An Interview with Ravi Zupa

by Max KauffmanPosted on

Ravi Zupa has been a household name in the Denver arts community for some time, a reputation that will soon hopefully apply on a larger scale, with his first solo show overseas. Taking place at Outsiders the show is entitled “Nothing Changes Needs” and will feature drawings and paintings that echo Europe’s dark ages, a layering method that showcases Japanese, German, and Indian styles of printmaking, and hints of more modern revolution. Throughout all of which, Ravi creates a distinctive world blending meditative practice and angry, raw reprisal.  I sat down with Mr Zupa, via internet and then in his studio, to ask him some questions. – Max Kauffman

Your background in art comes from your mother.  What did she pass on to you? Is it safe to say art/mark making was something you picked up at a young age?

When I say my mother I mean that in a natural way. She didn’t sit me down and give lessons, but she really encouraged us to explore our own artistic selves just by letting it happen. The house I grew up in was incredibly messy and cluttered with all kinds of shit. There were art materials and tools of all kinds available. Art was really like breakfast in my home. We just all did it because it was part of life.

So she wasn’t explicitly teaching, but setting up the possibilities of art making, it was a normal thing around the house then.

Yeah, exactly. She was and still is an artist, my father was an artist, and the house I grew up in was just supplies everywhere, just piles of stuff to explore.
Ours for the taking. There was every kind of art material, and if we were interested in trying something, we always could. It was great. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I was never a good student, and it didn’t matter, I could just do what I wanted. I could discover it on my own or get some insight from her…
my mom was always doing her own projects really. Thats kind of why it was possible…she was always doing crazy projects. Usually with the house. Like she would one day decide she wanted to take out a wall and shed get a sawzaw and take a giant chunk out of the wall…Or change the fireplace Just huge projects. I remember coming home once and she had rented a jackhammer and was jackhammering the back patio up. Then she made a strange mosaic out of all the shards /piece/ remnants of the patio mixed with river rocks and other stuff, it was great. So weird. But she was always doing her thing, which is like encouraging seeing someone take on their own projects, it was very empowering. So that was just around. We had a bandsaw, I remember, and I would use it when I was really young, like 9, and I’d make swords and other weapons.

From there, you picked up influences from a library, and you now teach classes at the branch down the street from you.

I just love looking at art in books. I do like seeing actual paintings in a well lit room with all the texture and imperfections but it really doesn’t compare to holding a book in my hands and communing with the art that way. Books let me sit with an artist and be calm.

Do you feel its more personal, the connection with art in a book?

Yeah I do. For sure. I mean being in an art museum, or a gallery, is….thats the only way you can experience art sometimes. thats how it happens. Unless you buy a piece of art and have it in your home, that maybe would be….

Yeah, with a book, its there for anyone.

Totally. Its limiting…if you’re in a museum, you’re looking at say 2 Picassos, and 1 Cezanne and 1 …whatever that museum happens to have gotten. Versus a book, you get the whole artist, you can have their whole career in your hands, and you can sit with it. Its totally on your terms.

Do you consider your classes giving back to where you first found your creative pursuits?

Yeah It helps me. By coming up with a way to explain how things work, it makes me understand it better. It makes me do it better. It’s fun, people are hyped about it. I haven’t done it in a while, I need to do it again. I find it satisfying. Its nice how much people respond to it. I think its more honest versus a traditional classroom setting. I often teach perspective in these classes….and you can teach somebody perspective in like 15 minutes. But in a formal classroom they dedicate days and days to it, and that makes it more difficult. Because they think this is something I need to spend 4 days learning, or 4 classes, or however many. But if you instead say, you can do this in 15 minutes it opens the mind to say ‘this is simple’. This is a formula. Its easier.

Some people might know you from your videos for Anticon. Are you still doing these projects?

I did several years of their videos. Something like 12 videos total for them? The early ones are really crazy dirty…it wasn’t really that long ago. When I came back home I didn’t know anything about them. Right when I moved back to Denver from San Francisco, DosOne was the first person I heard and it was like fucking transformative..it was unbelievable. Then I was a big fan of Cloud Dead for a year and met them at a show. I gave them a vhs tape with a bunch of movies I’d completed. Then Yoni Wolf contacted me a month later and I did a bunch of videos for them…

At that point, not even that long ago, it was like 8 years ago and not alot of people were making videos. It was all vhs, youtube wasn’t really around, or at least not a part of everyones vocabulary. Since then those old videos are so shitty. Like now a kid in junior high can do it better than what i was doing. The technology’s better. The last videos i did were for sole…those were about 2 years ago. I really like doing it but theres just not enough time…doing a music video is so much being someone else’s hands…even though I always controlled the videos, they were my projects. They gave me alot of iconography but ultimately the Anticon dudes just trusted me…which is great. But its still making their things…so now Im much more interested in doing things for myself. I did a book with Tim (Sole), and that was more a collaborative project between us.


Do you find your use of language- is that something that consciously goes into a piece? Do you start with a certain passage that gives you ideas, or is that something that comes in later?

Yeah it goes back and forth. It’ll start with text or a passage that somebody else has written…it hits me. It’ll be something I want to recreate…Ill want to interact with them and create images with it. With the Pyre, Sole wrote all that and I was just responding to him. Then he’d look at some of my images and respond to those. Then sometimes Ill just react to my own work too, I’ll think of text that’d work. I love including language as another dimension to art Its great how much you can do with language…i really love it.

So with that…do you think music plays a part with what you’re doing, do you respond to it?

Oh yeah, Ill listen to rap constantly. Rap is the only music I listen to mostly…its the best. Its all i need…theres so much…there, its all language. Its intellectual and powerful at the same time. Theres so much I can get from it. I often bite from rappers alot, with their language. I’ll take passage from rappers and maybe fuck them up just so…

You always know its good language when you get that …reaction. When you get a visual cue or vision. I have that too, not always with rap but music in general, I’ll hear a certain passage and that whole world is in your mind… Are there any particular people you’re listening to lately?

I’m all over the place. A lot of older Cee-lo, like goodie mob stuff and some Gnarls Barkley, I think he’s wonderful. But Andre’s the best I think. (of Outkast) Anything by him has such…he’s the best artist for giving me that fullness of imagery. Him and David Byrne are so strong for that. But Ill listen to lots of gangster rap too, and even mainstream poppy stuff lately, like Lupe Fiasco.

I’ve always seen a strong nod to indigenous cultures(something near and dear to my own art making), and an allusion to more sinister times- what are you saying with this iconography?

I love art so much. People throughout history have made such incredible, moving things and when I see these things I want to be part of it. It gives me an urge to participate. I don’t think of the images as referring to sinister times. In some ways maybe, it is heavy but art of all cultures is heavy and shows a lot of violence and hardship. I do use modern weapons in my art but to me that’s just a way of staying aware of my own time.

So you feel you’re just continuing in that tradition. What drives you to create, what do you feel you’re saying?

Its less an explicit message, and more experiences…thats how I respond to art. I have really strong immediate visceral responses to art and then I’ll want to recreate that for other people and show them what I get from art. It’s more a matter of a central experience. I want to bring that to them Its weird. I think most art….its really popular to say it’s subjective…but I think for the most part there is a very clear shared experience. Just that we all live in the same world. If you see an image of a flower, everybody makes roughly the same association with flowers, we all have a shared idea of what a flower is. I think there’s personal associations people make, but I think its mostly universal.

Your work ethic has always been impressive- I’ve heard you paint 8 hours a day, daily. How do you maintain this rigorous schedule?

I draw and paint when I am awake for the most part. The only distraction is people, which is great to be distracted by. When I have a show approaching I often work 12, 13, 14 hour days. I maintain it because I enjoy it. If I had a job where I scrubbed floors all day I would come home and draw to unwind. Instead I draw all day and then draw to unwind.

I’ve noticed more color creeping into your work in the last year, particularly blues and greens- where is this coming from?

I never used to use blue at all. I hated it. It’s a very tricky color to use for me. At some point I learned a way of using it that is very satisfying now I can’t imagine working without it. I think self imposed rules are a big part of learning to create art.

You told me around the same time you were delving in to abstract expressionism more- attempting to unlearn your draftsmen skills.   How has this affected your work? When you get into this more abstract headset, do you have a set end goal? Do you let the technique guide you semi consciously or do you have a clear idea of where you’re heading….

I’m answering both of these together. I have seen what abstraction has to offer and I want some of it. I still haven’t achieved what I want from it. I predict that this is really where I will be doing the most growing in the coming years. I love the way abstract expressionists create such perfect immediate unity in their work and I want to use that as a tool to tie all these disparate styles and themes. I haven’t got worked out quite yet.

Talk about self imposed rules more- do you have other traditions or rules that you exercise in the studio?

Yeah when I say rules its more aesthetic laws I try and adhere to. The old one was that blue was out. Blue and pink, didn’t work with anything. Then I just discovered a way of using a light blue… and it all changed. I used to hate it. It was really difficult. I remember making movies or music videos, and if there was a blue object somewhere in the frame, Id have to reframe it to make sure it didn’t show….I just fucking hated it. Im not totally sure why, maybe it has to do with the artificial feeling of it. I was really (really) drawn to earth tones back then. Blue isn’t really in that spectrum. Then I figured out a way to do it, that I like, and now I use it so much.

I always have borders on everything, I always contain a piece. Except when I do more abstract stuff, and then containing it seems stupid. As a result, i don’t know what to do, I don’t know what my rules should be because I’m doing something thats so abstract… Like if you look at a Robert Rauschenberg painting and it had a border, it’d corral it, it would hurt it. I’m looking at him alot, and when Im doing something that pulls from him in that way, its not clear how to deal with that. But thats a big rule of mine the containing everything, putting borders on everything. I don’t know if its always gonna be a problem or not…its a weird thing.

Its hard with the uncontrolled…can you even have rules? its such a visceral gut thing sometimes! It seems like the abstract and the realized work you’re doing is continuing to merge in different ways.

Thats a big movement in my work. Thats the main thrust right now, intergrating the really controlled and the not controlled…

So what can people expect from your upcoming show at Outsiders/Lazarides?

The show is called “Nothing Teaches Needs.” It plays with this idea of the most basic needs that people have. If theres no…if somebody isn’t satisfying real basic needs/desire or the most fundamental part of being human and what happens when those aren’t being met or satisfied…The idea that people don’t understand..you think of oppression or even torture and something like that, the idea that people don’t understand the value of human life or something …its not that. its strange.

There’s such a dismissive quality to that which makes it even worse.

Right, exactly. They know exactly what they’re doing but it doesn’t matter. That’s a part/component of the idea, not giving, not fully understanding what it is….its strange. and theres no way to teach that, because everyone already knows that.

It’s inherent.

Yeah its built into us. So the specific work in this show is lots of images of the human body, anatomical illustration which is a way of … an immediate physical way of describing human needs. The show started over conversations with a woman named Lindsay, who is also doing a show in February at Blackbook and hers has the same theme. Only for her its more personal. Its about her own personal life and her relationship with me and this mess of ours. We’ve had crazy difficulties over the last 8 years. We were always processing this intimacy and working out how to fix things that piled up. This whole project is largely that for us- trying to put our hands on our relationship and fix shit by discussing it with art and making art about it. So her thing is more intimate, personal, specific, small scale, and mine is the same ideas but with much larger forces. Political things,universal ideas, but the same..interpersonal things with her as well. There will be paintings, drawings, marionettes, and one life size marionette. That will be a conglomeration of mostly Asian influences, like a Balinese face, Samurai armor, and a mix of other things. Theres some western components in it too, but not any specific cultures, just a mesh of everything.

For more on the show, visit http://www.nothingteachesneeds.com/

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