A few months ago, Matjames Metson and I were talking about Alex Schaefer. I had been thinking about doing an interview with Alex, and I was postulating that a hundred years from now (if the air is still breathable), and people study the Ponzi schemes, the toxic mortgages, and the Global Financial Crisis which took place at the dawn of the 21st Century, that Alex will stand as the artistic documentarian of our avarice. Matjames listened to what I was saying, sighed, and said, "Well, I hope so." The doubt in his voice was understandable. These are cynical times and the public's consumption for art tends to be high in calories and seriously lacking in any nutritional value. Everybody knows the game is rigged, and they'd rather not think about it.
Shortly after that conversation, I ran into Alex at a show. He told me that he felt weird. He said he was done with the burning bank series. He said he felt weird about the gallery system, weird about painting, weird about the art world, weird about the world in general. Just weird. I told him that was a conversation I wanted to have, that THAT was the interview I wanted to do. So we juggled calendars and set a date. I parked in the lot next to the "Gronk building" on Spring Street where Alex has his studio (and where the attendant fleeced me for fifteen bucks). Almost as soon as I walked into the studio Alex started talking in rapid fire bursts of frantic energy. This wasn't going to be like any interview I've ever done. It wasn't going to be like an interview at all. I was just going to listen to Alex unabashedly dissect the seedy underbelly of the art world. I rushed to turn on my recorder, to catch him mid-screed.
...you see that in the gallery scene, or an artist trying to establish themselves, with a logo, and a thing. I just repel against that. That's why I quit video games. I did video games and made a killing for ten years. I was like, bulging my eyes out with the amount of money I was making, as an artist for fucks sake. But I just couldn't stay in it...and the irony is, everybody that stayed in it, these are people I even went to art school with, they're CEOs now. They're big money, but they look at me and they're jealous. And I look at them, and I'm jealous. They look at me like, 'Dude, you're free man!' You're overhead is digestible, you're hustling, you're making art, you're in the art world...blah, blah, blah. Then to me, I just look at my life as just a shambles most of the time. I'm just jerking around from here to there, and have no clue. I look at them, and they've got a house, kids, normal. That's how I grew up. I grew up really normal. I think that's why it's hard for me to not be - to be abnormal. I was into metal. I thought punk sucked, or it was scary and I didn't get it. For whatever reason, I don't know how I wound up an artist. I mean, I feel like I'm still learning to rebel. But I've had a lot of misconceptions about the art world, just being cast aside, through just sheer reality. The dream, and it's the same impulse, of...we want to have it made. Everybody wants to have it made. You want to be a millionaire. You want to win the lottery. You want to have it made in the shade, so you can just live like an American Express commercial for the rest of your life. So, some of these fantasies are like, if I get an article written about me in this magazine or that, then that's what it's going to take...or if I get into this gallery or this scene, that's what it's going to take. I've seen these things happen, and it's not it. They're with you for a while, or --- the thing I always have to add as a caveat too, is you are the common denominator in every bad experience and relationship that you have in your life too. So, if you're like, 'God, my relationships all suck.' Well, you sucked along with it. So, what are you bringing to it that's sucking. What am I bringing to it that's sucking. When I got out of video games, I spent about seven years just completely disengaged from the art world. I had enough money, and I was starting to teach, which supplemented my income, and I would get an occasional sale or something would happen. But I just spent a shit ton of time doing crazy weird work, but not engaging with the art scene. See, that's where I lacked. I had no presence in the art scene at all. Then I had this huge publicity thing happen with the bank paintings. It was just a weird thing. It was a flash, but there wasn't any kindling around, that I had cultivated through a network, and that's my own fault. I don't believe that it's "over" now. You know, 'Oh it's OVER!' I remember a teacher telling me this happens a lot of places in her life. Where every now and then, you're going to do a drawing or a painting that's like really great...she's talking to an art student. So like, it's really good, it's gonna blow your mind, and all your friends are going to go, 'Holy crap!', and you won't be able to do it again for months, or years. But that incredible painting, that you were able to just somehow pull off, that was beyond your ability, will become your new normal eventually...and you'll continue to have those experiences if you continue to push yourself. So, having this crazy sale on Ebay, or whatever - to me, I look at that as, well, that's the future regular price for what I'm doing, and even today, it's totally conceivable. I mean I know people that sell well, doing schmaltzy ass landscapes and nudes for 25, 50, 200 thousand...big massive history paintings, cowboys and Indians, Chinese guys making railroads, shit like the Autry Museum, those are hammering for a lot of dough. That's a whole other level, the auction world. I'm just starting to fiddle with that. That's something where you've got to have a lot of fucking skin in the game before you get into that. You've got to have cohorts, and co-conspirators that are part of your thing. In the beginning, it's not a bad thing to tell collectors, to give them a really good deal, tell them 'You're now in Art Club, and the first rule of Art Club is you don't talk about prices...and if anybody brings up the subject matter, you make them feel as rude as if they asked a lady how old she was.' You just defer the topic completely. Then you have a conspirator. It's too soon to talk about how cheap you got a Keith, or an Alex. 'Fuck you! Fuck you!' Another problem is these collectors don't know shit. They have the same attitude as the artists, that the gallery is going to make me. I'm going to get made, like the mob or something. The collectors think the same thing. That they're going to buy this work really expensive at this she-she gallery and they're going to do everything to make it go up in value, but where's the Gertrude Steins', and the Sarah Steins' stepping up? And the Barnes', who'd have lectures at their homes and talk about art and shit like that? Collectors can fuck with you, in a good or a bad way, but most of them just are clueless. You get in a good collection, you're on their wall, they talk about you. A bad collection, and I've been collected by someone like this, where everything just went straight to storage. they loved every piece that I did, and it's just been locked away like the Ark of the Covenant. I remember really wanting to get one of those in a show, and it hadn't seen the light of day in eight years, since I painted it. I finally convinced him to show it, and getting to the painting was like the beginning of Get Smart. It was this wine and storage space in Santa Monica, security gate at the parking, security gate to get in the lobby, I.D. check and a key to get in the room, then your own thing has a key, and it's all fans and perfect temperature. Every painting was hermetically sealed, in a little box, with a little document on the outside, a Polaroid of the piece, and all the information, what was paid for it, when it was bought, blah, blah, blah. what the fuck are you doing dude?
Well, I guess?! The guys got offices in Beverly Hills, and New York. He's got a condo on the east coast, where his ex-wife lives with the kids, and he's got a place in Santa Monica. It's an Art Deco, beautiful place. He's got wall space. Fucking A! It's weird. It's all part of the 'fun'. But see, eventually someone will crack that open and that's the cool thing about painting...it's there, and hopefully my material processes are good enough that they haven't cracked too much, you know. I know that if they're sealed up, they're not gonna get sun bleached.There's a degree to which you just have to let the paintings go, and do what they will.
Dude! You know this show that I'm selling all these pieces at Blackstone this month? Literaly, I was just going to take all those pieces, and rent a haul trailer, do a big loop around California and just leave the paintings. Just leave them. Leave them in alleys, parking lots, just leave a little note on it. I don't have room for this. I'm an artist. Hey, have a free painting. You want it? I was just over it. But then a friend of mine convinced me to try to sell them. It's not my normal thing to try to just sell, sell. sell.Some of them you were giving away, right?
The drawings, yeah. That was the High Roller bonus, you get a beautiful drawing. But yeah, I can see why artists burn pieces. you get to a certain point where you're like, ugh! There's a famous quote by someone that said, 'Show me an artist who doesn't sell, and I'll show you a man with a storage problem.' Then I get hope too, because like, Manet's 'Olympia' hung on the wall of his studio for twelve, fourteen years, unsold...and Manet did everything every hustling artist tries to do. They rented their own gallery space to try to flog their own stuff. They timed it so their exhibition was at the exact same time as the Salon was having it's show. So, that was like Art Basel now, and there were little satellite fairs that were all around the big shoop-da-doo! It wasn't any different. So, Manet, renting a storage space and throwing all his paintings up on the wall, that's like everyone at Art Basel Miami renting a U-haul and putting lights in it, trying to sell their own work. There's nothing new under the sun, as long as art has been like a commodity. As opposed to, well, you know...it was different for certain artists, where you were made.If you had a Medici behind you.
Or, if you were Leonardo, it was like working for the Defense Department. You worked for the king, so you got an apartment, you got all your food taken care of, travel, art supplies. He didn't pay for anything. He just got to sit around and make art, draw and THINK. Although the majority of Leonardo Da Vinci's work was like military stuff, armaments, towers. But he was taken care of. It was different.I was worried that I was gonna get here and you wouldn't feel weird anymore.
Ha...You know, it's just the realization that getting into the gallery doesn't mean your 'made'. I had a lot of fucking sparks and selling that just happened to me...because I did something, then it got a story and everyone picked up on it, then it was a news thing, and those works were easy to sell. It's harder to sell nudes and landscapes, and I'm really glad that I'm doing it at Blackstone. Part of it for me, is to say to collectors that I know everyone wants a fucking wheat field. But would you NOT buy a Van Gogh because it was just a painting of people walking down an alley, or going to church or whatever. People don't understand. Oh, it's a wheat field! It's a flaming bank, ack! If you believe that the painting is going to go up, everything I do is gonna go up, along with that painting. So, the gallery sold the pieces as long as it was easy to sell. The last communication I had, I'm not naming names, but people can do research and probably figure it out, they said, 'Alex, do you have anymore burning bank paintings?' I said I had one more and that I wasn't going to do any fucking more. It's over. That could have been my pet rock, or whatever, but fuck that! I'm not into it. So I said, 'Yeah, I have one left and it's the last one.' They said they want to buy it for $3,000. I thought, just, fuck! I just sold a kick-ass landscape to some collector in Hong Kong, off the internet for a thousand. Now they want to sell the burning bank painting, it's the last one, it's got provenance, and I'm going to get fifteen hundred bucks out of a cut? And I have the piece. It's mine, it's in MY hands. No paperwork ever comes between artists and the galleries, you know? They keep it fast and loose as possible. So I said, "Here's what you do, tell the guy who wants it, it's $5,000 or I'm going to burn it. Fuck you! It's my painting." Then he came back and he said, "Okay, I'll give you $2,500 of the cut." So that means you'll still get half of what you want, which is $5,000. So that immediately kind of made me feel like I was getting dicked around with. That's a huge jump in a 50/50 split, you know? That's suddenly turning into ten grand. I said, "No. You should get more than that. Tell the guy, five thousand or I'm going to burn it."At this point, I asked Alex if I could see the painting in question, the last burning bank. He got up and started pouring through stacks of paintings. He couldn't find it. He started to panic. For the next hour we searched the studio to no avail. Alex was really upset and he asked me to leave. I found out when I got home that the painting had been taken for ransom by a secret and mysterious gallery order.
I'll post part two of this interview in a couple weeks, if the situation resolves itself.
In the meantime, you can see other work by Alex Schaefer at:
Summer Flies at Flower Pepper Gallery
now through August 1st
Masters Of Illusion at bG Gallery (Bergamot)
July 19 - August 20
Ultimate Beach at bG Gallery (Ocean Ave.)
July 26 -August 9
He is also frequently found taking part in the crazy circus that is The Hive Gallery.
Fair warning to the prudes, some of the photos below may offend your delicate sensibilities.
Fair warning to the prudes, some of the photos below may offend your delicate sensibilities.
|"Alex Schaefer-style" painter paints coming soon to Urban Outfitters?|
|Alex confronting the storage problem.|
|Alex and his one quart Pyrex coffee "mug".|
|The color values of money.|