A. J. Fries
A.J. Fries is a Living Legacy Artist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
A.J. Fries is a painter who was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. A graduate of the State University of New York College at Buffalo, he has been called “unquestionably one of WNY’s most serious, developed, and dedicated artists” by Scott Propeack, associate director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. 
In a 2008 profile in Buffalo Rising, Fries recalled that a pivotal moment in his early development as an artist was seeing the retrospective of work by the painter James Rosenquist at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in 1986, when he was a 13-year-old. (Rosenquist is often categorized as part of the Pop Art movement, though he dismisses the term. Nonetheless, his oversized canvases depicting consumer goods and pop culture icons would appear to be a clear influence on Fries’s own imagery years later.) The exhibition made such an impression on him that he visited the show multiple times, befriending the museum guards and spending many hours studying it. The sight of other attendees paying scant attention to the work sometimes provoked him to throw pencils at them, he says, presumably as a (characteristically playful but undeniably pointed) lesson to them in engaging more fully with art. 
The work that first brought Fries to the attention of Buffalo’s art community was a loose series of detailed, larger-than-life paintings of mass-produced snack foods and homemade dessert items in the early 2000s. (The term “series” may be misleading, because Fries has pointed out that he does not conceive of his output in that way, preferring the expression “bodies of work.” ) The artist followed these with another group of works depicting sex toys, often juxtaposed with pages from coloring books and other markers of childhood. Looking back at this body of work in light of what would come later, Hallwalls curator John Massier once wrote, “[Fries’s] paintings of a slice of pie, a package of Twinkies, or a purple vibrating dildo were not cheeky monkeys seeking to merely amuse or titillate the viewer, but were always really about something else. When I wrote about those works, I thought the something else was Desire. I still do. Nostalgic Desire, Humorous Desire, Sexual Desire, Undefined Desire. But the new paintings suggest something wider than that…” 
The “something wider” Massier had in mind was the common thread connecting Fries’s colorful, Pop-referencing early paintings with the primarily monochromatic, even more detailed representations of blatantly mundane surfaces that he began producing sometime around 2006. The curator describes the subjects of this new work as “objects—more appropriately, moments—so banal that their initial fascination might be the fact that anyone bothered to paint them at all. Water on tiles. A soap bubble. A lightbulb on the ceiling. Water descending down a drain. Clouds framing a streetlamp. … While Fries has painted these new works with an impressive seeming-reality, they are far less about realistic pictorial representation than about the ephemeral and gossamer moments captured.” 
In discussing his shift to a much more limited palette, Fries recalls that he “took the color out to take out the emotion that people attach to color. Some people have an emotional attraction to color that I would have to fight against. I’m too lazy for that. It’s hard enough to get a person to stand still in front.” 
The fact that the new images were black and white (an inherently anti-realistic choice) was balanced by their heightened degree of detail. Writer Elena Cala Buscarino puts it this way: “When you realize that you’re looking at a painted image, not a photograph, something fires in your brain; your head canters to the side, and there’s an almost uncomfortable sense of trying to right yourself in front of something that you know is a painting while another part of you thinks, No. No way. No one can paint a pile of clear bubbles like that. Or, No way in hell is that not a photograph of water droplets on stainless steel. You can almost smell the bubble soap, almost feel the wetness of the drops of water on cold metal that are reflecting a thousand different images at you through their mirrored, convex surfaces.” 
The tool that enabled Fries to capture such fleeting moments was the digital camera he obtained around the same time.  (For a while he kept it duct-taped to the steering wheel of his car, so that he could shoot views of roads and bridges while driving.) He developed a technique that writer Ron Ehmke summarizes this way: “Fries begins a painting by taking dozens, sometimes hundreds, of reference photos …, putting them away while he ‘forgets’ them, pulling them out again months later to cull a smaller number, putting those away and forgetting them again, then making a final selection. The process, then, is something like what happens when we convert lived experience into memory, and then transform the memories into an anecdote we tell other people. With the passage of time, what really happened grows fuzzier, and details get rearranged to suit a new context.” 
Given the uncanny verisimilitude of his paintings, Fries is often called a photorealist, but in a 2009 blog entry he notes, “It always bothers me when people say that my work is photorealistic, because I just don't see it. I want to sit them down and show them true photorealistic work and show them the difference. The point of my work is not to reproduce the photo that I took, but more the moment that the photo was taken, or more to the point the spark in my brain that led me to take the photo. The surface of my work is usually very dry and rough; the texture of the canvas is visible. I guess I want that texture to interfere with the image that people see.” 
Of this body of work, Massier writes, “There is a dreamy haze layered over these images, a soft focus, like something only half remembered. The subjects of the paintings are all off-centered, sometimes almost as though they were sliding in or out of the picture frame. While they might obviously be connoting the idea of memory, Fries’s act of recollection is not pursuing a memory of these scenes or objects. These are decoys because what Fries is ultimately pursuing is a sensation. It is not about painting things but painting time. And not Time Passing. The stillness of the images might suggest that, but this is another ruse. It is Time Suspended. Or Time Expanded. Or Time Amplified. … There is the sensation of expansion and awareness and something sublime that exists in that instant. It is the sensation of being wholly in the moment and it is that sensation for which Fries’s paintings pine.” 
Fries has exhibited in Buffalo at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo Arts Studio, Hallwalls, and Big Orbit Gallery, among others. His work is included in many public and private collections, including those of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Burchfield Penney. In 2001 he was awarded a 3-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York, and in 2007 he received a full fellowship for a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center. He is a founding member of Trans Empire Canal Corporation (TECC), a Buffalo-based collective responsible for the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s 2014 multi-year project “Cultural Commodities: As Exhibition in Four Phases,” informally referred to as the “art barge.” Fries was designated one of the Burchfield Penney’s first “Living Legacy” artists in 2012.
To see more examples of A. J. Fries’s work, visit ajfriesart.com.
 Scott Propeack, “The Artists are Among Us,” blog entry on the Burchfield Penney Art Center website, 06/04/2012, http://www.burchfieldpenney.org/general/blog/article:06-04-2012-12-00am-the-artists-really-are-among-us/. (Accessed 08/26/2013)
 Elena Cala Buscarino, “A. J. Fries: Artistic Genius,” Buffalo Rising, 07/22/ 2008, http://buffalorising.com/2008/07/aj-fries-artistic-genius/. (Accessed 08/26/2013)
 A. J. Fries, video interview “A. J. Fries at Big Orbit Gallery” on the Buffalo News website, n.d. (presumably 12/2012), http://util.buffalo.com/video/?video=2028782038001. (Accessed 08/26/2013)
 John Massier, “The Sweet Spot,” catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition Ignoring the Sirens at Hallwalls, 11/06-12/18/2009. PDF available at http://www.hallwalls.org/pubs/122.html. (Accessed 08/26/2013)
 John Massier, “The Sweet Spot.”
 A. J. Fries, quoted in Elena Cala Buscarino, “A. J. Fries: Artistic Genius.”
 Elena Cala Buscarino, “A. J. Fries: Artistic Genius.”
 Elizabeth Licata, “Because He Can,” catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition Light in Shadow at Big Orbit Gallery, 12/01/2012-01/21/2013.
 Ron Ehmke, “Guy Walks Into a Bar …,” catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition Light in Shadow at Big Orbit Gallery, 12/01/2012-01/21/2013.
 A.J. Fries, “after a year,” blog entry at Empty Sentiments, 08/18/2009, http://emptysentiments.blogspot.com/. (Accessed 08/27/2013)
 John Massier, “The Sweet Spot.”
Listen or read A. J. Fries's interview with Heather Gring of the Burchfield Penney Art Center conducted on June 5th, 2012. Fries discusses many aspects of being an artist and the contemporary art scene with a level of humor and honesty that is both rare in general and characteristic of him. From making the decision at a young age to pursue art as a career, to dealing with his colorblindness and his innate dislike of people, why he loved the Clyfford Still room at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and how his seemingly simplistic photo-based paintings really represent the artist’s complex notions of time, the interview will take you through the life and mind of a man who has devoted his life to art and has made refreshing discoveries along the way.
Hear Fries utter one-liners (like “I never want to paint my best painting,” “fail constantly,” and “work more, sacrifice for it”) which tend to be as inspiring as they are hilarious. His beliefs and theories on the process of art making are just as poignant: “learn the rules, then you can fuck the rules.”
This interview is recommended for mature audiences only.
Available on Stitcher
Transcription of Living Legacy Peroject interview with A.J. Fries
June 5, 2012
Transcribed by Cassandra Chu
HG: So, AJ, thank you for taking part in the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
AF: It’s my pleasure.
HG: So, we wanted to ask you what inspired you to be an artist.
AF: I guess what inspired me to be an artist was thinking back to…I think I was, like, six or seven years old and my sister was in high school and she brought back…she was taking an art history class, and she brought back a big survey art book and I spent a lot of time paging through it, and then…one day, for some reason, in the survey they had a picture of Ed Kienholz’s state hospital, and it scared the shit out of me. It’s an installation, and basically it’s…if you were to see it in a gallery, it would just look like a giant block, because he built a room and it’s supposed to be a cell in like a mental institution, and the only way that you view it is through the barred window that’s only, you know, six by ten or something like that. And inside is an old, like, enamel bunk bed with soiled mattresses, and it’s a single lightbulb hanging down, I think, and there’s a figure on the lower bunk made out of this resin crappy looking stuff, and it’s all drippy, and its head is like a fishbowl. That’s the one. And the figure above it is in a neon thought bubble, and the meaning essentially being that the person—and he’s shackled to the bed—I didn’t know this when I was, like, seven, I was just like, “I’m afraid of it!” but I can’t get it out of my head. The thought being that the person on the lower bunk is in such agony, it’s only thought is its own hellish existence. So…and its heads are fishbowls with little black fish in them, so I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it’s something that stuck in my head and then from then on, I kept looking at…going to the library and taking out as many art books as I could, you know, bringing home a stack that was taller than I was. And just I remember laying on top of them and just paging through them for hours, so that’s pretty much it. From then on, it sort of stuck that I liked it, and then I really didn’t start drawing, really, until fifth, sixth, seventh grade, and then I noticed that if I was drawing, I always had, like, three or four girls around my desk, and that’s just kind of neat. And I don’t even think I was really that good, I was just better than everybody else and it was a tiny little Catholic school so that was a low bar. But then from there, it just kind of snowballed. I mean it’s…people always ask me, “Oh, when did you decide to do this?” and I give them the little briefer, a more brief story, but it’s…I guess I made my most important life decision when I was seven and people will be like, “Oh, it’s so great you knew what you wanted to do,” but I’m like, “Um, I could have been wrong—I was seven,” but you know, it served me okay so far.
HG: Now, where did you go to school?
AF: Okay, I went to school…I went to high school, do you want all the way back? Saint John the Baptist, that was K through eight, St. Joe’s from…that was high school, and then Buff State. Five years to get an art degree, record time.
HG: Why did you choose to go to Buffalo State?
AF: To be honest, it was money. Applying for college, I can’t even remember the places I applied. It’s going back to the eighties…yeah, it was basically money, and still, you know, it’s what I wanted to do but I was very…I don’t want to say sheltered, but I didn’t know the whole, the machinations of, “Oh, you have to go to an art school and then go to another art school to meet people and then you’re…whatever.” It was just, you know, I want to learn to paint more and then learn how to paint better, so I went here.
HG: And you got your B.A. here?
AF: I got my B.F.A. here.
HG: Oh, B.F.A.
AF: Bachelor of Fine Arts, which is, you know, that’s a spicy meatball.
HG: Who are some of your most important influences, both as maybe teachers or also other artists that inspired you?
AF: Teacher—as far as an inspirational teacher would be Jim Fallon, who was just…he was only here for a semester because they were looking for a—what were they looking for—they were looking for a tenure person, so we just got a different painting teacher every year, which was kind of cool. No consistency whatsoever, but a lot of different views. I had him for drawing and painting. In the drawing class, we had been drawing from the figure for the longest time, and nobody really gave us much structure with it. So we had been drawing from the figure for a while, and he came in and he looked at what we were doing and was like, “You people do not deserve to have a figure in front of you,” and a lot of the students were like, “Who the hell is this guy?” And he was right, he just took us right back. This was our junior, senior year…he took us right back to cube, sphere, cone, started us right from the beginning and learning how to shade again. And it was me, my friend Nathan, and maybe another guy were just like, “Oh, this guy’s awesome.” So he broke us down and just…everything you know, toss it; this is how you do it. And he was a great painter in his own right, and we would be in the studio late at night, my friend Joe and I, and we’d wander the hall and we saw him once, working in his office. And it’s like, that’s…alright, it’s like two in the morning and you’re okay with us. So he was really good. He ripped me a new ass when I…as an advisor, too, which was great. Hated him at the time, because, “Oh, how dare you!” and three weeks later, it’s like, “That guy’s brilliant.” Gubernick was my advisor through school and he taught me one of the greatest life lessons ever when I was having an argument with…I was looking to get an independent study because the adjunct teacher, she and I just butted heads again. She took it was too seriously for some reason, I don’t know, who knows. So I asked him for an independent study and his advice was, “Listen, this is your last semester. If you have to suck shit for six months, just suck shit for six months.” I was like, “You asshole.” It was brilliant, and it’s true, like if you only have six months to get through, just deal with it.
HG: And what was Gubernicks’ first name?
AF: Richard. Richard Gubernick. Now as far as other artists, that’s changed all through time. Like the first one, I got into pop art when I was really, really young, cause I was a self-involved seven-year-old, and Andy Warhol has the same name as me, so I saw him on Loveboat, and that’s great. Look at that, he’s on Loveboat! So yeah, I got really into pop art. Then through him, I kind of…I was really into Precisionism as a kid, too, who did the…was it Demuth who did I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold? I think that was him. And Charles Sheeler, and then back to Rosenquist, who—I saw he had a retrospective at the Albright-Knox in like ’86 or ’87—I went to that thing like thirty times, just running through it cause that’s when it was free and you could just…all the guards knew me cause I was in there so often. It was just amazing.
HG: How old were you?
AF: What was I…so ’86, ’87…doing the math…fourteen, fifteen? Such a dork, it was great. And then slowly got into abstract expressionism a little bit. Liked Rothko, liked Clyfford Still, just because no one went into that Clyfford Still room, and so I spent a lot of time in there cause I hated people. So you go in and you could just sit with the things and not be bothered, or people would come in and say something stupid and I’d throw a pencil at them and then they’d leave. And then Rothko, even though I can’t see much of the colors that are in his stuff, just the way…two completely different ways of painting abstract. Then, getting older, Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins, they’re big for me. Well, Gerhard Richter’s big for everybody, that’s like, such a cop-out. It’s like saying, “I love breathing oxygen!”
HG: You mentioned that you couldn’t see some of the colors in the Rothko piece.
HG: Can you talk about that for a minute?
AF: Oh, being colorblind? Yeah, it was one of those things that, you know, everybody taking their health class in school, they noticed, you know, they have those little—I forget what they’re called—but the little eye tests made up of a bunch of little dots. Everybody saw the number, and I’m thinking there’s a joke being played on me, cause I didn’t see any goddamn number. Like, I almost got in trouble, cause people thought…it turns out I’m red-green colorblind. So certain things…I mean now, I almost see them because it’s been…I don’t know if it’s because I paint that colors are, you know, I come from an artist or design background, that color only makes sense in certain places and certain things. And in the natural world, certain things are obviously certain colors, certain things like…I mean, you put me into an interior with low lighting, everything sort of becomes just the same mushy, brown-red color. I can’t tell…yellows and blues I can see but greens, purples…I have a hard time distinguishing those things. Is there anything else about that?
HG: Well, that kind of leads us into what we wanted to talk to you about next, which was about your art. And so maybe we’ll come back to your colorblindness.
HG: But would you like to talk about your art a little bit?
AF: Sure, what would you like to know?
HG: Talk about some of your early works.
AF: Oh, god it was terrible.
HG: …And the trajectory from there to here.
AF: Okay, I did a lot of copying in high school. I copied Da Vinci drawings and paintings poorly, a couple figures from the Sistine Chapel, just busted those things, just terribly. And then in high school, I really got into abstract painting because everybody does and nobody knows what the hell they’re doing their first year, so I’m gonna paint abstract even though I can’t even draw a straight line, but I can paint abstract. But you can’t. The hardest thing in the world is to paint a good abstract painting. Photorealism is easy compared to a good…I’m talking about, anyone can paint abstract, but a good one, that’s…that’s damn near impossible. So I painted a lot of shitty abstract paintings, then a lot of, like, really mopey, morose, like…troubled surrealistic things with elongated figures and it’s just horrible, horrible stuff. Then, let’s try to think, cause by that time, I started to…I got my own studio at Buffalo Art Studio, so I was still in college when I got that. I was painting shitty paintings there, too, bad surrealist things. And then, kind of morphing into pop and surrealism at the same time. Then…oh, I got back into more pop stuff and saw the work of Wayne Thiebaud, or shouldn’t saw say it, I just investigated it more and more thoroughly, and kind of ran with the whole cake, pie thing, and that kind of just took me in a whole other direction by isolating one little object. And then I did that with the Pillsbury dough boy, I did a Mr. Peanut painting, the Kool-Aid pitcher thing, and through that, I was just investigating how to make things look a certain way, or how to paint. Cause then that’s when I did the first Twinkie painting that the Burchfield has. I wanted to do a series of them…basically, the one that is here is called Crush, cause it was supposed to be the first painting of…the series was supposed to be based on the course of a relationship, but based on Hostess cakes. So I ended up painting a Ho Ho, which was called First Time, cause it was this really drab painting of a Ho Ho, kind of coming half in, half out of the individual wrapper. Really subtle. Really subtle. I ended up destroying that one cause it was just stupid. And then when I was working on that, I was…somebody introduced me to somebody, and it was like, “Oh, you’re the pie guy!” And this was like 2000 or something, the end of 2000, and I was like, “I’m not anything yet, you know, I’m still figuring shit out. I’m not the ‘whatever’ guy, I’m just…I’m the painter,” So luckily, at the time I got a residency in New York in 2001, late 2001, so I decided to stop doing the cakes and pies stuff and I moved to sex toys, which is strangely very similar. When I was there, I did a series of fragmented childhood toys and paired them up with sex toys, the idea being that the desire of the child is the same as the desire of the adult, it’s just how they manifest one another and how they’re satisfied, and that’s the only way that they’re different, and sometimes they’re horribly similar. And then from there, I came back and did large paintings of images from coloring books and then I glazed over them dozens and dozens of times with all these poisonous, great lacquers and varnishes, and then on top of that I painted a giant sex toy, so that was fun. Then that’s another one, just dealing with colors that I couldn’t even see, just the subtle balances of like…the one painting, I only sold one from that series, and it’s … in a strap-on. And I remember exactly, I started the painting with this bright yellow. When I started the paintings, I would actually just layer them with all these translucent colors and see how they kind of worked out. I’m not even sure how it happened, cause it started this, like, DayGlo yellow to a pale blue and then slowly worked its way to an almost Pepto-Bismol pink, then put … in like an orangey, drippy color. When I painted..., I remember I was drunk off my ass at the studio, like 3:30 in the morning, and I listened to Beastie Boys’ Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun, like, thirty-three times in a row. That was just painting…There’s a weird gap between the sex toy paintings and where I am now, I’m not exactly sure. Cause that was, like, 2001, then the black and white stuff started…then I did a bunch of things with…I did diptychs. I did, like, stuffed animals and shoes, or I did breast pumps and crazy straws, I did some large paintings of babies, things like that. And then, I forget what exactly it was—Oh, I did a—a friend commissioned me, he was a good friend so I charged him so little money for this thing, it was disgusting. He got images of Niagara Falls when the water was turned off, and I somehow was able to combine the two views into one painting, I did it all in black and white, and that’s when I started to shift from color to the stuff that I’m doing right now, which is predominantly just in black and white. That, and a combination with being colorblind and didn’t want to deal with color anymore, and even more importantly, so many times I heard people saying how much they like the painting, but, “Oh, why isn’t the back…why didn’t you make the background red instead of that color?” And just…fuck off, how about you stop looking at the painting? How about that? Or you do a painting! And people have their own likes and dislikes, their prejudices forming against colors, and I don’t give a shit. When I look at a work, I like there to be as few road blocks between me and a conversation with the work. And for some, if color’s gonna be that big of a deal with people, just take it right out and all you’re dealing with is the image or light and shadow, that kind of thing. That’s pretty much why…the main reason why I took color out of the work. So that’s where I am now.
HG: That’s fantastic, thank you so much for answering that.
HG: I did want to ask you…let’s see, my next question you kind of already answered, which was talking about your body of work as a whole and what are some of the different themes in it?
AF: Let’s see…well, yeah, to even carry on with what I was saying before, I think the entire course is me slowly simplifying…taking as much out of it while still having a successful painting. I mean, I’m even going back to experimenting with abstract paintings now, because now I think I’m almost at a point where I can make a successful one. I hate it when kids start painting abstractly first because they can’t paint something else. No, you have to…every abstract expressionist was an amazing draftsman. They knew what the hell they were doing so they learned the rules, then you can fuck the rules. So yeah, I think the whole course is me slowly simplifying. It’s like when I was doing these really mashed up, really morose, “Oh I’m so lonely” surrealist paintings. There was just all this stuff going on, and then just a single object and ground, and now I’m taking color out of that. So I mean if there’s any, like, overall, like, theme, and I mean, (inaudible) always happens to be in, like, the food and the toys and all that stuff. The big things that I’m working on now are like the larger paintings, and some of the smaller ones, they’re all about just…they’re not about anything except the moment that the source photo was taken, that’s it. In that single moment, can have a thousand different things for anybody, but it’s all about concentrating on just a single peripheral view moment and the infinite things that that moment can contain. I’m in the belief that, you know, when you have rules and you have boundaries, that’s where infinity can happen. There’s an infinity between your fingertips, and I like simplifying things as much as I possibly can and still having an infinite amount of possibilities within them. Yeah, like, just simple moments that, you know, I hate…I can’t say I hate it, but I hate it when I see artists where their stuff has to say something, has to have a meaning and has to have this, and the viewer must know their anguish or the anguish of somebody else or the injustice of something. Mine’s none of that, mine is....you sitting in a chair looking at dust on the wall, the awesomeness that that is. Mine’s very…instead of macro, mine is very micro and I think that’s how it’s really always going to be, I’m just…I’m not a political person, I just…it bores me. I’m not really interested in people. I’m interested in people liking my stuff, and god knows they need to buy it. It’s, you know, you just change one person’s perspective about one stupid thing and that just sort of, you know, you don’t have to end a war with a painting. No one’s painting Guernica anymore. I hope not, you know.
HG: It’s been done.
AF: I know, I know, and you know, Leon Golub did all the horrible paintings of people being strung up by mercenaries and things like that, and yes that’s still going on, but I mean he’s a painter…I have a hard time painting something that I don’t personally experience, and I think any good painting’s supposed to…could be able to speak to anybody, and that’s what I’m trying to…having my stuff try to do. Everybody’s seen a brick wall. Nobody pays attention to it, but everybody’s seen it. Everybody’s driven in—most people have driven in a car in the rain. Most people have seen snow, even in a picture or whatever. “But your stuff’s not speaking to people in sub-Saharan Africa…“ Well, I don’t give a shit about people in sub-Saharan African! I’m sorry, I really don’t. It’s just not part of my sphere of existence, and people will be pissed off—or might be pissed off by me saying that, but no one walking up the street is thinking about that, so when I’m in my studio making work about, you know, that I want to make, it’s not gonna be about that and it’s not gonna be, you know, targeted towards them or you know, people suffering in India. That’s just not what my work is about, and never will be. If somebody else wants to make stuff about that, that’s great, but…boring.
HG: So, my next question is not only do you make these paintings, but in some ways…for example, right now you’re wearing a t-shirt with a picture of you on it from a painting that you did—
AF: I didn’t do laundry! And I needed to put on a clean shirt so I took my own shirt. I lost money by taking this shirt, now I’m wearing a stupid shirt with my stupid face on it.
HG: Well, what led you to go that direction? You’ve also made beer cozies, you made shot glasses…
AF: Yeah. That was…I’ve never been…I’ve never been comfortable with the whole self-promotion aspect of being an artist, which you really have to be in until you get, you know, 3,000 galleries and stuff selling for 500,000 dollars because you, you know, sneezed on something. That was…this was sort of like my first real effort into that. I did the self-portrait, the Guinness and the red wine on the napkins thing, and I won a publishing promotions grant for that show, the Beyond/In show, and I got…that would allow me to make a catalog for the show and have all my pieces in it and the promotion thing, so I think it’s just a goofy thing to put my face on stuff. Cause I don’t…I mean, I’m a goofy looking person. And I’ll see t-shirts with my face on them, why not?
HG: I did also want to ask you, you mentioned you use a camera. What role does that play in your process?
AF: Huge. Actually, getting a digital camera, I think…and I have a really shitty artist’s statement, and…but the one thing I do mention is that getting a digital camera completely changed my work. Cause up until then, all the imagery that I’d use would be from stuff that I found. Literally had to search out an image of…a lot of them were like, things that I’d find on the Internet or magazines or something like that and I’d just mush them together. But that tended to be very limiting cause I was relying on somebody else for my imagery, which…I’m a control freak, and that kind of got boring. I don’t know how certain, like, sculptors do it when, you know, like, their work…they make their sculptures out of found objects. What if you don’t find objects? Or what if the objects you find don’t do anything for you? You know, you have to keep finding more objects. And then it just becomes a whole other pit of hell. So I carry the camera with me most times, so no matter where I am, if I just see...just something, and I just shoot, just…not even looking at the camera, I’ll just press a button. Thank you digital photography, that you can do that and just waste a thousand frames or whatever, it doesn’t matter. So then I take them…put them into my computer and forget about them, so then two or three months later…every couple…every, you know, maybe six months, I go into my…the photos that I have, and if one strikes me again, I’ll move it to…I’ll create its own folder for it, or for images that I like, then I’ll forget that folder again. Then I’ll go back a third, you know, second, third, fourth time and I will slowly pare them down to the ones that I think really capture what was going on…or capture the moment that I was having when I first photographed it. Not even capture the moment, but just work, you know, there’s certain things work and certain things that don’t. Then I take that image and then I crop it a little bit. I hardly ever…I never really add anything to the photographs as far as the paintings go. There’s something that just…cause part of them are sort of half memory kind of things…I’m not obviously going from there, I’m working from a photo, but the idea, like when you remember something it’s never one hundred percent there. There’s always things missing, but rarely is there anything really accurately added, so I try not to really add anything unless…sometimes, the photograph does not translate perfectly into a painting. It’s all about making a good painting cause half the time…or more than half the time, in the process of doing a painting, I’ll not even look at the photograph anymore because it’s not…my stuff is not about reproducing a photograph. That’s why people, “Oh, it’s so photorealistic!” And it’s not. I just…I show people, this is what photorealism looks like, this is…that’s photorealism, my stuff is not in any way, shape or form photorealistic. Within two feet, it just turns to a mush of grays and blacks and whites. So yes, that’s…the photo plays a huge role…the camera plays a huge role in the process, cause without the images…I mean, that’s why I got Carbonite. Cause if I lose my store of images, I have nothing to do; I’ll have to start all over again after the weeks of crying.
HG: Let’s see, so now I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your personal and professional development as an artist.
HG: It’s kind of the last sort of thing that we have.
AF: No problem.
HG: What do you hope to achieve with your art?
AF: Oh man. That’s...I mean, selfishly, my thing is I just want to make enough, you know, I just wanna keep making work, that’s it. Sure, I’d like it to be seen by more people. Every artist wants that, I mean, I can’t say…I mean I’ll probably give the answer that ninety percent of other artists…ninety-nine or even a hundred percent of other artists say, “I want it to be seen by more people. I want it to be in other cities or other countries.” Is that necessary? When I think about it deeply, no, it’s just about me making more stuff, and then of course, making more money to continue making more stuff. So my major goal is to never…I want every new painting…I mean, cause I do, like, side projects, of things that I’ve done before, like right now I’m doing these tiny paintings of tater tots and…what do you call it…light board pegs and candy and it’s like shit that I’ve done before. I can’t say it’s mindless, but I mean it’s, you know, almost rote…kind of thing. But when I’m working on new pieces, I want every painting to scare the shit out of me. I never wanna paint my best painting. That’s pretty much my only goal right there, is I wanna…I never wanna plateau, cause when you’ve seen artists and musicians and you’re like, “Oh, you should’ve stopped. Your last one was so good and then you’ve put out this crap and you’re just…oh, you either got lazy or complacent or something, you’re just churning out the same thing…” That’s not what this job is about, this job is to scare yourself constantly, to always…I know I’m never gonna be totally happy because I’m never happy with my stuff. Once I’m happy with my stuff, there’s no point in doing it anymore, cause the whole point is to just keep getting better or trying things that fail…that constant failure. I was chastised by someone for using the word failure, but it’s like, “Why don’t you just say they’re unsuccessful?” No, because failure is what you learn from. Unsuccessful is…oh, you know, it’s such a pussy word, it’s a fucking failure! How do I resurrect this thing from the ashes of this bullshit that I just made? So that…it’s basic, but that’s my only real goal, is to just…every new body or work or work just at one point, just sheer, unadulterated terror, I have no idea what I’m doing, and then somehow make it work. Or fail and then turn that upside down and somehow make it work. And then set it on fire, or whatever.
HG: Let’s see. What have you done personally to advance your career in the arts? Looking at the whole trajectory of your career, you’re a very well established artist in the region.
AF: Not be an asshole. That’s the only thing I can think of. I mean, yes, I’m an asshole, but you don’t…when somebody comes up to you, you know, and they say nice things or they have a question, be polite. Don’t approach this as an attitude…with an attitude. I still have and I will always have, I have the greatest job and the dumbest job in the world. I smear colored goo on fabric and people think it’s valuable. That’s fucking ridiculous. And it’s great, I mean, that’s what painters do, smear pigmented goo on a surface. And when you explain it, when you say it that way, how can you take it so seriously where you’re gonna have an attitude about it? It’s great. It’s horrible but it’s great. I think that’s basically it. If someone is…like, when I was starting out and I think of, like, starting out when I started at Buffalo art studio. If somebody asked me to donate something, I was there. If somebody asked me to show up to something, I was there. If somebody asked me my opinion, I graciously gave it to them in a polite way, or if somebody did the same for me I was gracious back. I mean, I’m a sarcastic prick but you know when to ring that in or you know who your audience is, if that’s what they want to hear then you just…you give them that. But other than that…that’s just…just don’t be an asshole, it’s really simple. I mean, I think that’s great, not just being an artist but anything in life. Don’t be a dick, and you’ll be amazed at what happens. And it’s not gonna happen right away, I mean sure, assholes do get shit done very quickly, but an asshole as an artist, I don’t think they necessarily can…I mean, you have to be really fucking good to be…I don’t think I’m that good, and no one in this town is that good, and there are very few people that are that fucking good to be an asshole to everybody. It’s just doesn’t…it’s just counterproductive. Not just for their career, but for people in general. I can’t stand people with attitudes about being an artist. You make neat stuff, you get to play. You get to play! It’s hard work, but the worst day in the studio, I mean ones when I thought of giving it up are better than any day in any office or anything I could ever imagine, even when you get a raise. Worst day in the studio is better than that.
HG: Let’s see, so what would you say some of your needs are as an artist that other…like, what do you need from the larger community as an artist?
AF: From the larger community?
HG: Meaning people, institutions, organizations…
AF: Yeah. Well I mean, when you first said that, I just thought…general public. There’s a…the general public, I think, has just such a wrong idea of what an artist is and what we do and the type of people we are. My girlfriend Karen, now, she still thinks it’s amazing that I like hockey and football. She just…I completely…and my friends in the arts that she’s met completely—and she’s an open-minded person—but completely blew her mind as to what, you know, artists and art people did, so I mean…and if she’s an open-minded person, just hasn’t been that exposed to it, just imagine what even the greater public thinks. We’re just scumbags; we’re communists, we rape babies, and we set churches on fire. That’s, you know, that’s apparently what we do. So, I mean, that’s why I tailgated at the Albright. Just to, like if I got one person that was driving by the Albright just to be like, “Those crazy assholes are tailgating on the day of the Bills game at the Albright! I might want to check that place out!” If I did that to one person then that whole thing was a success.
HG: So more public support, more public awareness?
AF: Yeah, I mean support…you know, always seems to have a negative and financial…I mean, everyone needs money, surprise, surprise. I’m a capitalist, like I’ve said this before. I’m not in this for the money but I’m sure as fuck not doing this for free. Although I have donated a lot of stuff, but that’s not the point. Support as in, you know, when a museum or gallery or an art…thing does it, it’s usually the loudest people that have no clue…and I should say it’s the people with no clue that are the loudest voices about stuff, or when, you know…and it’s just mind-boggling. Like I’ve tried to write things in comment sections in the newspaper and stuff like that, just…it’s just the loudest people that have no clue. Not the first clue about what they’re talking about. And yes, art is for everybody and everybody can have their opinion about artwork, but not when people are, you know, their jobs are doing stuff like that. It’s like, educate yourself and then, you know, everyone can have an opinion but having an informed opinion is so much more valuable.
HG: Let’s see. As an artist in Western New York, what would help you advance your career? And beyond Western New York?
AF: It’s sad to say, but getting my work out of Western New York. I mean that’s kind of the goal. I’ll stay here I mean, cause I like it here. It’s home, and I mean I can work anywhere, it doesn’t really matter. Put me in Alaska, I’ll still paint the same shit. But yeah, it’s like when I was in Vermont in the studio residency…mountains of grandeur and snowcapped awesomeness and valleys, the little village we were in, it’s like a storybook and everything. And what did I paint, I painted the residue and the snowflakes on my skylight. So I mean, that’s what…no matter where I am, that’s what I paint. So…what would advance me…it’s tough to say, I mean, I’ll just sound really needy. It’s what all artists need, is I need the people that I know what know shit to, like, hook me up with one person. Get me one person that’s in the know in Manhattan or Los Angeles that actually likes me, likes my work. I’ll get to know them and then I’ll take it from there cause that’s kind of what I did here. You know, I met one person that introduced me to another person that introduced me to these people and whatever. So if I’m any success, it’s just because of that, and that’s essentially what any gallery person says is, you know, unsolicited submissions are just a waste of time. Even those in that MARK program, through … and the gallery directors and curators and owners basically said, “The artists that we actually look at are introduced to us through artists that we’re already working with or gallery people that we know and trust.” None of this…you know, blind submission is just a waste of time and I’ve heard that so many times that I don’t even do it anymore. It’s just…you’ll look like a douche. So that and a dump truck full of cash would not hurt. So it’s basically…I mean, it’s so rudimentary…what I need is more people to see my stuff, it’s as simple as that. And the right people. It sounds very elitist, but there are the right people and then there are the wrong people. The right people can actually advance it. The wrong people, not that there’s such a thing, but it’s like, “Oh that’s nice.” Thank you. And it’s…you know, the artist in me versus the businessperson, which I’m a shitty businessperson, but the businessperson in me is like, “Thanks for liking it. Are you buying it? No? Great. Go away. Can you advance…help me get me work into another place? No? Nice talking to you. Gotta go over here now.” And it’s a horrible thing, but it’s just a fucking reality. And you feel like an asshole for saying it, but it’s fucking true! Who are these people that can help me make my work, cause I can only do so much. And you can only self-promote so much until you look like a…just a douchey hack, and you don’t wanna…I’m wearing a t-shirt with my face on it, that’s pretty much enough. That’s putting me well into the vinegar and water category.
HG: Good, I’m glad you said it.
AF: Yeah, so…yeah, it’s pretty simple. More people to…more faces that can actually do stuff.
HG: More networking opportunities with people in positions of influence.
AF: Yeah. Yeah. That’s pretty much it. And it’s networking opportunities where these people are actually interested in it, cause you’ve been to things where like, “Oh, there’s gonna be this person and this person and this person there.” They don’t wanna be there sometimes, and so no matter what you do, it’s not gonna work out well.
HG: AJ, what advice do you have for emerging artists?
AF: Work more. That’s…I mean, there’s a lot of advice I have to give and I wish more people would ask me because you can’t go up to people that you see working and, like you can see a kernel of good stuff but you see them just doing…just making the worst decisions and you come off as just a pompous prick, cause it’s not like I’m a paragon of success of anything like that, I’m barely scraping by, but work. That’s, you know...like I said, don’t be an asshole, and work. Make more work. Just make more work, sacrifice for it, you know. Do it when you don’t wanna do it. Forgo other things in order to make more work. That’s the only thing that’ll…I see people showing way too early. It’s like, “Oh, I made this stuff, so now I have to show it.” No, not necessarily. I made a lot of stuff before I ever showed anything. And even I show too early. I mean, there’s something to be said for the experience of getting ready for a show and having your, you know…present it well. But it doesn’t matter what the presentation is if the work itself just doesn’t warrant being shown. Which again, sounds like a horrible, pompous thing to say, but it’s fucking true, you know. You gotta…you gotta learn what the hell you’re doing. So yeah, that’s my biggest advice, is to work more and get inspiration from everywhere. Don’t be afraid of failure. Fail constantly. It’s one of the greatest joys that this job affords you, is…there’s no consequences to your failure, other than you wasted a bunch of time, you know. You’re not a doctor, you’re not a lawyer. No one’s going to jail or dying, no one’s losing money, no one’s…it’s only you. So fail constantly, and just roll around it like a pig in shit. Failure, failure, failure, failure…cause that’s where all the good stuff comes from. And don’t be an asshole. Just…it’s so much easier by not being an asshole. Trying to think, other advice…
HG: What about when to get your work out there? Or how?
AF: When? That’s a tough one, that’s…when you’re starting out, if you have an opportunity to hang your work anywhere, do it. You know, restaurants, bars, whatever. The hair salons, doesn’t matter, because I mean, the idea when you’re just starting out is you want more people to even know that you exist, it never stops. But unfortunately, when you get to a certain point you really can’t do that anymore, so now’s the time to do it. And it’s a double…I don’t wanna say…I hate the phrase “double-edged sword,” donating your stuff to fundraisers, things like that, because then it’s like, if you’ve ever donated blood to the Red Cross, they are on your ass like Dracula, every freaking month. But once you start donating artwork, people are gonna be on your ass like fucking leeches. Every stupid board in this…every non-for-profit wants to have an art auction, which is bullshit. It’s like yeah, let’s get the poorest among us to give up their stuff so we can have a board. But yeah, but when you’re first starting out, do that. I mean, you never know. People go to these things, a lot of…when people say, like, “How do you start collecting?” the first thing people say is, “If you don’t have a lot of money when you start collecting, go to art auctions cause you’ll pick up some cool stuff for very little money, and if you’re donating, you don’t care what it goes for. And seasoned collectors do that, so you never know who’s gonna be your first buyer, you never know who’s gonna be your next client. That goes back to not being an asshole. So…and then on top of that. Stay in the fucking studio. You can’t do that enough.
HG: Or find inspiration in the bar.
AF: Stay in the studio first. Yeah, it took me a while to find inspiration in the bar, even though it’s everywhere. I mean that’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be the bar, it could be this room—the carpet, the fingerprints on that glass, the reflection of the window in there. But there’s too much shit with files, this place would not be a painting…other than maybe just, like, how the lights start kind of a foot below the ceiling. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and don’t get in my fucking way. No, kidding, kidding. I’ll crush you.