Your early painting series resembling the high fashion ads we see daily, explore the relationship between vulnerability and narcissism fueled by society's need for definable beauty moulds and the industry’s power to maintain this. What first motivated you to explore this subject, why was it important for you to explore this aspect of our mass media culture?
Generally speaking, we are always in the presence of mass-produced imagery— it’s ubiquity is inescapable. This statement is more emphatic when you inhabit a densely image-rich environment. It’s one thing to feel dwarfed by the towering billboards and giant video screens looming over your head at Times Square, but it’s a whole other experience that takes a surrealistic turn, when the visage of a fashion ad campaign covering the entire side of a bus belongs to a person you’ve known, perhaps even intimately.
I arrived in New York City in 1997, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani's war on the dance club scene was reaching a fever pitch, while decadent parties at iconic venues (such as The Limelight, Tunnel, Vinyl, Lot 61), defined the last great era of big city nightlife. Fashion photographers, models, a few designers, and a smattering of colorful characters, were the variety of personalities I had met and cavorted with on a nightly basis. The "downtown attitude” that permeated this exclusive scene was most intoxicating to say the least, and it could be that it was my romanticism of the scene which led me to create a series of portraits featuring a bevy of fashion models in early 2008—it was the opening of a pandora’s box that I haven’t been able to escape since.
The fashion industry’s instinctive ability to create a fantasy world expressed in slick glossy imagery has always intrigued me. As it has its similarities with the grandiose works of Baroque painters, guilty of elevating their subjects to mythical and almost-godlike status. Currently, technology and social media have enabled existing power structures to facilitate the creation of alternate realities, their main function is to propagate illusion. Individuality is expressed by means of a carefully crafted ideal through image manipulation and strategic curation. The pervasive desire to be removed from an objective reality manifested by the virtues of the status quo, and systematically filtered through mainstream consciousness, is the underlying principle that stimulates my curiosity as an artist.
'<head></head> No.1’ - c-print, 2012
Similarly your series ‘Disintegration' continues this theme, appropriating the figures of fashion model composite cards to pointedly note the use of sex and sexuality in postmodern advertising. Will you talk us through the method of creation and why you chose the playing card symbolism for this series?
Although a slight commentary on the exploitative aspects of female objectification is a thematic element that is omnipresent in each piece, it is actually secondary and not as important as the principal topic of “deletion”—central to the creation of the series as a whole. ‘Disintegration’ is rooted in my experiments with what I refer to as ‘Reverse Appropriation’, or “the reclamation of negative space”.
Even as far back during my formative years in art school, I’ve always been captivated by the straightforward concept behind ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ by Robert Rauschenberg, (1953). By dutifully erasing the significant artwork of an artist he deeply admired, Rauschenberg was able to produce a unique piece that was provocative and psychologically charged by the nature of his intentions.
I set out to do a similar experiment using a combination of tedious digital manipulation and thin washes of paint, gradually eliminating figurative images from the picture field. My deliberate focus on the execution of this arduous technique, gave the task a more mechanical and machine-like approach to the deletion process. Fashion model composite cards I’ve accumulated for several years suited the experiment graphically, and somewhat ironically, added an emotional layer to the project. The experience was similar to witnessing the finality of physical relationships, and the eventual fading of memories. The playing card symbolism is an arbitrary mark that I employed to simply indicate the completion of each painting. Perhaps on a subconscious level, it is a symbolic gesture meant to memorialize our ephemeral existence in a Post-Humanism world, slowly being superseded by machines that attempt to reconstruct the very essence of life, as nothing more than a calculated game of obsolescence.
'Ali Michael (seven of hearts)’ - acrylic and inkjet on canvas, 2008
You’ve worked in a diverse range of mediums and consider yourself a 'post- conceptual’ artist, with much of work exploring the idea of mass media and technology. It's interesting that it is on some level as a direct result of this need for technology and consumerism in our culture, you have been able to grow and develop your public image. How does utilizing the format of the same thing you explore for its impact, has in turn been an impact on the work you create? Does the need for it to aid in the growth of your artistic platform exaggerate your feelings towards it?
As an artistic medium, I always seek new ways to exploit readily available technology while observing the peripheries of user engagement. I particularly focus on the trends and behavioral patterns born out of social media biomes that influence popular culture. My most recent fling with social media tech was the creation of ‘SN. Sunday Journal’—“The world’s 1st Snapchat fashion zine”, in early 2016. In the late 80’s, I collected these beautiful punk rock zines made of crudely photocopied pages, stapled together. They’d mysteriously turn up at random newsstands and dimly lit record stores, and a very small circulation made each issue highly collectible ephemera that was impossible to procure through conventional means. The nagging urge to produce a digital counterpart to the classic analog zine, felt like an exciting proposition I couldn’t refuse. It was quite obvious to me that Snapchat would prove to be the most suitable tech- based platform to realize this project.
I began by culling original and appropriated images, pulled from my personal files of fashion, art, music, skater and BMX culture. The final assemblage (comprised of graphically embellished pages, remixed with soundbites and video clips), were bundled together as Snapchat stories, then presented as recurring weekly editions that I would publish once every Sunday. The temporary nature of Snapchat’s short-lived self-deleting story posts added a unique value proposition to this purely experiential piece. Each transitory issue could not be saved, or kept in its entirety for later viewing. Subscribers would only be able to revisit the digital pages of these disappearing zines in their memories.
To my knowledge, it was the first of its kind amongst creatives that occasionally traipsed cliquish fashion/art circles. At the peak of its popularity, SN. Sunday Journal garnered several hundred subscribers—as would a classic analog title that typically had a modest but devoted readership. Several weeks later, I got wind of an influencer (who explicitly announced in a popular streetwear blog), that plans were underway to develop a Nike-sponsored Snapchat zine. There couldn’t have been a more perfect cue to end the piece than the discovery of this ominous news. Possible association to any corporate-brand-sponsored-trend would only contaminate the very character of the zine’s punk rock ethos; an infraction against the tacit criteria of remaining truthful to the project’s fundamental objectives. I abruptly ceased publication, much to the dismay of my Snapchat followers and once-avid readers of the digital zine that no longer exists.
It’s been a conscious decision of mine from early on to take a rather cynical and indifferent approach towards the creative process whenever technology is involved. The need to feel validated by numbers, as with the constant monitoring of the accumulation of “followers” or “likes” (digital currency for teenagers and aggressive public relations agencies), were factors I paid the least attention to as time went on—avoidance of becoming another casualty of the tragic social media feedback loop, must have its merits. The ongoing destruction of attention spans for example, is a byproduct of the compulsory need to adapt to the ever-changing variables being dictated in the digital age—the phenomenon of high-tech ennui is very real.
Ultimately, I recognize technology’s power to amplify and exaggerate, to connect and inform, to comply and execute. But despite its immense capability to compute and quantify, technology is still unable to replicate or even understand the complex nuances that make us uniquely human. If there’s anything technology has revealed to us human beings, is that its rapid advancement and improper use (or irresponsible use I should say), seems to coincide with the expeditious decline in the overall wellbeing of society, and the alarming physical state of our planet. Technology is a tool and nothing more. It is not the be-all and end-all of our existence, and I cautiously choose to not be defined by it.
'SN. Sunday Journal No. 4’ - snapchat digital zine, 2016
The 'M*F* Street Wear New York’ collection bridges the line between fashion and art. How would you say the ability to express your key practice concepts in fashion form has enabled you to progress your work? Having created an oeuvre questioning our beauty standards and cultural marketing strategies, how did you navigate taking something directly into the belly of the beast?
The evolution of the copy-and-paste values promoted by the “Meme Generation”, was something I’d been observing since the introduction of Tumblr and Instagram. These social media platforms served as petri dishes for the cultivation of an emerging streetwear culture that favored the D.I.Y. aesthetic, while shamelessly replicating fragmented subculture references of decades past, without concern for history or substance. Its phlegmatic attitude towards adopting a more voracious type of consumerism, reinforced by the alluring convenience of disposable goods, were all unusual characteristics comfortably nested at the core of this growing movement. It was unapologetically crass, yet its sole existence was highly dependent on hype. Streetwear design had become an anomalous creative medium that beckoned to be explored.
‘M*F* Street Wear New York’ (M*F*: the abbreviation of “male/female”), was conceived in the fall of 2011. The main collection included streetwear essentials emblazoned with the ‘M*DEL F*CKR’ logo—a 90’s-inspired graphic I created in 2007, to celebrate the aforementioned decade with a slightly humorous emphasis on fashion-model-rockstar-dalliances, also referring to society’s ceaseless desire to attain a hedonistic lifestyle. Premium quality graphic tees, embroidered snapback hats and beanies, were made exclusive to a handful of thrilled models during New York Fashion Week, in February of 2012. Street style and backstage photos of these models who incorporated the pieces as part of their daily uniform, were disseminated via social media. Limited edition skateboard decks soon followed, and became collectible trophies to the lucky few, fortunate enough to acquire them. M*F* continues to silently operate as an underground fashion brand, only releasing a selection of highly limited products to a clandestine clientele.
In an age when the increasing speed of production and information dispersion sets the pace, it isn’t surprising that fashion is undergoing yet another kind of mutation. What was once considered an abomination, or fashion’s bastard-child- trope, the rampant culture of “bootlegging” has retaliated vengefully. As recently reported in mainstream fashion news, bootlegging has infiltrated and supplanted the gatekeepers of luxury. From a distance, parody and pastiche have becomeindistinguishable. The lines have been blurred to such an extent, that the comparative values which differentiated real from fake no longer exist as they have become culturally irrelevant. This relatively new reactionary response to bootlegging being regarded as aesthetically chic, serves as an appropriately ironic resolution to my initial exploration of the medium—since 2013, M*DEL F*CKR logo tees, beanies, and snapback hats, have all been heavily bootlegged in China and in France.
'M*DEL F*CKR signature logo tee’ & 'M*DEL F*CKR signature logo skateboard deck’ - photography Ezra Petronio, styling Lana Petrusevych 2012
Amongst the spectrum of your work you directed 'Vis Á Vis’ in collaboration with Isabel Marant and Marko Velk. Its connection to your works is conclusive, but what prompted the decision to work with film in this aspect, and how did the process of creation and direction change your perspective on yourself as an artist?
A deluge of fashion films were released in 2012, much to the delight of the hordes of overzealous fashion devotees everywhere. Ranging from lavish high- budget productions enhanced with CGI-generated special effects, to quirky quick-edit video snippets, these visual offerings were characterized by its short narratives, exaggerated by a hip soundtrack provided by the music stylings of the latest indie sensation. Specifically produced for online consumption to either highlight a designer’s upcoming collection, promote a new fragrance, or simply curated as film versions of fashion editorials (artsy collaborative visual pieces dreamed up and concocted by magazine editors, stylists, and fashion photographers).
Whether it was for aesthetic reasons, or the fashion industry’s obligation to churn out as much visual content in as little time as possible, I felt that most of these videos had a recurring formulaic feel to them; so I hatched a plan to do something different. During some downtime in between projects, I’d inadvertently seized the opportunity of indulging in 60’s films, photography books, as well as illuminating documentaries that touched upon the lives of the era’s celebrated creatives. Temporarily inhabiting this headspace influenced the ruling concept of what was to become Vis Á Vis. The project was organically assembled though a string of serendipitous meetings, galvanized by a relentless enthusiasm to create something special. Reflecting back on the project’s timeline, the numerous stressful situations that arose during production (which tested my endurance), now seem minuscule, and most certainly incomparable to the gratitude I feel towards all the amazing people who had committed their time and expertise, crucial to the completion of the film.
The overall experience (as director), did not uncover any new insight that would’ve shaped my perspective towards film as an artistic medium. But rather, has reinforced a fundamental belief, distilled by my experiences as an artist—As with any creative endeavor, you will be faced with complications that will require a certain amount of problem solving. Film making is a very precise art form— Unforeseen problems and challenges are abound with every step of the production process. You must be able to identify these limitations, not as paralyzing boundaries that would pull you down towards the bitter pit of failure; but instead, as opportunities that will allow you to innovate, and push the boundaries of your imagination.
'Buy Some Love’ - red ink on U.S. currency dollar bill, 2012
Your piece ‘Giant Robots for Japan’ started following the Tohoku, Japan earthquake and tsunami which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, and went on to be a collaboration with United Creators honoring the loss of life in the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Tell us more about your decision to utilize projection, the choices of imagery in both pieces and your feelings about the reception the pieces received?
The creation of the initial piece was a purely spontaneous response to the horrific events that unfolded on March 11, 2011. Overcome by feelings of great loss and sympathy for the victims, somehow triggered an emotional bridge to sentiments and impressions deeply rooted in my childhood—induced by vivid recollections of watching animated tv show dramas, of giant robots saving humankind from catastrophic events. I instinctively decided that a static visual projected in towering proportions, would incisively articulate the range of emotions I was feeling at the time. My intention was to create a piece that reflected the simple humanistic values we discover from very early on—that personal sense of a natural equilibrium, combined with an unwavering faith—eventually giving us the strength and courage to take the first step towards conquering the most difficult situations in life.
Several weeks later, I was informed that the art installation made front page news in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (the nation’s largest newspaper). The highly publicized news of my tribute to Fukushima (supplemented with television interviews by other news networks), led to the United Creators collaboration which concertedly involved a handful of participants such as Media Now, and the Children of Chernobyl Relief and Development Fund. The creation of this new piece would allow me to reach more people—further expressing a personal message of peace, hope, and unity. This time the artwork would be intended as a tribute to all victims of nuclear disasters.
A massive LED screen prominently located on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278, known as the busiest road in New York City), projected colossal images of iconic giant robot characters (UFO Grendizer, Mazinger-Z, Getter Robo G, and Voltes V), popularized by animated Japanese television shows of the late 70’s and early 80’s. This second installation art piece went live on April 26th (marking the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster), on display 24-hours-a-day for four days straight, and seen by over 750,000 vehicles.
Naturally, I feel honored every time my work is recognized, and I do my best to express gratitude and appreciation towards those who find value in my work.
'U.F.O. Grendizer’ - large-format still projection Verizon Building, New York City, 2011
Some of your series have roots in a fascination with the works of Duchamp, ‘Still Life Kills’ as well as ‘80s Bicycle Wheel’. Would you consider him your biggest inspiration? Who or what would you define as the three biggest influences on your practice?
As a pioneering Dadaist, we all know that Duchamp was responsible for shattering the old establishment’s rigid criteria and set guidelines used to determine the validity of a work of art, by challenging the very definition of art itself. Of course, there are those (whom often are opponents of modern contemporary art), who may righteously argue that the facile process of art creation via transformative intent, has given license to an entire generation of lazy dilettantes, thinking they could easily get away with murder by simply evoking Duchamp’s revolutionary principles behind the ‘Readymade’. If we are to be fair by constructively considering the opinions of others, then it’s possible that this stilted view of conceptual art could also be true.
My personal take on the matter, involves a few basic prerequisites: One, the statement behind the piece must be intellectually congruent to the proximity of its physical or conceptual aspects. Two, it must exist, or be executed, within an experiential space, physically or theoretically. Three, if the piece exists in an objective reality, it must involve a certain amount of fabrication or repurposing. In conclusion, if a work of art is able to accomplish at least two of these three requirements (then by all means), anything goes. Now whether the work is deemed good or not (or even worthy of exhibition), is essentially a matter of subjective assessment.
Speaking fondly of Duchamp, it’s no surprise that one would be under the assumption that he is my biggest influence, which is actually not the case. Although, I do often reflect on the Dada movement’s radical origins: stemming from the rejection of nationalism, violence, and many other restrictively conservative conventions which led to the first world war—As it echoes the same sentiments felt today by a vast majority of individuals affected by the current political climate.
There are artists whose work I can appreciate, though they do not necessarily influence my creation of new work in any way whatsoever—my sources of inspiration are in a constant state of flux. But for the purpose of this interview (to enumerate three influences as of late), here are three things that come to mind, in no particular order:
1. ‘Perception Management’, and the cultivation of illusion.
2. The life-and-death cycle of subcultures.
3. The fine art of not caring.
'80’s Bicycle Wheels’ - 5-spoke nylon composite BMX mag wheels, 2012
SEE MORE OF SKYES’ WORK HERE www.skyenicolas.com
INTERVIEW by HANNAH SMITH