Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Paul Butler, 23, is not your average art school kid. He didn’t have a privileged upbringing. He doesn’t possess the mien or don the apparel of the trendy hipster set. What funding he can procure for tuition and rent, he obtains from work-study programs and a weekend job at an office supply store. We sit in his apartment, your average Allston-Brighton abode – ho-hum beige boxes chopped up from larger, tidier Victorian townhouses constructed in the late Nineteenth century. His room is sparsely decorated, like any college student living perpetually on the cheap. If you’re accustomed to this neighborhood, this would be one of those places that gives you the sensation that you might be picking up bed bugs.

Paul himself is rough around the edges, unshaven and unkempt but not dingy. His wardrobe usually consists of a simple white or black t-shirt and jeans. During the time that I’ve known him, this is one of many telltale signs I’ve picked up of his indifference toward impressing others. He is, however, a thoughtful, socially conscious person, and does not hesitate to express compassion whenever it is needed.

I test the dictation machine and then set it out on the table between us. We both laugh sardonically at the formality of conducting an interview. Part of the harmony of our friendship has always been the eschewing of convention in favor of a more cynical outlook on a variety of topics. Today, I ask him his opinions on contemporary art, starting with what kind of artist he views himself as.

“I kind of hate the term, but I’m a conceptual artist,” Paul says in his South Shore accent, with its muted-trumpet tone. He tells me that he has attended the School of Museum of Fine Arts for a year and a half and that he, because of the school’s lack of any concentrations or majors, has dealt with a “lot of mediums." Before this, he says he had been interested in art since he was nineteen, when he began to do basic drawing and graphic design work. Among his favorite artists are Bruce Nauman, a conceptual artist, and Jenny Holzer, who primarily works with thought-provoking words on public objects such as billboards, buildings, and bronze plaques.

Because I feel like you know a person better based on their rants rather than their raves, I ask him what kind of art he hates. His bristly lips produce a grim smirk, “It’s a weird question. Even if I dislike what someone’s doing, I like if they make me think. The people I dislike the most are the ones that just bore me.” After a while, he finally betrays an object of his ire, “Landscape photographers. Like, people that have a car, a photo kit, and all this money and live in a nice house, and own all this stuff, and then drive out to Vermont and take pictures of leaves.” I heartily agree, but move the conversation on to something more productive by asking him what the condition of the art world is in the dawn of the 21st century.

He describes the 1990s and the early 2000s as having been something of a boom for artists, a pocket Renaissance when artists could achieve greater fame and sell more of their art pieces. At the moment, however, he sees the artist's life being in more of a stultified flux.

“It’s hard to say what’s going on at the moment. People are fighting for money or a showing. I’m hoping to see some interesting stuff, some alternate ways of showing [one’s art]. Like the Seventies, when PS1 showed up, performance started getting big, where people were just breaking into warehouses to make art shows…”

I ask him to explain PS1 further.

“It’s an art gallery in New York that’s now part of the [Museum of Modern Art], but it was originally an abandoned warehouse taken over by artists and turned into an art project. Hoping to see something like that, with human connections in artwork. It’s called relational aesthetics. That kind of work where it’s about making bonds between individuals, like using food making as artwork, which is interesting.”

This last part intrigues me enough to segue the discussion into the realm of more contemporary topics, such as technology and art, social networking… I ask him if the sands of art are shifting from the old-school depiction of the artist as suffering lone wolf into something more integrated with society… a kind of crowd-sourced creation.

“Only if it interferes with the artist’s work does it get recognized or change anything. A lot of artists that have had recognition lately were YouTube artists first, because that kind of form increases the distribution of their art,” his tone of voice becomes somewhat derisive, “People have used ‘The Internet’ as a buzz word for a while and not a lot has come from it. [They’re] still really selfish about the way they use [it].”

By way of vicious self-promotion? I ask.

“Yeah. We’re such an individualistic or self-promoting society,” his voice almost seems to rise as if posing a question more than a statement. He ponders his next thought for a second, “It’s the same way where the Internet’s changed music, where people are singularly “super-famous,” but there are a lot more of them that are “kinda-famous.” If it was the Sixties, you’d say ‘Oh, I like the Abstract Expressionists…’ and that’s all that people got to see, where now they can see ANYTHING. There’s no huge direction anymore… ‘Is it Abstract? Is it Minimalism? What’s going on now?’ But there really is nothing going on now… it’s so pluralistic.”

Does this increase in the pool of self-proclaimed artists somehow dilute the quality of art? I ask, is there no longer sacredness to art?

He chuckles at my words, and suddenly I feel like a dopey layman.

“I don’t think there ever was. There’s a big delusion about a time when artists were seen as the “Great Masters." Right now, there’s a lot of people who are ‘mirroring’ themselves. ‘I want to take photos… I want to be a photographer,’ so they construct an online image and compose themselves to what they think a photographer should look like. An imitation of an imitation. They’re not even taking pictures… so many of them are looking at the product rather than the process.”

When I ask him if this level of self-consciousness in the art world is a good or bad thing, he responds with a similar critique that artists are not “making” enough, because of fear, and maybe because of laziness. Are there enough artists out there contributing for the sake of art, rather than seeking out personal wealth and fame?

“I think 90 percent of everything is crap,” Paul says and cackles like a crow resting on the gallows, “It may be that way forever… there’s still a lot of contemporary artists that impress me. If I go around to all the local studios, I’ll see two things… three things… maybe just one thing that I like that day, but seeing that one thing makes it worth it.”

The conversation winds down and I take a look at some of his art; pieces that I am unfit to describe in professional terms but I see as sometimes impressionistic (outlines of female figures, rows of dots that form to create a male’s head) and symbolic (a baby’s mobile hacked together from computer parts and a photo of Paul spreading mayonnaise on a dollar bill).

As I stand above his pieces, snapping shots with my iPhone, I ask him what his goal is as an artist – what does he want audiences to see in his art.

His hands on his hips, Paul strikes me as a humble, soul-searching figure – the way I’d imagine Jackson Pollock to look when breaking for lunch after a long morning of drip painting.

“Er…” he laughs self-consciously, once again amused by the formality of the interview, “I want people to think, and be challenged. If they hate me, that’s fine. I just want people to have an experience… to think… have an opinion.”

He thinks for a moment.

“That’s all you can ask of art.”

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