I actively trying to tweak nostalgia in others per se. One other point, it seems that by its nature, nostalgia becomes neutralized and more or less invisible as it grows older. Those that do the remembering become just memories themselves. Old things, past their moment, become part of the general category of the "old". My expectations are that, if the work survives, the "nostalgic" associations will fall away. I'm interested in a durable image.
MICHAEL: Very interesting and so true. I asked that question because to me, your work is very graphic and almost like classic advertising which I think is cool. Your images are definitely durable in that respect.
BIFF: Thanks Michael, I guess I had better say where I'm coming from with the comments. My orientation is not graphic or commercial art or advertising. However, when I started painting in oil (1960, at fourteen), I was attracted to the commercial illustration of Virgil Finlay and Norman Rockwell. But by the time I had reached the first year of art school, I chose to pursue "fine art,” work produced for its own sake. There was a time in the early twentieth century when there was no considered difference between the artists that produced images for publication in newspapers and magazines and artists who worked on "spec" and produced work for collectors. Since then, fine art, graphic and commercial art have each taken on a niche quality and artists working within these separate areas of pursuit, seem to seldom cross over unless there is a career change (I know there are exceptions). Anyway, what I mean by durable is the notion that a six-foot square painting will possess an image that will, on its own, be compelling enough to prevent a trip to the attic or the dump. That is, be able to stand alone without the packaging of a beautiful gallery or home and survive the various perpetrated hazards of passing time.
MICHAEL: I absolutely love the fact that many or your works are large scale. Nothing like BIG art. People always say bigger isn't necessarily better, but I really do think that because art IS visual, BIG art gets noticed and makes a big impact. Are there any challenges for you when working with larger pieces?
BIFF: The challenges are no match for the exhilaration of producing something large enough to have its own competitive physical presence in the environment. More yardage equals more of the viewing environment, thus sometimes, more effect; a bigger window perhaps. Large works may seem to have their own built in restrictions regarding where they might be hung. Large works tend to be aimed at less intimacy and perhaps a larger setting and larger viewing audience, as in public or museum spaces. Most of the paintings I've produced over my lifetime have been over four feet square, beginning early in my school years. I've done several large murals; most visible is the PATH Christopher Street station in Greenwich Village, NYC. Although broken into ten separate panels, it was my intent to imply a single larger other space that included all the images in the lower panels.
MICHAEL: Obviously, you have a studio space large enough to handle large works. Having space like that in New York must be tough.
BIFF: When I moved to New York City in 1974, space was cheap because the city was in bad shape. I've seen it transition from that to a cleaner, safer place now, although as many might say of that time, it was gritty, but had an edge, which I sometimes miss. I originally painted in a 2500 square foot loft on 11th and University Place in Manhattan. It rented "raw" for $300 a month. Those times are long gone and most artists starting out now will have a hard time finding a space that isn't shared by a crowd of artists. That same amount of money, without a deal, will get you maybe a 4 x 7 foot space in Brooklyn right now. I paint in a railroad flat that has gradually morphed into just studio. I also paint in a larger studio in North Carolina, where I spend almost as much time.
MICHAEL: It's just amazing to me what you have to endure to be a "successful" artist. You've been in the game for awhile. What do you think?
BIFF: Well, it's the life that I chose. I have absolutely no regrets regarding difficulties. Being autonomous has a price and whether or not it seems that way, the work I produce is always experimental. I've been fortunate to have been able to paint what I want on an ongoing basis. New York City made that possible to some extent. This is true partly because the market has been centered here in the past and is still in place to an extent. I fear that New York has become less hospitable to artists regarding the availability of viable working space especially. However, it still seems that it's important to develop ideas in context with the caldron of new perspectives and attitudes characteristic of an art center.
MICHAEL: The art world is changing somewhat with the internet. What do you think about the art world, the internet and how has it all affected you?
BIFF: The internet promised access to the world from the start. I finally got the web site up in 2000, looking for exposure and interaction with a larger community. A little surprised, I have to admit, when we all went online. Isolation has been the great silencer of artists throughout the ages. Now, with a minimal amount of effort, a facsimile of an image can be available anonymously to thousands of people across the globe. There can be no question that this makes a difference; it increases accessibility and enriches our visual culture. Of course, while millions can afford computer access of some kind, many millions more can only hold this as an ambition. Overall, it seems to be a very good thing and hopefully it will become a less and less exclusive communication form. Regarding paintings online, in my view, you have to see the actual work to say that you know what the artist does.
MICHAEL: How would you say you're different as an artist compared to, let's say, 25 years ago?
BIFF: Strangely enough, in 1986 I was given the opportunity to paint a public mural for the first time and my perspective changed because of that event. Up until that time, I had concentrated primarily on showing in galleries. I had recently finished my third one person show at Ruth Siegel Gallery on 57th street (no longer there) and was intrigued by the mural and the effect of having a group of works that went directly public, everyday and all the time. After successfully completing the competition and selection process, I was anxious to begin. The Christopher St. PATH station mural was originally done through the Public Art Fund, which had procured the station as a temporary installation site, with the exhibit set to run for one month. After that time, it would be replaced by the next exhibitor. The mural was well received and the Port Authority elected to give me an additional fee, and add it to their permanent collection (although the mural was painted directly on the walls over a two week period that August of 1986). This was a turning point in my thinking. The market for art has made a small percentage of fine art function in the economy much like real estate, with speculation of an ongoing increase in the value of the work when put up for sale or auction. The mural was for the people and could not be traded. Also, with rampant graffiti at that time in the city, the mural was not marked at all. I think this may have mystified the Port Authority a little and provoked their motivation to keep it there for all these years.
MICHAEL: It’s nice to know graffiti artists didn’t attack it.
BIFF: Why wasn't it tagged into oblivion? I have always thought that it was partly due to the subject, which was in fact constructed mostly from images of random pedestrians, most of whom still do not know they were depicted. My perspective changed with the direct, ongoing presence of the mural. My studio work reflected this quite strongly for at least the next decade. Essentially, I came to understand better a function of paintings for people who encounter them casually and divorced from the imperatives of the market place.
MICHAEL: What kind of art do you like outside of your own work? What does art do for you personally?
BIFF: In contemporary art, I'm inclusive. There are so very many viable artists out there. I could give you a list of who I like, but it would be very long. All I require from art is that I'm able to witness the willful consciousness and perhaps the emotional presence of the author of a work. For me, this is true to all forms of art, now and in the past.
MICHAEL: Finally, what do you it'll take to draw more people to art and what are your hopes and plans for your own future?
BIFF: Just since I've been a resident of NYC, I've noticed a pronounced expansion of interest in seeing art. More crowds in galleries, museums, auction houses and so on. I think it is growing well. Also, world culture is upon us. Coming to terms with that is an ongoing process. As for the future, I'm generally optimistic, but prefer to work on the painting at hand.
MICHAEL: Thanks Biff. This has been great.
To find out more about Biff Elrod and his work, check out his website at www.biffelrod.com.