Andy Mister creates ‘Xerox-realistic’ drawings -- a term coined by artist Dan Fischer, which Mister himself engages and identifies with and is reminiscent of the punk aesthetic of zines and album covers. His works are rendered through blends of graphite, carbon pencil, and charcoal over acrylic-washed paper and range in subject matter, with his most recent works depicting scenes from nature. The subjects of Mister’s works are immediately apparent due to the nature of his rendering, yet his attention to color and the crop and reorientation of the image allow for a wider manipulation of the meaning and effect from the translated content, opening space for greater ambiguity. As a result, though his rendering is almost hyper-realist, the works themselves demand attention to further translate the subject and image itself, furthering his development of content and representation vs. meaning and interpretation.
Andy Mister was born and raised in New Orleans, LA, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Mister received his BA from Loyola University New Orleans where he studied English and Philosophy, going on to earn his MFA in Writing from University of Montana. Prior to his current visual arts career, Mister primarily concentrated on writing and poetry, publishing his book Liner Notes in 2013. Mister has held residencies at Bemis Center in Nebraska, Lyons Wier Gallery in New York, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. This past year Mister participated in multiple group exhibitions including SPRING/BREAK Art Show, Geoffrey Young Gallery, and 99 Cent Plus. He also was included in a two-person exhibition Shifting Terrain at Turn Gallery with An Hoang. You can catch Andy Mister’s work in a solo show at Hirshl & Adler through April 29, or in The Twenty by Sixteen Biennial, an upcoming group exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery in NYC April 7 - May 6.
How did you first get interested in art and start making drawings? How did you develop your writing in conjunction with your drawing?
I was always into art as a kid and I was just one of those kids who always drew. I was also a bad student and got expelled a lot from schools, so art was the only thing that I was good at. I grew up in New Orleans and I went to public school there. I took a lot of art classes and extracurricular classes like oil painting in high school, but by the end of high school I was more interested in books and film.
By the time it came around for me to apply for college, I applied to some art schools and got accepted but I couldn’t afford to go. I was still making art, but I was also reading books and writing a little, so I ended up going to Loyola University New Orleans and majored in English and Philosophy. I didn’t really make art at the time, but it was the first time I ever actually tried and did well in school. I found my philosophy classes really interesting and they opened my mind and helped me think about things in ways I had never really thought before. I went to graduate school immediately after undergrad and I got my MFA in writing from the University of Montana. When I graduated, I moved from Montana to Oakland. Graduate school kind of drained the enthusiasm I had for writing from me. By the time I got to Oakland, the Mission School artists were making work and gaining attention. I was probably around 24 when that was going on and I was really inspired by it, especially Chris Johanson and Jo Jackson. It made me feel that I could do that too and that I didn’t have to have gone to art school because this scene wasn’t institutionalized and was more DIY. There was a lot of cool stuff happening at that time in San Francisco. I had a lot of friends in the writing scene there, so I started doing drawings and illustrations for journals and book covers. At the time I was really inspired by Joe Brainard who had kind of straddled the art and literary world in New York in the ‘70s.
I moved to New York in 2005, and that was when I really focused most of my attention on making art more seriously. I started writing Liner Notes when I was living in San Francisco and finished it after I moved to New York. It finally was published around 2012. I wrote that book and then I pretty much stopped writing and focused all of my attention on visual work. I was a pretty slow learner with the visual arts stuff because I had learned a lot of it in high school, so I was just sort of figuring everything out on my own. I was making little gouache paintings on paper that came out of the illustrations I had been doing for people. At some point I just started making pencil drawings and I got really interested in seeing if I could make these drawings with only graphite pencils and if they could get bigger and bigger. That’s when I started to find my footing and was working on something that I could actually see myself getting better at. It was the first time I’d ever done something in the visual arts where I could actually see myself improving, and that was a breakthrough for me because I was always a slacker and had never actually done anything consistently enough where I could see any improvement. It sounds so obvious now, and I was around 28 years old which is maybe pretty late to have that epiphany. Over the last seven or so years I’ve just been using and developing that skillset and it’s morphed over time into the stuff that I do now.
What attracted you to making photorealistic work?
I don’t know, and no one has ever really asked me that. It’s funny, I don’t even really like photorealism as a sub-genre of painting. I really like Robert Bechtle, and seeing his work in person was a real epiphany for me, because in person the surface is much looser than it appears in reproduction. Not every little mark is fixed and they aren’t as cold – they have more of a personality to them. As far as photorealism, or even realism and representation, I’ve always liked these people who seemed more like liminal artists; artists who often work in the aesthetic of realism but aren’t fully categorized as a photorealists, like Vija Celmins or Gerhard Richter. I like to think of photorealism coming out of the Pictures generation from the 80s where it’s more about appropriation of an image than the realism side of it. I really like Jack Goldstein a lot and for me it’s more about using two-dimensional source material and turning that into something else, but not having any sort of fealty to the original. You’re not trying to directly make a copy.
Thinking about how realistic your works are, how do you approach translating and expressing an image from your source material? What are your thoughts on copying and its effects and alteration of an image’s meaning?
I’m not too worried about the copy being an exact representation of the original. I think of the original in the same way that a Lucian Freud painting uses the model that he’s looking at as a thing that then becomes the painting, not something that he’s trying to actually recreate. I just feel more comfortable working with two-dimensional sources. I remember as a kid back at my high school art class we had to do a drawing of a milk crate from life, and I remember at the time it just felt like pure torture. For me, drawing three-dimensionally seems really uncomfortable, but copying a Xerox actually feels really comfortable and mechanical – it’s easy to do. There’s this artist Dan Fischer who makes these drawings of artists from photographs from art history books. He has this term that I always try to credit him for called ‘Xerox realism’. When I first heard that phrase it really spoke to me because I’m using the aesthetic of the Xerox as the source material. It’s not really connected to photography because it’s not about depth of field or light. It’s really about what happens when you Xerox something and you distill that information down so that you lose a lot of visual information, but you also really cement what is there and make it bolder.
I think that for a lot of people realism is a dirty word. That’s changing now and figurative work is more present, but a lot of times people will ask me why I spend all this time copying a photograph in such a dismissive way that it’s usually just a rhetorical question and they have an internalized value system regarding it. That’s what is interesting for me about having taken English or theory or philosophy classes instead of art classes because it taught me to question a lot of my own assumptions and the cultural presuppositions that are hammered into me. Especially about art.
Where do you source your images from and can you talk about the recurring motifs – mountains, nature, crowds – that appear in the works?
I had this period where most of the source material was from things that were politically or historically loaded. I also got really interested in seeing these pencil drawings get bigger and bigger, and I was curious about how big they could get. I was making these works in my apartment at the time. I use Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper that comes in rolls that are either 44 or 51 inches long. I have a three panel piece that shows a G20 riot in London and it was done on the 51 inch paper, with each panel at 94 inches in height. Altogether it’s 94 x 153. I remember I projected those and I would have to do it one sheet at a time. Because of the layout of my apartment I also had to do them horizontally. That work was part of this broader body of work that was about crowd imagery. Around 2009 I saw a Dan Graham retrospective at the Guggenheim. Dan Graham made this film called Rock My Religion and it inspired me to look for images that were from rock shows but actually looked really religious or ecstatic. I got interested in this idea that whereas the purpose of the crowd or the environment of the crowd is different, the experience of the crowd can be really similar. I didn’t do too many of them because they took so long to do and they were at such a large scale. A lot of those images I was actually finding on that website Flickr. I don’t know if anyone uses that website anymore, but at the time it was the only image repository on the Internet where you could download lots of high res images. For those I was specifically thinking of a concept and searching out the imagery for that.
I got a bit burnt out on that and I sort of just started messing around with things. I started tinting the paper different colors and using any source material and not being very specific. That sort of morphed into something where I was trying to get the source material to always be some sort of political or historical moment, or have some sort of social importance, but not necessarily have that be clear by the image itself, what that moment actually is. I was interested in having the image be clearly documenting something, but having it be ambiguous. I got tired of that as well because the subject matter was dictating so much of what I did.
Then I started doing these images of landscapes or natural imagery. I’d never used the natural world as a starting off point, and I became interested in seeing if I could translate it into my work. It became an interesting problem to solve. Through that, I got less and less tethered to the actual source material and freer to find things from whatever source I wanted. I’m almost thinking about them more as how I think a painter would think about a painting. I’m thinking more about the surfaces and how I can build them up and have a tension between the foreground and the background, which I didn’t think about as much with the earlier works. Those earlier pieces were much more about rendering what I wanted to render.
Can you talk about your use of color and how it entered into your work?
I had this idea where I wanted to do a drawing on a colored background. At the time I had this interest in the visual aesthetic that sort of comes from punk rock album covers in a kind of Warhol-type way where there would be a really heavy black on top of a really bright background. I wanted to see if I could make drawings that way. I started looking for colored paper, but couldn’t find any that was heavy enough or had the feel of the paper that I liked. I originally started using ink and doing ink washes on the watercolor paper, and then using charcoal to draw on top, but I couldn’t get it to look quite the way I wanted. I eventually hit on using Golden acrylic paint and watering it down. Golden has tons of colors and they mix really well so you can easily manipulate them. That translated into trying different colors and gradients and experimenting more with color. When I started making the drawings with flowers, the subject matter felt freer and invited a more romantic use of color. I feel like traditionally I’ve been more drawn to austere color choices. I really love Ed Ruscha and a lot of the color choices that I’ve been making now are kind of inspired by him. I also really love this artist Llyn Foulkes. It’s really cool how much depth he can achieve with only three colors.
While it might not necessarily seem like it from looking at my work, a lot of it develops through accidents that just wound up happening, which I would actually like a lot better than what was originally in my head. I think because the drawings and the technical aspects of these works are so controlled, having parts that I can’t control has been really nice and helpful. I think that what ends up creating an interesting final piece is the meeting of control and lack of control. I don’t know if you necessarily see that, but hopefully people can intuit that there is a layer of control and a layer of chaos.
What is your process making these pieces?
I used to project everything. I’ve also tried eyeballing a lot from photographs and I used to also use a grid to copy paintings. I’ve always been interested in the different ways of mechanically translating an image, so I’ve gone through all of the methods – using a grid, eyeballing, tracing with a projector, using a lightbox. I used the projector for a long time and as things got bigger, it was the only way to really do it. But for me, the projector would always end up shaking and shifting, and especially if you’re working for more than a few hours there are so many variables that can go wrong. I don’t really project anything anymore. After the larger drawings, I started doing smaller works and began using transfer paper to trace the entire image. I do a wash of the acrylic paint, then I print the image out to size, and then I use the transfer paper to trace an outline of the entire thing. Then I go in and fill in all the tones, that’s where the drawing comes alive.
Is there a particular direction that you are currently taking your work?
I have another show that I’m in at Hirschl & Adler which is a continuation of my nature-based work. I really enjoyed making this mountain drawing that is an homage to Llyn Foulkes and it’s 58 x 46 inches. I would like to continue with the nature images and get to the point where some of the landscape ones are so large that they have to be on two panels. I also want to get away from the landscape imagery eventually as well and move to more disparate imagery. I’ve done the crowd images, political images, ambiguous drawings, nature pieces – I think it would be cool to do a show that incorporated all of those together, but where it didn’t feel totally insane and unconnected. But in general, right now the main thing I’m excited about is just sort of doing what I’ve been doing, but increasing the scale. I’ve even just sort of enjoyed doing that with the flowers and making those bigger. They’re so outside of life size that they feel more alienating.
Can you talk more about your choice of scale?
I’ve always liked artists that worked with different sizes. When I was doing those crowd drawings, they seemed to demand being big and I just kept making them bigger and bigger. I think a similar thing happened with the mountains. It’s really dictated by the image or source material. When I was using a projector, I think it was easy to make something larger or smaller, so it was nice to play with the size. That allowed me to see what happens when something becomes really big or gets shrunk down. I think a lot of times you don’t actually realize how subtle manipulations just in the size of the work can create an alienating effect. But with a lot of my work it’s not a programmatic thing, it’s just sort of whatever is dictated in the moment.
What is the most challenging part of making work?
I think one thing that is the most challenging is just the fact that they are very time-consuming, and I don’t really know if they’re going to be successful until the end. It’s a little nerve-wracking because you’re working on this thing and you don’t actually know if it’s going to be good or bad until you’re pretty deep into it. Just the chance that you could totally fuck it up after you’ve been working on it for a month and a half can be stressful.
What are you currently looking at for source material and what is informing your work right now?
I have all of these old books about climbing Mount Everest that I’ve been interested in lately. They’re really old from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the quality of photos is so lush and beautiful. I keep going back to those because they already kind of look like paintings. The way I make stuff is so dirty and rough, so it’s really interesting for me to take these things at are really lush and beautiful and recreate them in this way, and to also throw color into them to try to really transform it. I’m also interested in getting the lion’s share of what I do from not the Internet, but from books and scanning images from books. The printing quality is so much nicer and, it’s going to sound cheesy, but it just feels so much more alive as a thing that is printed on a page.