After a few botched scheduling attempts, I was able to meet with Paul Paddock on a sunny evening in the late spring, in his studio in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I was especially delighted at the opportunity to sit down with this particular artist, as over the years he has been one of the most inquired-about visual artists to grace the digital pages of Beekiller and the art shows curated in conjunction with this publication.
In his work, Paul has created a self-sufficient universe of child and animal characters reacting to the anxiety of imminent aftermath. It is is naive and macabre, funny and threatening, dark and light.
Over cigarettes and Cokes, I asked Paul about his work, his experiences in the New York art scene, his influences- -where he comes from, where he's been and where he'd like to see himself going.
P: I'm not going to have 15 minute responses just because I don't really—I mean, I can talk about my work but I try to talk as little as possible and just let it speak for itself. The old work is pretty linear, but this is the new stuff. Did you see the stuff from the last show?
P: I'm moving away from the children with the metaphoric masks and they are just becoming regular children. This piece here, the boy in his underwear with the skull head, I'm killing him off at this point. I guess they’re more real than I see or imagine them.
A: Do you see your work as being cinematic or literary? Do you tend to work as a series as the work goes on, or approach each piece individually?
P: Yeah. It's been the same narrative, it's like a story I guess, fiction. Well, more like fiction based on real events, experiences and relationships. For instance, a lot of it does come from my experiences, a lot of it is very personal -- but rather than drape it with my personal issues, I make it fiction. The work is more cinematic or theatrical in that way – it's linear narrative, it's not abstract, it’s to the point.
That's something that took a while to do because it's hard to loosen up and be brutally honest in the work without getting really self-conscious. That's why my work, if you look over the years, it becomes more and more minimal where there is nothing on the canvas or paper that doesn't blend; it's not “just anything” for compositional reasons or decoration or anything. If it's there, then it's part of the narrative.
A: So the narrative comes first to you?
P: Well, what happens is, in the latter part of it, I try to say to myself, "I'm not trying to make a painting; I'm trying to make a picture" - a striking image, make it to the point, not a lot of ambiguity, not a lot of bullshit. A lot of times it comes out violent or funny, in a dark way. It is very dark, but at the same time, take this piece… (shows CD cover by the band The Honorary Title)
A: I've seen that CD in my sister's car, actually.
P: I did this for a friend of mine --me and him have known each other for years -- we are kind of in the same place in our careers. I've done all the artwork for him because, back in the day, I would make flyers for him and now he is doing well and getting written up in Rolling Stone and I'm getting written up in Flash Art.
This is the kind of piece I had in my last show (at Buia), and the guy that bought it, also bought two other pieces. After he left the gallery, he ran into Vanessa Buia (The owner and director of the Buia Gallery.) later on that night and said "I have to have that painting. I can't get it out of my mind". So that's what I like to hear. I like to leave a mark in peoples' consciousness or unconscious. So that means that it was effective, I was successful with the piece. So that’s what I want.
That's why I don't talk about narratives, it's why I just do it - and what it means to me will be different to the viewer, of course. Sometimes it won't be, it will be so in your face and they read the title and it's all there. Sometimes I like that and other times I'm like, "Maybe I should have left it a little more open," but you just have do it and work through that. I was doing this for a long time in the dark and I was showing it to people and shopping it around and it just didn't work. And then, finally, I shopped it around, and people said "I haven't seen anything like that." That was a few years ago, and now it's kind of nice to see more work like it. It's kind of nice to see that because I've been using watercolors for so long and because it's a hard medium and a lot of people don't associate it with fine art unless it's like a landscape.
A: What in particular draws you to working with watercolor? What about the medium of watercolor is interesting to you?
P: I love to paint. And there is something more free flowing about it – there is not such a stigma. Oil and canvas have such a history – it's intimidating. You are part of that history and it has a certain stiffness if you aren't confident. And there is something about watercolor paper that seems a little less precious. As far as material, you can just tear it up and do another one, but at the same time, I think it looks… it comes out precious. There is something really beautiful about watercolor. I can get the same effect with oil; well, not quite the same, but… Oil on canvas, a lot of times if you thin it out too much it will become muddy, or the grain on the canvas--no matter how smooth you make it-- will still come out -with watercolor its just the colors, the volume.
People ask me if my works are drawings or paintings, and they're a little bit of both. They are paintings because of the paint and they are drawings because they are drawings I paint. The thing is, I don't want to sound cocky, but I've gotten really good with watercolor. It's a hard medium, and when I was in school they were saying it's a dead medium and that attracted me to it. In galleries these days, there are no more barriers between illustration and fine art and cartooning--it's not so a black and white, its very gray. These walls are coming down, it just takes one person to be like "that's legit" and other people just say "well, ok, it's legit."
A: You've referred to these subjects as your kids. Do you think of them as being yours?
P: Yeah, they're my kids – they're all essentially me, or different aspects of my personality. They're kind of like caricatures of different parts of my personality.
That's why they're all like caricatures – like the boy with the large skull-head, and the all-white kid with the hockey mask, and the girl in the green dress and there's the girl in the blue dress – It's gonna be different now, because now they're not gonna be caricatures, they're just gonna be children. They're just going to have normal faces. People will say "Oh, this kid looks like you" – and I think that happens a lot to me, and I think a lot of the time it happens by accident, but if you keep thinking about it, I'm the one making the work, so they're part of me, they're part of my personality. I can't give them names… Neil Farber made a vocabulary with his different characters… see like this one, over there, it looks like me: we have the same hair, the same flat nose – so, there's nothing wrong with it, the work is personal to me. But at the same time I'm able to mask it so I don't feel so exposed, mask it by emphasizing and caricaturizing features, like the large arm or large skull – I remember making a conscious decision to do that. In order to be less ambiguous, I would have to be a little more personal… I wanted to be personal without being too personal, and to leave it up to the viewer. I mean, it's a picture you're painting for someone to see, they need to relate to it in some way. You know, why bother?
Like I said earlier, I don't like talking about my work too much because I Iike the viewer to come up with their own reactions to it. I have my personal reasons for making it, and certain pieces stick out more in certain people's minds, and that's how I want it. I don't want to force anything on anybody, or impose my will on anybody – If someone is going to buy a picture and hang it on their wall, I want them to have their own connection to it, or they're not going to connect with it. There's nothing I can say about it, there's no right or wrong to it – images are very personal. Like when I was showing these pictures of the finger puppets, maybe they were too violent, people were always like "Oh! I love it! It's great" But no one would ever buy it. Maybe they were too violent or too twisted or just too weird, but then eventually the right person came along and bought it. That's the good thing about the gallery scene, and leaving the Williamsburg scene and getting into the Chelsea scene, you get more traffic, more personalities, there's all different sorts of people and they buy and they… you have more of an audience. Nowadays, more people come out to see art in Brooklyn, but to a lot of people, Brooklyn might as well be fucking Maine.
A: How are you finding the whole gallery experience? It seems like a lot has happened with you over the last year, year and a half.
P: It's great. It's what I've been working for for the last twelve years and it's finally happening.
It is a lot of pressure, but like last year, my first solo show in Chelsea - there was a lot of pressure. I said to myself, "I have to blow it out or I'm going to waste the opportunity". It really made me work hard and it paid off; it was really successful and I made money doing what I like. Now I'm being represented by that gallery and I've got another show coming up - I guess it will be late autumn or early winter.
I did this canvas, which I donated to the Tsunami Relief Auction and it was two canvases, watercolor on canvas – that was a little different, there were images in my head that I had to get done like this one. I like to work with Vanessa, because we are kind of in the same
place as I am with my friend the musician. I told her I had to get these out, it's like a transitional piece, so it is harder than that, it is part of a story.That is something that I will have to deal with, but I'm not sure now, it makes me a little nervous, like what they are
expecting, you have to talk, you have to talk yourself up every time, you have to move forward and if you go too far out in one direction it will freak people out and they won't know how to react to it. You are only as good as your last show.
Its like Eric Fischl, who had a great show in the mid 80s, and his next show, critics just trashed him and it took him like 10 years to come back. In the early 90s he recovered with this really great work, so that is something I'm going to have to deal with, or am dealing with. It's not fun, it's stressful, it took so long to get here, so if I screw it up, I'll be pretty pissed at myself.
Its been a little nervewracking. At the same time it's exciting because I have a great idea for sculptures for the next show and I'm pretty excited about it and its just a matter of topping myself. I'll have pieces on canvas and I didn't have them last year because I never thought about having watercolor on canvas. I guess that's what I had to unteach myself after school. A lot of these teachers of the arts have passed their prime, and they want you to do what they did. It keeps them alive. Around the end I had a hard time listening to what they said – "its too graphic", "its too illustrated"... its like, well, "fuck you,” It was just a matter of time before people caught on. And I never thought… It was always if you're using canvas, it has to be oil paint. I don't like acrylic. I don't like using it; it dries too fast; I don't like the way it looks. Some people are great at it and can make it look like oil, but I'm not one of those people. I just used watercolor and was like "why didn't I think of that before?" That is what school does. The way I figure, thirty to fifty thousand in debt and you have to unlearn about 75% of what they teach you in order to be original, in order to make good work.
There is a lot of history they make you aware of and it becomes almost overbearing and it seems like everything has been done and in a way it has been, but it depends on your personal twist and how you approach it, and that's something that’s rough. For years I've worked in the dark because no one really saw it, maybe my girlfriend at the time.
A: A lot of my friends went to school for art, and we would often discuss the benefit of going to art school in New York, versus that of a smaller city, and which was better. I don't know if it's the same at SVA, at NYU you have to go to galleries and write reviews. Sometimes it was so much to take in - sometimes I wished I was in a smaller city so I could shut all of that out. I would start planning things and start working on pieces and come to realize that this wasn't me in this work - this is a combination of four different things I've seen this month and I would have to just pull back and find my own self in it. Did you grow up in the city?
P: No, about an hour north - it's not Westchester, it's Putnam County; there are a lot of farms and woods. I grew up playing in the woods. I would come to the city, my parents would come to the city for something. My mother was born in the Bronx. She’s Italian. I've always planned to come here. After high school I didn't have any intentions of going to college, but after working 9-5 for 8 months I was like, "This sucks, there has to be something better", so I would go to the city and hang out and party. I even went up to Portland, Maine and looked into the art school up there. I lived up there for 4-5 months. I applied to SVA and they accepted me while I was in Portland and I was looking at the school and I liked it, it was very relaxed. I was kind of getting into trouble back home so it was a nice way to clear my head and once I got a phone call from my mother saying I got accepted to SVA, the next day I was on the bus. I'm a little neurotic so I need anxiety.
I've been living here for 12 years. I go upstate to visit family for a holiday or a funeral or something and after 2 days I'm anxious. I need noise. I’ve traveled a lot. I tried to live in Barcelona after I graduated. When I was in school I was working full time, around the last year I was working on window displays and I heard Barcelona is really metropolitan and very into New York fashion so I thought it would be easy to get a job. I was not fluent in Spanish, but at the same time I thought this was the only city I could live in. I was in LA for 2 months - I can't live there. I was in the Caribbean 2 years ago. I was there for ten days and you need a week just to get past that anxiety and shake off New York and then just chill. I couldn't relax on the beach for more than an hour: lets just do something and then it's like "ahhh".
A: Actually, I wanted to take a minute to ask you about your influences. Not necessarily in art or art history – but in anything. What kind of music you're listening to, or books you're reading, other artists whose work you are into right now.
P: It's weird, for so long I didn't go to openings – I was always working. I had a job, and after work I'd go to the studio. People would ask me if I had seen certain shows, and if I had heard of people, and I felt really disconnected. Now I feel more of an obligation, being more a part of it, to go out and see things. I don't know about influences, but there are artists now that I really like. Banks Violette I like a lot – he's great. Tim Hawkinson, he showed at the ACE Gallery – he's not one of those guys who sticks to one medium, like how I primarily do watercolors. He's done everything, he does a little bit of everything, and I like his work a lot. I like Radek (Szczesny)'s work a lot. I was really influenced by Lucian Freud. When I saw that retrospective at the Met, it inspired me a lot. He's one of the only living artists ever to have a retrospective at the Met, which is also cool. I want one of those – I think that would be great. As for music, I'm really inspired by music, and a lot of different music.I like hip hop, but more "underground" hip hop, like Aesop Rock. I'm oriented towards lyrics. Narrative, a certain storytelling thing – like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits. It's the storytelling, it's a big part of what I do, and it's what I like to listen to and look at.