Interview: Samuel Stabler, On Drawing and the Digital Age
Sam said, “thirty million people on World of Warcraft. That’s a European country, or Jamaica.”
I thought, I’m just going to publish this transcript. The conversation was too good. Any topic—even random ones—we explored with a healthy, intellectual curiosity. It was Monday and we were drinking beer at the Keeley Gallery on the Bowery, the night before Sam’s first New York exhibition’s opening reception. We talked about everything from Picasso to Royal Tenenbaum, blogging, and the digital age.
Sam is an artist that specializes in drawing. In one series, he offers reinterpretations of classical masterpieces, birthing something very new, befitting of our time. He also has his own blog. We had only met briefly before, but it didn’t take beer to make the conversation flow. Sam is friendly and engaging. Though we sat down, he seemed always on his toes, his body eager to participate, playing off his mind’s activity. On Tuesday, there were over three hundred people at his opening, and five of his seven works were sold. That’s a great success. And I’m sure Sam was pleased, but if I asked him, he’d most likely smile, shrug his shoulders and say, “I’m glad people had a good time.”
Kyle: Let’s talk briefly about your blog. I like the post “Airplane Eater.” You draw an image of a person eating an airplane. Underneath you write, “this person is consuming an airplane…” When I came across it, I found the relationship between the image and the text striking, hilarious and complex. Can you talk about this post?
Sam: This one is funny because drawing weird things is easy. But when you sit back and think, well what did I just draw? The description makes it so much weirder. And that was one of these ones where I drew it, I liked it, and it stuck in my head. I don’t often title things, but I thought, what if I title it exactly what’s happening? That writing is not on the image, but it adds something to it in a different way. It adds another dimension. In this one it makes the image extra weird.
Kyle: Extra weird. In one post called “Maps” you reference the amount of people who play World of Warcraft, saying, “when you have the equivalent population of Spain entering these digital worlds everyday, it’s a force to be reckoned with.” Looking at the image next to the text, which is a kind of map, I wondered if the shaded areas, which utilize black and a darker green, suggested parts of the world that were immersed in the media or parts of the world that weren’t. And of course, it could be neither.
Sam: I like that. I see what you’re saying. I could say that.
Kyle: The expression that came to mind was in the dark. When the viewer is deciding what represents the digital and what represents the un-digitized, the viewer can also decide what it means to be in the dark. My question, how is the digital age affecting people? Who’s in the dark?
Sam: How is the digital age affecting people? Massively. Massively within certain sects of the global community. Us, for example. Us, America. New York City more specifically. We are poster children for the information, technological age. But on a global scale I’m not sure someone in rural China is particularly aware or concerned, or has a reason to be aware or concerned about that. But as a general statement. No, as an absolute fact. It is a fact. New technology, the information age is impacting us in ways we don’t even know how to understand yet. I think of something an old painting professor told me. Probably ripped off from someone. A person from the Renaissance saw in his entire life as much imagery as a kid from the American suburbs sees in one day on the internet. We are exposed to more stimuli than Rembrandt was, than Michelangelo. That’s a bizarre concept. There’s just so much stuff out there! That’s what I mean that we don’t know what to do with it yet or how it’s impacting us. (Contemplative pause). I maybe just went on a tangent there.
Kyle: It’s all that stimuli!
Sam: Yeah! Going back to specific media. Thirty million people on World of Warcraft. That’s a European country, or Jamaica. I heard once it was Jamaica. I heard once it was Spain. That’s massive. This sect of the world involves themselves in a new reality. And it is a new reality! It’s not as broad in its stimulus as this reality. It’s not tactile, you can’t smell it. But you commit yourself to something you’re not. And you engage in that. I think that’s always been one of these fantasies of human kind. To live something larger than us. Now we can do it. I’m not being ominous about it. I think it’s amazing. But we don’t know what that’s doing.
Kyle: There’s no way we can.
Sam: Yeah. That’s new. And that’s technology, that’s new media. That’s the information age.
Kyle: How do you think this affects how you create art? And how people view it?
Sam: From what we have here (gesturing at his work in the gallery) to what’s in my blog, what’s in my books, what’s in my drawings, there’s so many different aesthetic styles. I think that’s great. I’m drawing on so much stuff. Going online, watching TV while I’m drawing. Having music on. Having friends over. I have all this stimuli around me and I react to it. Then I apply some process to it later.
Kyle: So more than having some conscious direct influence on what you do, you think because it’s everywhere—while you’re creating these pieces, the TV is on, there’s music on—you’re responding to your world just like, say, Picasso responded to his.
Sam: Absolutely. I would love to be compared to Picasso. His drawings are very reactive—it’s him at the bar, it’s him seeing things—he worked with a lot of imagery. And he is often referencing great works. He was in the beginning of the information age and saw way more than Caravaggio saw. He was exposed to way more stimuli. In his collected body of work he has a vast array of aesthetic styles. Now we’re that much more exponentially grown. We see so much more. Why not react to it? I’m not saying everybody needs to react to it. I’ll go on the defensive here and say that I think there’s no reason why, if you’re making something that’s honest, why can’t it be very different from the work you made before? Immediately. That’s the thing with Picasso. He has these styles but it took him a long time to change these styles. And that is very important. And that’s very natural. I understand that. But doing a redrawing of a Michelangelo and doing a weird map with gouache that looks like some shitty thing out of Simcity—why not have that? Why can’t I? If that’s what I can create in that span of time?
Kyle: I think there’s no reason why not. In your blog you mention certain historical figures that have done crazy things and your affinity to that. Like Picasso carrying around a pistol. And Royal Tenenbaum.
Sam: Saving his family from the sinking battleship.
Kyle: Yeah, I think that’s very interesting. You’re including a fictional character amidst historical figures. This extends to the idea that online you never really know what’s true. You have to be very careful. How do you deal with truths in your art (if it all)? It’s possible you don’t even consider truth a concept.
Sam: I’m going to have to mull that one over. Truth. I’m not going to compare Royal Tenenbaum to Picasso but in a way they’re fed to me in the same way. I don’t know this person. I don’t know either of these people. I’m simply told what they do. One through a film (one’s fake). One through many different modes. But there is a similar impact. I always think I’d love to hang out with Picasso. And I’d love to hang out with Royal Tenenbaum. That’s absolutely true that I sort of lump them as one while acknowledging they’re different.
Kyle: That’s one of the beautiful things about art. You can pair them together and there’s no consequence. You’re not trivializing either one.
Sam: I hope not. I’m not trying to. Or not trying to trivialize them any more than they’ve been, or than they’ve trivialized themselves. Or they’re intending to be trivialized. That’s something that has more importance to me. If I’m trying to push something onto them or their larger perception that would be one thing. But I’m not. I’m consuming. I’m consuming and reacting.
Kyle: And externalizing.
Sam: Yeah, and externalizing. Not without intention but right now I’m putting it out there. I make these largely for myself. I’m not going to be naïve and say I’m not making them for an audience. I do. I want to know what people think of this show. I put my work on a blog! What I make and draw, I want to know what my wife thinks, what my brother thinks, what my sister thinks. But I’m not making some broader social statement at this time. Hopefully, if I’m ever at that point, it’ll be well evident.
Kyle: No subtle motives here.
Sam: Yeah! I want to make beautiful objects. It’s more than that, but how much more than that I don’t know. I draw because I am compelled to draw. I draw because it’s convenient. I draw because it’s there. It’s the needed distraction from the day to day. And this is just a larger, more refined, manifestation of that. I had an idea and I wanted to execute it. And it’s here. And I’ll make another one.
Kyle: And it could be totally different.
Sam: Absolutely. It could be totally different. And it could not be seen. Hell, these haven’t been seen by anyone (gesturing at his work in the gallery). Had they not been seen then, they still would have existed.
Kyle: I was reading the press relese for the show. It says that in “Neon Old Masters” you’re recreating famous classical paintings, in certain instances isolating select figures, so that they no longer depict an historical moment but a contemporary endeavor into perception. Talk a little about that.
Sam: The works I’ve chosen are works I like for aesthetic reasons. They’re works that I saw at a particular point in my life and it meant something to me. They’re works that I saw in a line and thought, “wow, that’s tremendous.” There’s not a continuous thought. There’s not a direct connection between this chosen work and that chosen work. Other than it is something that’s important to me. And so by redrawing it, and putting in the slave work that’s the process, and then giving it this highlighter, this ultra contemporary pigment, a new pigment! That’s a really amazing thing that’s of our time. And isolating these elements and creating a secondary narrative within the one. Why are they isolated? Why is that like that? Seeing a relation between these elements. I’ve obviously looked at the works a lot. And these are the ones that stuck out to me after looking for a long time. They’re not always the main characters but they are these things that I’m like “wow” too. Throughout that whole process it’s not simply a homage to the original work. It’s something else. It’s that this can be new. This is new.
Kyle: Today there are so many large scale paintings, there’s installation, and there is video. All becoming more and more popular. Yet you choose to express yourself with drawing, the most traditional of mediums. Why? What attracted you to drawing?
Sam: It’s the beginning. Everyone draws. We all draw. That is the foundation. Even now, it’s what everyone does. It’s where everyone starts. I think specifically, why do I make drawings? Because it’s what I can do. There’s a practicality to it. But the process becomes more elaborate where it could be called something else, but why not call it what it is? I think especially now when you’re defined by, Is he a painter? Is he a sculptor? There’s grants for these specific things.
Kyle: And it’s arbitrary.
Sam: Yeah! Because I don’t identify necessarily with one thing. Why not go with the most honest description? Nothing more than that.
Kyle: I think that’s great. I could say I’m a blogger, an essayist. I could say whatever. But I just say I’m a writer.
Kyle: My last question. I hold the opinion that once a piece of art is created your intention while creating it is not superior to the viewer’s interpretation of it. The art exists in and of itself and is its own authority. Having said that, describe your ideal audience. Who would they be? How would you like them to walk away from this exhibition?
Sam: My ideal audience? Someone who is interested. Someone who wasn’t forced to come here by their parents, or their boyfriend or whoever. Someone who engages with it. That’s it. It could be anyone. I’m not thinking a specific demographic. It’s someone who’s not coming to look at it because it’s something to do. Going to galleries. Not that person.
Image Credits (in order as they appear): “Sam Working,” photo by Ella Riley-Adams, 2011. “Untitled Paper Cutout,” Samuel Stabler, 2010. “Plane Eater,” Samuel Stabler, 2010. “Untitled (After Poussin),” Samuel Stabler, 2010.
Samuel Stabler Drawings is on view at The Keeley Gallery, 352 Bowery until August 15. Please contact email@example.com for more information.
Contact Kyle Kouri at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Kyle @KyleKouri
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