Thursday, April 30, 2009

Interview: Nick Z (by Holly Jefferson)

And A Child Shall Lead Them
An Exhibition of new work by Nick Z
Friday, May 8 | 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The Public Trust

Asked to describe his work in five words, Boston native, Nick Z, responded: young, raw, creepy, autobiographical, and subversive. Previously known as a successful street artist with a talent for partnering vibrant colors and simplistic yet endearing characters, Nick would roll his eyes if he was exclusively recognized for his early achievements. The press has been generously respectful in the past few years, recognizing his progression in style, dimension, and scale of projects. His ambitious gallery installations most often incorporate assorted found objects and arrangements, phrases on wall and paper, colorful spray-painted images, cartoonish faces and figures, and videos on monitors.

The first time I saw your work was around four years ago in Boston’s South End, my neighborhood and yours at the time. I saw this smallish piece of bright-blue-painted rectangular plywood affixed with a magic marker sticker featuring one of your cartoon-like characters and zip-tied to a fence of a public garden. I soon went back to steal it and it was already claimed. About a week later I spied a similar piece around ten blocks away and immediately cut it down and put it on my mantle. At that time you were already showing in galleries coast to coast. Why was it, and is it still, compelling to show your work outside of white walls?

The only reason I was putting my work on the street at that time is because I had so much of it. I figured I would put everything I wasn’t showing outside instead of throwing it away. It didn’t mean anything to me at all. Then, it was just like a personal obsession or bad habit. Now, I don’t feel compelled to put anything on the street at all. It’s something I did at one point years ago but don’t feel compelled to now—especially since “street art” has become such a household term. I find it all pretty gross.

Do you think your imprint on the streets of Boston—whether prolifically tagging, creating elaborate, large scale spray-painted murals, or asserting ephemera on any visible surface—helped advance your career as an gallery-showing artist?

In general, gallery shows are hard to get. I would say, at that time it was a nice lil’ spark, good advertising, and that’s it. Even if I attracted someone’s attention and I got a commission or a show as a result, I still had to bring clients to my studio to show them my real work.

Have you ever been arrested because of your art?

No, that would totally be counterproductive for me.

Was there a career turning point when you became less of a graffiti/street artist, terms I know you deplore, and more of an established mixed-media artist?

The goal has always been for my work to been seen in galleries, for people to really engage mentally. I may have once been referred to as a street artist, but that was just something I was doing while waiting to show off my real work.

Having been to a few of your solo shows, I love to see how you completely take over and transform a space. How much planning goes into this beforehand, and how much is improvised once you begin the installation?

How do I prepare for that? I don’t really. Sometimes I will plan which objects I want to be in the show, but when I see the space, I’m already, like, ready to go. But usually it’s all improvised, which I feel is way more honest and harder to accomplish. I consider every space a challenge, and I love to make something happen from nothing.

Almost two years ago you and German artist Kai Altoff, your close friend and mentor, collaborated for a show at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Manhattan. It received high accolades in the New York Times, scored a spot in the Best of 2007 issue of Art Forum, and caught the attention of Takashi Murakami, who purchased some of your work. That installation marked a visual departure from your more lighthearted work. It became more advanced and showcased a darker side of your personality that continues to resonate in current projects.

I guess it was a total departure. I am really proud of that growth. Around that time I started seeing life differently—being exposed to new stimuli. I became more truthful to my work and myself. So my style changed and moved forward into heavier concept and content.

You are featured in the current issue of New American Paintings. How does that recognition compare to your other career highlights?

I'm really siked to be in that publication. Since college, I’ve always looked through it each time I saw a new issue on the bookstore shelves. I guess it’s highly personal for me—an incredible accomplishment to get recognized by them.

What inspires you?

My close friends—not only their work but also them personally. But more specifically, my brother Matthew, my mentor Kai, and my good friend and consistent co-collaborator Mister Never routinely inspire me. However, I am also highly affected by music and think a musician’s form of expression really gets me to the core.

Is there anything you want to see or do while you’re in Dallas?

I’d just like to ride a bike around, see what people are up to and how they are living, drink beers, and hit some thrift stores—I love them.


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