Michael St. Amand is a brilliant artist who gives great conversation along with his fantastic work. His work http://michaelstamand.com/ is daring, bold and multifaceted just like him. I just sat back and listened to him chat about his work, the state of the world and contemporary art in general. I hope you enjoy Michael’s observations and wisdom as much as I did.
“People, in general, think the life of an artist is wild parties, spending time day dreaming, painting and fucking. Ah, the "myth" of the artist. People truly don't understand that much of the life of an artist is 90% paperwork, research and promotion and 10% painting.”
MICHAEL C: Michael, I love your work. Looking at your work makes me want to use exclamation points because it's so decidedly exciting and playful. To me, your paintings aren't just paintings. They're actually a celebration of art itself. How do you see it?
MICHAEL S: Thank you ever so much for your very kind words. It's an honor to be interviewed by you. I love your articles and interviews. They always make me think!
My work is my perception of life, vibrant and powerful! We all see what is or happens from a different viewpoint. My work does not fit into any specific movement or category. I see it as a time capsule of art/life itself. My work starts arbitrarily - what happens after that is a confluence of events and pure intuition and emotion, which is derived from a broad influx of influences: media, love, play, war, fashion, environment and emotions that we live with on a daily basis.
For me, painting is about having a conversation with the viewer - a visceral jumpstart that gets the synapses electrically charged, thereby provoking thought or emotion.
MICHAEL C: What I'm hearing you say is that you're inspired by daily life and culture. How do you take that inspiration and transfer it onto canvas? In other words, how do you make it into art? How does that work? Do you make a mental note of something or write down notes or record reminders on your iPhone or rip images from magazines? Your work has this cool, random nature.
MICHAEL S: I use daily life and culture then transpose the emotion into what you see as the end result of my work. I don't make notes or do sketches; I may take photographs or use fabric, magazine or newspaper clippings and incorporate them randomly or deliberately into my works.
Rarely is one lucky enough to have that magical jolt of inspiration. It is in the process itself and the making of art. Working is the thrill ride. The paintings make themselves. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. It all depends on the energy which emanates from the first stroke or my thought process on an event that might be political, cultural, environmental or humanitarian.
My work starts randomly, the background is usually painted first, by pouring, spraying, brushing or just slinging paint. I arbitrarily pick a color and go. The process to get the background of the work the way I want it make take days. This might include 20 or 30 layers. I love the vibrancy and power of the fluorescent color. I take the raw pigment and have several formulas I use to mix the paint. I also may add paper, photography, caulk, fabric - whatever is at hand - as I make a painting. The process can create great depth, texture or a flat plane depending on what feels and looks right to me. Some days, it might be a single action stroke which kick starts the work.
Once that is done, any number of things might happen while the piece comes to life. When the painting speaks to me, it leads the way on how to proceed to the next step. Whether it be an image or a photograph that I take, a magazine clipping that has current or past historical meaning in a way that fits into what I am expressing, a current event, a striking image, nature or a found object, I may incorporate it into the work. IT just fits.
As each layer of the work is constructed or deconstructed, each builds upon the foundation that came before.
I use a variety of different media and processes during the creation of the work. Spontaneous yet deliberate. There is a juxtaposition in my works. There is a direct correlation in my works between an endangered rhino and a missile, spatter, geometric or clear lined form. I might use a pre-determined image to make the work invoke thought and emotion as the new layers are built upon.
MICHAEL C: I love the fact that you say inspiration comes after you get down to work and not the other way around. Your process certainly sounds physical. How emotional, intellectual and spiritual is your work? How much of those things do you invest in the work?
MICHAEL S: Thank you, Michael. The process is physical indeed. The physicality is good for one's soul. My works can be quite emotional, intellectual, and spiritual all at the same time. When I work, I rise to a higher spiritual plane, I become closer with the universe and introspective.
Some of my work can be perceived to have a spiritual aspect (such as the "Container Series" or the "Meditative Meditation Series") amongst others. There are many roads people travel to connect to a spiritual plane, though to some, the paths may be unconventional - they are used to fill a void. The iconography, in some of the works, whether it be Buddha, Jesus, Ganesh, Shiva or an icon of a saint, all signify beliefs while causing a positive or negative reaction, depending on one's insight or discernment. Conversely, a bullet, riding crop, needles or skulls may have the same exact response which may arouse reactionary emotions. Art is spiritual. It speaks a universal language.
On an emotional level: My work encompasses a full range of emotions and what I feel as the works builds upon itself and what input I have from outside sources or personally. As I make the piece and as the flow and levels build, the deeper my emotional psyche and intuition come forth and the deeper I delve into a work. I am in an emotionally-frenzied state, laser beam-focused and in touch. Some artists say they try to detach themselves from their work, but for me, it is just the opposite. I become totally immersed and invested.
Along with the spontaneity of my work, there’s intense intellectualizing in many aspects. I am an avid reader, researcher and observer. I believe that we continually learn on a day-to-day basis and the more you know, the more you know you don't know, as someone once said. As an artist, I am curious about everything in life - constantly questioning and absorbing daily issues: humanitarian, environmental, scientific or cultural. For example, while waiting for the initial layers to dry on a painting, I went outside to work in the garden. I started to question why there were fewer bees than in previous years. This led to researching the decline of the bee population. It was through this research that I noticed a direct correlation between a bee hive full of symmetrical hexagons and a molecular skeleton which consists of hexagons. Nature versus science. We know that some of the chemical insecticides are, in part, responsible for the decline. Thus less pollination of crops and the result, less food globally. This triggered the title of the work "Buzz Kill," which has several connotations.
MICHAEL C: Love that. Your 3D works, the Container Series is also clearly a tribute to pop art and culture. I look at it and immediately sense that you were almost like a kid assembling the works like Legos. Also, the Oil Can series makes me think that art is as good as refined oil, but people don't realize it! What was your inspiration?
MICHAEL S: "Bang Bang POP!" That is an interesting perspective which I can understand especially with "Bang Bang POP," which came from the soup can sitting on the counter while working on that piece which turned out to be an homage to Warhol and the pop art movement.
The Container Series (started in 2006) is an interesting adventure, like a kid with an erector set without directions, containing undiscovered elements and ready-made parts exciting and invigorating. I never know what will pop up next.
I was working on the piece, "Birth Comes To Us All" and I was rummaging through objects hanging around the studio. I subconsciously, consciously laid the cigar box down on the work, it fit wonderfully on the piece, as I stated, "My art just happens." The work makes itself.
The cigar boxes or other objects in the "Container Series" or "Oil Cans" deal with consumerism and our perceptions of spirituality and societal differences, juxtaposing objects or images.
The Container Series morphed into the later segments with the first smaller pieces, "Your Own Personal Jesus" and "Buddha in a Box."
LED lights exude punch and technology, refracting off the mirrors, which have a duality of purpose, capturing the reflection of the viewer as part of the piece, the icons, bullets combined with a variety of objects such as a ball gag or hypodermic needle or religious icons, bringing various connotations and inferences to societal perceptions and pushing the boundaries to challenge the viewer.
The "Oil Can" Series began much in the same way, while working on the "Mundata Sonata" series. When cleaning out a barn, these antique oil cans captured my attention among the many other objects. I grabbed them, went back to the studio, looked around as the larger works were drying and went to work. The "Oil Can" Series is a reference to how dependent we are on oil which drives our society and the harmful ways which fossil fuels commit environmental suicide. Money, corporate greed and political power control the situation, even though new environmental technologies are available which are less harmful to the planet.
My 3D works, can be aligned to the historical pioneering artists before me, such as DaVinci, Duchamp, Johns, Man Ray and others whose ideas flourish within us today.
MICHAEL C: You must have a fairly large studio. What makes for a great studio space?
MICHAEL S: I have 800 square feet of studio space and usually have about four to six works going at the same time in different stages. It seems that no matter how much space you have, it is never enough. A great studio space has to have a good vibe to get work done. I work in various sized works, ranging from 6' x 10' to 12" x 16". Sometimes it's a jumble, it might look a mess, but I can tell you where everything is in that mess. It should also be well-stocked with paints, enamel, glues, canvas, panels, tools and various other items, whatever it takes to make art. Also great lighting, natural or artificial, I use a lot of fluorescent colors, so lighting is very important.
I also have a clean room for an array of computers, tablets, printers etc., where I can edit photography and create my digital and video works, print and of course use as a means to communicate.
MICHAEL C: Color - and primary color at that - is probably the most dominant feature of your work. What's up with you and color?
MICHAEL S: I have always had a fascination with color. Life is full of vibrant and powerful colors. I love the exuberance and the excitement of color - how a red or blue can change a mood in a heartbeat - how our mind, without knowing, can change in a split second with color. I am addicted to color and why would one not be? Color is exhilarating, alive, robust! Since the 80s, I have been working with primary and fluorescent, day-glo colors. It is challenging to control the power of the raw color to make a piece work. I can get intoxicated by the sheer use of them and the many layers of color in a work. As I stated previously, an orange or red may have many layers to pull off the color or depth I want to achieve.
One day, as I was sitting by the pool overlooking the river, I noticed the water of the river was actually glowing iridescent and day glo. It was magical. As I investigated, I found that a school of bell-shaped jellyfish had come in off the Gulf of Mexico. They were totally captivating. Upon further investigation (I scooped one out of the water), I noticed they were translucent with day glo purple, blue and green variations in their organs and circulatory system. As the light refracted from them the colors would shift depending on the position of light. Nature itself has a majestic color palette. Nature and light are the cornucopia of the colors I work with.
The same can be said for advertising or street art. One of my fellow artists, whose work I find mind blowing - his work is phenomenal - stated, "Walking into Michael's studio is like walking down the laundry detergent aisle in a grocery store. It just punches you in the face" (Lawrence Voytek). The power of color transforms, stimulates and makes one feel energized.
So what's up with me and color? When viewers witness my work first hand such as one of my latest, solo exhibitions at The Georgian National Museum's Tbilisi History Museum and they feel the power of color, they are transformed and mesmerized by the energy. They are full of emotion, excitement and dare I say, "stoned" by the visual impact of the color and imagery. I love watching the effect my work has on the viewer.
MICHAEL C: Doesn't it hit you in the gut to say things like, "Since the 80s?" That seems like a happier time when people were freer and had more fun. How do you think the art world has changed since then? I know that's a loaded question!
MICHAEL S: Yes! Hit me right in the gut. Fantastic question and loaded. The ‘80s were a much happier time; freer and we had a lot of fun. Soho was bopping, galleries were hopping, art was moving at a rapid pace and artists, old and young worked, collaborated and shared together. There were intimate artists' dinners at revolving studios which lasted 'til sun up (which still occurs in some cases). There were no missed nuances, glances or intonations that only physical contact can provide. Society itself was much freer. I was fortunate to have as friends such great artists, writers and photographers (some of whom showed at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century and Gallery Neuf) who were very relevant in the ‘40s and their art still stands as strong and powerful today. Artists, writers and photographers were more accessible then, unlike some of the artists today. Everything was more personal and face-to-face. When someone was traveling, they wrote postcards, letters or phone calls - not emails and quick 140 character texts or Facebook posts. Though there are advantages for me as an artist to inform, educate and use my voice globally in social media.
The conversations were more intimate because we gathered at someone's studio, home or met at a restaurant. I would sit and listen for hours being the "youngest" of the group. It was intoxicating because I was learning from the source, firsthand art history. When I first heard the story over dinner of Pollock pissing in the fire place, I laughed and thought at first they were joking. Then the movie Pollock came out; I laughed so hard at the scene. I was blessed to have met so many magnificent people from that era who took me under their wings. Today, I have kept the tradition having artists, musicians, writers and photographers over for dinners or parties so dialogue may take place. This ensures that I live a life full of creativity.
The world has changed significantly in 30 years. Society as a whole has changed. Communication has changed. Globally, you can promote your work and meet new artists and discover some truly great art. We have access today to blogs, art sites and more information is available to everyone and I don't just mean the public. The downside is that people are physically disconnected. For every plus there is a minus.
Take your magnificent writing for instance, ArtBookGuy. In the ‘40s, there was "Iconograph Magazine," a small publication by Oscar Collier, Gertrude Barrer and many others. Ann Gibson wrote a wonderful book, "Issues In Abstract Expressionism," Yale Press - a great read!
Artists for the most part are loners, especially when creating, yet we all love to get out and kick back and see other artists. We also need to network and communicate. While the internet has opened up new venues it is also a great time-devouring machine.
There is a greater ability to view art globally - both good and bad. Consumerism is king. Some artists' work is only made to sell because it is the current trend. Granted, there have always been trendy art movements. Nonetheless, some of what I have observed is loss of true creativity, boldness, experimentation, and adventure. I observe much redundancy. However, because of the change in society, technology and the internet itself, we are more aware of art being made on the other side of the globe. The contemporary art market is on fire. The prices for some works are astronomical. Global art fairs are everywhere. So much of today is built on immediacy and there is a lack of patience in my estimation. Art as investment has always been prevalent, but more so now and the all-powerful "brand" is more important than the art itself in many cases. Art historically has, for most part, always been a very good investment.
In my view as an artist, the art world has changed exponentially from the ‘80s ‘til today. I personally have grown and acquired greater knowledge. As an artist, I learn daily and there is a constant quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, society itself is a mess; you pay more for less, there is global warming, wars everywhere and fanaticism is at its highest level in my lifetime, all of which are abundant when you view my work.
When I was a younger artist, I'd get up, have my coffee and get into the studio. Now I check, answer email, view various social media outlets, then go into the studio. While the paint is drying, I work on other areas. While time consuming, it can get my work out to a wider audience, yet it leaves less clear time to think. We've gone from 24-hour days to 30-hour days. This past week, I was speaking with a very well known art critic, director and writer. He stated that he was inundated with so many email, he was months behind in answering them. I know the feeling.
People, in general, think the life of an artist is wild parties, spending time day dreaming, painting and fucking. Ah, the "myth" of the artist. People truly don't understand that much of the life of an artist is 90% paperwork, research and promotion and 10% painting. I consider it one of the most difficult jobs in the world. For me it is about the passion for art -- getting lost in the studio, perfecting my art.
So, has the world and an artist’s life changed from the 80s? YOU BET! But know this - I am fortunate to have such a wonderful life. I would not give it up for anything.
MICHAEL C: Wow, that was a spectacular answer. And so, yes, contemporary art is hot right now, but I just feel that the lack of art education among the public has created this haze that prevents most everyday people (who could afford art in many cases) from connecting with contemporary art. What more can we do to reach these people? What do you think?
MICHAEL S: Thank you for the wonderful compliment. You must have ESP! That was going to be part of my previous answer. However, I did not want to ramble for five pages.
I concur, there is a haze over the art world, not only in contemporary art, but emerging, established or blue chip art which not only encompasses the population in general, but the person looking to invest in art. To get to contemporary art, we have to start at the root of art and the people.
The lack of arts education, in my estimation, is with the schools and the lack of funding for the arts and humanities. This, from what I have seen, is the perception that art and culture in America is especially meaningless to many Americans. Some countries have great arts programs and even fund or give tax breaks to artists, depending on the artists, the country and those who have art as their main occupation. However, in the States, because we are a younger country or perhaps because of the puritanical values of some, there is a wide gap in culture.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to be one of the selected artists when I was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to exhibit my work in an International Exhibition in Tbilisi, at the Georgian National Museum. This was a great honor and it gave my art a broader reach and allowed me to engage other cultures and give them a better understanding of our culture while giving me a greater understanding of theirs for which I am truly grateful. Art is the universal language.
Public and private schools, arts organizations, galleries, museums, parents, and artists themselves are responsible for educating the public. When I was in school, we had art and music every day as part of the standard curriculum.
MICHAEL C: Yes indeed.
MICHAEL S: Art and music are the very first things to go on budget cuts. Art is no longer art, but arts and crafts and depending on where you are in school you may have that once a week or in a cycle of eight days missing out on art completely. How can you develop love or understanding of something that does not exist or when you are not exposed to it?
MICHAEL C: Exactly.
MICHAEL S: Location and accessibility also play a large role in this. If you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you are more likely to have a greater exposure to the arts in general than if you live Mississippi or Alabama, though I am sure they have some great arts organizations, that’s for the arts in general, not even speaking to contemporary art. The arts and cultural tourism bring in $100 for every dollar spent on art education and funding! More than major sports franchises or conventions. So would you not think that funding and education in the arts might be a priority?
MICHAEL C: I would certainly think.
MICHAEL S: Contemporary art, the haze and art for everyone. Shock, Awe, Controversy, Commercialism.
When I think of contemporary art, there are so many venues in this expanding art world. Installation art, conceptual art, painting, video, street art, photography, digital art, public art. There are so many variables when I think of contemporary art as a whole. When you ask how can we get "every day people" connected to contemporary art, that is the major challenge and question for the ages. Any new form of art will have its detractors and supporters. Education is key!
I believe many people are intimidated by art to begin with because they do not have an understanding of it. They like pretty pictures they can hang over their couch, “what the neighbors have,” so to speak. ART IS FOR EVERYONE - made for everyone. I have seen my work in some extraordinary collections along with antiques and historical art. I think part of the haze comes from shock and awe, as it has always been in the art world. How can a person working for minimum wage comprehend a $58 million Jeff Koons sale on the front page of a publication or the pharmaceuticals of Hirst? Basically, these few examples sum up part of the haze. The more museums, art history courses, galleries, pop ups, the more art organizations, public art tours that expose people to art. the better. Also, an enhanced outlook and appreciation come from this. People are inherently afraid of things they don't understand. With knowledge comes understanding. There are many preconceived notions that artists and the art world is for the elite. People should buy the art they love, that speaks to them, that emotes. One would think they would be open to explore art. If not for the sheer adventure of it, they just might learn something along the way which could take them away from the mayhem of life and cut through art's mystifying haze.
I once walked into a museum in New York to see an exhibition. I went off to one of the side rooms. Before me were metal studs, backing and braces, wiring with receptacles and plumbing. I thought I was in a room under construction. It was an art installation, complete with pages of explanations. I fell quickly into the haze you speak of, though after I took the time to read the long definition of what the artist was saying, my haze ebbed. I observed the people walking in and out rapidly for quite some time and no one was paying attention to the installation. They did not get it. On the other side of that, I walked into the Tate Modern and saw these magnificent installations by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles which were astounding. No words were needed to comprehend it and I was transported. Talk about worlds apart.
Look at Rauschenberg's combines or early work or Barnett Newman's "ZIP" paintings. Today these are historical pieces. To me, much of contemporary art is about branding, marketing and promotion - not about the art itself. The Haze, I believe, is caused by intimidation; lack of education, lack of understanding and outright commercialism and the high prices of the auction houses which are highly publicized.
There is so much art out there under the guise of contemporary art which is unoriginal and regurgitated. Granted, everything comes from somewhere. I personally think everyone is capable of appreciating and collecting art. Art they like and can afford, whether they start with affordable posters, prints, paintings, etc. I believe there is a lot of art out there that is easily collectable for everyday people you speak of.
The Haze among the investors is quite a different story. Globalization, private museums opening everywhere, the expansion of the Guggenheim, MoMA and others have increased the competition for major works. The oligarchs and 1% with unlimited wealth can truly only play in that arena. Their frenzied and glazed eyes come from the fact that they want it - sometimes NOT because of the art, but because of the brand and platitudes and prestige that comes from winning the piece. Though some do have a great appreciation of art, for others, it is about the investment and may sit in the crate for at least a year or longer before it becomes available to the market again. As we all know, art is a great investment.
There is so much commercialization of art in general. Take Koons’ "Puppy." At $58 million for the original and the Koons H&M Balloon "Puppy" bag for $49.95 (available in NY.) The influx of prints, photographic reproductions, signage and digital art have good and bad points. The good point is that they can help educate the public that art can be affordable for everyone. The detrimental point is the influx of over production, whereas nothing is actually touched or made by the artist - just a mass production run to fit today's society of immediacy, which may or may not include the artist’s signature.
At my exhibitions, I try to speak with everyone, touch everyone, be accessible and answer questions. To me, an artist's job is to inform and educate and produce great art. That’s regardless of whether it's a lecture I am giving, solo exhibition, or group show, a dinner party with collectors with guests or when folks come to the studio to see my work or projects I am working on. I’ve found that if you educate your collectors and admirers, not only do you build up long term relationships and friends, but your sales increase by taking the time to BE accessible. It goes a long way in opening new opportunities. One never knows what is behind the next door.
Education, time and accessibility are the keys to filtering the haze out of the mystifying world of contemporary art.
MICHAEL C: Do you come from an artistic family? What's your first memory of art?
MICHAEL S: No. I come from a blue-collar family, not an artistic one. My father was a carpenter who taught me the trade when I was young and my mother was the assistant town clerk. My first memory of art was from illustrations in books and comics. I started drawing everything around me as a boy. I knew from a very young age I would be an artist and had a passion for art. My work was published in a comic fanzine when I was about 15. I would go as often as I could into New York City to see the museums.
MICHAEL C: Finally Michael, what's the point of this? Most people don't really appreciate art and it's not like art is curing cancer or anything. Plus, so many people think it's a frill for the rich and most artists are struggling. What should anyone care about art? Isn't art a superficial thing that doesn't matter in the larger scheme of life?
MICHAEL S: Art has no boundaries! It is a form of expression which transcends language and cultural differences. Art has purpose and passion, art creates emotion, art universally communicates, art enhances our daily lives. As far back as approximately 40,000 years ago, cave paintings were used by diverse societies globally as a form of communication, worship, decoration and/or identification. Humankind has a need for expression and communication and a need for art - though some may not realize or appreciate it, art is invasive in our daily lives. Art makes us stop and think, it expresses our growth as a planet and necessitates a desire, fills a void and advances our thinking as a society.
Art may not cure cancer, however, it can remove the pain of the tribulations of cancer. In 2013, while working with the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, I donated my "Scribble Series," a 25-foot interactive installation to the Hematology-Oncology Center at the Children’s Republican Hospital in Tbilisi, Georgia. I witnessed firsthand how my art brought joy, energy, hope, and gave a respite to cancer patients and their families. Art may not cure cancer, but it can make an immense difference in our lives and psychological well being.
Art affects our daily lives, though society may not consciously realize it. How many times has a work of art or song stuck in your head?
Historically, economies can be built on art. Artists move into a basically empty or socio-economically deficient neighborhood for larger space and less expensive rent to have more freedom to create, they automatically ignite a chain of events, a cafe opens, galleries pop up to exhibit and sell art, a boutique, a restaurant, investment starts pouring in, the crime rate drops and soon the area develops a tremendous contagious vibe. All awakened by art and artists. The neighborhood is transformed and flourishes and becomes an epicenter. The downside is when the area is thriving and has grown to an economically-stable environment. Some of the artists are priced out because the rents become higher as part of the gentrification. Then the cyclical process repeats.
Art and the wealthy (which can sometimes be the same thing) are a symbiotic existence. The rich open galleries, museums, art centers and buy art. Yes, most artists are struggling in this world gone mad where poverty, hunger, war and greed run amok! Yet, they exist and create! Art is not just frills and embellishments for the rich. Art envelops all of us, through every entity and social group. As long as there have been artists, there have been patrons for the arts. Art brings with it fresh ideas and change.
As you can see, art is not a superficial thing at all, though it can be perceived as such. Do we need art to exist? No. We need air, water, food and sex. In the larger scheme of life, as we have evolved as a society, we require creativity and the abstract thinking derived from it, to stand in the possibility of the impossible or unknown. Otherwise, we would not be having this interview, there would not be a cure for polio, we would not have gone to the moon and no one would have created the cave paintings. Contemporary art is standing in the possibility ... WHAT IF?
MICHAEL C: Bravo Michael. I love your work and wish for you many more great things in the future.
MICHAEL S: Thank you ever so much, for your wonderfully insightful questions!
Check out Michael St. Amand at http://michaelstamand.com/.