For over a decade, first in London and now in his Sussex store adorned with multi-coloured clogs, Simon March has been quietly providing a radical, eco-friendly, handmade alternative to mass-produced paints
I’ve always been interested in shops. It was the idea of owning a shop, rather than paint particularly, that led me to open Colour Makes People Happy, in Dulwich, London, in 2008. Growing up, I loved places like Brodie and Middleton, the theatrical chandlers on Drury Lane, which was filled with colours and brushes and powders. I wanted to do something similar, and it seemed there was a living to be made in paint. It’s relatively straightforward to make – a blend of only three ingredients: pigment, binder and solvent – but I wanted to present paint in an evocative way.
Getting started wasn’t easy, up against huge multinational conglomerates; for example, buying only small amounts of titanium dioxide or resin can initially make it difficult to find suppliers. Over the years, I made contacts, and – having moved the shop, now Marchand Son, to Sussex, six months ago – I can now source my chalk and gypsum locally. I like to keep things small – it’s not like I’m competing with those big companies; in many ways I produce a completely different product. I make everything by hand: You can come and watch me grind the pigments.
Creating new colours isn’t possible, but they can be presented in new ways. At very middle class dinner parties people laugh at the names of Farrow and Ball colours. I try to subvert that, to be a bit irreverent, a bit absurd: I started coming up with names for my paints like I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car, Red Stewart or That Guy Will Never Make It Selling Those Shoes.
The ideas for names can come from anywhere. Someone once came into the shop and said, “Oh dear, I do hope you’re going to make some money here,” as though she were concerned for me. Another customer responded, “Wizened old Casandra”. It became a new colour; it’s in the collection next to Withering Scorn and I Resent That Snide Remark.
Opening the doors to his studio, the Cuban-American artist discusses identity, underground culture and art as politics
Artists’ studios are always personal spaces. Hidden in plain sight in warehouse lofts or behind pull-down steel grates, they don’t reflect their residents’ personalities and practices until you get inside and see what’s on the walls.
The studio of the Cuban-American artist José Parlá is no different. A single-storey industrial building in the southerly Gowanus neighbourhood of Brooklyn that’s surrounded by mechanics and manufacturers, the facade is completely nondescript. But once you’re in the door, everything changes.
Parlá, who bought the building in 2014, works in the centre of the space, a wide sky-lit arena hung with the artist’s vibrant, gestural paintings in progress, which recall urban walls as much as art historical reference points like Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha. The paintings have been shown in galleries and museums from New York to Tokyo; a mural of Parlá’s can now be seen in the new One World Trade Center.
Above the studio arena off to one side of the space is what Parlá calls the ‘nest’: a lofted aerie that holds an office with a wide desk; a circle of sleek chairs; a couch for meetings; and a DJ setup currently spinning Marley Marl, an artefact of the energetic New York culture that first brought the artist to the city. Records spill on to the floor: Celia Cruz, the Last Poets, the Warning. ‘In terms of the quality of rhythm in my work, a lot of it is informed by music,’ Parlá tells me.
Below the ‘nest’ is a neat box composed of a library, bathroom, and full kitchen. Light is plentiful, even on a dull day, and the walls and fixtures are painted a warm industrial grey. Altogether, the studio forms a perfect machine for art, life and anything in between.
‘I don’t live here, but I pretty much feel like I do,’ the artist says (his apartment is in nearby Fort Greene). In his paint-spattered black jacket and jeans, Parlá looks as comfortable as he would holding court at home.
The studio’s design was the result of a collaboration with Snøhetta, the buzzed-about Norwegian architecture firm responsible for such structures as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s recent iceberg-like expansion, and the Oslo Opera House, which won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe award.
Parlá met the firm’s co-founder, Craig Dykers, at a Pecha Kucha slide-presentation event in 2010. The two appreciated each other’s talks and Dykers invited the artist to his office to see if they might collaborate. The first result of the partnership was a piece installed at North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library. The intention is to team up for spaces like a public library in Queens and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. But Parlá’s studio is the biggest collaboration so far.
‘When I bought the property, I was having a beer with Craig and he started drawing right away,’ the artist says. The space’s openness, both in terms of scale and the presence of other cultural forms, is perfect for Parlá’s practice, which draws on influences as diverse as graffiti and the French situationists.
Joaquin, Parlá’s studio assistant, brings two Cuban coffees, the kind that you can only get outside of Miami if you know someone who can make it for you. He serves them in espresso cups emblazoned with Cuban flags. ‘As a kid we weren’t allowed to go to Cuba,’ the artist says. ‘I was born in Miami and grew up in Puerto Rico, so I understand the culture from the perspective of being a Latin American and of being from Cuban parents.’ The country itself was still off limits, however.
After President Obama opened Cuba to United States citizens in 2014, change came in earnest. The country’s cultural landscape is changing, too. Parlá is now becoming a public creative force in the homeland he didn’t know until later in life. He participated in the 2012 Havanna Biennial in a collaboration with his friend, the French photo-based street artist, JR. Parlá had just returned from Havana to work on new projects two weeks prior to our meeting.
During this gradual transformation, the Cuban identity has persisted. ‘Cuba’s still Cuba culturally,’ Parlá says. Not everything has changed, certainly not like the overhaul Brooklyn has seen since the artist moved here decades ago. ‘You see one or two hotels refurbished, some young people opening up their own restaurants. It’s not at the scale you see in the first world.’
However, Cuba is not the easiest political environment for artists. ‘There’s still a lot of tension. It depends on how far you take your message with the art, how much you can get away with,’ Parlá says. Making art there is an opportunity, however, ‘to go back and have a dialogue with my soul country.’
In 1980s Miami, Parlá was exposed to the nascent movement of street art and graffiti that was growing in New York and Philadelphia. Friends and family passing between the two cities would bring back photos and art books. He started painting walls when he was 10 years old, learning from older writers on the scene. ‘It was really important to be original,’ Parlá says. ‘We used to say, this guy “bit” somebody; somebody’s a “biter”. That was a big no-no, to copy somebody. If you didn’t have a respectful attitude, you might get beat up.’
Parlá followed the trail of hip-hop and wall-painting to the Bronx in 1995, then moved to an empty loft in downtown Brooklyn in 1997, all the while writing under the name Ease. The energy had shifted downtown with DIY exhibitions. The scene, as Parlá describes it, became an international export. ‘I started out showing in galleries and doing bigger projects in Japan, Hong Kong and London,’ he says. ‘There was an appreciation for New York underground culture there. Here, the museums weren’t really trying to look at what we were all doing.’
Parlá doesn’t appreciate the label of “street art”. To him, the work is all part of an art historical continuum. The abstract expressionists were urban artists, after all, responding to the street. Parlá is as likely to reference artists like Joan Mitchell or Antoni Tàpies, as the graffiti legend Kase 2. As for the Banksy-style boom, ‘We got grouped in with artists who were painting a bunny rabbit hopping over a dragon. That was not the same,’ he says.
Today, the artist shows in estimable galleries like those of Mary Boone and Bryce Wolkowitz – the latter being the New York gallerist who walks into the studio during my visit to check on work for upcoming art fairs. Exhibitions are coming up in Italy and London, as well as a project at the University of Texas, Austin. Parlá is entrenched in the art world, reinforcing a now well-established path from graffiti to museums, just as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and KAWS have before him.
Yet Parlá is still focused on reaching a wider audience, particularly through his murals and other “public art”. ‘You’re having a connection with the public that’s different, than with someone who’s searching for art,’ he says. ‘They might discover that they really love art.’ One can easily imagine the next generation of painters arriving in New York inspired by Parlá’s work, just as the city once drew him in.
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Port meets the Brooklyn-born artist, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, father and man about town during an afternoon at his home and studio Even if you don’t know who lives there, the home and studio of the painter Julian Schnabel is a familiar sight for denizens of downtown Manhattan. As the West Village stretches out toward the water, a pale pink tower rises out of blocks of low apartment buildings and townhouses. This is Palazzo Chupi, a residence that Schnabel designed and built in 2009, so called after the nickname of his second wife, Olatz López Garmendia. The structure, with its stepped-back floors, curved windows and arabesque arcades, resembles a cross between a modern condo and a medieval castle in Convivencia Spain.
To visit Schnabel, one must first make a procession through Palazzo Chupi’s imposing wooden doors on the ground floor and into a tall, dark elevator that features a wall-size mirror, pointed ceiling and a woven bench, in high Gothic style. The doors open on to a sudden mirage, or so it seems: a room of billowing red velvet curtains, stone tiles and enormous paintings covering every available patch of wall – the domain of a deposed monarch in exile perhaps, or one of the best-known and yet least-understood living artists in the world.
Two summers ago, Schnabel was visiting the cemetery where Van Gogh is buried, in Auvers-sur-Oise, to the north of Paris. ‘There were these rose bushes with these pink roses, and there’s this black wall around the cemetery that had little white stones in it,’ he says. The scene provided the impetus for some dozen paintings, which hang, stately, at Pace, like a room of Monets at the Museum of Modern Art, pre-historicised. ‘There’s a work ethic in these paintings, a paintedness that is a very old-fashioned way of being a painter.’
The grandeur of Schnabel’s current surroundings and the Pace exhibition is all part of the artist’s carefully cultivated mystique. As a representative icon of 1980s New York City painting, in all its excesses, and the mascot of the neo-expressionist wave that preoccupied painters at the time, these days the artist is famous for being famous. TheNew York Times called him “the carnival man of contemporary art” as far back as 1982. Schnabel and his several ex-wives and art-world model girlfriends, and his now-adult children – son Vito and daughter Stella – have been mainstays of the society pages ever since.
Another factor has increased Schnabel’s public notoriety. He leveraged his fame into Hollywood as well, tapping friendly actors and funding films with his own fortune. The results, movies like Basquiat (in which Bowie plays Warhol) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, display a unique visual sensibility. A new film project will explore the life of his most recent inspiration, Van Gogh, succeeding his paintings.
Yet Schnabel’s new rose period presents a mystery. These are quiet, contemplative paintings, more introverted than anything Schnabel has done in decades. What happened to the bad boy of the 80s, the builder of pink towers, the unrepentant enfant terrible of the art world?
Schnabel’s salon, the room where I meet him, is hung with paintings from the various phases of his long career: an autobiographical solo exhibition that continues throughout his home, hung between eclectic artefacts like a toreador costume and a Chinese idol. In the kitchen is an inchoate work from the 70s, a dark canvas fixed with shelf protrusions and painted with wandering lines, somewhere between neo-expressionism and Arte Povera. Two of the more recent series much in evidence are the ‘Navigation Drawings’, maps with sweeps of thin, translucent paint; and the ‘Goat’ paintings, in which a photograph of a stuffed version of the titular animal is set against a swatch of 19th-century wallpaper and daubed once more.
The rose pieces represent another turn. Schnabel reclines on one side of a long couch and I sit in a throne-like chair beside it, positioned like a therapist to his patient, but the painter gestures for me to sit with him. He eases back further. ‘I want things to be able to be different and address other things, rather than make the same thing over and over,’ he says, gesturing at the work around him.
When talking to artists, there are certain patterns that emerge, no matter what kind of work the artist makes, no matter how famous or obscure they are. One is that they don’t like to be tied to their influences, even if they are undeniable art historical reference points. Hence Schnabel’s dismissal of my initial suggestion of Cy Twombly as a comparison for his rose paintings. Schnabel is a fan of the late painter, whose play between figuration and abstraction his own work echoes, but Twombly’s flowers aren’t his favourite, he says.
Another reality of conversations with artists is that any attempt to describe their work to them will inevitably fail. This constant falling-short brings to mind the paradox of trying to interpret art in the first place: the experience of viewing it is never the same, nor often remotely similar, to the process of making it, of having your nose up to the canvas and your brush in the paint. The piece often doesn’t mean to its viewer what it means to its creator. ‘You’re doing something and people are all around you, but they don’t see what you see and they don’t know what you’re doing,’ Schnabel says.
It’s this gap that the artist hopes to represent in his film about Van Gogh, now that he has put an end to the rose series, he says. He can let the audience in on the process of art-making from the painter’s perspective, even as the characters in the movie remain distant from it. Showing the reality of Van Gogh’s life and work seems to be a way for Schnabel to reconcile his own fame with the fact of his ongoing artistic practice, though his own career couldn’t be more different than the post-Impressionist’s – Schnabel has sold far more than one canvas in his lifetime.
‘The movie’s about painting. Van Gogh as a human being has been highly mythologised; his death and his ear have been mythologised. It would be nice to make a movie about a guy everybody thinks they know about, but maybe they might be surprised,’ Schnabel says. Over the course of our conversation he pauses for longer and longer moments, either fighting sleep or diving into an inner landscape, imagining the work to come.
By this point, the long afternoon has overtaken the city, the sunlight is starting to dim, and Vito’s living room is hushed and enclosed, an unreal space filled with the living detritus of culture. The roses, to offer up my own paltry interpretation, are an effort to seek solace in the rush of time, a way to begin to find a place in history, if there is one to be found. That the blooms the paintings depict will fade is inevitable, but Schnabel has captured them, to set against every image of every flower that will ever be made by an artist. Here is his enduring offering.
‘Painting seems to last a long time. It’s a wonderful refuge. The painted world is a place where you can reside outside of the world of everything else,’ Schnabel says, and pauses for the longest time, reclining flat on the couch, eyes closed, searching for something internal and then coming back up with it, a vulnerable twinge in his voice communicating a universal ache. ‘In there, there’s a great freedom. Obviously, there’s this crazy relationship with eternity. It’s a denial of death.’