Liberation through collaboration, the needs of a picture, and the pros and cons of paint.
Far past midnight, hurried through the shuttered airport, I dipped from an off-ramp into a starlit residential block and then onto a property where an assortment of tin-roofed shacks, trailer homes, and tree-stump chairs faced one another. There was a Calagarian outhouse built on a deep skew like the prow of a ship and a stocked refrigerator en plein air. I was in Texas, at the Monofonus Compound—a multipurpose arts grotto in the loamy neighborhood of east Austin. I came to watch artists Mike Ricioppo and Drew Liverman paint collaboratively, trading turns with every mark as if they were one person with two syncopated right hands. Their pictures are direct, boisterous, and often randy.
Here at the compound grounds, the action always takes place at night and with a half dozen owlish spectators attending as an audience in the dark. The large canvases are lit up dramatically, like movie screens or theatre backdrops, and Ricioppo and Liverman occupy what feels like the studio’s proscenium. They cavort in equal measure with concentrated work—alternating between flourishes and pratfalls, between first and second fiddle. Too early in the morning after a long night of painting, I had the pleasure of forcing them to wake up and speak with me.
Andrew Bourne Something really happened here—a creative breakthrough perhaps, an almost flatulent breakthrough, a real blowout. Thirty-six paintings in a few months, and now seven enormous canvases finished on a one-week bender. How did this happen? Not too long ago you were both so methodical, clean, and measured, just two perfect whittlers and draftsmen. I’ve seen Drew brush ink like a first kiss and Mike guide the cutting edge of chisel with his pinky finger like it was a pirouette, like it was teatime at the turn of the century. But now this orgiastic productivity and absurd, back-to-back all-nighters. It’s as if in order to get serious about painting and really be prolific, you both, paradoxically, had to get really playful, silly, and loose. I’ve heard you chide and call them joke paintings, but these are rigorous jokes. My assumption is that you egg each other on, you riff, and it could only have come to this point together, like in a three-legged race.
Drew Liverman It started by hanging out here at Monofonous Compound, just talking about painting and realizing we had tons of materials—two huge canvases I’d started and restarted a few times, plenty of paint. We were like, “Let’s make something in an afternoon.” We just started slopping and got pretty amped in the process. It was enough fun that we just kept on. We had made drawings and collages together since forever so making big paintings didn’t seem far-fetched. Plus it felt like we were goofing off. That said, when you try to start painting alone after a long break there’s a fear that creeps in. The fear is that you're stupid, or just have no idea how to paint, that you’re rusty, that you need to practice—the work-ethic fear.
AB Are these pangs of hesitancy and doubt split between the two of you, diluted, or maybe cancelled out?
DL Together there’s a way to give them the slip or at least pretend they aren’t there. There’s less emphasis on yourself, less on the line, and almost a shared blame too. You’re also just painting to paint. The idea of exhibiting them wasn’t even discussed until we’d done like twenty paintings. It was mainly about hanging out and riffing, building momentum. Being excited and maintaining some feeling of optimism might be the hardest thing. In a group or duo you keep that excitement rolling to sustain the hanging out, that social element, but it is all oriented on the art object, or rather the activity of making it. By yourself it’s easy to trash something that’s not panning out, start over, go home.
AB So when Mike left Austin after that six-month stint and you were alone again, were you back in the trash can, restarting again and again? Was he? Or did you both break the spell?
DL We retained the rawness that was developing in our joint work, and it shows in what we’ve done on our own since. But it can feel like the voltage is halved, doubt can creep back in, sometimes being a monad isn’t enough. But looseness is the key lesson. You see, both of us have these pretty technical day jobs where we are expected to be precise. Things must be intensely figured out before any pixels are pushed or, in Mike’s case, any wood can be cut.
AB And these paintings are the moonlighting flip side? Two Mr. Hydes? The night shift as it were?
DL Yeah, it’s like the Apollonian and Dionysian cults—the forces at play during the day are rational, then at night comes the intoxication and bad behavior. You can certainly see it in Mike’s new solo paintings. They are so raw and wacky. For me, the last thing I want to do after a day jockeying the computer is to tape off squares and be careful. I want to be loud and make fun, jerk-off moves.
AB Are these “jerk-off moves” macho?
DL I don’t think so, here it’s about big gestures, freedom, and confidence, not machismo. In my solo work, I’m in a small, quiet studio making my weird, quiet moves. But painting big here with Mike outdoors is hugely liberating. We are in the weather, standing in the dirt, bugs around the lamps, which makes the pieces arise from unrestrained strokes, big choices. We can make a tremendous mess because we aren’t hemmed in.
AB Last night Mike was beheading and reheading this horse in the Battle of San Diego, just totally blacking it out with spray paint and saying the whole thing must be made exclusively of bold moves. Thirty seconds later he was gingerly using that same spray to dead-cap fizzle a delicate drop shadow in the same picture. So not all these strokes are big, rotate-from-the-shoulder moves. What makes a move bold?
DL Scale is just a part of it, and I don’t think the word bold is quite right actually. That kind of rhetoric only comes out now. Where is Mike? I need his brain.
AB He’s asleep, but let’s get inside one of these things. Though strictly representational and always figurative, these paintings are assembled very abstractly. For example: a dozen moves shape a sort of flamingo-bright tiki head wearing a cafeteria-style hairnet, then a few strokes and squirts form a hunter-killer drone a la the US Military but in blown glass or soap bubbles. From what I saw last night, you two don’t set out to depict such things. You are trading stabs at the level of the mark, taking turns, and it’s very non-representational, very associative. And you appraise the images on that level too, then, almost incidently, an amorphous gob becomes a bonafide helmet or powdered wig or feather boa, something identifiable. Are you trying to surprise each other and us, throw wrenches into your partner’s intentions and into our eyeballs?
DL It’s just point and counterpoint. The DANCE! (laughter) There’s this insinuation of a rump or a leg just hovering there. Instead of talking about it we just go ahead and either define it or obliterate it, often the former followed closely by the latter.
AB And if a move doesn’t pass muster?
DL It’s pretty unanimous when things are stricken out or emphasized, though occasionally we ask, “What the fuck was that?” Mike will chastise me for being too obvious or literal, and I’ll get on him for turning something to mud. He is much more into obscuring things and making them complicated. I’ll start to see an alligator shape then go ahead and throw some teeth on it. It might end up too illustrative. I entered art through that realm and it clings to me.
AB Does he have the opposite bearing, where he has to fight erasure or obscurity?
DL (laughter) He has to fight not to pick the weirdest color he can. For him, it has to be wrong to get right. I am harsher on other things—say, the quality of given stroke. It’s a hangup from art school and graffiti.
AB In the Basquiat/Warhol collaborative paintings, you can tell exactly who did what—one canvas, two distinct egos. How can you account for your styles being compatible to the point at which they merge. Twin hands, brush brothers. I really can't tell who did what, which is a real achievement. Synergy.
DL We had done these murals together years ago, knocking-off some very squiggly bulbous shapes from comic books. These entered our drawings and got carried off, digested and mutated.
AB Is the unspoken thing that the paintings work as a function of how many . . .
AB (laughter) . . . Of how many impertinent sub-compositions can sit next to each other, clash, but hold together?
MR Like a bathroom stall covered in stickers.
DL Many points of interest.
MR I could maybe think about it as the accidental nature of conversation between two people. If I start talking to somebody random, I don't start with the intention of talking about bean soup but somehow movements lead me to bean soup. Without that conversation it would be something else, go elsewhere, like in our mail art.
AB So you tried that, mailing small pieces back and forth?
DL It’s like tennis or something, all action, no discussion.
AB Drew just told me how he fights the illustration impulse and how working with you problematizes that or keeps it in check. Do you think you have something like that—a tendency he puts in check? Does he clarify and you obscure? The division of labor doesn’t seem that simple at all.
MR I will sink an entire picture into the swamp, then come back up and think, “Why, man?” But we mix it up. If anything, it’s an opportunity to borrow the other guy’s ways, to try his moves. But inside the painting there isn’t really time to have a self dialogue where those things are considered.
DL You consider a spot too long and Mike will fog it out or transform it. Same goes for me. The momentum has to be prodded along. The herd has to be driven. You don’t get far enough down your own rut before the other person has altered it. He may steer you to the moon.
AB That’s the dance. Do you guys consciously create conditions to avoid getting too intentional?
MR Actually, this tandem painting is straightforward. If it looks like a prickly bush, let’s go ahead and make it a prickly bush, or not. Painting alone is a damn mystery because everything is from within. The prickly bush might just get tilled under. When painting together you get into a space where you just want a good mark, not my mark necessarily but any sweet move. I am not painting with ownership the way I would alone. I just block things in and it needs a mark or color, it needs to be touched. You are fulfilling these weird, irrational needs within the picture, trying to create visual interest.
AB So a picture has needs?
MR It has weird needs.
AB How would you describe the needs of a picture?
DL It needs to be worth looking at.
AB What makes a picture worth looking at?
AB What creates visual interest? Risk?
DL I don’t know if risk manifests itself after the painting is made. Perhaps if you are diving deep into the decisions that make it up, parsing it out as a fellow painter or student might. But you can’t just make it all bald risk. It would look awful. That person is crazy and has made a terrible painting! But maybe these are ugly. I can imagine many an art school professor would like to jump through these things and pile them in the dumpster.
AB How did you guys come to painting? You came of age when the name of the game was being clever, making pithy one-liner art with quasi-intellectual punchlines and puzzles to be solved in critique, fodder for the scholars. Back then painting was either lame or impossible.
DL I was bored. I didn’t have any interest in looking at clever things anymore. I would see certain contemporary art, then not know how to participate anymore or be visually titillated. It seemed as bland as a webpage.
MR I just realized the joy was gone. (laughter) My entire childhood was driven by enjoyment. You could keep that going as you found out about drugs and sex and traveling and food. But at some point I was ruined for the act of art making. In school you learn all these amazing things about the history of people trying something different, things you didn’t know about, and it’s magical maybe, but in learning this I was taken in by the idea that artists were these scientists, or that they were involved in some activity other than enjoyment. So for me it was a rediscovery of a youthful interest in making.
DL The cult of genius was pushed. “One or none of you can succeed.”
MR Exactly. But that idea doesn’t have anything to do with making art. It's business. If anything, it is contrary to getting things done. It doesn’t serve me, just people in that business. If we should all go to art school, why isn’t everybody coming out with more joy, making more art than before. Why the drought? The fact is that it was a lot harder not to paint than to paint. Painting can be frustrating, but it’s much more frustrating to lead a life without it. What was the other part of the question?
DL Why has painting become the thing for you, as opposed to chainsaw carving?
MR Nothing else is fast enough.
DL It affords you the most interesting object at the quickest pace. You can get paint for seven bucks and have so much to work with. You can get started now.
AB Let’s talk about cinema. You guys have this rapturous relation with certain films and the paintings reek of them somehow. Baron Prásil. Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight. The Tales of Hoffmann. Like Powell and Pressburger’s musical, or any of these, the paintings are chocked with period costuming, cut-out sets, and heavy artifice overall.
MR All those movies have a similar magic, that of theatre. They are so robust and joyous and unconcerned with naturalism that they can be re-watched eternally. What if a painting could connect in that way with just form and color? And our studio here is like a stage with lawn chairs. The painting is like a skit. As for artifice, I wish more things were made that way. I spent a lot of time in theatre as a kid. I enjoyed the act of pretending with the audience, having that kinetic relationship with strangers, including them in your imaginary world. In these paintings there is no intention to paint a woman the way a woman looks. There is an alien eating a cupcake in one of them, but it’s not what I imagine an alien to look like, or a cupcake. We are playing a game of pretend and once you open that door objects interact. A baseball player with a bat in his face. Why would anybody paint a bat as part of the figure’s face? It’s not the sort of conclusion you come to with preconceptions. Movies can do this same thing. Once you let go of naturalism you can get to the business of seeing what can happen. If a horse doesn’t have to look like a horse you can really create a horse and that is fun. I am not a scientist with calipers recreating a horse, though I do a bit of that in another part of my life.
DL These films were running so hot, but also they make you feel as though, if you had the drive, the right crew, and the costumes, you could do them. It’s not some ultra-expensive operation that hides all of the rough patches behind a locked door. It’s like in skate videos—riding a piece of wood on wheels down the street, but doing crazy shit with almost nothing. Though The Tales seems like a huge production.
MR It wasn’t! It was supposedly shot on one little studio, but just made to look grand. It’s a facade.
DL These filmmakers will use anything to immediately advance interest in the scene. All Orson Wells’ angles force the content, putting it on the viewer in an intense way. Maybe that has become visually passé now that people are offered mostly naturalism, believability, and plausibility.
MR Naturalism is a way to evoke human emotions or drive such emotions along a clear set of tracks and blow you against a wall emotionally. It can suit some projects well. But the human heart can fill in the gaps in a picture. It doesn’t need to look like an actual battle for me to feel pain. I can do that on my own. If anything I don’t like to be strong-armed into feeling a certain way by the scientists of naturalism.
DL A lot of naturalism sucks today because it isn’t giving the viewer creative credit to put things together themselves.
AB But in contemporary art, people are exploring desperately non-traditional, novel ways to engage a space or audience. Traditional flat art is really something else—it’s a level playing field and therefore exposes you to a raw wind. I love painting precisely because it is so well trodden in the face of a sort of innovation-economy of art. And making a striking one is, like you say, a mystery.
MR I like that leveling. I like a world where you can’t hide. Drew and I have always been concerned with ripping. I want to live in a world where you can’t fake it, where you can’t hide behind a tool, a degree, or anything. You either rip or you don’t.
DL Paint until you’re a hundred years old.
MR I really like the idea that I am not making a painting. I’m just going painting, like going swimming. I’m going to do this activity and when I’m done there will be this thing there, but the thing is not important.
AB It’s important to me because the material evidence affords me a taste of your activity. I can only feel something of fellowship by proxy, and the painting object is our connection. I’d rather it not evaporate like a note of live music or pass away so fast like skateboard trick or dance move. I will argue that the object records the moves and that this has value.
MR Well, we aren’t making moves that would be more interesting to talk about than to look at.
For more information on Ricioppo & Liverman, click here.
Andrew Bourne is BOMBlog’s Literature Editor and Associate Editor at Cabinet.