I reckon I have known George Boorujy for about five years. We were neighbors in DUMBO. I’ve always admired his work, and I find him very easy to get along with. That is to say, George Boorujy is my kind of guy. We even swapped drawings. I traded him a log truck for a bald eagle. He also makes enormous ones for the fancy people.
I visited George at his studio in the Smack Mellon building. He talked about the big pieces he’s preparing for his upcoming show at PPOW, which opens September 17.
Joe Heaps Nelson: George Boorujy is preparing a big shooooow! What’s up, George?
George Boorujy: Just painting away!
JHN: We’re looking at a giant drawing of two guys and a child in a swamp. I see a bunch of grass in a marsh and guys without any clothes on.
GB: The story here… I wanted to imply two guys in a marsh with some dead loons and I want it to look like they are coming back from hunting these loons. The reason I picked loons is because loons can only live in super clean environments. Even though some of these pieces are post-apocalyptic, I want it to be a good post-apocalyptic, like, shit’s changed, but shit’s good. If people are able to eat something like a loon, the environment’s pretty healthy.
I have ‘em looking like they’re coming back, in a real relaxed state. I was thinking they have some technique they use, down amongst the reeds, and that’s how they catch their loons, but I wanted a casual quality, like that Eakins painting of the swimmers, where there are four or five naked dudes at the swimming hole. It’s very kind of real, and seems observed, even though I know he photographed a bunch of his friends and students doing it, there’s something about it that seems like a real moment.
JHN: He nailed it.
GB: I’d say so. I wanted everyone in this piece, the two men and the boy, making eye contact because instead of a tableau, an observed scene, it would maybe look too much like a diorama in a museum.
JHN: They are looking at the viewer, so it engages the viewer.
GB: Exactly. I wanted it to pull you in, so instead of just observing them, they’re looking back at you, almost as if you were pulling up in a canoe at the site. I like the kid, at the far right, you notice him not immediately, I like him as a weird little punctuation mark, hailing you with his hand up.
JHN: So this is all watercolor ink on paper.
GB: Yeah, ink. This one volcano… Basically when I’m working with landscapes or animals or people what I’m trying to do is have you see it again for what it actually is. If you just do a landscape of mountains, you look at it and just register “mountains” without actually looking at it.
JHN: Beautiful, but traditional.
GB: It is traditional, but it’s the shape of a volcano, but kind of a weird volcano, like it doesn’t necessarily look like volcanic rock. I have buildings spilling out the left side, in the shape of a lava flow, but I want it to look industrial, like it could be an extraction industry, maybe this form was shaped by mining, or maybe it’s an extinct volcano and there’s a reason they’re going down in there.
JHN: There are no figures in this drawing.
GB: Not one living thing in this piece.
JHN: But there is evidence of human presence.
GB: In the foreground, in a notch in the rocks, there’s evidence of people eating there or partying there, there’s a burn mark on the side of the rock. Maybe they were camping or doing some sort of religious thing. It could be anything. I want it kind of up for grabs.
Something like a volcano makes you think we live on a planet, not just like here’s the landscape. The landscape changes. It’s the inside and the outside of the earth. It’s that way with the marsh too, where the water and the land mix. I’m interested in that idea, and stuff below and above the surface, and using the paper as a ground that you can get into, or not.
JHN: I know these drawings aren’t finished, but I like the use of white space.
GB: That’s gonna stay.
JHN: You use negative space in a very Boorujy-ish way.
GB: I like the adjective!
In the show I’ll have a big map of the North American continent with dots on the map. In my mind, it’s where I’m picturing each one of these pieces, but there won’t be a corresponding thing, it’s left up to you where you think it might be.
JHN: And the show’s also going to include a giant pile of rocks.
GB: It will have a giant pile of rocks, which are heavy. I was going to do some other sculptural elements, but I decided in this show, especially since the images are so detailed and rendered, I wanted the 3-D part to be kind of raw.
JHN: It’s really about the drawings.
GB: Yeah it is, but I like that there’s something else in the space to activate the space and it lends it more energy. A rock does something. When you take a rock out of its context, it makes you look at that rock like, what is this.
JHN: Smithson used to do that.
GB: I definitely like his stuff!
JHN: Well over here we have a Western landscape, because there are pronghorns, and some kind of enormous, alien looking building.
GB: Well when you’re going across the country, or even flying across it, you look down and see really big weird shit that you have no idea what the hell it is but you know it’s man-made. Especially out West, there are things people build and it seems so out of shape, alien, crazy.
The idea of this one is a man-made nature, a setting of nature and man, but it’s an object, it’s a huge structure. I did it right after the Beijing Olympics. They were building crazy, outsize, ridiculous things, and also I heard rumors that they were painting the sides of mountains green because they thought it looked better, and they had people out in the Gobi Desert making sure sand didn’t blow in, and these huge large scale things they were building…
I thought about a huge memorial, then I thought about what are the things we memorialize, wars and all this stuff, and what if instead of a war memorial that’s a Maya Lin ripoff with a plaque and all the names, what if we memorialized the violent act of war, an explosion, like a huge man-made building, a sculpture of an explosion that’s pink and garish.
JHN: Well in Monument Valley you see the craziest damn rocks and giant things.
GB: Also the colors are outlandish too.
JHN: These colors are definitely Western rock colors.
GB: At the north rim of the Grand Canyon there are places that are so unreal… I liked it also on this one because it’s like an American pastoral scene, like in the 1800s when they were glorifying the West, and expansion. Like Frederick Edwin Church, even though he was on the East coast, these glorious sunsets, I like to echo that. It’s like an explosion, a sunburst, and pastoral.
JHN: I like the way the horizon line is just suggested. You use the white space to indicate the sky and also the sand. Where is all this coming from? Tell me about some of the work you have done in the past, and how it leads up to this stuff.
GB: I went to school originally for marine biology at the University of Miami. Pretty soon I switched to art. Everyone in that program was working non-representationally. I was one of the only people, if not the only person, who was drawing pictures of stuff. I knew nothing about art, I just knew I liked to draw.
I’d been drawing animals since I was a kid and I basically never got over it. To me it was primal, it was what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to change or edit that. Every time I had a crit it was always defending representational art. When I got out of there I kept drawing and kept drawing. I ended up going to grad school in illustration, which was kind of funny because my whole reason was I didn’t want to have to defend representational art.
At that point, the pendulum had swung anyway. Basically I started doing stuff that was a little more complicated, a lot of stuff about the American West. It kind of ended up coming full circle. As I was finishing up grad school, I did a big picture of a cormorant. There’s no other context, I went back to the way I was doing it when I was a kid. I wanted to just do the animal, and that’s what I did. That led to a whole re-examination of everything I did and I started doing a lot of big animals.
JHN: It’s related to a naturalist, Audubon kind of thing.
GB: But if you take a bird and make it five times its natural size, people will automatically look at it again and think about that animal.
I used to always draw deer, then deer became a very hip thing about three years ago and everybody was drawing deer, and I had been doing deer for a long time and it kind of pissed me off! Before that I did one piece, just presented in kind of a new way. It was the deer looking down on you, like a real individual. I don’t want to anthropomorphize too much.
JHN: I’ve had that experience, camping in the West. I was in a sleeping bag on the ground, and I woke up and opened my eyes and there was a deer looking down at me. He looked totally upside down.
GB: It’s a rare experience! Normally you’re never going to be in that position. I just wanted to present these pretty common animals – it’s familiar – if you see it in a different way, hopefully you’ll look at all of the animals in a different way. Like a bluebird, it’s a pretty little bird that’s on the guidebook cover, and all of that. People think it’s beautiful and cute.
JHN: But you never really see ‘em any more.
GB: Not as much now because of the starlings. But if you go outside the city you still see ‘em. The starlings don’t compete as well outside an urban area. But, they are rare. They have plummeted. At the same time they’re cute to us, it’s a little predator that eats insects. I drew this bluebird that’s as big as a person and it’s looking right at you. It’s still a beautiful animal but you see it in a whole new way. It has big eyes, but it needs those eyes to do what it does.
I think if you look at these things, warts and all, with their lice, and their feathers, to me that’s important stuff. I think the animals and landscapes of North America are beautiful but I depict ‘em with pieces of garbage there because that’s what you actually see. To me, it doesn’t take away from the grandeur but it’s what it is.
So even though I’m doing these imaginary landscapes of fake places, none of it exists in reality. But it could exist and I feel like that’s the line I want to walk. A little bit fantastic, but plausible.
JHN: Is there an environmentalist subtext?
GB: Yes and no …
A lot of my animals, one of the pronghorns here has an ear tag, and I’ve done different animals with radio transmitters and stuff. Our wildlife is managed. The myth of the wild is, like, a myth. I’ve been on a boat and caught a fish that had been tagged. You think of the limitless ocean, but it’s not. Somebody else caught that fish first. That’s how it works.
If there’s any environmental message … I never want to do something so heavy handed, like, oh, here’s the White House under water! My goal is really just to have people look, and examine, and know what’s around ‘em. We are an integral species in our environment. We are not separate at all, even though we think we are, especially city dwellers. And in the suburbs they’re even more separate I think! They take their cars everywhere and they’re never in the elements.
In New York I think we sometimes see nature more. You see which species have actually survived. Starlings, house sparrows, and pigeons. These are three species that are really good at taking advantage of what a city provides. That’s why they’re successful here.
Like the ailanthus tree, called the tree of heaven, which I love, because people say it’s a weed tree, it’s shitty, but I think they are awesome because they grow where other shit won’t grow and they grow fast and they are opportunistic.
JHN: So after all these years of struggle, you’re about to have a show at PPOW. How did this come about?
GB: I’m the worst. I never send my shit out. So for once in my life, I actually decided to take some initiative, and I emailed PPOW and said, “Hey, thought you might be interested,” and Wendy emailed me back, where’s your studio, oh, Red Hook, and she said she had to go down there for something anyway, and she really liked the work, and that’s how it all started, but it was funny ‘cause she gets tons of emails from people, and she said I don’t know why I looked at yours, I don’t know why I logged onto your website, but it sort of seemed to work.
I only ever emailed maybe three or four galleries and they always emailed me back, but I think it’s probably because I only really am emailing ones I think honestly might be interested. I’m pretty realistic about it.
JHN: Well PPOW has an awfully diverse program and they have been doing cool things for a long time.
GB: They do. I like Martin and Munoz, they make these dioramas, like sets, and they had done these snow globes with certain David Lynchian situations – that gets thrown around a bit, but I love David Lynch, so I don’t give a shit. They’ve done some other ones that aren’t snow globes. I think they’re awesome.
I think it helps that PPOW has a diverse group of artists but it’s a pretty consistent vision at the same time. I think it makes sense. You don’t want to be predictable, but it’s nice to have something that’s a clear vision.
JHN: September’s coming, and you’re lucky to have a show, because a lot of artists were preparing for September shows and their galleries closed.
GB: It’s a shame. I was just thinking about 31 Grand. Before I contacted PPOW, I was in a group show at 31 Grand that was curated by Barnaby Whitfield. He used to be there, I think now he’s with Stephan Stux. I really liked 31 Grand, I thought they had a lot of really interesting artists.
JHN: It was one of my favorite galleries in New York, without a doubt.
GB: I was thinking about trying to approach them. I met with Heather a couple of times and I thought she was really great. It was one of those things where she was going to come for a studio visit, I guess I didn’t follow up enough, and also I think they had a lot of shit going on over there. Before I knew it they had closed, which I think is a real shame. It’s hard as hell.
JHN: Well there’s a lot of that going around this year. There always seem to be more artists, and this year there are fewer galleries.
GB: No kidding. It’s a shame because I feel they were filling a niche, with emerging artists, and I can’t think of any gallery that can really compete.
JHN: Yeah, but they stuck with their people too. They nurtured careers.
GB: And they also seemed really nice. And … not jerks.
So, I could not come up with a press release for PPOW. I was like, I don’t know, I draw animals. And rocks, more or less. And grass. That’s about it.
People say to me, your work looks like Walton Ford’s. And I say, oh yeah, I do big watercolors of animals basically. It’s funny, because it used to piss me off. Then I just read that New Yorker article on him, which was really good. It was funny, because I thought, I ought to email the writer because he’s like, “As far as I know, no one’s making work like this, blah blah blah, no one can draw animals like Walton Ford,” I’m like, give me a fuckin’ break. The thing is, I do like Walton Ford’s work, but I feel like we are doing totally different shit. At times I’m like, whatever, he’s just trying to pretend it’s old. But I do like it, I can’t deny it.
JHN: Yeah, he’s good.
GB: Then there are other people, Alexis Rockman gets so much press.
JHN: But he’s good.
GB: I’m not a really big fan of his work. For some reason, I feel like he’s the guy who’s like, “I am the environmental artist!” I feel like he’s held up as the poster boy – oh, an artist who does environmentally themed work! I don’t know him, I’m sure he’s a great guy, but I think his work is pretty heavy handed. I don’t want to talk shit about it because I love the fact that there’s anyone in contemporary art who is making stuff about the environment … About something besides gazing at their own navel and their identity issues. It’s like, c’mon, all right, you’re black, you’re gay, I don’t give a shit. Like, good.
I’m gonna say this. Maybe I’m not thrilled about his actual paintings, but I like the fact that his work isn’t about himself. I like work that’s more expansive, about the world we’re living in, and I feel we’re giving too much fuckin’ attention to people who are just nitwits tooling away in a room, and super, super obsessive stuff. All right, I like stuff that can be obsessive, but only if it’s not just you, working out your obsessive / compulsive disorder!
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Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.