FINDING ODD BEAUTY ON THE DARK SIDE WITH STEVEN RUSSELL BLACK

WM: Your artwork is notable for a focus on drawing as a practice and for certain kinds of “fantastic” subject matter. How do you see yourself as an artist and where do you fit in?

SRB: My work talks about an unusual beauty with grace and utilizes high craftsmanship to show my love for the subject and creating. As to where I fit in, I’ve never felt like I fit in anywhere. Gallery work is the most satisfying space I’ve been in though. I really enjoy the event, and the reverence the physical space carries.

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WM: What appeals to you about drawing as a medium, and how do you approach starting a drawing? How have you arrived on your current set of tools and what is your process?

SRB: Drawing is appealing because it’s the most direct. Marks on a page are like handwriting. Drawing is personal and intimate. The process I use involves two different approaches. One way I’ll start is with is an idea or a photo I’ve taken that I love an element of and let the story unfold as I go. The second way is to do the traditional method of thumbnail, rough, photo reference, final drawing, then transfer and paint. I’ll do the latter for commissioned work or work for a specific show theme. I have less time to experiment in those situations. My current set of tools came from a need to find something that made drawing more than a sketch. The toned paper and charcoal black and white have a richer more final piece of art feel to them. I’ve also been slowly throwing out materials that don’t give back to me as much, and keeping the materials that are simple and give a lot back. I’ve struggled with terrible pencils sharpeners for years. The best pencil sharpener I’ve found is a straight razor. It gives so much for something so simple. Now, that is my only sharpener. Pairing things down to just a few tools is very freeing. Finding what is simple and works best and not having a pile of stuff that you hold on to that isn’t worth the space it takes up. One day I literally went through my supplies and asked myself do I actually use this? When I use it does it give back to me? Is it worth the space it takes up? If no, I threw it out. If yes, it kept its place.

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WM: You are also a painter and have mentioned that drawings may be a preliminary “concept” step towards executing an idea as an oil painting. What would make you select one of the drawings to develop it as an oil painting?

SRB: I see all drawing as the start of ideas, concepts to consider quickly before devoting the time to a painting. I always thought I’d paint more but the drawings really connected to people and I enjoy that feedback loop. A drawing that gets picked to become a final painting is one that I want to spend more time with or see a need for color to tell a more complete story. Some ideas are ok to be just discussed quickly. When I think I’ve connected to something that’s bigger than what I thought I was capable of previously that’s a great candidate for a painting. Popularity on social media can also play a role in knowing what images are connecting with an audience.

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WM: Your subject matter ranges from work like “No Whistlers in Sight” which feels like a relatively normal portrait, to art that is highly surreal, weird, psychological, and even creepy. What are you seeking in your subject matter?

SRB: It’s whatever ideas I find that hold my attention and drive my idea of odd beauty. Everyone can agree an image of an attractive woman is beautiful, but those times I show you a severed head and your reaction is still a thought that she’s so beautiful then we’re in the same space I’d like to play.

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WM: Weird art is more popular than ever and pop culture is filled with zombies, vampires, and aliens. Horror director Guillermo del Toro staged a major art show of monster art at LACMA last year. What’s going on in our culture, and how is this emerging in your work?

SRB: Pop culture has been so sickeningly pretty for so long. This is just the pendulum swinging back the other way.  When I was younger the goth club felt like a magical place. That drove my aesthetic.

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WM: There is a long history of public fascination with images that are grotesque, monstrous or disgusting. Goya’s paintings and the popularity of Victorian freak shows pre-dated TV’s The Walking Dead. From a contemporary view, our fascination with fabulous monsters has been divorced from myth or religious morality and the aesthetic is about delivering pure sensation, which allies with what Francis Bacon thought modern people wanted: “sensation without the boredom of it’s conveyance.” In other words: we like art that delivers an immediate jolt. Any thoughts on that?

SRB: Sure. Grab them up front. I still reach for something more thoughtful in the work for those who take more time though. I think you can have both. Those who appreciate the surface only will get what they want from my work but those who stick around will have a deeper satisfaction in the subtleness that lets them live there for a bit. It’s that old 30 feet, 3 feet, 3 inches rule. A painting should entertain the viewer from all those distances. 

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WM: What are your thoughts about drawing from life, reference photographs and imagination? How are these different for you?

SRB: Life drawing is great practice for the figure. I don’t ever present that as a finished work, but it’s a great time.  I shoot a ton of photos of strangers and strange things to weave into my work later. Constantly writing down visual prompts and taking lots of photos. Composed images are more of a coherent thought, a final piece.

WM: Do you consider some drawings/designs successful and others failures? Do you destroy any work, or keep it all? What guides you going forward in deciding what material to do next?

SRB: Failure is always an option and the best way to learn. I destroy things less often now, but the way I work with no plan upfront means I have to be willing to abandon a piece that isn’t giving back to me.  New work is trying to find new territory to explore. Often if a lot of other people are using a certain subject, time to go in the opposite direction. Get lost and find something new to share with everyone. Where you’ve been also pushes you forward as well. Looking at your past work will show you where to go.

WM: Your art has a very strong element of graphic design, cropping, intentional layout and color choices. How do you think about design’s role in making your work?

SRB: It’s absolutely the first thing I think about. The page layout and palette is all important. You have to define the playing field first, but just because I know the boundaries doesn’t mean it’s all spelled out. A lot of improv happens during the match.

WM: Much of your work has an element of collage and the juxtaposition of unlikely elements (a swan and a skull, etc.) What are your thoughts developing designs via collage?

SRB: This is something I’ve always done. I have been making collages for about as long as I’ve been drawing. They are very private pieces I don’t show anyone, but an element of collage is ever present. It forces you to make sense of these disparate elements and keeps it engaging through the whole process. I’ve definitely found some “raw coal” in the collages that translated to a diamond in the pressure of the final painting.  

BIO: Steven Russell Black is a painter with an obsessive compulsion to champion the odd, fringe, or otherwise unappreciated.

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