Like everybody, I guess, how I spent my childhood and youth has had a big impact on my art. I was born in 1956, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. My mother was Irish and my father was Americanthey met during World War II when my dad was stationed in Northern Ireland, and they were married just before he shipped off to North Africa. After the war they lived in the US for about 10 years, then moved back to Belfast until 1972. By that time the troubles between the British government and Irish nationalists had escalated to the point that it was really dangerous to live where we did, in a Protestant neighborhood on the Shankill Road in Belfast, especially since both my sisters had married Catholics. I was 14 and starting to take riskshanging with some rough kids, etc.and my folks decided to get out while they could and before I got into trouble.
In the summer of 1972 we moved to the States. I got on a Pan Am jet in Ireland, stopped over long enough in New York to have my first experience with a bloody-rare hamburger, and landed in Birmingham, Alabama, in the middle of the night. My aunt and uncle picked us up in their giant American car and drove us to their house 60 miles away. I still remember waking up the next day, looking out the window, and seeing absolutely nothing but cornfields. I had come all this way, this wee hard city boy, ready to see and do all the stuff Id heard about America, and here I was stuck in one of the most rural counties in one of the most rural states in the country. I only lived there for year or so, but it warped me forever. After spending a year painting mascot bulldogs on the football teams banners in high school, I graduated and moved to the big city of Birmingham, where I got a job in a carwash and tried to save money for university. My obsession with exploring American Puritanism, especially the fundamentalist Christian type, was already full-blown by the time I went to college, where Id go to sleazy country music clubs on the outskirts of Birmingham and see people who would just go absolutely crazy with drinking and carousing on Saturday night, then get up and go to some little Baptist church the next morning and get born again. Ive always loved music. I left Belfast a fan of T. Rex and Bowie, and it took me a while to find like-minded people in Birmingham. Id play my Roxie Music albums for people, and I could tell right away whether we had anything in common or not. The friends I made turned me on to the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground and other protopunk stuff. After I started using my vacation time to go to New York, I brought back albums by James Chance, the Cramps, and Richard Hell. That scene in New York was so incredible then, I wanted to come for the music as much as for the art.
I moved to New York, I actually got more into country and western music
than Id been down South. Maybe having physical distance from it
gave me some perspectivethe sincerity and directness of Hank Williams
seems not that far from what punk was trying to do. I remember going to
the Mudd club one night and watching the country-music legend Ernest Tubb
and then the next night seeing Iggy Pop or Debbie Harry there hanging
around in the VIP lounge. Nowadays I like Wilco and the Handsome Family,
two bands that seem to meld punk antecedents with traditional country.
I also have a soft spot for European bands like Manu Chau and Stereo Total.
Ive made drawings as long as I can remember. My best friend in elementary school and I each had our specialtieshe would draw animals and I would go back and forth between realistic-style drawings based on my Childrens Illustrated Bible and cartoony monsters. When I went to college and had to decide what to major in, I was torn between art and math, which I also always enjoyed and was good at. Obviously common sense did not win the debate, and I ended up getting my degree in art. Just before I graduated, I won the top award in an art contest judged by Dennis Oppenheim. I received $500that and the recognition for my work spurred me to move to New York City in 1980. Ive been plugging away at it ever since. Ive lived on the Lower East Side for almost 25 years, and theres always been a big music and art scene here. The first work I did in New York was street art. I started out drawing and printmaking, especially silkscreen and lithography, and I used to make silkscreen posters for my friends bands and art shows. I also made political posters when the mood struck me. I made one that seemed to get ripped down almost as soon as it was put upfortunately it turned out people were taking them home to hang up. The very first solo show I had in New York, large works on paper in colored pencils and oil sticks, was at Kwok Gallery, on Mott Street. My work was getting bigger and bigger, and finally I decided it was time to move to painting. I began making oil paintings in my bedroom, but my wife developed asthma, so I had to find a real studio. Gracie Mansion, who had just opened a gallery on East 10th Street, let me work in her back room, and I had my first show with her in 1983. My shows are usually themedmy work tends to be based on narrative concepts, with the individual pieces working out various aspects of the concept. Ive always tried to do stuff in the windowsinstallations, etc.to make the shows fun and interactive. I also try to make inexpensive pieces to make keep them accessible, like prints and bumper stickers. I think the books and comics originated in this idea of having multiples. My first book, Land of 1,000 Beers, coincided with a show that was designed to look like a travelog, with routes painted directly on the walls, interspersed with drawings and watercolors representing the roadside attractions of my allegorical land of a thousand beers. I had the book, bumper stickers, and decals to go with the framed art.
Land of 1,000 Beers was one of the first manifestations of Sinland, a thematically unified body of workyou could call it Dantes Divine Comedy meets Hank Williams. (It was pure serendipity that Sinland is an anagram of Sandlinwhen I accidentally noticed it, I knew I was on the right track.) I saw Land of 1,000 Beers as a metaphor for purgatoryAmerica as a land of lotus-eaters, neither good nor bad, just oblivious and inebriated. Remember, these were the Reagan years. During this series, the motel became a big motif for me, as a place within purgatory for visions. I next began working on heaven and hell, to complete the Dante theme. I received a grant from Nexus Press, in Atlanta, to make a book, so I decided to put heaven and hell together as a love cycle called Burning Ring of Fire [Welcome to Sinland]. I based a lot of the scenes in Burning Ring of Fire on country music, and I compiled a collection of songs that went along with my exhibition of that series.
In Dantes Divine Comedy, hell depicted the state of being far away from Gods love; heaven was being close to Gods love. My secular treatment of Dantes theme tried to do the same thing in modern terms. I created a Sinland, a place of Paradise (or Pair o Dice) for me was a land of almost divine, not-quite-attainable, love. Sinland was a place of mortal love, with all the messiness of human foibleslust, guilt, rock and roll. Damn Nation was hell, full of pitsthe Pit of Frozen Love, the Pit of Pornan unredeemed world totally without love and human sympathy. Sinland allowed me to set up a landscape for my characters. Heres how I develop my work: I make a drawing, and if I need to think about things more, it turns into a print. If I need to explore it even more, it might become a painting or several paintings. If when the paintings are finished, I feel that I still havent thought out the concept, it might become an installation. For example, two pages from Burning Ring of Fire turned into the painting Floorshow of Lifes Desires, which led to the installation Sin-e-Plex /Guilty Grotto, at Exit Art, depicting a façade of Vegas-like hype that everything is possible and everything is for sale covering a deeply ingrained sense of guilt and hypocrisy. I thought of this as the culmination of my Sinland series, but it also provided the seed for my next series, A Sinners Progress. My current seven-part series, A Sinners Progress, resulted from my interest in exploring American puritanism. The four books completed so far follow the trials and tribulations of Bill Grimm, an on the go and on the make salesman of Christian novelty items. The latest, The Avengelist, takes the form of a pulp comic book illustrating Bills power fantasy, which may or may not have come to life. In the past, there were two main reasons I always used my family and friends as models in my paintings. The first is practicalthey model for free. The second is that depicting myself and people I know and care about helps me add an emotional aspect to the painted image, which I hope extends to the viewer. My work is often allegorical, and using models with personal connections to me helped me create sympathy for what otherwise might appear to be two-dimensional mythological characters. More recently, still working in allegory, Ive depicted myself and my family in works of a more personal nature, dealing with the death of my father and my fears and hopes for my son.
Heres what Im up to now: I have 18 pages of work in the upcoming issue of The Ganzfeld, from the series of drawings Letters to a Dead Artist (HCW). H.C. Westermann is one of my favorite artists, and these letters are my homage. Im still making paintings for A Sinners Progress and working on drawings for Volume 5, entitled Carl Bob, Swamp Preacher.