Robert Bowen just unveiled a massive, sprawling, and some would say bizarre installation at Old Crow Gallery & Tattoo in Oakland, CA. Over two dozen works are hung en masse, huge canvases mixed with miniatures, each one featuring painstakingly rendered characters set against explosive, evocative backgrounds. The wall they’re on is a threatening black, not a welcoming white, and it’s decorated with disembodied mouths gaping at you with sharpened and rotting teeth. In the paintings you’ll find beautiful and rare animals mingling with guys like Andy Griffith and Mario Lanza, yet lingering throughout is the ever-present spectre of death…it gets you wondering what kind of brain creates an environment such as this. Robert doesn’t much like to talk – and likes even less to talk about himself – but we sat down, opened an expensive bottle of tequila, and tried to get at what it is that makes him do what he does. HF contributor Chris McCreary reports below
HF: So the new show is up in Oakland now, and you came up in Sacramento, and now you’re living in San Francisco…is that correct, and do you identify with any of those scenes?
RB: Actually I’m from the Bay Area originally. I got involved in street art and graffiti, that’s how me and Alex Pardee met. We were like best friends that way, a lot of times people have a partner in the graffiti world, some people at least, and we were like graffiti partners, playing off each other creatively…we both moved to Sacramento, he left I stayed. I started taking my painting-slash-fine-art self more seriously when I was there. I met a bunch of people like John Stuart Berger, Kim Scott, that’s where I met Skinner, and a few other awesome people. It seems that there was definitely scene out there, I have never really been involved in or noticed a scene before, as far as artists go, I mean I knew artists and I hung out with artists but it seems like there was a clique there, not in a bad sense of the word but it seemed like there was a lot going on. They had their fingers in it all and knew a lot of people and I didn’t know anybody so it was really cool to meet them. Eventually I moved back to the Bay Area, but I still don’t really know anybody in the Bay Area, I’m kind of a hermit. I have the friends I had before I left, and the friends I had in Sacramento. I am meeting more artists and people I look up to and people I respect. I don’t really give a shit about art scenes, I don’t really get together with a bunch of artists and hang out. I don’t understand it I guess. I like what I like and what I think is cool, but I’m kind of closed off in that way.
HF: If that kind of isolation doesn’t affect your creative process, if you don’t feed off of others, what is your creative process?
RB: For me the creative process is my own imagination, my own insecurities, my own sense of liking stupid jokes, inside jokes, I’ll think of something funny and I’ll paint it or something someone said to me in a conversation…just random shit that I think about in my head.
HF: So the stuff that’s up right now at Old Crow, you did the bulk of that work in just a few months’ time. Since it all happened so quick were there any specific influences you were drawing from or anything you kept coming back to? Is there a theme?
RB: The theme is always kind of just my sense of humor, or, or my sense of insecurities. Those are the underlying themes to a lot of the paintings I have. They might be kind of hard to pick up on here or there. I forget more things to paint than I remember. I always tell myself to write them down but then I forget to write them down. The underlying theme, I guess there isn’t one. Just my thoughts for the past six months or so.
HF: You say your work doesn’t always make sense to everybody, but often there really are personal statements at work. But in this show specifically there are a few paintings that seem to have a more overt message than before, like “Predator and Pray” (pictured above) specifically. Is this a direction you’re taking or is this just how it worked out?
RB: I’m trying to be a little more open with my ideas, a little less weird, but at the same time someone said this is the weirdest group of paintings they’ve seen me do. Even though I try to be more transparent with my subject matter to where I think people would get it, but then I hear that, not that I’m looking to please anybody, but I try to be more open about things and shit turns out being weirder. To me it’s funny, it’s a good thing. “Predator and Pray” was a collaboration between me and Satyr, and I kind of knew what he was gonna paint, he talked about working on a praying mantis, and I was gonna go one direction but decided to go in the church direction with it, and it works. And it works both ways so that one’s funny to me.
HF: Stylistically you have an approach you don’t see a lot of, where in backgrounds and for emphasis there’s these huge broad swaths of color and washes of really wet paint and drips and splatters, but then on top of that there’s almost photorealism and really marked attention to detail. Where did those two disparate elements come from?
RB: I like to create iconography. I like it when you can look at something and it just stands out. To me they mean so much more that way. I could paint a landscape, I could paint a pretty background and throw images on that, but other people already do that and I’m not trying to be anybody else. This is the way that I paint, and this is kind of always the way I painted. I used to use a lot of spraypaint in my work and even the spraypaint in the background is similar to what I’m doing now, it’s all acrylic. To me it creates a whole other field of depth even though the background isn’t “real,” it’s “just” color and emotion, it creates a definite separation of the images in the foreground from “just” a background. And even though the backgrounds are just color, and splattery, and washes of paint, there is a lot of emotion in there, for sure, it creates a mood.
HF: Where if anywhere did you study, were you taught, how much of this comes from a formal education?
RB: I went to art school. Hated it. Don’t think I talked to anybody there, don’t think I made any friends there. I was a sculpture major because I got fed up with painting. I went to school as a painting and drawing major, realized that I hated everything they were trying to teach me and I didn’t understand why they were teaching me the things that they were. I got fed up with it and became a sculpture major because I figured if I’m going to go to school I might as well learn something that I can’t teach myself. I can teach myself to paint, I can study the painters that I already like, they can teach me that way, I can study them through their work or through books and stuff like that. I can’t teach myself to cast bronze, that’s fucking impossible. So I became a sculpture major and taught myself how to paint instead.
HF: The new painting “Youth” has two standout components: that famous kid with Progeria and then the Nazi kid. And it seems like in your paintings, anything that has a sense of honesty or purity gets celebrated, like that kid with Progeria that’s just letting it hang out like “this is who I am.” But then anything that’s too complicated or contrived, like the kid in the Nazi uniform painted with pale skin and demon eyes, that stuff gets torn down. The Nazi uniform got so much attention, as if the very idea of a regimented uniform is being mocked. Do you think these ideas hold any validity?
RB: Yeah totally. The attention to detail in the uniform has to be there because you have to know who he is, he is a Hitler Youth, he’s a fucking crazy little fucker, a crazy little red-headed freckle-faced kid with glowing green eyes…the basis of that painting stems from two things. Everything that can go wrong with childhood – basically what you don’t want your kids to turn out like – and Maury Povich. You’ve seen all those things on Maury Povich.
HF: You used the phrase “everything that can go wrong” and the rest of that is, “will go wrong.” And in your paintings we see a lot of rare, beautiful natural creatures like Birds of Paradise and complicated insects rendered alongside bones and skulls and death…
RB: Shit can go wrong. There’s definitely a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in every painting but some of them I have some very serious subjects in them. People like to say my art is dark which a lot of times is hilarious to me because it’s brightly colored and there’s a lot of humor in it, but there are a lot of dark subjects too, but that’s just the way the world works. You have to remember that the dark side does exist, otherwise you’re fucked, but you have to remember to have a sense of humor and you can’t take everything totally seriously. The basis underlying everything I paint is the balancing of that. It’s definitely art therapy for me. I get to make fun of the hard times.
HF: We went to the San Jose Museum of Art’s Todd Schorr retrospective together, and we were both really impressed by that, and then a little after that we noticed an internet comment describing you as a “low rent Todd Schorr…”
RB: “A low-grade Robert Williams” and then someone else added, “…or Todd Schorr.”
HF: So how do you take that?
RB: It’s always nice to be compared to someone that’s fucking amazing, or someone I look up to and think is fucking amazing, but at the same time just because I’m painting things with a pop-culture basis it doesn’t mean that I’m looking at them while I’m painting, it’s just the fact that it’s pop-culture references, pop culture is pop culture, it’s popular, I’m gonna notice it. Sorry if someone else might have painted something similar, but they definitely didn’t paint it the way I painted it, I didn’t paint it the way that they might have painted it, it might have some similar subjects but that’s what makes it pop culture. It’s being reference by a lot of people. There’s one pop culture and a lot of people painting. I don’t mind the comparison but, then, part of me does mind. It’s a compliment, back-handed…I’ll take it that way, a back-handed compliment I guess. Besides, not everything I paint is based in pop culture.
HF: The differences are that you have a more figurative approach, where if a viewer doesn’t know you or if they’re not in on the joke they won’t know what the hell got painted. But with Schorr you know what he’s getting at. He wants to communicate an idea whereas in your work you have an idea and want to get it on canvas.
RB: I’m not trying to tell you a story, I’m just trying to put down my idea.
HF: So what prevents you from wanting to tell people stories?
RB: Art is my therapy, you know maybe down the road I will want to tell stories, for now I have an idea and I have something in my head that I think is a good idea and that’s what comes out. If you get it, great. If you don’t and you want to think it’s something else, awesome too. If you fucking look at it and you hate it and you don’t get it and you don’t understand it, that’s awesome as well. At least it made you feel something. I think good art should make you feel something even if you hate it, as long as it made you feel some kind of emotion I’m totally on board with that. If you love it that’s wonderful, if it makes you happy that’s wonderful, if it makes you cry that’s even more wonderful. Good art should evoke emotion.
HF: You’re already working again, do you have any new ideas or directions?
RB: I have to let it come to me naturally. I did have some ideas but I already forgot to write them down again so I’ve forgotten them. The juices are flowing and things are in the works for sure.