This is the fifteenth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.
Photo by www.chriscasella.com
Interview with P. Tepper
on the phone
May 15, 2010
IA: Why don’t you start out by telling me and our readers about your work. I’ve only gotten to see one of your paintings one of your paintings live—I’ve seen a lot more online—but for those who haven’t seen your work yet, can you describe what you do?
PT: Well, sure! OK, so, good evening, everyone, my name is Paul Tepper. I’m here in Columbus, Ohio, and the most important thing about myself is that I love Jesus, but not all of my paintings make that obvious. What I want to paint are people, creatures and bizarre situations. I like textures ranging from the really really thick to the really really thin; I love color; I love metallics, I love shiney things so I use a lot of gold paint in my work.
IA: I’ve seen that you use really vibrant colors: colors more bright than nature, or, you can find them in nature but not in such intensity. What inspires that?
PT: I do like bright colors. Part of my bright colors is that I don’t consider myself a really great paint-mixer, so I use a lot of paint straight out of the tube. If you look at more realistic painters, there’s an infinite variety of grays and subtle paints shades that they had to mix. I tend towards impatience, so I paint something bright.
IA: So you just jump right in and take what’s straight there without mixing it?
PT: Yes, and also I have a lot of tubes and I have the best quality paint, so that means I have a lot of colors, and because they’re high quality pigment and I don’t have to mix them, that makes them bright and vibrant.
IA: Now you also do something with your people and with your creatures in your paintings; I’m not quite sure how to describe it, so I’ll try and then you can take over. Maybe you would say it’s exaggerating one particular feature. Maybe someone’s head will be huge or maybe they’ll have a larger limb or a larger ear or something. Am I describing that well?
PT: You are correct.
IA: And why is that? Is that because you’re using that one exaggerated feature to describe a character trait?
PT: Wow, I like that. Well, a couple of things. As a student in art school, I was an illustration major and in illustration at that time, a lot of personal illustration was caricature, celebrity caricature, and in caricature you can have extreme or even more subtle exaggerations. So that’s what I studied and learned. I like exaggerating. Also, I like to exaggerate certain characteristics to communicate. If I’m painting a man and a woman, I like making his hands huge and her hands small, not as a way of judging the feminine and masculine, but just showing that the masculine is big and strong and the feminine is more soft and gentle. And I like giant noses just because. There’s just something about giant noses that excites me.
IA: That’s great. That’s very cool. What topics tend to recur in your paintings? You’ve done some series, right?
PT: Oh, yes, topics. Life out of death, love, danger; I also like painting about masculine and the feminine; brides; I don’t feel I’m very good about this yet, but I’d ultimately like to be more bold about presenting Jesus. So far with my masculine and feminine paintings the whole idea is to show Jesus and the Church (unless it’s a specific portrait of a friend); that’s what I’m trying to communicate.
IA: That makes perfect sense. When you first started talking about he masculine and the feminine, I was thinking, “Well, that’s not very popular: to show the masculine as stronger and more dominant and the female as being smaller, weaker.” So have you ever gotten any flak for that?
PT: I’m glad you brought that up. Here’s the thing about artists. Artists tend to be a voice within their culture. So when we look at the 1500’s we look at Leonardo, Raphael, their art work, and that’s the only glimpse we have of that time period. Currently we have other means such as photography, video, but it’s still an artist capturing it. What I like is that certain artists, like Norman Rockwell in the last century: his paintings are a snapshot of what life was like, or a idyllic impression of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. And when Andy Warhol in 1960 did his Marilyn Monroes, that was a very good reflection of that culture, reflecting both the mass production of that time period but also the subject matter of Marilyn Monroe; it was the birth of celebrity as artistic icon. What I want to do, in our time period, instead of being a voice OF the culture, I’d rather be a voice TO the culture. In our time period, over the past decade, the questions of gender, marriage, the masculine and the feminine, that’s all up in the air. It’s moved into politics where people vote over it. One of the reasons I like painting about it is not to reflect what our culture thinks, but to show them a better way to think.
IA: That’s beautiful.
PT: As far as getting flack; I have not gotten flak.
IA: I’m fascinated that this is what you’re thinking, because I agree. I think that one way to be radical now is to be what used to be called conservative. And I don’t think it is conservative anymore, I don’t think it’s looking to the past to show traditional gender relations and views on marriage; I think it’s actually looking forward to the future to a time when we’re out of the current phase that you’re describing. So that’s great.
PT: And also, the voice OF a culture vs. a voice TO the culture: one example biblically or even historically would be the prophets, where God would speak to Isaiah or Ezekiel and say: “Go and tell the people this.” Or even Jonah, although Jonah didn’t want to. Now, I’m not claiming that I’m some prophet who hears directly from God; I’m saying that would be an example of somebody speaking to the culture and usually speaking a word of correction: The direction they were heading in was not good. That’s kind of my stance on that. Another thing is that I don’t want to reflect the culture, because I think there’s enough of that, but what I would rather do is grow closer to God and listen to Him and then do my best to reveal what I have heard or what I do know. I understand there’s a limitation to that—but I have nothing else to do and I’m going to do the best job that I can in doing that.
IA: That’s another definition of a prophet; they weren’t always telling the future, they were doing just that: bringing a message from God to the culture. So, what other trends and theories or what else can you tell me that you see going on in the larger culture, then?
PT: First, real quickly: as far as myself and doing paintings of Jesus and stuff: I’ve chosen not to do traditional iconography, so you won’t see crosses or white Jesuses with blue eyes; the reason I’ve chosen to do that is because when I speak to people about Jesus or when I say words like “Jesus,” “Bible,” “prayer,” “church,” those words are triggers that inspire people to put up their defenses. I’ve found the same thing with imagery. Rather than doing that, I’ve been more subtle and rethought different things, not that I’ve changed the content, but that I’ve found different ways of explaining the content. So that’s something that’s specific about my work.
As far as current culture? If you go to a Barnes & Noble magazine section, one of the magazines is American Art Collector, or American Art in Review, and they tend to be more stiff, stale, still lifes with pasty pastelly colors. I find them incredibly uninspiring and boring. But then there’s the other movement called the low-brow or Pop Surrealist movement, and Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose are magazines that showcase that. One question is, “Am I part of a particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?” —I’m still an unknown artist, but some others have said that I would fit into that group and I don’t disagree, because they’re the guys that I find more inspiring.
So Pop Surrealism is the movement that I will talk about concerning the bigger picture. I’m reading from Greg Simkins’ website, on his biography, and I think that it is a good umbrella. It’s about “careful weaving of pop culture, the old masters, nature, carnival-kitsch, and warped imagination.” Pop culture, the old masters, nature, carnival-kitsch, and… warped imagination describes hundreds of artists that are out there and alive today.
IA: That’s such a huge amount of content, then, that each artists’ individual style, then, would be in how they synthesize those elements, I imagine.
PT: It’s a big umbrella. What you see is that it appears, like if I give real broad stroke generalizations, the guy picks a favorite artist from the past, whether it’s Monet, or Rembrandt, or da Vinci, or some famous guy, and then they pick some stuff like cartoons, antiques, baby dolls, stuff like that, and then they paint that like the old master. And then what they do is they twist it, warp it, spiral it: kind of like caricatures, giant heads and little bodies, so you have this very classically-painted cartoon that’s bizarre. It’s exciting, because then as you discover these artists you get to see all the variations in the rainbow as far as that goes.
IA: Are there specific artists in this school you’re thinking of who, when they do this, when they take an item from pop culture but then they paint it in the style of a great master, is their technique approaching that of the master? Is their technique excellent?
PT: Yes. Yes.
IA: So that’s what raises it above being “just” pop culture, not just an advertisement or an image; that’s what makes it “art”?
PT. Yes. I’ll tell you the names right now. Todd Schorr. He’s in his mid to late fifties. He paints cartoon characters, whether it’s Mickey Mouse or Dracula or King Kong or Godzilla or whatever. But he paints them as well as Raphael painted his stuff. And then he paints them huge and he fills the canvas with a lot of stuff.
Another guy, Mark Ryden, he is in his late forties, and he does these really really soft paintings, a lot of grays, real subtle colors: these chipped baby dolls with meat and bees and bunnies, but they’re really soft like Ingres and Bouguereau. Those are guys from the 1800s who did real classical painting. But Mark Ryden is doing this bizarre juxtaposing of baby dolls and meat. It’s kind of like this innocence and violence.
Then Joe Sorren, he’s in his late thirties, his art is more painterly. They kind of feel a little bit more like a Monet or a Cézanne in the brush strokes, but then he does these giant headed creatures with spaghetti arms and potato hands, having these quiet moments and stuff like that. But real beautiful.
Then Greg Simkins is in his mid thirties, and he comes from a graffiti background. He does vastly narrative paintings where there are all these characters, a plot, and a subplot all within the painting.
IA: Why this particular movement right now, then? It sounds beautiful and talented and brilliant, but it also sounds fragmented. Is it reflecting specific ideologies or religious trends in cultures, do you think?
PT: The thing that is important in what I just said about these artists is their ages. So we have mid fifties, late forties, late thirties, mid- thirties, and then myself being in my early thirties. This generation of artists, when we were kids, technology was TV and the subject matter was cartoons. And so we have a whole 25-year span of men and women, adults, from 30-55, who as children were immersed in cartoons, comic books, and movies. And so now we’re seeing these artists painting it. A lot of these guys were inspired by Disney and went to art school wanting to do animation. They ended up doing painting, but they are still painting these Disney-esque images. So I think that’s the “Why.”
Whereas in the early 1800s with Neo-Classical works, or even the Renaissance, looking back to Rome and Greece, to that style, and then putting in their contemporary messages. With the Renaissance, the Catholic church commissioned the art work, so the art work’s subject matter was Christianity, but the style was this idealized Greek and Roman figure and fabric and drapery. In the 1800s, the 1500s were their history, and so we saw a return to Classical style and then the subject matter was wide-ranging from Christian to historical to kings and queens. And then in the 1900s, there’s this explosion of media, not just on TV but magazines and prints and advertisements and imagery, and so now we have all these guys who are painting tons of this stuff. So I think that’s the Why.
IA: Wow, that was beautiful. That was a fantastic little history of art; that was great.
PT: Thanks! And then also, I think technique is important here, too, because in the Renaissance, in the early 1500s, Raphael and those guys painted real smooth: real thin, real flat, real blended, real soft folds and everything. And then we moved into the 1600s with Rembrandt: chunky, broad strokes, browns, dark, lights; Caravaggio and those guys. And then, as I said, in the 1800s it was that Classical bent; in the late 1800s with impressionism, we get chunky colors: bright colors and chunks, and then that led into the 1900s with the Fauves, which would be like Matisse and those guys; so even brighter colors, more streaky, and then Cubism and then Abstract, and then there’s no subject matter at all. and I think that today, we are at a return to Classical, where it’s not abstract, it’s not chunky. You know what you’re looking at, it’s very representational. And also the techniques are just mind-blowing. Just twenty-five years ago, Basquiat was alive, and he was a young artist in New York City who did graffiti and scribbles. Well, in the ’80s, that art sold for a ton of money. But I don’t think that guy would make it today. It’s the guys who are painting very Classical who are making a ton of money.
IA: So it’s cycling around again, looking to the past for inspiration with modern content?
IA: I liked what you said earlier about how we look at the past eras and these works of art: they are sort of our artifacts for learning about past cultures, so what’s being made now will be seen that way in the future, seen as artifacts for the current culture.
PT: Yeah, you’re correct, yeah.
IA: Now, this has been sort of a subtext in what you’ve been saying all along, but why don’t we talk about it more explicitly now. This is the difference between sacred and secular art. You’ve talked about how you portray your faith, if at all, very subtly in your work. Do you want to talk about that a little bit more or about anything else you see on the difference between the sacred and the secular?
PT: Yes, I’ll talk about that. One is, on a quick not, is that in music there’s a difference between secular music and Christian music in that Christian music has its own industry. I’m not against that, I’m just saying that it does exist. In the fine art world, there is no Fine Art Christian industry. Even the Christian music industry is competitive with country music or hip-hop or R & B, so it’s not like Christian vs. the rest, it’s like Christian vs. country and each of these other genres. So there are Christian radio stations and CDs and Christian music awards. Well, in the Fine Arts world, that doesn’t exist. In the Fine Art world, there may be Abstract vs. Realistic vs. these different genres, but there is no Christian Fine Arts industry.
As far as myself is concerned, I feel called to be light in a dark place or salt in our culture, so you saw my stuff at a Christian-based gallery in Philadelphia, but I don’t feel called to just being around Christian artists and Christian galleries and stuff like that. I want to penetrate the art world and influence it. I want to influence it the way that salt would influence meat, the way that light would influence a dark room. So that’s my personal goal.
As far as these other artists go: Todd Schorr and Mark Ryden are two kings in the Pop Surrealist world. They’re older, they’re more famous, their paintings go for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have a huge following. Their collectors are celebrities in Hollywood. So they’re a big deal. Subject-wise, I feel it’s pretty obvious if you look at their paintings that they are anti-Christian. Mark Ryden uses a little Jesus image a lot, but in a stupid way, kind of like saying, “Oh, look, there’s stupid Jesus again.” I don’t know if that’s what he’s thinking, but that’s what it looks like. And Todd Schorr is very obvious in his imagery: he paints a lot of monkeys, gorillas, primitive man. He’s a very good storyteller and it feels as if he’s giving a pretty good case for Evolution or science. He did this one painting called “The Monkey’s Uncle” where there’s a preacher in the woods naked and his legs are kind of like a monkey. But the guy looks so stupid! It’s kind of like, “This stupid preacher with the Bible can’t even see that he’s related to monkeys, he’s preaching about Creation and he’s stupid.” So that’s some of what they’re going on about. And Mark Ryden in his Tree Show, which was three years ago, talked about how trees have been involved in many religions and their sacred ceremonies and he referenced Buddhism, the Mayan cultures, Norse mythology, the Kabala tree; he referenced those in a positive way, but at the end of one of his paragraphs in his artist statement he talks about how as Christians systematically destroyed the sacred groves there was a shift in man’s thinking to where we’re no longer part of Nature but that we dominate it. It sounds like he’s blaming Christians for destroying our planet. And that’s like, if Christians destroyed their sacred groves and changed our thinking: Dude, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, Jesus was hung on a tree; Christianity talks about God creating the world; God is Lord over everything and we aren’t. So I am upset by some of the portrayals of either Christianity or preachers and stuff in their artwork. So my responses to that is, well, if they’re going to be that bold, then I perhaps should stop not being bold with God in my painting. But I recognize that the challenge ahead of me is not to be derogatory towards them, but instead to paint as good as they can. So I’ve got to spend the next couple of decades on my technique and my story telling so that I can be competitive artistically with these guys and then in my subject matter present Jesus.
IA: That’s exactly right. If the art is excellent enough, it will make its way into the mainstream with the message.
PT: Yes. I guess my sword is excellence and the message is Christ.
IA: That’s exactly right. We’ve been talking about current movements, we’ve been talking about culture. Did you want to address any of these terms: postmodernism, posthumanism…?
PT: I’m not familiar with those terms, so I wouldn’t know what to say. My thoughts on culture tend to be more towards the media, Hollywood. We as a people are extremely focused on celebrities, media, gender, sex, things like that. So that’s what I’m familiar with. One thing that I would like to say is that I feel like we as a group of people—and primarily Americans, because I don’t know everything about the world—is that it seems like we have a generation of adult men who are still juveniles and there seems to be this strong attachment to toys, video games, juvenile humor, and I don’t get it. Not that I’m so mature, but I just don’t understand why it is. I don’t have any solutions to it, but it’s just an observation I’ve made that all these adult men are extremely immature and juvenile in their thinking which goes over to their lifestyle. I’d like to see it change but I don’t know what to do about it.
IA: Yes, you’re right, that is a big trend. There’s a sociologist named Christian Smith who has published a two-book series. He has observed a whole generation of young people. And you’re right; he has even coined a term for that: Emerging Adulthood, which is basically to say we stay kids all through our twenties now and into our thirties as well. I don’t know if he’s traced the causes either, but you’re right: that trend is there.
PT: The thing I’ll say about it is coming back to the art world is that creativity and childhood seem to be linked. In a lot of artists’ statements, you’ll hear things like: “When I was a child, I was like this” or “As an adult, I try to remember what it was like to be a child,” etc., etc., etc. And C. S. Lewis has talked about how when he was a child he read books for children; when he was an adult he still read books for children but grew and read books for adults and so how he can have within him the playfulness of a child as an adult. So as artists I think we tend to hold on to that because as adults we want the notoriety or the publicity as an artist, which means we have to be really creative, which we think, “OK, I’ve got to be like a child.” And you know they’re playing with toys and watching cartoons. And these Pop Surrealists have grabbed on to that. There’s a whole toy movement where artists create their own toys and sell them from eighty to several hundred dollars. And when I go and see it, I’m like, I don’t get it! But as far as the art world’s concerned, I think we as artists are less likely to give up that playfulness. What I’d like to see is, as a child of God, I’ll eternally be maturing and growing, always a child, but growing and maturing. I’d like to operate within that freedom of being His child but balanced with the maturing and growing process.
IA: Very well said. Going back to that C. S. Lewis quote: something else he says is that if there’s a book that you read as a child that you read only as a child and you never go back to it, it probably wasn’t a good book. The only really good children’s books, he claims, are the ones we can read again as an adult and get something more out of them. I think that’s what you’re talking about: the balance of the good creativity of childhood but not the simple juvenilia. Using the child’s subject matter but using it in an excellent way.
Well, great! Do you want to end with a prediction for the future? Where do you think this is all going?
PT: Where are we going? With trends they come and go, whether it’s real estate, fashion, or art… we witnessed this year/ year-and-a-half, the real estate bust. It would have been great to sell houses five years ago and great to buy them a year ago. I read the Wall Street Journal and when they talk about art in the Wall Street Journal, it’s about sales. There was an article this past weekend: “Art’s Newest Winners and Losers.” Alexander Calder, Renoir, Monet, and Picasso are up, but then how there are other artists whose prices are down, including Damien Hirst, and Pierre Bonnard. So being a young, unknown artist, I feel as if I’ve missed the wave over the past fifteen years so I’d like to position myself for the next wave to come over the next fifteen years. I don’t know! What I’m trying to do is to study real estate to learn lessons about how to predict in real estate which suburb or neighborhood is going to pop. If I can find that intellectual property—I use the analogy of real estate property vs. intellectual property—if I can find intellectual property to build on that’s not popular now, but could be in the future, then I would go there. But as far as I’m concerned, with myself, I think the most unpopular intellectual property out there is Jesus. As you said, being conservative is now radical. I think I’m just going to stick with Jesus.