Sean Landers has had a profound impact on my work, since I first saw his paintings in magazines while I was in art school in the early nineties. Something about his abject self doubt really influenced my own interest in making confessional, autobiographical paintings. Only doing this interview, did I come to realize how much Sean had influenced my work, although our paintings could not be more different, there is a similarity in sentiment and a shared desire to expose the more pathetic aspects of our inner monologues. Sean is a great artist, funny, tragic, confident, unconfident, serious, silly, epic and beautiful. I was very pleased that Sean agreed to this interview. It was a pleasure to interview someone who has affected me deeply. Sean was very generous in our interview and I appreciate his candour and kindness.
Brad Phillips– Hi Sean. I have been a big fan, as I know a lot of my friends have been, since I first saw your work in art magazines during school in the mid-nineties. I think, as with your book, what appealed the most was the tragic, funny, helpless image you projected and portrayed. Why do you think there is so little to laugh at in art now? Maybe it was always missing.
Sean Landers -Perhaps it's because people mistakenly equate a sense of humor in art with a lack of seriousness. If there is a lack of humor in art these days, I could only guess that it is because people think you have to be serious to make it. I think there is a pervasive misconception of what genius is in art and all artists strive for it in some way, whether they admit it or not. If you exhibit too much of a sense of humor, I think the fear is that true genius isn't funny. But they are wrong. Duchamp, Magritte, Picabia, Dali and many more all had a very evident sense of humor in their art. Having said all of that, I think there is a lot of humor in the art world still today—think Ashley Bickerton, Dana Schutz, John Currin. All of them are good artists and funny.
BP - Clowns in rough waters are very funny to me. I think the images in your work are often very tragic, and the humor lies in the background, in the text. The writing in your work is very neurotic, but at the same time you are quite successful. Very. So I wonder how earnest you are being in the writing you do, or whether or not it's just a way to poke fun at yourself and not be filled with some ugly Schnabel bravado. Is there a part of you that feels like a failed writer? And how genuine is the confessional aspect of your work? I guess what I'm asking is—are you really that insecure?
Also as an aside, I'm curious about your nude drawings as I hadn't seen that work before I checked out your website (seanlanders.net). Are they drawn from life or do you use reference material? What prompted you to make nudes?
SL – I’ll go through your questions one by one. I am very earnest and I do poke fun at myself incessantly, perhaps in part to tamp down my ego, but probably more so because it's just my natural character. â€¨â€¨I do not feel like a failed writer because I write everyday and am fortunate enough to have a very successful professional career due in large part to my writing.â€¨â€¨ First and foremost, I am a performer within my art. Having said that, I am quite genuinely sincere about the confessional aspect of my writing.â€¨â€¨ No, I am not really insecure at all, although I do welcome a healthy amount of self-doubt. I do vent a lot of insecurity because it's an honest portrayal of being. However, one could argue (and I do) that to expose or confess such insecurity is actually occupying a position of confidence. If I am comfortable exposing that stuff, then I do so, confident that my audience empathizes. The nude drawings on the website you refer to are essentially confessions. They are as confessional as anything I have ever written.
BP - I can see how expressing insecurity puts you in a position of confidence. You can sort of one-up people that way. So confession is a big thing for you. That being said, are you familiar with the so called “confessionalist poets” like Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishops? And since writing is so important for you, whose writing do you like right now?
SL -Confession is an excellent tool among many tools I use. Confession levels the ground between artist and viewer, and puts both on equal footing. It's not like the master- student type of relationship that's too common in art. It's more like by confessing I earn trust and with that trust I can get to work. â€¨â€¨I did read a lot of Ann Sexton when I was first formulating my artistic personae. I read a lot of Byron then too, but the huge influences were Dostoyevsky, Hamsun and Joyce who were all writing from the interior of their main character's heads, which was new and revolutionary at the turn of the last century. I was a real student of all three of them. â€¨â€¨Now I like to read books that describe the true accounts of extraordinary things the author has done and lived to write about, like surviving on a life raft for months at sea or being stranded on a mountain-top in a blizzard.
BP - On your website I was looking at the paintings which I think people referred to as Picasso paintings, but for some reason they really reminded me of Matisse. It's sort of like you have synthesized those two artists, who are sort of supposed to be AC/DC in relation to each other. The lines remind me of Picasso, but the palette and the forms remind me of Matisse. Was this intentional or am I just reading them that way?
SL – I did synthesize another artist with Picasso to make the Picasso series, but it wasn't Matisse. It was Duchamp. I see the art of the 20th century as divided between these two giants, each having their AC/DC opposition to each other. Picasso was a painter’s painter and Duchamp was the great-grandaddy of conceptual art. My Picasso series was a conceptual painting show. I used Picasso the painter to do a conceptual art show, and in so doing, described my larger practice. There was also a relationship with Picabia in this show. He did a funny painting making fun of abstraction called 7091 in which he drew overlapping loopty-loops and colored each loop in different colors like kids do in grammar school. Most of my Picasso series uses this overlapping technique. I did this as an homage to Picabia, whom I admire for the wide breadth of his life-long practice which I wish to emulate. The hyped-up color came not from Matisse but from the Taschen books on Picasso I used as source material for this show.
Sean Landers, Genius, 2001, Oil on linen, 86 x 214 in. 218.4 x 543.6 cm
Photo: Oren Slor Courtesy: the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York. © Sean Landers
BP – Some of your straightest paintings, maybe strangely, are the paintings you've made of comedians like Andy Kaufmann. What was the impetus behind those works?
SL – Comedians perform a character based on autobiography, as I do within my own work. I wanted to illustrate that point so I painted some of my favorite comedians. I also saw a parallel with their need to entertain the audience, which I share as well. Plus, I also trade in “truth in jest” and “jest in truth” as they do.
BP – So how did your painting of Morrissey end up in that section of your website? He's never struck me as funny, although he is a real autobiographical showman I suppose.
SL – Exactly, you got it. He is included because he's an autobiographical/confessional artist. He ended up in that section because I painted him at the same time as the others, and the site is chronological.
BP – Like I mentioned before, I looked at your work a lot when I was in art school. I'm curious as to what contemporary art you were looking at back in the 1850's when you were in art school.
SL – Good question Brad. Back in the 1850's, as you know, I had the power of time travel, so I was looking at my own art work that I made in the 2040's.
BP – I'm going to assume you are being honest about the time travel thing, so what does your work look like in 2040?
SL – It was just me in a room crying while walking back and forth—performance I guess. I didn't quite understand it but everyone seemed to think it was quite special.
BP – Whoa Sean. I'm curious what you think about the work of George Condo, who also has a predilection for clowns and the grotesque. Do you feel any relationship to him? I don't want you to talk out of turn however.
SL – Seriously though (and I hope you know I am just having fun), I like George a lot personally, and as a painter. I do think there is a relationship between what he and I do. I think the foundation of that relationship is the art from history, of which he and I are both fans and students. But there is also a lot that separates our paintings. Few people would ever mistake one for the other. I am way more autobiographical and he is way more classical. I also think he comes out of Picasso, where I primarily come out of Magritte's vache period. But this comparison applies to only one sort of art that I make and as you know, I have gone in several different directions that share no relationship with George.
BP – In the beginning, I think I recall you being referred to as a “slacker” artist. I never quite understood that epithet being applied to you, because it was quite obvious to me that your work was extremely labor intensive. Did that piss you off?
SL - I wouldn't say that it “pissed me off”, however I did find it irritating after a while. It really stuck to me for a long time. I was somewhat to blame for the label myself. When I first read that my work was being described that way I was just so flattered to be written about at all that I probably cultivated that image a bit in early writings and videos. At the time, Richard Linklater's movie Slacker was just out, as was the book Generation X by Douglas Coupland, so those terms were being thrown around in the media quite a lot and at the time it felt vaguely complimentary when they were applied to me. Ultimately, the terms fell away when it became obvious that I was more like a workaholic than a slacker and more universal and lasting than just a Gen X one hit wonder, I hope anyway. . .
Sean Landers, Luck, Fear, Regret, 2003, Oil on linen, 56 x 78 in. 142.2 x 198.1 cm Photo: Oren Slor
Courtesy the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York © Sean Landers
BP - Ok. Let's start to wrap this up. I appreciate what you are saying about being a workaholic. Do you need a deadline to make work or are you always working? Personally, without a deadline, I stop painting. I don't have the love anymore. What do you listen to in the studio? And what do you have coming up in the near future?
SL - I work all the time, but for the past twenty-odd years there have always been deadlines. Still, it feels great to make paintings and drawings that I have no intention of ever showing. As it turns out, those are the things that are the origins of my weirdest and best shows. â€¨â€¨As for music, I listen to anything except the saxophone—it drives me crazy—I hate it. The sax is nothing but a throaty kazoo. It ruins every song it's in. Any piece of music calling for the sax is far better off featuring the trumpet or the trombone instead. There are exceptions, I guess. Recently Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street came on my iTunes via shuffle and surprised me. It's a ridiculous corny old song but I made it through that sax solo. My next show will be at Greengrassi gallery in London in May 2012. I'm working on that show now. After that is Rodolphe Janssen Gallery in Brussels in November 2012 and then Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo, April 2013. And one last shameless plug—I have a big monograph coming out any day now focusing on my early work, titled Sean Landers: 1990–1995, Improbable History, published by JRP|Ringier.
Brad, it was a pleasure to do this interview. Please do call me for a drink when you are in NYC.
Sean Landers, Alone, 1996, Oil on linen, 72 x 96 in. 182.9 x 243.8 cm
Photo: Larry Beck Courtesy: the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York. © Sean Landers
Brad Phillips is a Vancouver based artist with recent solo shows in Zurich, Vancouver, Boston and New York.