It’s a little hard to focus these days. More crazy shit happened last night than we would expect in a week (month?) of, say, 2015. If you’ve got a creative job or hobby, how do you put the world’s happenings out of your mind so you can settle in and create something amazing? Or do you embrace the emotions you’re…
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This week falls in between two of the largest planned protests for the environmental movement in recent history: last Saturday’s Earth Day March for Science and this coming Saturday’s People’s Climate March. Being a part of the resistance against an administration of climate change deniers can be a frustrating and…
Two weekends ago, when the streets of Berkeley became the scene of a surreal battle between far-right Trump supporters and far-left antifascist activists, the fracas was recorded so extensively by journalists and regular citizens with phones that images of the worst of the violence were already going viral by the time order had returned. But one of the people documenting the event took longer: John Paul Marcelo, an artist who paints the sorts of events normally covered by journalists.
Marcelo's style is a throwback to French Impressionism, with rapidly delivered brushstrokes forming a landscape, whether that means a purple sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge or the last flickering remnants of a makeshift memorial to a street artist. The scenes of violence he captured in Berkeley were obviously also recorded by countless high-def cameras, but his paintings give the scenes a kind of weight and timelessness.
Originally from Chicago—one of his first paintings was of Cabrini-Green, one of that city's public housing project—Marcelo spent time in Venice Beach before making his way north to the Bay. I had tea in Marcelo's downtown Oakland studio for a chat about his work.
VICE: How did you get into painting?
John Paul Marcelo: In school, I was studying graphic design and advertising, and a few days before graduating, I was like, I'm not gonna do this. Finishing school means I wouldn't have access to the computer lab, so I was gonna have to invest in a computer. I just thought getting a computer, getting tied into this whole thing, then having to get a new computer in two or three years... That's when I decided to become a painter.
One of your first paintings was of Cabrini-Green. How did you pick that subject?
I was living in Wicker Park, working in bars and nightclubs as a bouncer, and I was taking the bus. And one time, it was just crazy, I saw this scene of police converging on the housing project, just so many cars. And I got really interested in that scene; it revealed this kind of stark environment between Cabrini-Green and the two surrounding neighborhoods, Wicker Park and especially the Gold Coast. There was such a difference between the poverty and wealth, and it's easy to miss that. When I'm on my bike or walking, it's different from seeing the landscape when I'm in a car. There are a lot of times I drive past something for months, and then finally walk past, and it's like, I need to paint that. I just never realized it zipping past in a car.
How do you figure out what you're going to paint?
It's rare that I'm up to date on news, but I'd say for the last six months, or maybe the last four, I was trying to be more diligent about it. When I moved to Oakland, there was a lot of social activities happening here—social awareness, environmental awareness. Living in San Francisco was more of an insular experience. So that's having more of an effect on what I'm trying to paint. Being in downtown, sometimes I hear helicopters, and it's pretty easy being in such a central location. So, if I hear some kind of news, I just travel out to where it is.
What was painting the Berkeley protest like?
It's always kind of like a fire. I don't want to get too close but want to be close enough to see a little bit of detail. With a lot of protests and marches, sometimes I'd set up and paint, and ten minutes in, everyone gets up and leaves. When I was painting this, I set up, and everyone was probably 50 feet or so in front of me—that's where that heavy fight broke out. But 20 minutes into the painting is when the crowd started to gradually move away. The whole time I was painting and seeing everyone move away, I'm like, What the fuck? That's my subject matter! But I was committed. The buildings were blocked in, so were the trees; so I was committed to this particular spot and angle.
Is it about capturing these moments quickly?
I think for a lot of artists, it's the sun or weather that dictates the pace of painting. When it's scenes like this, I know I won't have a lot of time, so I have to paint as fast as possible. It's not so much I need to get a pretty picture, or a really nice rendering. It's more about trying to get some kind of documentation of the event.
Did anyone talk to you at the Berkeley protest?
There were people from the left and right that came up to me. Everyone was peaceful to me. It was some kind of relief; regardless of whether they were left or right, they felt like appreciative of me being there. I'm not at all a confrontational kind of person. I went as an outside observer; I was just kind of documenting it. It's like what French Impressionists were doing. They were the contemporary photographers of the day. I relate a lot more as a photographer than an artist.
What's your painting schedule like?
I paint most days, and four or five days out of the week I go out. I wouldn't go as far as saying I'm a journalist. I'm a casual observer. I try to find out what's happening around town early in the day. A lot of time, I just ride my bike around and stumble upon whatever. I'm trying to be more diligent about it. Ever since the Ghost Ship [fire], I started looking up the news first thing in the morning. If something is fairly accessible to get to fairly quickly, that's what I'm going to paint.
It's also a good way to get yourself out there.
If you don't see me out in the street and introduce yourself, you're not going to find out about this gallery. I'm not a promoter or marketer, I'm barely a salesperson.
Do you only want to paint these types of scenes?
No. When I lived in San Francisco, the ocean was so accessible. Every Monday, I'd go to the ocean because it was street cleaning day. I'd do my grocery shopping early, then go to the Golden Gate and paint somewhere in that area. I'm still trying to find that balance of urban and nature. To hear birds chirp in the morning, rather than car alarms, people yelling at one another, that kind of thing. But I wouldn't want to be in either one of those situations indefinitely or permanently, though, because I feel I'll lose a sense of my awareness of the world. As a person that documents, I don't want to lose my touch.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Last week, word filtered through the art world that the 72-year-old artist Barkley L. Hendricks had died. Hendricks was best known for his post-modern and realist paintings of highly stylized, cool black subjects. He singlehandedly changed the possibilities of representation by depicting the people he knew and saw: black mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, uncles, aunties, and cousins. Today, you can see his influence in everyone from Rashid Johnson and Kehinde Wiley to Mickalene Thomas and Jordan Casteel. And his work can be viewed in the most august museums, such as the Whitney, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Tate Modern, and the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
I don't remember the first Hendricks picture I ever saw, because I have seen the people he painted everyday of my life. For example, my grandfather, who belongs to Hendricks's generation, has a perfectly picked afro that recalls the painter's 1969 self-portrait, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people — Bobby Seale).
However, I do remember that feeling of validation I had when I first really engaged with his work. Nothing I've seen on canvas or in a museum has blended pop and abstraction with a stylized black vernacular the way that he did. It is this unique quality that he had that continues to escapes many of the contemporary black artists who have won praise from the white art world.
Go visit a museum today and look at a painting of a black subject. Rarely is the work simply about them and their soul. Instead, symbolism and idealism consume much of the representation of black bodies that we see. It's hard to view these figures' desires when racism, whiteness, America, and "the struggle" make them everything but themselves.
This phenomenon speaks to the ways mere representation has been misconstrued as liberation. Unfortunately, "diversity" in the museum can sometimes fail to truly free the black image. You see this in the arena of art that is in desperate search of an "inclusivity" that is wholly informed by white liberalism. There, the black body has been reduced to a series of problems in need of being fixed. This kind of visibility can be a trap, because it ignores the significant difference between depicting real everyday people and their convenient symbolic facsimiles.
Hendricks confronted these tired notions of the black body. There are no victims or celebrities depicted among his cast of ordinary icons, who root the black image in real life. Instead, there is, for instance, the photorealsitic North Philly Niggah (William Corbett), a fiercely chic brother from the hood who shows his sensibility by wearing a fresh and long pink trench with fur accents. When looking at paintings like this, it becomes clear that Hendricks was a modern master who painted us.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1945, Hendricks grew up in North Philly and received both his BFA and MFA from Yale University, where he studied classic works by artists like Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. In the 1960s, on a trip to London's National Gallery, he was deeply moved by Anthony Van Dyck's 1621 Portrait of Agostino Pallavicini. But it also made him wonder why the black people he saw and knew in his own life weren't in the museum.
So he took his camera, which he referred to as his "sketchbook," and started snapping pictures of his family, friends, students from New Haven, Connecticut, where he taught studio painting. He would then invite his subjects into his studio or use the photographs to make portraits.
This was at a time when the Black Power movement inspired the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka to found the Black Arts Movement, which called for the creation of positive black nationalist images. BAM was a corrective measure to white racism and a homage to black history that Hendricks resisted. Brilliantly Endowed (Self Portrait) is one example of how Hendricks used his canvas to defy respectability politics, garnering both praise and criticism. In the 1972 acrylic nude, Hendricks stands against a black monochrome backdrop, toothpick in mouth, hand on his thigh, wearing a hat, socks, and sneakers, with his dick exposed. Despite the calls for uplifting images of the black community to combat racism, Hendricks recognized it was time for the black body to signify something else. With paintings like Brilliantly Endowed, Hendricks confronted the respectability politics of the era by empowering subjects to just be themselves.
As a young queer black man, desperately looking for representations of people who had made peace with both of those identities by radically existing in the world, one painting of Hendricks that really stuck out to me was George Jules Taylor. Hendricks painted the gay black male student in 1972. In the portrait, Taylor wears a baby blue skull cap, a grey turtleneck under a denim jacket that matches his jeans. Over his shoulders is a cape. He's got his hands on hips, while his shoeless feet dance off into the foreground. Taylor appears to be floating above it all—blackness and gayness—against a blueish grey background that compliments his ebony body. His eyes, behind a pair of groovy frames, look directly at the viewer, subverting the consuming and fetishistic gaze. It's a slick, sublime portrait of intersectional individualism that blurs the lines of realism to show exactly who Taylor is by capturing him in a moment of transcendence. The first time I saw it, I swear to God I wanted to be that picture.
For nearly five decades, against abstract monochrome pop-like backgrounds, Hendricks developed an oeuvre that in the 1970s was termed, "cool realism." His paintings—Lawdy Mama (1969), Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris (1972), and What's Going On (1974), among others—of our people spoke to the reality of the black experience, bucking against its commodification.
By 1984, his portraits had fallen out of style like painting in general. For nearly two decades, he did not produce oil portraits at all. Instead, he taught and developed bodies of work that included photographs, drawings, and small plein air studies. I wonder though, what would he have made of the Reagan years? Or the 1990s, when crack, hip-hop, and the hyper-commodification of black cool consumed black communities?
Curator Trevor Schoonmaker encouraged him in the early 2000s to start painting again by commissioning a new work for the New Museum. And in 2008, Schoonmaker organized the artist's first comprehensive traveling retrospective, Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, that featured nearly 60 large scale portraits.
Last March, he presented what turned out to be his last solo exhibition, Barkley L. Hendricks at Jack Shainman Gallery. It displayed a remarkable return to large scale portraiture that was reminiscent of his early works and provided glimpses into what he thought of Black Lives Matter and the police violence happening against black children, women, and men. In Crosshairs Study, several small diamond shaped canvases show a black subject wearing a grey hoodie with a sniper laser trained on his forehead. Underneath the scene, Hendricks painted: "I No Can Breathe."
Before the opening of Barkley L. Hendricks, I spoke with the artist for a story for VICE's art and culture site, Creators. I didn't quote Hendricks directly in the story because as soon as the interview started, we were fighting. Because the work in the show was his most political yet, I thought he would finally want to talk about the social context in which he painted. "What inspired this show?" I asked the man. "It's a continuum of what I've been doing for 40 years," he said, sounding annoyed. "It's not just what inspired this show. I paint because I like painting." I nervously chuckled to myself and tried again: "Can you describe the situation the paintings are responding to?" He responded by asking me if I was familiar with police brutality. I told him I was and he said, "Alright well, it should be obvious."
For the next ten minutes the interview continued like this with Hendricks growing increasingly agitated. As I was admitting defeat and thanking him for his time, Hendricks said, almost in a hushed tone, "You focused too much on the politics and not the art." It was a lesson that has forever changed the way I look at art.
Hendricks art is currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem in the exhibition, "Regarding the Figure." And this summer, several of his canvases will be on display at the Tate Modern in a major survey of black art titled, "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power."
We live in a culture that has, in some ways, turned art into obligation. MAKE EVERY DAY, shriek the Instagram influencers. CREATE CONSTANTLY! You can hashtag your hustle to show just how much you're participating in the art economy, and you can claim you were #calledtobecreative if you want to imbue the whole thing with a slightly religious aura. While in some ways this creates a culture of liberation, it can also create a culture of guilt and fear, where failure is not an option. After all, if anyone can #make, what's your excuse?
It takes bravery and a bit of defiance to say that your artistic dreams did not work out the way you hoped. Nobody likes to admit defeat, especially when "artistic failure" can be interpreted as a sign that maybe you just didn't work hard enough. Here, seven people describe why they stepped out of the race.
I went on a reality TV show in hopes of winning money or using my sparkling personality to spin it into a talk show or producing something or working in TV. I thought when I moved to LA: This is it. I've been in NYC for ten years, so let's take my unique brand of charm and charisma and crazy personality to LA. You know that Frank Sinatra song about New York, where he says, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere"? He's a goddamn liar.
LA is probably one of the worst places I've ever been in my goddamn life. The people I've had to work with are some of the most miserable people I've ever met. I'm a stab-you-from-the-front person. Everyone in LA is a stab-you-from-the-back person. There are no friends in Los Angeles. The whole last year in LA I cried every day. There were days I couldn't get out of bed, even though I needed to go job hunting. One day, my car got totaled, and literally four minutes after that the job I was about to start texted me that they'd brought in some other people. I accidentally ended up living in my mom's barn in wine country because I didn't have enough to pay rent—I was just in a crisis.
I work in casting for reality TV and game shows. In doing casting, I feel like I've destroyed my own little path. I never have time to breathe, really, or work on my own creative outlet. I'm constantly in this rotation of, Oh God, I'm so stressed I don't have a job; oh look, I have a job, I'm so stressed out because the demands from the network executives are so batshit crazy that I genuinely don't know how to function anymore. The hustle is exhausting, and it takes a lot out of you. I wish I had done everything five years earlier.
Jeffrey Marx, 40, freelance casting producer
I enjoyed the strategy and the planning for a photography career more than actually doing the specific craft. I was the girl who applied to one school and one major—I always knew exactly what I wanted. So to quit was very intimidating and unnerving. People want to say, "You'll be fine; everybody's scared!" My mentor was very kind but also very honest, saying, "Go into that indecision."
As a photographer, you identify so much with being an "artist." Even a year after I decided to start working in production, it was really hard for me to feel like, Great, now I've decided not to be creative, and I'm going into this logistical career path.
Hannah Fehrman, 27, executive producer for Grey House Productions
There was never a watershed moment that I gave up on comedy; the math just didn't work out after a while. Comedy is a massive time sink. If you plan on being decent, then you should be gobbling up stage time. It's crazy easy to burn out on a system where a couple of hours waiting leads up to eating shit for five minutes. For me, the time and energy wasn't enjoyable, and ultimately if I wasn't having fun, then why was I doing it?
Talking for ten minutes to a largely silent crowd is appropriately the shit nightmares are made of. Every comic does it at some point, so it's part of the process—even pros bomb. That doesn't lessen the absolute ego bomb that it is one iota. I think I'm like most comics in that after a bad set you run outside and have a cigarette. Usually beer is involved.
When I stopped, life was pretty rad. I focused more on my job, and my excess energy went back into music and weird coding projects. Of course, I miss the positives, the rush, the camaraderie. But to be completely honest, once I quit going to mics altogether, I was amazed at how much I got done.
Daniel Sharp, 33, IT firm engineer + audio/visual projects at madeofants
I got the lead of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie my senior year in high school—that was probably the pinnacle of my acting. But when I planned to attend school, I figured that theater being what it is, a better option was to go into filmmaking and media. Even at this point, I was being pragmatic—I've never been the most fit guy, and I knew that being in front of the camera or on the stage being as fat as I was made the chances of an acting career slim to none. Couple that with my dark secret of being a homosexual Mormon boy, I just couldn't see myself ever getting there.
In college, I found out that I was a pretty good editor, so when I went to LA, I found a job as an assistant at a post-production house. I also started working on YouTube videos expounding on the joy I'd found living in LA. But by this time, YouTube was going totally mainstream and corporate, and I found myself working hard each week to produce content that really no one was watching. I spent a year signed up with Actors Access to find auditions, and I was actually asked to audition for the touring portion of the Book of Mormon musical. Almost a year later, they asked me back again. Sadly, I was not chosen.
That role was so ideal for me, as a former Mormon (I'd left the church when I came out in 2008), and that's kind of when I realized that my voice was no longer there from a few years of recreational smoking, and lack of formal training, and lack of practice. Couple that with my failure to achieve any following from my videos spelled the end of that dream.
The hardest part about my dream was that I always felt like a liar because I felt so little self-worth—most of my life I secretly hated myself for being gay, for not being perfect, for not having married parents, etc. It's silly, but I think the fear of being confronted or discovered by being in theater scared me away from trying somewhat.
Ezra Horne, 30, post-production supervisor + owner, Paw Paw Records
I was a really good artist—but I could not draw people (I drew dragons and mystical swords and things like that). After a lot of peer pressure, I tried out for the talented art program at the school where I was.
They actually laughed at me. I was supposed to draw a person (or people) enjoying a day out at a fair. Since I could not draw people, of course it was awful. Because of all the negative and hurtful responses I got from that program, I couldn't ever bring myself to draw again.
I used to spend hours and hours drawing and painting. All I did during the summers as a kid was draw and read. I wanted to paint murals on my walls in my room. I wanted to write and draw for a living (I thought about going into comics). Now, it still makes me cry to think about art and how crushing it was to give it up. I miss it every day and wish I had stuck with it, even though I had been so discouraged.
Gabriel Vidrine, 36, laboratory manager
Back when I was giving things a go as a screenwriter, I think I did expect something to happen. I don't think I believed it would be a slam dunk for success, but I don't think I believed I would flame out. Maybe about seven years ago or so, I knew things were looking bleak. The kinds of material that I wanted to write was not that appealing to Hollywood, and I felt my patience for that world ebbing away. Not that I failed per se, but that I never gave myself the best chance I could. Could I have, should I have written more for the market?
I don't think I ever would have written something completely unappealing to me just to try to sell, but should I have spent a year working on a small, ensemble type of indie drama when I could have equally engaged with a true crime script, which might have had a better chance of gaining attention? These questions still haunt me, and my biggest sense of regret is not putting my best foot forward. If you want to succeed in any type of work, you should go all in, and I don't think I ever did this. I never had a "burn the ships" mentality.
Randy Steinberg, 44, real estate management and development
Opera is a highly specific path that involves a lot of long, lonely hours in a practice room, and as much technique as artistic expression. The path, itself, never felt creative to me at all. Plus, to be very honest, constantly worrying about the health of my voice (I couldn't drink or eat tomato-based foods or speak too loudly in a bar for fear of losing my voice) was zero fun. The life of an opera singer made me anxious, insecure—the scrutiny, oh my God—and so, so broke. I hated it.
For the bulk of my 20s, after making the decision to essentially start over, I was very lost. We're talking daily existential crises and sobbing fits about "wasting my gift." One time I stayed in an Airbnb next to a music school on a vacation to Rome, and I just sat on the balcony listening to budding opera divas sing their arpeggios and crying.
Rose Truesdale, 29, wellness writer
Michelangelo’s David is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but would the artist have been as adept with a chisel were he working on a tiny copper penny instead of a giant slab of marble? Using a magnifying scope, artist Shaun Hughes managed to skillfully turn Lincoln’s head into a remarkably detailed skull.
Screw Rembrandt, Picasso and all that boring old guy paint-on-a-canvas stuff. The future of art is bacteria, ants, and the smell of sweat.