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“I find individual elements most interesting when taken out of their original context and re-interpreted through a fresh perspective.” — Stephen Chopek

SodaCan| Courtesy of Stephen Chopek

Apart from actor/conceptual artist/fiction writer/grad student James Franco, Stephen Chopek may be the busiest man in the art world today. Chopek (aka SodaCan), who lives and works as a musician and artist in Jersey City, is currently on tour with singer-songwriter Todd Carey; closer to home, the Broadway Gallery in Manhattan and LITM in Jersey City are currently showcasing his art in two group exhibitions. We recently caught up with Chopek to discuss SodaCan, his studio practice, and the business of being an artist and musician.

What is SodaCan?

SodaCan is a solo project, an artist collective, a multimedia extravaganza, an evolutionary experiment, a peace movement, a radical revolutionary uprising, a democracy, a dictatorship, a fascist theocracy, a socialist republic, an equal opportunity employer, an international corporation, a nonprofit organization, and a few other things not fit to print.

OK. Let’s narrow this down. What types of projects does SodaCan produce?

SodaCan produces music and art by Stephen Chopek. I occasionally collaborate with other musicians and artists, but mostly it’s all me … whatever I want it to be … when I want it to be … and where I want it to be.

The project was initiated after many years of playing other people’s music for a living, with only rarely embarking on my own projects. I started to get burnt out, and decided to take a step back and reassess my priorities. I took a year off from what I had been doing to focus on my personal interests. After that year I was refreshed and ready to get back to the business of music. Since then, I’ve been able to maintain a healthy balance of solo work and sideman work. As a result, I enjoy playing on other people’s gigs more than I ever. I’ve rekindled my fascination and dedication to the creative process.

Christening a project can be difficult. How did you come up with the name SodaCan, and what does it say about the type of work you make?

In 2007, after playing music professionally as a sideman for seven years, I began composing my own music. Around that time, I also started making visual art. I though it would be a good idea to present both under one name, but not my own. I was going for something more of a brand than a personal connection. It’s liberating to create things that my name is not directly attached to. However, it’s no secret that SodaCan is Stephen Chopek and vice versa.

I got the idea for the SodaCan name and logo from a friend’s T-shirt. It was a thrift store find, and had an image of what appeared to be the top of a soda can. So, like any aspiring artist would do, I stole it — the image, not the T-shirt.

The name doesn’t necessarily say anything about the type work I make, which is kind of the point; it’s ambiguous. The viewer or the listener can decide what it means.

Do you prefer to drink a beverage from an aluminum can with a pull-tab or stay-on-tab, and why?

I don’t drink soda or beer, so I’m not in a position to make an informed decision about the best way to drink out of an aluminum can.

Lately, I’ve been getting into coconut water. Most brands come in drink boxes with a pull-tab. That seems to be the way to go.

SodaCan "Night"

SodaCan "Day"

You have a show coming up in New York City. How did you become involved in the exhibition, The International Artists at Home and Abroad Exhibition Series, and what work will be on view?

Earlier this year, I viewed Bonnie Gloris’ art at the Brunswick Windows in Downtown Jersey City. I liked what I saw, and I sent her an email to let her know. Shortly after that, we were both showing work at LITM. In addition to being an artist, Bonnie is also a curator at the Broadway Gallery in New York City. She invited me to participate in their Nature Vs. Nature show in November. As a result, I was asked back for The International Artists at Home and Abroad Exhibition Series.

The work on view will be a diptych entitled Night & Day. This is part of a body of work made by applying paint to the glass of old windowpanes.

Networking sounds sleazy, but it’s not. It’s amazing how emailing an artist to share your admiration for a particular project can lead to other unforeseen opportunities. What else do you do to cultivate new relationships?

It’s important to get out there and meet the members of your community. In terms of the music and the art world, this means going to gallery openings, concerts, jam sessions, fundraisers, etc. Needless to say, the internet is a great way to network. Reaching out to fellow artists and musicians via email and social networking sites is a great way to stay connected. Find out what’s going on in and around town and check it out. Artists need to support each other.

What is the relationship between your paintings and your music?

My music and art are both created with the help of previously existing sources. I collect samples to make music and objects to make art. Some of the objects that I use are magazine photos, newspaper headlines, windowpanes, old paint, broken crayons, pen ink, plastic flowers, and bug carcasses.

I often collect things that I’m not sure what to do with. It may take a while, but they eventually find their way into an art piece.

Materials take up a lot of space. I work in my apartment. My space dictates the type of work I make – small, intimate, personal. Do you have a studio or specific space designated for your art and music?

I have a room in my apartment that serves many functions – recording studio, art studio, instrument storage. The room is not small, but sometimes it feels like the walls are closing in. It can get overwhelming, but I’m glad to have a space designated for creating. Depending on what I’m making, I may need to spread out into the living room and/or kitchen. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my works are small to medium size. I often wonder what kind of art I would be making if I space was not an issue.

Slayer + Public Enemy | Courtesy of Glen E. Friedman

I want to discuss some of your music. One of the pleasures I had while listening to your songs was the experience of trying to identify the sources of the various samples and soundbites. I still remember the initial glee I felt — and still feel — when I heard the Slayer “Angel of Death” sample in Public Enemy “She Watch Channel Zero.” Do you think about who your audience is? How do you expect viewers to respond to your work?

I don’t think of my audience when I’m composing music or making art. I do my best to not think of anything at all. I prefer to concentrate on the work at hand. I wouldn’t say my work is unfocused, but it’s not aimed in a specific direction for a specific audience.

I don’t place any expectation on my work or the people who view my work. There are no meanings, messages, emotions, or feelings that I’m trying to convey. I prefer to leave it up to the viewer or the listener to derive meaning from the work.

The final part of the creative process is sharing the completed work with the world. However it’s received once it’s out there is beyond my control.

I wish I had your mentality. One of the biggest challenges I find as an artist is getting caught up in my own head instead of making the work. Do you practice meditation or anything to help you get in the zone or are you just hardwired at this point to do the work?

In recent years, I’ve come to realize that passions come and go. The creative process requires devotion more than passion. The creative impulse is a gift that has been given to everyone — it’s our responsibility to foster and develop that gift. It requires a strong work ethic. We have a finite amount of time on earth and there are a finite number of hours in the day. Using our time wisely while we have it is the least we can do in exchange for this gift, and for the gift of life in general. Everyone has something to offer.

I practice Vipassana meditation on a daily basis. “Vipassana” is a Pali word derived from the Sanskrit language. It can be translated into English as “clear-seeing”, “clear-knowing”, or “insight.” The practice itself is one of the world’s most ancient meditation techniques, originally taught by Gautama Buddha. Vipassana mediation requires one to be equanimously aware of the present moment as it manifests itself in the breath and through bodily sensations.

Courtesy of the Rubin Museum

I am interested in learning about how you construct an audio piece. For example, on your song “Lord Protect My Child” on Sweet and Savory, what came first, the soundbite of the woman singing, the sitar clip, or the drumbeat you created?

Whenever I’m listening to music and I hear something that catches my attention, I make a sample of it. Through years, I’ve collected many sound clips of myself and other people playing their instruments. When I sit down to create a song, I begin by perusing my sample library.

With “Lord Protect My Child,” I began with creating the drum groove and matching it to the vocals. Then I found a bass sample and laid out the form. Once that was in place, I filled in the blanks with some percussion. There was plenty of space, which worked well for the song, but something was missing. It was at that point that I went through my CDs of Indian classical music and pieced together a few sitar solos.

Generally speaking, I make many versions of a song before I decide that it’s complete. It usually helps to make edits throughout the course of a few days. This way, I can get some distance and return with fresh perspective.

The piece that I’m currently working on is a bit of a departure from my first two albums. It’s about 30 minutes long and I play most of the instruments. My sister Claudia, who plays the violin and viola, is also featured. The only element of the song that I didn’t create is the vocal. It’s a sample taken from an astronaut reading the Bible. I’m also collaborating with a video artist to make a short film for the song. It will be released early in 2011.

How long have you lived in Jersey City, and what is it like to be an artist here? Has living in Jersey City influenced your decisions inside and outside the studio?

I’ve been living in Jersey City for about ten years. I was in the Heights for the first five, and I’ve been in the Journal Square for the past five. I have a music/art studio in my place that helps to maintain a reasonable cost of living.

There’s a healthy community of artists and galleries in Jersey City. There are also many musicians in town, but the live music scene is not very happening.

I’m not sure how much living in Jersey City has influenced my decisions. I would be making music and art in some capacity no matter where I lived.

What are the biggest challenges to a thriving music scene in Jersey City, and what can the community do to create one?

The biggest challenge to a thriving music scene in Jersey City is the lack of venues. I’m not sure what the reason is for this void; perhaps music clubs are not financially viable investments.

The community can take it upon itself to present shows in “alternative spaces” like galleries, vacant storefronts [and] private residences. However, the powers-that-be do not seem to be tolerant when people take the initiative to produce independent shows. I’m aware that the city has rules, laws, variances, zones, and requires permits for certain activities and events; but one should not have to consult with a lawyer if they want to throw a party. There needs to be a middle ground where the officials and the artists can meet amicably and productively. I’m not sure what it will take to get there, but it can’t happen without solidarity – within both sides and between both sides.

What artists should we be paying attention to in Jersey City?

I like what John Fathom is doing with his light boxes. Bonnie Gloris is always up to something new and interesting. I also appreciate how the Agitators Collective utilize and beautify public spaces. (I’m not just saying that because you’re a member of the group). I became aware of their work when I saw the decorated electrical boxes on Central Avenue in the Heights. It wasn’t until I saw their show at the 58 Gallery that I realized who was responsible for the project.

You have a diverse practice. You perform, tour, and record music on a regular basis, and make art. How do you find time to do it all?

Sleep deprivation. Don’t get me wrong … I love to sleep, but it often gets in the way. I don’t do drugs, but if I did it would be some sort of amphetamine. I could get a lot more done if I didn’t need to sleep. I often wonder how much more productive humans would be if we didn’t need to rest. Then I realize … we would probably accomplish twice as much, but live half as long.

I tend to take on more than I think I can handle, and then figure out a way to make everything happen. It keeps things interesting. I like to push myself and test my limits. I’m always up for a new challenge.

My workload is never a burden because I enjoy all the things that I do. The creative process never ceases to amaze me, and is a form of energy in and of itself.

Original post may be found here.

SodaCan logo

jose rodeiro | courtesy of parida suwannewisch

Over the centuries, flesh has enticed artists of every kind — painters, sculptors, and photographers — to capture its essence. From the Venus of Willendorf to Lucian Freud, artists have responded to call, depicting every part of the human body, from the infirm wattle of an old man’s turkey neck to the taut muscles of young boys in Caravaggio paintings.

And now flesh is the subject of a big new exhibition, Flesh Art, at New Jersey City University (NJCU). The show is curated by NJCU art history professor José Rodeiro (at right), and it features the work of 12 artists, including Joan Semmel, Ben Jones, Babs Reingold and Jen Mazza.

“The premise of the show is that human flesh can be an aesthetic motif on its own,” Rodeiro says. “I hope that those who attend the exhibit will leave with a renewed perspective on what flesh is and what it can mean.”

Rodeiro told us more recently as he made some final preparations for the exhibition, which has its opening reception this Thursday.

William Coronado

Matthew Lahm

Tell us more about the show, and how it came about.

I first became involved in Flesh Art by viewing and considering the artworks and the ideas of Matthew Lahm, when he was still one of my graduate students. His extraordinary work and ideas intrigued me.

For example, at the current show, you will see a ten-foot painting called Body View 1, which depicts part of a human body. By only showing a small part of the body within ten foot surface, the image is utterly mysterious, because the model’s identity, gender, and the actual part of the body displayed are unknown. Through this unusual “hyper-figurative” approach, the flesh itself becomes the subject of the work.

Suddenly, I realized that Lahm was part of a coterie of urban artists who used flesh/skin as their primary subject matter via this ambiguous visual-artistic handling of the body that I called “flesh art;” I began to notice a trend in contemporary metropolitan-area figurative art traceable to pioneers like Joan Semmel.

In the early 1970s, Semmel created innovative flesh-based paintings, which made her a pivotal figure in the development of flesh art. She seems to have influenced numerous artist like Lahm, Coronado, Cruz, Sandra Silva, Mazza, and Rogeberg, and others, whose images echo many tendencies found in her work. We are fortunate to have three never-before-seen paintings by her featured in the show. Flesh Art points to what I think is an evolution in 21st Century figurative art and where it can go in the future: amplifying parts and fragments of figures as subjects in and of themselves.

Hanneline Rogeberg

John Hardy "Church on 31st St"

Jen Mazza

Joan Semmel | Body and Sole

What is attracting this new generation of figurative artists to investigate flesh, and why now?

Perhaps it is that cosmopolitan artists feel that their core humanity is under attack from hyper-technology, fanatical dogmas, war, economic uncertainty — and perhaps that art itself is under threat.

Who is in the show, and what can viewers expect to see?

I have already discussed Joan Semmel and Matthew Lahm. Also featured are NJCU’s eminent retired professor Ben Jones, who is a prominent figure in African-American art, and NJCU professor and acclaimed sculptor Herb Rosenberg. The exhibition includes works by Rutgers professor and internationally active painter, Hanneline Rogeberg. There are strikingly visceral installation and multimedia works by Babs Reingold of Bayonne; intimate oil paintings by Jen Mazza of Brooklyn; cityscapes incorporating flesh in media by acclaimed painter John Hardy of New York; and video art by Giuseppe Satta of Italy. Furthermore, there are exceptional and distinctive images of human flesh (and innovative flesh-based compositions) by three other exceptional and gifted emerging artists (and like Lahm, NJCU alumni) Williams Coronado, Sandra Silva and Olga Cruz.

Willem de Kooning, Woman, I, 1950-52, oil on canvas

As soon as I heard the title of the exhibition, Flesh Art, I pictured the painting Woman, 1, by artist Willem de Kooning. When I mentioned the name of the show to my girlfriend, she assumed it was of tattooing.

This is merely my own aesthetic-opinion, but I do not immediately think of human flesh or skin when I see de Kooning’s Woman, 1. De Kooning’ s paint-application is very sensuous, which is the only thing about his work that I consider to be fleshy.

Honestly, tattoos are not an issue in the current Flesh Art show, because tattoos modify, hide, or visually change flesh and skin. Thus, tattoos tend to transmogrify, decorate, camouflage, or they add ancillary symbolic iconological meaning to skin, which distracts from the actual tone, texture, and fleshiness of “natural” skin or flesh.

I had another thought nipping at the heels of Woman, 1, and it was pornography. “Flesh Art” sounds dirty, and I ashamed of myself for thinking in this manner. As an artist, I like to think of myself as progressive, tolerant, and open-minded — but occasionally I am not. Did you intend the title of the show to be provocative or am I way off base?

The original intention of the Flesh Art show was never to be pornographic or provocative, [but] it could come across that way because flesh can be so taboo. The title is merely descriptive and represents 12 exceptional artists who exalt in seeing and depicting human flesh — artists who are fascinated by human flesh – as human flesh. In my opinion, none of the selected Flesh Art artists pander to prurient interest nor do they endeavor to arouse lascivious curiosity.

Lisa Yuskavage, Day, 1994, Oil on linen, 77 x 62 inches

Terry Rodgers, Continental Drift, 2006, oil on linen, 152cm x 229cm

JOHN CURRIN, Rotterdam, 2006, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches

So, according to your definition, flesh art would not include painters such as Lisa Yuskavage, Terry Rodgers, and John Currin? Am I correct?

Yes, because flesh art is far more concerned with mysterious parts of bodies, instead of full-figure grand-manner depictions. Flesh art is not concerned with scintillating and pseudo-pornographic calculated depictions of hyper-seductive, manipulated, erotic and embellished dehumanized figures.

The nude is the foundation of Western art. However, as an Irish-Catholic male born and raised in a modest ranch house in New Jersey, I am not wholly comfortable with the human body in a state of undress—unless I am watching two men inflict and take punishment inside a boxing ring. What do you hope the viewer takes away from the work in this exhibition?

Within the context of art history, representations of human figures in the nude or naked are recurrent subjects. In fact, the history of art is saturated with astounding depictions of flesh from Classical Greek and Roman antiquity; Hindu and Buddhist artistic traditions; or as exemplified throughout Western art from the Renaissance onward. As a theme in art, unclothed human subjects are widespread and rooted deep in art history.

The artworks in the Flesh Art show describe the body as a medium through which the mind thinks and feels. As a result, flesh art imagery presents human skin/flesh as a layer through which the human body meets the world in which it lives. Hence, according to this view, people (in every way) truly inhabit their skin. Moreover, on a visceral level, both affectionate people as well as sadists are drawn to flesh, erotically desiring the skin of others. Therefore, both the human body and its flesh are noetic or intuitive vehicles for processing and possessing existence. Thus, skin functions as a “self-reflecting” subject that reaffirms and embodies the self, as a mirror image of our “being.” As the old-adage warns, “Beauty is only skin-deep.” Likewise, skin — as the largest organ of the human body — encases the body.

Art history is stacked with men. As a viewer, I have usually seen flesh — usually the flesh of nude women — depicted by male artists. Do female painters approach the body in a different manner than their male counterparts? If so, what does their work communicate about the body?

The old distinctions and obsolete hegemony between male artists and female artists are not central to contemporary flesh art, since most 21st Century urban pioneers of flesh art have been women artists. Yet, the key issue is that flesh art does not depict the full grand manner figure. Despite historical figural traditions that reveal nude or naked human bodies from head to toe, 21st Century flesh art images often portray only portions or sections of human bodies wherein strong emphasis is placed on ample corporeal surface-effects that meticulously define each body’s accentuation of flesh (or skin). Generally, the sheer veneer of flesh is not the main aesthetic focal point; instead what is often stressed is the exterior fascia, revealing a modular or sectionalized surface façade that may well be smooth, sinewy, vivacious, undulating, rough, coarse, or expressing countless other surface possibilities (even within one piece). Consequently, each work offers a crucial section of a human being’s body.

Babs Reingold "Hung Out No4"

De Kooning once said, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” For me, oil paint is particularly suited to capturing the vivacity of flesh. However, not all artists use oil, and not all artists paint. Artist Babs Reingold is featured in the exhibition. She has used encaustic, silk organza, animal skin and human hair in her installations. What can other mediums communicate about flesh that oil paint cannot?

The diverse artists exhibiting in the Flesh Art show do not exclusively rely on oil paint to attain their facsimiles of flesh or skin, although several do use oil paint. On the other hand, the show also features artists working with charcoal on skin, scratching and machining onto aluminum, using photography or doing wet-acrylic colorfield-painting like Ben Jones — or like Babs Reingold, using encaustic, silk organza, animal skin and human hair. The multimedia nature of the show broadens the artistic examination of human flesh on many levels.

Art has the power to reveal our uneasiness about the body. Does art that reveals our uneasiness about the body have the power to heal it?

I think there is an element of redemption of flesh in this NJCU exhibit, in that flesh art liberates the nude from social presuppositions, prejudices, and peripheral narratives that can taint our points of view about it. Flesh Art shows how artists can communicate a variety of meanings through flesh, which are simultaneously experiential and conceptual. Human skin/flesh is our connection to the world and — as a person living in the world and as a person devoted to art — pondering the significance of this “natural” bond to me is valuable and worthwhile.

Original post may be found here.

This gallery contains 11 photos.

In the heart of the Pacific Ocean lies a nebulous mass of plastic debris the size of Texas. This synthetic island of plastic bottles, lids, utensils, and bags has entered the food chain, and is coagulating in your bloodstream. Artist Olivia Kaufman-Rovira has come toe to toe with this global threat. In 2008, she began …

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“As a small child I told my Grandmother I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but did not want to spend it locked away in an attic.” ~ Melanie Vote

Melanie Vote | portrait of the artist

If you have ever fancied the idea of smashing your mother’s beloved collection of Precious Moments figurines, I cannot blame you. Artist Melanie Vote, a child of the American Heartland, will not point the finger at you either—she may even encourage you to do so. As long as Melanie is free to walk the streets, no porcelain ballerina, bunny or lamb is safe in your family’s home.

This iconic figurine of American consumerism and banality has inspired Melanie to create a new series of paintings called Lost and Found. This collection of work, including a life size replica of a Precious Moments figurine by Melanie, will be on view in the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University. This is the artist’s first solo show at the gallery. The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery is located on 2039 Kennedy Blvd. Hepburn Hall, room 323, in Jersey City, NJ.

The opening reception is March 16, 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. The exhibition will be on view from March 16 to April 21, 2010. Join the artist for a discussion about her work in the gallery on April 12, 2011, at 4:30 p.m.

I recently caught up with Melanie to discuss her new exhibition, the role nostalgia plays in her work, and the wide-open space of America’s heartland.

Melanie Vote, Precious Moment on the Plains, 2007, oil on panel, 7 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

I am a painter predominately.

When did you first become interested in painting and drawing?

I always drew, daydreamed and drew, as the youngest of three, growing up on a farm in rural Iowa—it was how I occupied myself. As a small child I told my Grandmother I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but did not want to spend it locked away in an attic. My first real memory of drawing involves being punished after drawing all over a freshly painted hallway, my parents did not believe in spanking, but this act warranted an exception; my father was so furious. Of course we laugh about it today!

Iowa

You hail from Iowa. I got drunk at a gas station in Des Moines once. What brought you to the east coast?

Funny, Was it the Flying J truck stop? I came to attend graduate school at NYAA [New York Academy of Art], vowed to leave after, but became more and more infatuated with New York, and stayed to develop my career.

What made you want to flee the east coast?

It all just seemed excessive, the massiveness of the city, the never ending shopping mall feeling, the inability to never really be alone. But I quickly became taken by all the advantages of being here. The list is long but namely the museums, galleries and the richness of all different cultures living together.

All kidding aside, Iowa is one of the most progressive places in the United States, and it is host to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Some of my favorite writers passed through the workshop, including Flannery O’Connor, Thom Jones, and Raymond Carver. What is Iowa’s secret, and why does lure such great artists?

The space, the unending horizon line. The flat lands allow one to see for miles, this giving way to enormous skies- creating a feeling of openness, clarity perhaps. Being there is very grounding for me. I have to visit at least once a year. I was born there rather than lured, it was a really amazing place to grow up, a lot of time for daydreaming and play.

Melanie Vote, Head 1, 2007, oil on panel, 8 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Tell us about your solo exhibition, Lost and Found, at the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University. What was lost, and who found it?

I want the work to elicit these questions. The work is partially about memory and loss- remnants of childhood. The lost part also reflects my growing concern for our country’s loss of innocence, and an overall concern of the human condition. The found part relates to all these problems that future generations will inherit out of our lack of contemporary social concerns. The imagery is metaphoric foreshadowing of what may become of our overindulgent civilization. The landscapes are null time- a place where the past present and future all coalesce.

The loss of innocence intrigues me, as a theme in art and life. When you say our country lost its innocence, are you thinking of a specific thing? If so, what is it? And do you think art can help to heal this loss?

I guess this is not anything new; more my of my own realization of so many things are just wrong and unjust. Actually the entire history of our country has been filled with atrocities from taking away land from natives and building a new world with enslaved people. This has repeated itself over and over again throughout history, not just American history. Even though I feel privileged to born here and that I have never had to live through the atrocities of war, I just wish our country would not have to take on the role of policing the world instead of taking better care of it’s people.

There are just so many problems to list. The lack of affordable health care to middle income people our reliance on crude oil, lack regard to recycling and reusing. The list is too long, I do not have any grand solutions to these ills of society, just observing and hoping people will do their part in any way they can to make things better. Art may not heal, but hopefully it will create awareness, that may motive change.

What work is on view, and why should people come out to see it?

Seven small paintings and one large one will be seen all together for the fist time. Also I will be showing three-dimensional work for the first time. Two maquettes will be on display as well as a number of drawings and plein air studies. Most importantly I just completed a 40” tall sculpture that directly reflects imagery in the painting- that is the most unusual work for me, and am interested in seeing the response.

Melanie Vote, Precious Moments Sculpture, 2011, cast urethane resin, 40 x 25 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

What is the relationship between your paintings and sculptures? Does one inform the other?

Yes, the sculptures inform the paintings. I build maqettes, mainly so I can observe the light on the form. This observed element is intended to create a level of believability of a real world. The foray in to sculpture is somewhat new, growing out of the maquettes, though my under graduate focus was in three-dimensional work.

Much of your work is inspired from children’s toys, especially Precious Moments figurines. My older sister (she will remain nameless) had a modest collection of these collectibles—girls, lambs, and bunnies—in the late seventies. I hated them, and what they were about—sentimental, decorative, and precious. These creatures survive today—some thirty odd years later—inside a shadow box on the top shelf in the computer room of my mother’s home. What role does nostalgia play in your work?

I hate them too, hate them and love them at the same time. For me they are the ultimate symbol of kitsch. Many of them have religious themes, but at the same time depict children as pseudo-sexualized objects. I received the one that has been seen in a number of the works as a gift from my oldest sister when I was age 13. The figure is a blonde doe eyed ballet dancer and in meant to be a Christmas tree ornament. Her back is arched, with tutu- tutu flipped up in the back exposing her little posterior. Hmm…what a loaded message in this tiny little thing.

Art history has a long tradition of sexualizing children. Balthus comes to mind. I am thinking of two paintings in particular—Girl with Cat and The Living Room. Who is the audience for these paintings, and what is he trying to communicate about human behavior?

Balthus’ audience was other artists, art historians and literary figures. He was adored and encouraged at a young age by Rainer Marie Rilke, one of his mother’s lovers. From what I understand he saw these girls as virginal empowered sexual agents, and those viewers that found dis- ease by looking at them, revealed more about their own discomfort or issue with sexuality. Perhaps he is communicating that individuals what we want to, or what they are conditioned to, in every work of art and every life situation.

Balthus "Girl and Cat (1937)"

Precious Moments elicits a certain type of hostility in me. I want to smash them with a ball-peen hammer. That being said, I am a sucker for religious figurines. I have several statues of Catholic saints (Jude, Patrick, Francis, Rocco, Anthony, Bridget), Buddha, and Vishnu. What is a cheap toy to one person is a personal icon or talisman to another. What attracts you to these figurines, and why do you want to remake them?

I understand the hostility; these things are evil saccharin-sweet little religious icons. I plan to create a large one in order to create ruins of; perhaps you can help me smash it. They are horrible. These are the sorts of thing that become collected and cherished by many in Middle America. To me they are the embodiment of all the outlandish attributes of our culture’s consumerism, lack of concern for larger world issues, and my God is bigger and better and in this case – cuter, than yours.

Let me know when you want to smash some stuff up. I am game. Breaking cute things… this could be cathartic. Have you ever considered adding an element of performance in you work?

Yes, this summer I plan to burry the work then stage a faux excavation. I am hoping this will happen at a residency where people would visit. I will keep your offer in mind and let you know where it takes place!

Melanie Vote, Discovery in the Bank, 2008, oil on panel, 10 x12 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

I’ve been thinking about your series Lost and Found. It depicts the future ruins of America. Is your work a type of mediation on mortality? What do you hope the audience takes away from your paintings and sculptures?

Perhaps just to ask themselves how they can be part of the solution rather than the perpetual cycle of problematic overindulgence. How can we convert to different ways of living, avoiding use of oil, reusing and recycling, etc.

Kitsch inspires many contemporary artists, including Jeff Koons, Yoshitomo Nara, and Takashi Murakami. Do you see your work as a parody or exaltation of American consumer culture?

A parody I guess. I find it sort of disheartening that this is what is embraced, and is what will remain.

Jeff Koons’s sculpture, Bear and Policeman, is a life-size carved wood sculpture. He said the Hummel, the German counterpart to Precious Moments figurines, inspired the sculpture. Koons remarked: “I don’t see a Hummel figurine as tasteless, I see it as beautiful. I see it and respond to the sentimentality of the work. I love the finish, how simple the color green can be painted. I like things being seen for what they are. It’s like lying in the grass and taking a deep breath. That’s all my work is trying to do, to be as enjoyable as that breath.” Do you admire Precious Moments as aesthetic objects?

As I mentioned before, it is a love hate relationship. They [Precious Moments figurines] are alluring at first, even cute, but I have such a distain for their pastel palette and the shallow religious message they carry. Just sugar coated Americana, “every thing here is so happy and perfect, and if you just except Jesus as your savior, your life will be perfect” Even with this sense of disdain I idealize my childhood.

Melanie Vote, Head as Home, 2010, oil on paper, 22 x 26 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

You have described your work as portraying the post-apocalypse. Your vision of the wasteland is much rosier than Cormac McCarthy’s. In McCarthy’s view, dead babies spit-roast on a makeshift rotisserie in ashen woods. In your view, tufts of green grass flutter and swell in a summer breeze as linens dry on a clothesline under the midday sun. Is light a metaphor for God in your work? Do you believe in a benevolent power of the universe, and if so, does this belief inform your art?

The truth is, my work is a far cry from reality, I do not really think an actual post apocalyptic scene would look anything like this, it is more metaphor for making the best of what life presents and human resilience.

None of what I depict is actual real; there are no hollow doll like sculptures the size of the Colossus of Rhodes placed upon the mid-western landscape. If there were to be some apocalypse or natural disaster what would actually remain would be highway, grain elevators, ethanol plants a flame and some of those beautiful wind turbines partially erect.

Life turns upside down for people in many ways, and all that’s left are scraps and people somehow survive. Haiti for example, somehow the people keep holding on… just thinking of what they have endured.

This sort of whimsical undertone seen in the painting is perhaps how I cope with fears that I actually have of what is really going on the world—this never ending chaos.

The God question is big, I believe in lots of things, but wish not to expand here. Historically speaking light and the hierarchy of it on the picture plane has served as a sense order and a presence of God. I have a deep reverence for Renaissance and Baroque painting, and feel the need to create this sense of order with the light to create visual clarity. It is an adopted language.

I am curious about your landscapes. The application of paint is direct, immediate, and vigorous. Did you paint these scenes outdoors in the open air?

I do paint outside when I can, the experience is vastly important. Some of the works start there, some start working from models in the studio then I have to seek out a landscape that works with cast figure. I started painting outside after my family no longer lived in the exact region I grew up in. I developed a real interest in the flatness of the plains. Painting outdoors changed my painting technique immensely.

How has painting outdoors changed your painting technique?

Plein air painting is an athletic event of sorts…or maybe a bit like hunting, fishing, or farming. One has to be prepared: palette mixed, location scouted out in advance, up before dawn to capture something. After that, all you can do is show up, and go for it. There is a sense of urgency to capture the moment and see—not really think but just do. A certain flow happens or hopefully does. Self-consciousness leaves and a real connection to what is present happens. With this sense of urgency, there is no time to judge.

Also I really enjoy being outside and feeling the elements—dirt, wind, bugs, sun—it all feels very natural.

If all goes well I drive away from the site with a little painted morsel of memory on the floor and a deep sense of satisfaction. These little studies hang around my studio; I look at them to remember how I would always like my paintings to look. These studies are more direct, and less fussy.

Melanie Vote, "Refuge in Ruins," 2010, oil on panel, 10 x 17 inches.

I also began to think of Thomas Cole’s landscape series, The Course of Empire. His five painting sequence depicting the rise and fall of Classical Rome. Roman Antiquity and the Italian landscape was Cole’s muse. What is yours?

Yes, Cole’s Classical Rome, after spending just a short ten days in Italy looking at such amazing art and architecture I was, literally, in tears on the plane ride back…our country is young and void of the layers and layers of art and archeology in relationship to the rest of the world. The landscape is practically void of any evidence of Native American existence, and the structures built now are ephemeral.

Also the iconic things that I remember seeing as a child include: water towers, grain elevators, an enormous Jesus figure in Arkansas, and the Jolly Green Giant, located somewhere on route I 35 towards Minneapolis. These things just sort pale in comparison to Bernini sculptures.

My work has grown out of my childhood experience. Iowa is considered part of Tornado Alley, seeing the after effects of tornado damage and watching Wizard of Oz over and over again, certainly has an influence. Additionally, I spent much of my time outdoors creating imagined homes from my fathers scrap parts. Old tractor cabs, grain palettes and random pieces of wood were arranged and/or adapted to provide shelter and backdrops for imagined adventures.

This coupled with the fact that I come from a long line of farmers. Once my grandfather passed away I really started to look at the landscape with such a great appreciation and wonderment. What, if any evidence will be left behind? The earth is such a great provider and how can we take care of it for future generations?

So what are you going to work on next?

I am going to burry the PM [Precious Moments] sculptures, most likely in Iowa and then stage a faux excavation of it. The parts will be reconfigured into maquettes and used for future landscapes.

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Todd-O-Phonic-Todd | Courtesy of Summer Dawn Hortillosa

About ten years ago Todd Abramson gave me Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire And Beyond, a four-disc box set, during Maxwell’s annual employee Christmas party.

My self-imposed ban on all types of music not heavy or fast was lifted. I went from Slayer, Bad Brains, and Sick of it All to The Pretty Things, Marmelade, and Small Faces.

For the past three decades, Todd has enticed bands from around the world to perform in Maxwell’s, a modest venue (200 capacity), in Hoboken. The musical acts include Elliot Smith, White Stripes, Nirvana, Fugazi, The Strokes, Beck, Black Keys, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

I recently caught up with Todd to discuss the shows he has planned for New Year’s Eve, his life in the music business, and the agony and ecstasy of being a professional sports fan.

Hi Todd. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m one of the owners of Maxwell’s in Hoboken and I also book the bands. Additionally, I also book The Bell House, a great venue in Brooklyn. And under my alias “Todd-O-Phonic Todd” I deejay on WFMU and for assorted live events.

When did rock and roll take over your life, and who is responsible – was it AC/DC, The Flamin Groovies, or KISS?

It was probably Three Dog Night! Hearing the opening of “Joy To The World” come out of my transistor was revelatory at the time! The Rolling Stones surpassed Three Dog Night as my favorite group maybe a year later.

Three Dog Night

Tell us about the shows on New Year’s Eve. Who is performing, and why should everyone ring in the New Year at Maxwell’s?

We have 2 shows this year. The early one (7:30) is Mike Doughty, formerly the lead man from the band Soul Coughing. Then at 10:30 we have a great rock ‘n’ roll show with The Fleshtones and Detroit Cobras. The Fleshtones will have performed at Maxwell’s in each of 5 decades! The first time I saw them at Maxwell’s they were playing in the restaurant area (the backroom came into being about a year after the joint opened). They are an incredible if often overlooked (at least in this country) rock ‘n’ roll band that incorporates so many great and diverse elements into their sound. The same can be said of The Detroit Cobras who perform almost exclusively covers of great R ‘n’ B and soul nuggets from the 1960’s and occasionally earlier. It’s going to be some party.

You’re a great role model for music promoters, having built a life – and a profession – around your love of music. You co-own Maxwell’s with Steve Shelly and Dave Post, and book all music acts. You also act as head booker for Bell House in Gowanus, and occasionally fulfill booking duties for Union Hall in Park Slope. You are the founder of Telstar Records and guest deejay at WFMU. How did you get your start in the business, and what is the key to sustaining a livelihood in the game?

I got started just by being a fan and then just slowly getting more involved until all of a sudden it became what I did. There was never a plan and when I started I figured I’d do something else when I grew up. Maybe I still will because as my 6-year-old niece put it to me recently, “You are a grown up, but you don’t act like one”. Sustaining a livelihood is probably a mixture of luck and skill. And you need to try avoiding getting too low when things are lousy or too high when they are going good. Easier said than done.

Maxwell’s has often been voted best rock club in New York City. Why is the Big Apple always trying to steal Jersey glory? What distinguishes Maxwell’s from the other music venues-specifically the ones across the river?

I think a few things …one is that it has always been a little lower key than the New York clubs because there is very little “industry” presence at shows. Another is that having the separate room with the restaurant and bar makes for a different atmosphere. A lot of times people spend many hours at Maxwell’s in a single night (coming in early for drinks and dinner, then seeing the show, and hanging out a bit afterwards) as opposed to just running in and out seeing one band that they want to check out.

Maxwell's, 1039 Washington Street, Hoboken NJ 07030

Rock clubs come and go. Why is Maxwell’s still standing, and what is the key to its longevity?

With the exception of a brief period when it was in flux in the mid-90’s, there have only really been 2 bookers. Steve Fallon, the original owner whom I learned a lot from and was my inspiration when I started booking shows, and myself. So while he and I displayed somewhat different musical tastes, there has been a cohesive vision that has really driven the place for over 30 years.

As headwaiter, I worked at Maxwell’s from 1999 to 2003. My favorite memories include Sarah Silverman helping me bus table #80, a six top, before a Yo La Tengo set; Janeane Garofalo dropping a $50 tip on a two-dollar plate of French fries; Meg White devouring an entire shepherd’s pie. What are three of your favorite non-musical memories?

Well speaking of tables, the one from the first night of this year’s Hanukkah shows that at one point had myself, my wife Cheryl (a.k.a. “Sissophonic Cheryl”), comedian Todd Barry, musician M. Ward, actress Julia Styles, Elvis impersonator Gene DiNapoli and booking agent Eric Dimmenstein would probably be hard to duplicate elsewhere! A fond memory from years back is when some guy was a little bombed and his wife said we should go easy on him because he was in The Guinness Book of Records as The World’s Tetherball Champion! Lastly, I don’t know how you didn’t list this one yourself, but the time Sky Saxon came falling out of the lounge on to that poor couple on a date at the “wise guy” table.

Sky Saxon

I can still see it as if it were yesterday. Sky leaping from nose bleeds (bottle of red wine in hand), taking out the “wise guy” table, plates crashing, men and women screaming. He created such a stir, but managed not to spill his drink. That’s class. You have been booking bands since the eighties at Maxwell’s. How has the scene evolved over three decades? And what role has new media and technologies-such as iPhones, Vimeo, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora-played in the business of rock and roll?

It’s a lot easier to get the word out about shows nowadays. For Instance, yesterday we announced a Guided By Voices show in the morning, put tickets on sale at noon, and by 3 o’clock it was sold out. When I started, the weekly ad in the Village Voice was the way everyone found out about shows. And of course, it’s a lot easier for people to check out these bands now because they can just do it at home on their computer.

One downside I see is that bands aren’t really given as much time to develop now as they used to. People get excited about them very quickly, but they are also just as quick to jump off a bandwagon.

The three greatest performances I had the pleasure to witness were Sky Saxon and the Seeds, Mudhoney, and The King Brothers, maybe even Zeke. What were your favorite shows, and what makes a great live performance?

There have been many so I would say these are some of my favorites …The Cowsills …the first time Jimmie Dale Gilmore played the club …Thee Headcoats/Headcoatees show …and taken as a whole the incredible run of Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows that just ended. Those have always been fantastic, but this year seemed like they somehow rose to even another level.

I think a great live performance does require a great performance from the people on stage, but also needs to build off the audience’s energy level.

The Cowsills "Milk"

One of the most gratifying experiences about working at Maxwell’s was having the opportunity to interact with the bands on a personal level. J Masics of Dinosaur Jr. remembered my name after a two-year absence from the club, and brought me a cup of peppermint tea. What disarming experiences have you had amidst the chaos and noise of rock and roll?

I remember one night I was dealing with some kitchen employee quitting in the middle of the night and The Shins checked on me to see if I was okay (usually, I’m supposed to be checking on them).

As the co-owner of a music venue, you have to balance art and commerce. What is the relationship between the two for you, and how has it affected the type of bands you book?

Ah, yes …basically it’s a balancing act. For instance if you want to take a chance on a Saturday with a band you love but may not bring in a high level of business, you better make sure you have something solid on the Friday (from a business sense) to at least balance it out somewhat.

The recession has hit everyone hard. Museums have organized in-house exhibitions of permanent collections to counteract the affects of the current economic climate. Has Maxwell’s seen a decline in revenue as a result of the recession? If so, what steps have you taken to neutralize the downturn, and increase revenue?

There have been good weeks and bad, good months and bad, but it’s hard to pinpoint. Due to the economic downturn there are probably people who come to our place who didn’t before, because they can spend less money at Maxwell’s than they did elsewhere. Then there are unfortunately people who can’t afford to go out at all, or if they do it’s very infrequent. But overall, business has been pretty steady.

Margaret Bourke-White "At the time of the Louisville Flood (1937)"

It’s been seven years since I worked at Maxwell’s. In my time away, I have chosen an all-star wait staff to man battle stations. Sean Connor behind the taps. Frank Murphy his chief second. Kristen Giorgio, Jenn Data, and Andrea Breitman regulating the floor. Lorraine Gordon greeting the guests. Meika Franz as the DH. El Diablo in the kitchen. John Z. and C. Ward working the door. If you had to choose the Maxwell’s all time dream team, who would it be, and why?

It would be you working every job.

Since my departure from the music scene, I’ve been out of the loop. I rely on Soundcheck and New Sounds on NPR. How do you stay on top of music today?

Hearing news from friends and people in the biz that I trust…various websites…still reading some mags. Going to a record store and seeing something that looks interesting….

What records are currently getting airtime on your turntable, and what bands should we keep an ear out for?

There’s a great rock ‘n’ roll band from Rochester called The Hi-Risers that actually have around a half dozen albums out…a cool new band from Austin called The Young played in town this weekend. Best Coast have a really nice sound, they are getting somewhat popular…

Musicians are not known for sound behavior. (Ozzy bit off the head of a bat, GG Allen defecated on stage, and Old Dirty Bastard did the Old Dirty Bastard thing.) What band or performer exhibited the most brazen display of rock-and-roll eccentricity? And how did you negotiate the situation?

One time Robyn Hitchcock wanted to go on hours earlier than he was scheduled to because he said everyone would be drunk at the later hour. I don’t remember exactly how we talked him out of it, but I remember it took a few people and was very tense, kind of like I would imagine a hostage situation.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Chicago Blackhawks | Maple Leaf Gardens

People may not know this about you, but you’re a huge sports fan. In football, you back the Green Bay Packers. In baseball, it’s the San Francisco Giants. And in hockey, it’s the Boston Bruins. How did a kid from New Jersey come to support all these out of town teams?

Actually it’s the Chicago Blackhawks in hockey, but you did well picking one of the original 6 teams. I think it was because even as a mere youth I was a rebel and didn’t want to like the New York teams just because I was supposed to and almost everyone else did. And all 3 teams have really great uniforms. I went to games 1 & 2 of the World Series in San Francisco this year; that was a fantastic experience, especially as The Giants won both games and ultimately the series.

Original post may be found here.