Friday, December 26, 2008

Andrew Hem's Oblique Perspective

If you were to see Andrew Hem out in public, he might remind you of one of the characters he paints – breezing by with a shy but affable sideways glance, his smile partly obscured by a trailing scarf. At 27, he has won the respect of his peers as a street artist, established himself as a freelance illustrator and made a solid start at a career as a gallery artist. Andrew insists that he's "as boring as they come," but I find that a little hard to believe, so this will be the first of a two-part profile of Andrew, with the second installment being an interview.


The characters in Andrew's paintings are caught in quiet moments of reverie, worry, distraction, realization or self-expression. Their gaze is usually averted – as if their attention is directed inward – and when they do address the viewer directly, they often do so with a particular power and intensity that makes it clear that this moment is a rare, meaningful, soul-baring instant in their otherwise private lives.

"Stuffed Animals"

Andrew has a real talent for describing character and emotion in a variety of different ways – often with a touch of humor – and the aesthetic he developed while working as a graffiti artist leads to balanced, flowing compositions with interwoven layers that build upon each other. His palette tends toward cool muted green and blue tones with delicious touches of red that provide energy and warmth – though recently he's been exploring darker, more atmospheric environments.

"Hey Jude"

Although he was born in Cambodia, Andrew grew up on the mean streets of L.A. In 1981, when he was just four months old, his parents fled Cambodia, displaced by the genocide the Khmer Rouge perpetrated on Cambodia's urban and intellectual classes in the late 1970s and the invasion and occupation of Cambodia by Viet Nam in 1979.

"Khmer Rouge"

Eventually, his family arrived in Los Angeles. Andrew's mother opened a doughnut shop, where his skill at capturing character had a chance to blossom. He recalled:

"I worked at my mom's donut shop for 11 years! I started when I was 12. It was the best job ever. We had one customer per hour, so by the time my parents sold the place, I ended up with 19 full-page sketchbooks."


Growing up an immigrant kid in a tough neighborhood wasn't easy, and the trials and tribulations Andrew experienced would later have a profound impact on his art. In an interview with Guu Press, he explained:

"I've always been the shy guy growing up. I grew up in a place where I was one of the few Asians in an all-Hispanic community. This led to many occasions where I got beaten up and picked on because of my race. I think this is the reason why I’m so shy.

I tend to paint scenes with tons of people, which is strange, all things considered. A lot of my paintings are like still shots of my life. When I'm driving, my mind wanders off and I think about the past. I’ll get home and draw several quick sketches of that particular memory."


"Bullies made my middle school years really tough. I remember every time my mom bought me a new pair of shoes, I’d put mud on them. If any bully found out that I’d gotten new shoes, I’d walk home shoeless. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been jumped.

My friends and I found a way of prevention, after years of getting punked. Every time we’d see a group of gangsters hanging around, we’d find a rock and start kicking it. We'd kick it off the path, and start a whole new route away from them."


Andrew began tagging on the streets when he was 12 – an occupation which would earn him enough credibility in the halls of his high school to give him some much-needed breathing room.

"By the time I got to high school the bullying had ended, probably because I was winning the respect of gangsters and taggers. While every tagger was getting up in the school bathroom, I was the only one going out on the streets every night. By my senior year, a gangster approached me and asked if I was a tagger. I thought history was going to repeat itself, so I said no. But he told me to keep up the good work, and then said my name."

"Ill Squad"

For nine years, Andrew ran with a crew that included talented writers like Dzeas, Rek2, Lifer and Zoueh, developing the composition and design skills which still serve him well. Though he remains close to his graffiti roots, lately he's been seeking a more settled existence as a fine artist.

After high school, he considered becoming an architect, but when he took a figure drawing class during his last semester at Santa Monica College, he immediately realized that he needed to pursue painting as a career. Toward that end, he enrolled at Art Center College of Design, graduating in 2006 – though he never completely gave up embellishing the streets of Los Angeles.


In an excellent 2007 interview, Andrew described the distinction between painting on the street and in the studio.

"It’s different in many ways. One, the street is never booked for the whole year. It's always accepting submissions and showing to the public. That can be a bad thing a majority of times, because kids who are just starting will paint on anything, anywhere. More people will see your work on the streets, but you're only capturing the interest of other graffiti artists. Gallery work, on the other hand, captures the interest of many people, including those who don't do art.

It's a totally different feeling once you see a piece on a canvas. When I'm painting on a canvas, I have a strong light source, so I can get great details. When I'm on the streets, I use bright colors because there’s no light source at all."


"Graffiti is basically a game of design. You're constantly thinking about the composition and placement of your letters. Each letter should be consistent with the others and should flow. When I'm painting on canvas I think about the same thing, but instead of using letters, I use figures. Each figure is like a letter to me, so I’m always thinking of the best way to arrange the figures so they connect. Color, composition and value are strongly emphasized for both lifestyles. However, on canvas I also think about focal point and texture."

Andrew's expertise with creating flowing text designs has also found its way into a lot of his gallery work. On canvas, his lettering can take the form of freeform calligraphy, bubbly retro lettering, or even a blocky, stylized take on Khmer script.


Though there is often an element of the imagination in Andrew's paintings, they are usually based on observations from real life. Most days, he takes long bike rides through the city, punctuated by sketching breaks that yield material for the studio work he does into the wee hours of the night – a creative schedule he believes was fixed by his years of clandestine nocturnal tagging.

"Often paintings are inspired from quick sketches through observation of my surroundings. Paintings like 'Spring Dance' and 'Bus' are based on quick sketches that I did on napkins. I try to carry a sketchbook with me wherever I go, but usually forget and end up having tons of sketches on receipts and napkins."


Andrew is also known for his matchbox paintings, which group together a wide range of characters – from realistic portraits to caricatures and even odd creatures – often interspersed with intriguing bits of text. Even though he's painted hundreds of them, he still feels that "making matchboxes is fun – but making the frames for them is boring."

"I don't know why it's so fun to paint on a matchbox. I guess it’s kinda like eating potato chips – you can’t just stop at one. I used to collect them, but by accident spilled paint on my favorite 1920 Cuban matchbox. I was so upset, but by the next day I’d decided to paint a face on it."

Currently, Andrew's work is evolving into interesting new areas, with intriguing Old World architectural details, dreamlike distorted perspectives and ominous atmospheric environments. Be sure to mark your calendar to check out his next show at Roq la Rue on February 13th, where he will be unveiling some work that explores this new direction.

If you'd like to find out more about Andrew Hem, you can read my interview with him here.

"Bigger Than"

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Chris Berens' "Go West"

I thought maybe you guys had heard enough from me about Chris Berens, but last night I bumped into an Erratic Phenomena follower who suggested that I do a recap of the December 12th show at Roq la Rue in Seattle – so here I go.

Chris Berens, his lovely girlfriend Esther, and his agent/gallerist Robbert van Ham are all very warm, friendly, generous people, and it was a great pleasure to meet them. Robbert was kind enough to show me some of the aspects of the work that he appreciated most – for example, in "Halfway There" and a number of other paintings, there are rudimentary pencil sketches that remain unfinished amidst the painting's more polished surfaces. In Europe, apparently, there is a great appreciation for the simple sketch – less finished paintings with more negative space are actually more intriguing for that audience.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show at Roq la Rue – aside from the chance to experience the amazing depth of detail in Chris' work – is seeing it hung in progression. This is Chris' first show outside of the Netherlands, the source of much of his visual inspiration (Rembrandt, Bosch and Vermeer, for example) – so the concept for this show is the journey of his visionary universe from the Old World to the New World.

As many of you won't have the opportunity to experience the show in person, I thought I would lay it out in roughly the same order in which Chris chose to present it. Perhaps that will lend a little more structure and coherence to your perception of these 32 fascinating paintings.

"The Whaler, the Ermine and the Bait"

"Little Captain Sparrow"
(Here we have one of the orrery-like devices that reappear throughout this series.)

"The Darkest Hour Before Dawn"
(I see this one as a benediction and farewell.)

"Graceful Reign"

"Glad You Could Make It" (still available)
(The wave that carries them to the New World begins.)

(Note the vaporous raccoons emerging from the smokestacks, which reappear in the background of "The Departure.")


"The Departure"
(This is a massive painting with insane density of detail and a wealth of cultural references. Note Westerkerk Tower in the upper right, the tallest church tower in Amsterdam and the burial place of Rembrandt. It reappears throughout this body of work.)

Just to give you an idea of what's really going on in "The Departure," here are a few detail shots:


"Out of the Blue, Into the White"

"Pushing Daisy" (bought by Robbert van Ham)



"Riders of the Storm"
(Traveling over Africa, perhaps?)

"Something's Up (Going Down)"
(A little visit Down Under... Note the similarity in their stance to that in this painting by Bouguereau.)

"Checkpoint 49"
(Once again, note the finial of Westerkerk Tower traveling along with them.)

"The Kiss (It All Comes Down To This)"
(A sweet little piece that Chris kept for himself. Note the porpoise emerging from the wave to complete the kiss.)

"Half Way There"
(The wave travels over the tundra, picking up polar bears...)

"Royal Transport"
(The Queen, the Whaler and other characters reappear...)


"Tumbling Up and Round and Round" (still available)
(This seems like an underwater zoom-in on "Blue Days," with many of the repeating elements drifting in the ink-dark sea.)

"White Ones"

"The Curious"

"Welcome to the Great Below"

"Meet the Andersons"
(Chris' tribute to Roq la Rue's Kirsten Anderson. Note the paper floating downward through the frame – it bears a diagram which reappears throughout this body of work of Seattle's Space Needle next to Amsterdam's Westerkerk Tower. Also note the dark marks left on the wall from paintings that have been taken down.)

"The Gift"

"Blue Days"

"The Arrival"
(Another massive painting of incredible density, in which the wave arrives in Seattle. Note the fishlike creature at left bearing part of the Old World on its back, and the lady from "Just Like Rain, Dear" presiding over the Space Needle.)

"Not Just Yet (Waiting to Exhale)" (still available)
(I find this one fascinating – here, we have the tower diagram from "Meet the Andersons," the floating squirrel from "Blue Days" and the frozen polar bear/searchlight from "Out of the Blue, Into the White"... also, some dimly lit feet disappearing into the deep... It's the embodiment of Robert Smithson's dictum, "Establish enigmas, not explanations.")

"Just (Surrender, Submerge and Keep Breathing)
(I love how she calmly gazes at us as light wavers down upon her from the ocean's surface. She is clearly unconcerned, perhaps on some sort of underwater mission amongst the fishes. The dark eye staring from the lower right is another delicious unsettling touch.)

These last two paintings feel to me like a final coda to the show's main theme – Old World vs. New World.

"Just Like Rain, Dear"
(Incidentally, each of Chris' paintings have a small ink drawing on the back which relates to the painting. They are a fascinating view into his process, and sometimes they even enlighten the viewer somewhat. For example, the verso image for "Just Like Rain, Dear" is a fuzzy night-black creature with a shining eye... which must be what's lurking in the lower left corner of this painting. You can see many of these little lagniappe drawings on Chris' website when you pull up an image and then click on it.)

"Passed" (still available)

If there's any way for you to get to Roq la Rue in Seattle and see this show before it closes on January 31st, you really must do it. Make sure to leave yourself some time – one could spend hours getting lost in these paintings. While you're there, you can pick up copies of his three gorgeous limited edition books at a very good price.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Jon Todd's Tattooed Underworld

I met artist Jon Todd a few months ago, and we got to talking about Russian prison tattoos – a fascination we share – so we decided it might be fun to do an interview together. Jon is 26 and hails from Toronto, where you can usually find him in the vicinity of Jerome Jenner Gallery. What makes his work particularly intriguing is how it cloaks its lowbrow subject matter in a historical aesthetic – by way of a smear of color, a scrap of baroque wallpaper, and a touch of whimsy.


A great many of Jon's paintings incorporate snakes, snake tattoos and snakeskin-like textures. Snakes are a rich and complex symbol, whose significance varies wildly depending on one's culture of origin. The Greeks regarded snakes as chthonic – both earthbound and in touch with the underworld. Serpent-haired Medusa had the power to turn men to stone with a glance. The Hindus have an annual festival of worship called Nag Panchami in which they pray to the five Nāga Devatas, or snake goddesses, for protection. Lord Shiva is often depicted with a snake around his neck, which represents the endless cycle of birth and regeneration. In Haitian Vodoun, a snake god called Damballa is the father of the loas, and brought forth all creation. Judeo-Christian mythology sometimes regards the snake as a symbol of healing, wisdom and knowledge, and at others as a symbol of deception, temptation and evil.

In Jon's work, snakes often
slither across naked skin – either in the flesh or in the form of tattoos. They also frequently form a crown or headdress, and perhaps this arrangement of serpents could be interpreted as either a haloing device or as a projection of chaotic thoughts or emotions. Interestingly, Jon says his most recent work explores personal narratives of friends and acquaintances, some of whom are "caught in a web of institutional health and correction."

"The Snake Pit"

Jon is busy preparing for his first solo show at Thinkspace on December 12th, not to mention two group exhibitions at Miami Art Basel, but he was kind enough to make some time to answer a few questions for me.

The Questions:

Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a little about your experience of growing up. When did you realize you were going to be an artist?

Jon Todd:
In my childhood I always liked to work with my hands, painting. I always used art as a venue to express myself, and I realized it was my true passion when I was 12.

I attended Sheridan College, wanting to become a 3D animator and work for Disney. After my first year at art school, I realized that I didn’t like drawing the same image over and over – I wanted to stand on my own with my creations, start to finish. I was accepted into the Illustration program, and there I was exposed to the works of great artists like Mark Ryden, Jeff Soto, Gary Baseman, the Clayton Brothers and Camille Rose Garcia. After seeing these artists' work in
Juxtapoz and American Illustration, I realized that the lines between illustrator and fine artist were growing blurred.

"Sin and the Samurai"

EP: You prefer to begin a painting directly on the final board, starting with a simple naïve sketch and letting the piece develop freely. Acrylics are your medium of choice, and you often incorporate some textural collage elements. Could you tell me a little more about your process?

JT: I start with a naïve sketch so I can change things constantly. I love making “happy mistakes.” I am not afraid to kick the crap out of a painting, if it makes the end result unique and pleasing to the viewer. For example, I've spent hours painting detailed tattoos – realizing it was too clean – and then ran it through the belt sander, which made an awesome smearing effect. I've also poured rubbing alcohol, scraped, gouged, and even lit my painting on fire with a blowtorch.

"The Snake Handler"

EP: With your intuitive painting strategy, do you find yourself working on a number of paintings at once and revisiting each one to add elements as they come to mind, or do you tend to concentrate on a single piece until it's finished to your satisfaction?

JT: I usually hip-hop from painting to painting, because I like to look at my work with fresh eyes.

"The Kimono"

EP: Although you feel an affinity with street artists, you seem to have an even greater appreciation for old things, like antique paper, mosaic and textile patterns, the textures and colors of crumbling walls and rusting metal, jailhouse graffiti, Mexican wrestling and Samurai masks, Victorian picture frames, and the like.

When you're not painting, you help run Jerome Jenner Gallery in Toronto, which exhibits fine art in conjunction with intriguing architectural artifacts. How did you wind up having such an intimate relationship with historical paraphernalia, and what effect are you trying to achieve by incorporating it into your work?

JT: I like the look of old vintage materials – frames, books, posters, factories, print, type – and incorporating it into my own style. I'm a huge collector of ugly
naïve drawings, which I also like to incorporate into my work. Working at Jerome Jenner Gallery, I am exposed to awesome unique pieces of art and architecture from around the world, such as an original Chairman Mao propaganda tapestry, 10’ rusty factory windows, 15' Argentinean villa doors and a 9’ hot fuchsia pink statue of Jesus. I'm lucky to have my studio in that setting. It's really inspiring for my work.

"Shroud of Serpents"

EP: It must be challenging to run an art gallery and still keep up with the demands of your painting career, not to mention your Elliptic Clothing line. How do you ever find time to sleep?

JT: I do my best... I don’t sleep much – I require very little, usually 3-4 hours a night. I am very lucky to have my apartment, silkscreen studio and gallery in the same building, so I really have no need to leave my workspace. I have great business partners around me who help drive me toward my goals.


EP: Does running a gallery give you a different perspective when you deal with other galleries as an artist?

Yes, running a gallery with Jerome Jenner makes me appreciate successful galleries. It's a lot of hard work being a fine artist and running a gallery, but it's my passion and I wouldn’t have it any other way... except maybe eat and sleep more.

"Two Wrestlers"

EP: Though your work is distinctly contemporary in tone, some aspects of gesture, composition and dimensionality in your style bring to mind early paintings from India and Japan, as well as Russian icons that are hundreds of years old. Are those correlations coincidental or deliberate? Do you feel there are any other historical influences that helped shape your aesthetic?

JT: I've always been drawn to Asian woodblock prints and watercolors – I really appreciate the details. I am a huge fan of Mexican art and culture – Mexican wrestlers and the Day of the Dead. After a trip to Berlin, I developed a passion for German and Russian propaganda and graffiti that I found displayed all over the city.

"Scars from the Past"

EP: Dramatic eyes – like kaleidoscope patterns, with expanding rays of color streaming from the pupils – are the focal point in most of your work.

JT: I love painting dramatic eyes. They are an aesthetic focal point. I spend a lot of time rendering them, because it gives the painting its character. I paint them in great detail to draw the viewer to my work. Once they have been drawn to the painting, they will be able to see the rest of work in greater detail.

"Open Palms"

EP: Nearly all your work incorporates tattooing in some form, so you must find it an extremely powerful medium. Tattoos can serve as rites of passage, designations of status, spiritual declarations, fertility symbols, pledges of devotion, marks of shame and punishment, and good-luck talismans. What makes tattoo art so compelling for you?

JT: Even though I am not a tattoo artist, I have a great respect for the artform.
I have always been intrigued by how tattoos can tell a story about a person’s life.

"Enter the Dragon"

EP: Though tattoo art is of course a major influence throughout the lowbrow scene, your fascination with it is quite apparent, with Mexican and Japanese tattoo symbology colliding with classic American ink styles on the skin of nearly all of your characters. You also seem to have a special interest in criminal subcultures, which often take advantage of the indelible nature of tattoos to ensure the loyalty of their members.

For some time, you've been inspired by Japanese irezumi, a highly symbolic traditional tattoo artform heavily influenced by ukiyo-e culture. In the Edo period, decorative tattooing grew into an advanced artform, but at the same time, punitive tattoos were forced on criminals and outcasts, including thick stacking armbands that marked masterless Samurai warriors, or Ronin. The Ronin eventually developed into the modern-day Yakuza, whose complex and colorful body suit tattoos denote status, dedication, criminal clan affiliation and a rejection of society's norms.

"Crowned Cats"

In your recent work, you've begun to incorporate
Russian prison tattoos, a venerable symbolic language by which a prisoner can infer the crimes, social rank and background of another convict. For example, the cat tattoos in "Crowned Cats" signify the wearer is a thief, and the points of the stars represent years spent in the gulag or prison system. In using these potent symbols, do you mean to impart a coded emotional and narrative history to your characters, or are you using them mainly because you appreciate their aesthetics?

JT: In my past works, I focused on the aesthetic appeal of the imagery, not much narrative. With my new collection I am attempting to tell a story through the use of the Russian criminal and other styles of tattoos. I believe every image can give a glimpse into some person’s life experiences, good and bad.

"Two Samurai Women"

EP: Your female characters usually have a very direct gaze – though they are often baring their breasts to the viewer, they are quite cool, matter-of-fact, sometimes even disdainful – as if their nudity is confrontational rather than alluring. Your approach to painting women is a little different than most artists in this movement – rather than depicting women as innocent, damaged or seductive, you often seem to give them a quality of aloof power. At times, they bring to mind historical and mythical woman warriors, and at others they evoke goddesses, queens, crime bosses or circus ringmasters. How do you envision these women's lives?

JT: I am not modest with my portrayal of the female form. They are nude because their human form is my canvas. I use it to tell my story. All of my female figures are displayed in a confident and powerful manner. They are in control.

"Diamondback Debbie"

EP: Egon Schiele is a big influence of yours. Schiele drew twisted, gaunt, angular bodies that are erotic and grotesque at the same time, and focused on the hungers of the flesh, the ubiquity of death and the hypocrisy of the prevailing morality. What do you find inspiring about Schiele's work? Are there other painters from the past that move you, and what aspect of their work do you find intriguing?

JT: Schiele is my favorite artist! I like his work so much I took a trip to Vienna to view his largest drawing collection. I think he is one of the best drawers ever. The way he draws the body – especially the hands – is so unique. His work, like mine, is a study in juxtaposition. He constantly portrays the opposites – be it control vs. chaos, good vs. bad, erotic vs. cold, power vs. submissiveness, or fear vs. bravery.

In my new work, I am starting to bring in these elements.
I am also influenced by Klimt. I love the way he paints textile patterns with bright, bold colors and gold leaf. Whenever I have an artistic block, I always like to draw influence from the past masters.

"The Geisha"

EP: What are you excited about right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

JT: I'm really excited for my first solo show, titled "Life Sentence," at Thinkspace Gallery on December 12. I will have 9-10 paintings in the show. This new body of paintings is some of my best work. I will also be showing at the Gen Art Vanguard Fair at Miami Art Basel from December 4-7 with Montreal's Yves Laroche Gallery and Mark Murphy's KNOW Exhibition.

"Mr. Smilee"

In the future, I'll be trying very hard to further my career as a fine artist. My next show will be at Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal on June 17, 2009. It will be a two-person show with my good friend Martin Wittfooth, titled "Babylon." In the coming months, Martin and I will be working on a very large collaboration painting for that show. I'm really happy to be doing this show, because Yves Laroche gave me my start as a fine artist.

Presently, I am collecting the necessary pieces of my art to publish a book of my paintings and drawings. The book is set to be launched at my show in June 2009. I would also like to continue to develop
Jerome Jenner Gallery and Elliptic Clothing. In the future, we will be working with fine artists doing one-of-a-kind furniture and clothing. With luck and opportunity, I hope to continue in the career that I have always enjoyed.

EP: Thanks, Jon!

"Crimson Capo"

Jon Todd is represented by Jerome Jenner Gallery in Toronto, where you can find several of his prints for sale. He will be rocking the project room at Thinkspace on December 12th with his "Life Sentence" show, so make sure to come check it out.