A Conversation with Todd Bienvenu
© Todd Bienvenu and Figure/Ground
Todd Bienvenu was interviewed by Brian Edmonds. August 1st, 2014.
Todd Bienvenu (b. Little Rock, AR, 1980) received his MFA from the New York Studio School (2007) and his BFA from Louisiana State University (2003). He has shown in numerous New York galleries including Life on Mars, Centotto, Valentine, Novella, Outlet, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Sideshow and Ethan Pettit. This fall Bienvenu has accepted an associate professor position teaching painting and drawing at Louisiana State University. Borrowing Tomorrow’s Fun will open on Sept.5 at Life on Mars. This will be Todd’s first solo exhibition in New York.
Todd, I remember meeting you on the street during Bushwick Open Studios last year. You were kind enough to invite a couple of strangers, me, Melanie Parke, and Brian Cypher, back to your studio in Greenpoint. You are in a different studio now. One located in Bushwick. Do you like being in the center of it all?
Thanks for asking me to do this Brian, I’m flattered. I’ll try not to embarrass the two of us, I definitely feel more comfortable in the paint than I do on the keyboard. That was a fun night, I think y’all were starting to get a little nervous after I told you it was a short walk and then took you through some not super great looking streets en route to my place. Yeah, I liked the old spot, but it was a bit isolated. I say that, and a new gallery opened on that block, at least another two were in walking distance, but as the artists got pushed out towards Bushwick, Maspeth, Ridgewood, etc., it wasn’t as stimulating as it once was. I bump into artists on my way to get coffee in the new place, you’ll see friends at the bar. The old neighborhood had roaming packs of young men in cargo shorts, former frat boys turned financiers or something. So yeah, it’s good to be back in Bushwick.
I think the great thing about Bushwick is the support from within the neighborhood.
Agree, I feel like most of my time is spent in a room by myself with my paintings. It’s nice to have a dialogue of substance when I do emerge from my cave. Not sure if I want to get into this but the gentrification thing is real. My old spots closer in feel like they’re full of tourists, graphic designers, models, “hip” people who are benefiting from the pioneers who just wanted large cheap spaces and got priced out. And I feel a touch of resentment sometimes from the working families who are here and see these crazy artsy people as the beginning of the end for them. That said, I’m fucking broke and try to tread lightly, shop locally.
Do you have a set studio routine?
Ideally I wake up, get a coffee and a bacon egg and cheese and hang out in the studio all morning. Painting may happen, but I also might just waste time on the computer. I think it’s still important to be there, looking at the paintings out of the corner of my eye. By the time I’ve laid out the palette, wiped off the brushes, have an idea about what I want to do, I’m hungry for lunch. So I go for a walk, get a burrito or something, come back, watch LSU football highlights as I eat (fuck Bama, haha), and get back to “work.” It’s around 3 so I’m painting. I’ll go for a bit, think about dinner, and go eat somewhere around 10. Ideally a burger at Northeast Kingdom. Then either come back and paint till late or run into Dwain or another drinking buddy and have more beers and stimulating conversation. Maybe I’ll go to an opening if there’s something I should see. Some days I have to work a money job and that fucks up the whole thing, I may be able to get some painting done after work, but maybe not. Ideally I’m in the room with the paintings just hanging out most of the day.
I know that you have worked on and off as a studio assistant? Has this had any affect on your work? Do you find it difficult to work in someones space on a regular basis? Has this had any positive effect on you as an artist?
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great artists and see how they do it. Not just the production of the paintings, but also how to live the artist life. Bill (Jensen) always says to, “keep your overhead low”, I fully agree with that. You don’t want to have to work for 2 weeks a month just to pay to be here. I try to work as little as possible and paint as much as possible. When you go to a great artist’s studio there is a ton of work and a ton of experimentation. You can’t grow if you don’t get uncomfortable and you have to get through the paintings. I try to be prolific in my practice. I try not to be afraid of making something that might be totally shitty.
Another conversation I’ve had with Bill that comes to mind is the idea of making work that is beyond where the previous work is. Sometimes a painting will happen that makes a big leap ahead of what the most recent paintings have been able to do. This can be a bit disconcerting as it doesn’t seem to fit into a logical progression. I’ve realized that this is a good thing. You can fill in the gap between the weirdo painting and what you’ve been doing. Over time the painting will have a more obvious dialogue with the work that came before. Not every painting is a breakthrough. Sometimes the work inches ahead. But sometimes you’re not ready to see the breakthrough paintings or can’t tell how good they are. I’ve painted over paintings that I wasn’t ready for yet, only to make them again when I was ready to see them. I try to be true to myself when I make something that seems different. As far as it being difficult working with people you love as artists and humans, no it’s actually pretty great.
I love that statement, “You can’t grow if you don’t get uncomfortable.”
It’s like that de Kooning quote about his imitators. They couldn’t do the ones that don’t work.
Tell me about the people and subject matter that populate your work. Do the characters repeat throughout the work?
I don’t really think about it in terms of “characters.” I don’t feel like I’m a story teller. The paintings start with me just painting. There’s typically no idea. It’s just laying down marks. The figures emerge, then I realize what they could potentially be doing. Oh, that’s a girl’s butt. Oh that looks like a bearded dude in a bar. I will give you that people in my life show up in the paintings who inspire me or are just fun to paint. I’m in the paintings all the time. There are lots of surrogates. The way I draw the figure resembles me proportionally. I don’t have an imaginary cast of characters that I plug in though. It’s more like, I think this girl should have blond hair because the painting needs some yellow or I’m listening to outlaw country as I work. I think I’ll put Waylon Jennings in there. Maybe the motifs will repeat, but I don’t have a back story for people in the paintings.
The subject matter in general is just stuff that I think is cool or want to see in a painting. When I was at the NY Studio school, the first year was spent in an atelier with other students painting a setup with nude models lounging on colored sheets. After I got comfortable making that painting happen I realized I was more interested in painting all the crap in the room. Whereas, before I would just sort of fill it in after I spent most of my time getting the model and space to look right. Eventually I kind of realized that this was meant to be an exercise. I didn’t want to hire models and paint what I saw, paint still lifes, or work in the plein air. It felt old-fashioned and irrelevant. Not to mention impersonal and limiting. So I asked Graham (Nickson) what I should be making paintings about. He said, well, What do you think about? What do you care about? I said making sure I had food every day, my girlfriend, going to the bars with my friends. He said, “well make paintings about that!” I had no idea how that could happen. What those paintings would look like. The search for the subject was never really a search, it was just sort of admitting to myself who I was, not worrying about making “art.” I had to come to terms with what my world looked like. Find a satisfying abstraction for my interests.
After school I made painterly abstract de Kooning-ish paintings that were basically a way to hide what was a painting of a girlfriend or something that was actually personal underneath. The way the paintings look now was a slow realization. As I write this, on my studio wall I’m working on a painting of Kurt Cobain stage diving into a crowd, another of a bunch of beer cans, some paintings of summer girls wearing short shorts; the music I liked in my formative years, the boozy late night conversations at the bar with my buddies about art making, the visual stimuli I get when I walk around my Bushwick neighborhood right now. There are thousands of artists in NYC, with more graduating and moving here every year. You have to make the work that no one else can make. I think making work that is personal is the key.
Exactly. Like all good painters. You paint what you know. I find it interesting that you feel that you are not telling a story. The paintings are full of these great narratives. That being said, I definitely feel the paintings exist outside of any narrative.
Yeah, it’s almost like a cliche for the “figurative” painter to insist that it’s all about abstraction and vice versa. All I know is that as soon as I start to think about what the scene would be like if I was painting from a set up, the painting starts to die. Margrit Lewczuk described to me the idea of painting a dream, if you try to paint what it looked like, the thing just doesn’t work. I’m not an illustrator, the story is unimportant. It’s a painting world and language that I’m working in. The decisions made are more about what the painting needs than what a real space would look like. That said, I am drawn to putting recognizable imagery in there. I love purely abstract work, but I’m a stone cold figurative painter, it’s unavoidable. I like giving the viewer something to hang on to, myself included. No wallpaper, no hiding, I want tension. I also want an edge, maybe be a little provocative. The world doesn’t need another boring painting that merely “works.” I’m willing to make what is ostensibly a silly painting of a dick, but hopefully transcends the initial gag and becomes something more substantial. It’s not that I have rules about what I will or won’t paint, but there are maybe some things that I’m not terribly interested in depicting, or at least I’m not today.
Anyway, people bring their own agendas and experiences to it and make it theirs. My intentions change from the first mark to the last. There’s no way to hold this thing down, make it conform to one story. When I was a kid, I drew comic books but they were never much on plot, I was a drawer first. The story was just an unending cycle of my newest cool character coming in and brutally and graphically murdering all the sucky ones that came before. I’m not a natural storyteller I promise, but I agree that things do happen over the time i spend working on the paintings. Unconscious decisions turn out to be interesting pictorial devices that drive the content along. That Kurt Cobain painting I just finished is a perfect example of that. When I started, I wanted to try to simplify things pictorially and formally, lose the churning crowds, find a more iconic image, find a way to have only one thing in the painting, and do more with less. He’s jumping out into this dark crowd, (I know I just said I wanted to lose the crowd- at first it was just a row of hands, but even as I try to simplify I still have a hard time with a huge plane of just one color), he’s floating above, the light on him is glowing, his only connection to the humanity below is the cord running down from his guitar. There is more in the painting, in this image, than I consciously put into it. A friend noticed that the guitar wire could be an umbilical cord, there’s a Jesus thing happening, in utero, death, resurrection, (and here’s where my writing falls apart as I try to poetically write about the poetry of the paint). Lots of connections start to happen from this small seed of an idea. I took a look back on influential moments in my life in the search for an interesting subject and tried to figure out why they mattered to me and then communicate that via paint. Cobain, a huge influence on me when I was growing up, killed himself in ‘94. Twenty years later, I try to make a painting about it. It’s not a literal story, or a depiction of a specific event, it’s 20 years of my experiences, painting and life, distilled into this rectangle. I want to put a lot into these things, but at the same time I find it’s best not to find a shoe horn and force it, but to trust the hand, trust myself, and get out of the fucking way.
Where do you think your painting is headed? I am sure you will continue to paint what you know, what you feel is relevant in your world. You are headed home to Louisiana for a while. Do you think this will spur a change in your work? Could be subject matter or palette.
Who knows? Part of the excitement for me is to land somewhere unexpected. It almost feels pointless to even begin if you know where you’re going to end up. I try not to repeat myself in the work. I rarely ever work from a drawing. For one, you have to get the intervals exactly right or it doesn’t work, and when I’m doing that it doesn’t really feel like painting organically, it just feels like a different thing, color by numbers or something. Once I’ve come up with the image I don’t want to remake it, I’d rather start from scratch, find a new image.
The palette is the palette. As of this moment I have white, naples, cad lemon, cad yellow medium, cad orange, cad red light, quinacridone magenta, diox violet, ultramarine, phtalo blue, pthalo green, and black. The paintings will get muddy and then I try to turn it around as I get clarity. Maybe I can get my future students to come around and wash brushes for extra credit, that might clean things up a bit as I never ever wash my brushes.
I can talk about the Louisiana thing a bit if you’re interested. Basically New York had the most brutal winter I’ve experienced in 10 years living here and I thought I might look for a residency in a warmer climate for next winter. Around this time the HBO show True Detective came out and I was obsessed. I found myself painting Southern themes. I reached out to some friends down South and was offered an adjunct job teaching painting and drawing at LSU by Denyce Celentano, a mentor who had suggested the NY Studio School to me back in 2003. It seemed like a perfect situation, so I’ll be down there teaching this fall. I kinda fucked up. They didn’t need me in the spring, so I’ll be back in the NY cold this January, haha. When I was in Louisiana, I had no interest in making Louisiana paintings. They seemed regional, not part of a larger conversation. But living in NY, I started to romanticize the idea of the South. I was at a distance, so I could see things I loved about it. When I tell people I moved here from New Orleans, it always elicits a response. But I couldn’t deny the timing or the opportunity to live down South again, especially when the Southern thing insists on being in the work these days.
One thing I did not see was a sketchbook lying around your studio. I can’t imagine you making preparatory drawings, but do you like the act of drawing?
There’s a sketchbook, but as I said, no prep drawing. It’s more like a shitty idea generator. I make working drawings, they’re only useful to me I’m sure. Or I’ll read something online and think that might be a good title and jot that down. I have a phone app to do color sketches in public if I think of something. I’ll text myself titles or ideas or color combinations (that make no sense when I read them later; orange and blue? ok…) Sometimes I’ll thumbnail a large painting to clarify in the middle of things. Just another way to see it, like taking progress pics. That’s probably one of my weaknesses as an artist. I should draw more, restock those memory banks with imagery more often. The prolific thing helps. I treat the small paintings as opportunities to try different things, those can be my drawings and they have the added benefit of being in color. I make lots of acrylic on paper “drawings.” I’ll cover the wall with small paper and work a bunch all at once from time to time when I feel stagnated in the oil stuff. It’s less imposing than an 8 foot canvas, a safer opportunity to get weird.
Do you rework paintings? Do you set time limitations on a painting? For example, I know some I have visited with like working on a painting for two to three sessions and that’s it. They move on to the next. I can see how limiting the amount of time on something can help retain a freshness. At the same time I want to see a painting through no matter how long it takes.
Yeah they get reworked, but I also think that not every single thing I touch has to be a “masterpiece.” Sometimes it’s just a small idea that’s good enough to stick around. It might inform something else later. I finished a painting this year, it was only about 10”, that I started 6 years ago. The last time I painted on it, I repainted the whole thing in one 15 minute session, but it took me 6 years to realize how! When I’m in a steady schedule of working every day, it’s easier to finish things, I can see the openings better and have less doubt about ripping into something. No rules though. I don’t need time constraints or anything else tying my hands, and I certainly don’t want to beat myself up over a fucking painting or force the issue. It’ll happen when it happens. I work on lots of paintings at once. I won’t finish anything for a month or two and then six major works will get wrapped up within a day or two of each other. I expect to finish about 100 paintings a year. I’m fine with letting the stubborn ones hang around.
Also I use a sheetrock knife and scrape the thing down between sessions. I get colors I would never think to mix. It builds unity and keeps it simple. The essence remains, and it keeps me from getting too precious. The painting stays open and fresh. You can always repaint a fingernail or eyelash, but that beautiful painterly moment that you insist on preserving at the expense of the whole is keeping your painting at the good stage when you should be aiming for great.
Is there a particular work of art that affected you at an early stage? Was/is there an artist that showed you the possibilities in painting? This can be a contemporary or an artist from the past.
Rembrandt and de Kooning, I look at everything I can now, but those two really spoke to me when I was just starting out. So for a while I was making two bodies of work. One was Rembrandt-y portraits. The other de Kooning-ish abstractions. Been trying to reconcile them ever since. Also, I initially studied architecture in college. It seemed like a practical job for the artistically inclined, but I took a painting class and had a really great teacher, Gaither Pope, who let me come to his house and see that the artist life was a possibility. He had a studio building built in the front of his home, a wife and kid, a normal life. Except, he got to make these paintings on his terms. It was huge for me to see that I could do what I wanted with my life and also not starve.
Are you somewhat afraid of going home to LA, to the quiet life? Slow down a bit and take it all in. In Brooklyn you are constantly bombarded with imagery, people, situations, etc. No more subway.
Should be good, It’s just a few months, and NYC will be here when I get back. I’m just gonna treat it like a paid residency with the additional perks of Tiger Stadium on Saturdays and Grandma’s cooking on Sundays, haha. I love the madness of New York, but it’ll be nice to get away for a bit.
© Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Todd Bienvenu and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Edmonds, B. (2014). “A Conversation with Todd Bienvenu,” Figure/Ground. August 8th.
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