Interview by Tess Martens
I visited NYC last weekend and popped into artist, Todd Bienvenu’s studio at his residency, Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, in DUMBO, Brooklyn. It is a large space with big paintings and on the water with a view of the Manhattan skyline. I was his studio assistant for my Shantz International Research Scholarship for my Master’s of Fine Art at the University of Waterloo. I was not the most competent assistant may I say. We spoke about his paintings and him living as an artist based in NYC.
Martens: Alright Todd, what are you working on right now? What is your subject matter?
Bienvenu: All kinds of different things. Some things are obviously connected and eventually, you make enough things to bridge the gap. But typically, it comes from my daily life, personal feelings and daily experiences. I feel like that is a good place to start. Usually, if you start with something personal, it gives people an access point. I guess if you are honest with how you feel, people can access it. I have paintings of this view of the city. First few months of being in this studio, I didn’t think I would paint the skyline but it was undeniable. Alright, I will do one and so it led to a few more.
Then, there’s a concurrent show in Paris with another guy, this famous New York punk-rocker, Alan Vega who is from the band, Suicide. Maybe my show can be about New York and have a dialogue about Alan because he is such a quintessential New York figure. I had these paintings about this girl looking out the window, you see the skyline at night. The girl is my girlfriend. I got her a bike last summer. We were riding bikes so there is a couple paintings of her on a bike. That led to maybe I could do a painting of a taxi or subway. I did a painting of a guy riding a bike run over by a taxi cab. I did a painting of a subway car all crammed with people. It is daily New York and urban life and it’s usually connected. The subway car gave me a chance of having all figures all compressed and abstracted. The taxi cab gave me a chance to paint something yellow. I keep going back to subject that allows me to indulge myself.
If I painted a woman and you painted a woman, depending on the way we feel, it would be drastically different paintings. I feel like I try to think of stuff to paint and usually it is realizing the tone I want to take. My girlfriend shows up in all my paintings and she wears a blue stripey top and you see it again, again and again. So I just have to think of fun things she has to do. As dumb as that is. I am interested in her top and I am interested in her. She is active and dynamic. It’s not going to be her reading or sprawled out in a passive way. She is riding her bike and diving into a pool making a splash, going into the subway car.
I like to put images within images. I have this huge guy covered in tattoos. I like the Simpsons, Futurama, Heavy Metal, different things that I like. I want to come up with an interesting way to put my interests into the painting. With the tattoos or with a t-shirt, a guy wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and it is not sort of a sentimental painting of Kurt Cobain like a teenage girl would make. It can do more than one thing at once and also touch on pop culture references that I think is fun in contemporary work. I want to feel of the time. I am a big fan of going to the Met and looking at old paintings but I don’t paint like an old master. So the tattoos are one way and the t-shirt, to put an image within an image.
With computers and cell phones, paintings of people watching TV and you have an excuse to have people on tv doing things. I find that it is good way to make a sex painting. If you paint people having sex with normal colours, it doesn’t work. I can’t make it work. If you put people doing something and there’s a tv on and there are these blue glowy figures and you’re like, “Oh shit, that’s a dick!”. Then, it sort of works for me. It’s not so much in your face. My mom may not notice it when she first sees the painting. “What is that blue bit?” “I don’t know just a smudge”. Again, I think about my work, I paint about my life, I don’t paint from subject matter or photographs, I paint from imagination. I won’t ever paint a blue figure for no reason but it is on a computer screen, it can be blue. Or if you are watching TV, the glow can make the figure blue. It doesn’t make sense if you are chucking a blue figure in there for no reason. But it’s in a concert and dark club, the world of the painting gives it reason to be blue or green.
M: How have your paintings changed over the years?
B: In a lot of ways they haven’t. When I was a kid, I used to draw comic books. It goes back to what you are into. When I was learning how to paint in undergrad, I was obsessed with Rembrandt, I was doing copies of his paintings; bearded apostles in these dark rooms. My mom has a painting of Saint Paul in a gilded frame hanging up in our living room when I was like 20. It is so silly looking. I look at that, the tattoo guy is a bearded dude, not the same painting but in the spirit. I love that chiaroscuro, painty paint and stuff that I was first drawn to, it’s still there. Comic books have that dynamic action, the guy getting hit by the car, people jumping in the pool. There are a lot of posy moments of that dynamic energy that appeals to me. It took me a long time to be comfortable with the paint. I guess to be comfortable with my own language.
I learned to paint from a model set up and experimented with abstraction or deconstructing the figure. Just going through all my favourite artists and sort of trying to figure out how they make their work, what I can take from it and what I don’t want. It took me a long time to find a way to paint the figure the way that is satisfying to me. Eventually, they went away and they came back, then they went away and came back. I feel like I still attack the paintings like an abstract painter but at the end of the day, there's some stuff that I can reckon with. I don’t want to render toenails, eyelashes and subtle modeling of a form. You put your face up to the paintings and it is colour to colour to colour. I can tell that it is a foot but it does not look like a foot if I have taken a photo of a foot.
M: That comes from memory and imagination?
B: Yeah. Well, look at Max Beckmann, how he paints a foot. Or Picasso, he never paints two feet in a painting the same way. They are different every time. Looking at the painting, the foot needs to be in this top left corner, it’s just going to have to be, I’ll be damned. I want it here so it has to be there. Breaking the rules, the composition and the construction. It makes sense.
M: You use a lot of blues.
T: Blue. I feel like flesh tones look nice against blue and green. Blue is cheap.
M: You talk about your mom quite a bit. How does she influence you?
B: My parents just got divorced and it’s been on my mind a little bit. I just had that show when my whole family was in town, it was great, but you know family is a lot. She is great, very supportive. She has been coming to all my shows lately. She is semi-retired. I have shows in interesting places. I have taken her Copenhagen, Switzerland, last year. She is not artistic at all, her mom was, her mom is. My grandma on the other side has oil paintings that she’s done in different people’s homes that I saw. My siblings have no artistic ability. Well my brother can play music. My parents were like middle class and I got to indulge in the arts. My Dad’s Dad did not have a whole lot of money and my Dad became a doctor which was not an accident because he wanted to have a family and be comfortable in this life.
M: You did your Masters?
B: I never wrote the thesis.
M: Why is that?
B: I was worried about making the paintings. I am not a confident writer. I think I am in their burn book about that.
B: I think they wanted me to. Here’s one of our students...but he didn’t fucking write the thesis.
M: They could still say that.
B: It didn’t make my paintings shitty. I feel like the generation before us like the deans did not do their Master’s. It’s a new thing. It seems like if you want to teach, it’s a good thing. But if you are a good artist, nobody gives a shit. I never wanted to teach, I just want to paint.
M: You taught a little bit.
B: Then they fired me because they found out I didn’t write my thesis.
M: Is that why?
B: I should have put an asterisk on my CV or “thesis pending”.
M: Did you have good reviews from the students?
B: Sure. The kids loved me, we had a good time. Short lived.
M: How short? A semester?
B: Yeah. It was fine. I got to go hang out with the youngsters and got a free studio. I don’t think I was a good teacher anyway.
M: I think you would be.
B: I couldn’t remember anyone’s names.
M: I could see that.
B: (chuckles) It was fun. I sort of contradict myself with not writing a thesis and being employable. I told you this before.
M: Where are you showing next?
B: Paris. Galerie Laurent Godin and a show in V1 in Copenhagen.
M: Do they ask you to show or do you apply?
B: Don’t ever apply for shows; that’s such a waste a time.
M: You have to start somewhere, Todd.
B: No, you should just create your own show in your living room, don’t apply. Applying is a scam. They just make money.
M: I never pay to apply.
B: I won’t recommend applying. I would recommend creating shows with people you like. Start your own scene and don’t tag along theirs. You shouldn’t be betting on someone else getting you a show.
M: I agree. When did you find you were getting more shows?
B: When the work got better. The work was shitty for the first few years.
M: Really. How so?
B: It looked like art but wasn’t art. In the mode of the artists I like but I was not controlling my voice very well. “ Oh it looks like you a Eddie Martinez and Philip Guston.” It took me a while to come to terms with it. In art school, I learnt how to paint from the model and after a year or two, I think I can do this pretty well. What now? It’s literally nothing. It is like learning the scales for piano. It doesn’t compose a song. And if you listen to a song, it’s usually three chords. You don’t need all the chords and all the moves. You just need something else. That thing inside you, I guess. I thought I had to be a “good painter”. That’s less than nothing too. The guys in front of the Metropolitan Museum can draw your caricature. They are really good drawers. That doesn’t do anything.
M: Do you have a favourite painting of your own?
B: The new thing is the best thing. And quickly becomes the worst thing. I start to see the flaws.
M: Aren’t the flaws kind of nice?
B: The flaws are nice much later. Shortly thereafter they are horrible. When I see stuff from years and years ago, the naive bits, the struggle, when I see something that has come out short. (sighs) Wish I could have done that again.
M: Do you have an assistant?
B: Yeah, I got an assistant, she’s great! She is not as good at washing brushes as you. She's a talented young artist, a sweetie. (Showing me a painting) I just start from thinking about factories and cityscapes. Construction of buildings with scaffolding. I started to feel little like a paint factory because I have two shows back to back.
M: Do you like cramming your images on your canvases?
B: I feel like I can’t help it.
M: Yeah, I do it too.
B: I have a hard time with large planes of colour. More, more, more, and more. If I don’t control myself, it becomes a big jumble. I have to take a large brush and edit. I wouldn’t sit here with a blank thing and look at it to get inspired to paint something. I am like alright well “what’s the best colour to go with that colour or the worst colour to go with that colour?”. Start putting it down. I sort of flip my conscious mind and let it take over and hopefully something comes from it. The idea from the building painting leads to the factory painting. Yeah, you gotta do something to do something. That’s kind of hideous, I will do the opposite. That reminds me of this, that would be cool. That’s the way it goes. You gotta start. Otherwise, I would sit here and play on my phone.
M: What’s next?
B: The idea is not to make money. The idea is to make money to paint. Another thing is you quickly get used to the situation that you are in. Years ago, I was sleeping on a couch and I was fine. Now, I am making eight foot paintings, that is fine. I don’t care about the shows. I want to make the best kind of stuff that I want to make. I can see that this life would be amazing to me several years ago, but it doesn’t feel amazing. I work all day. It’s great, like winning the lottery is awesome until you get used to it. Almost all the artists I know who are older than me have sold like fifty paintings a year and nobody would buy anything for a decade. They paint in a kitchen or out in the wilderness. If you hire too many assistants or expand too quickly and the market crashes or if you keep painting in your basement and never take a shot, you’re kind of fucked too. There is no guarantee that I will get a raise next year, there’s no guarantee that anyone would buy another painting again.
M: How do you feel about that?
B: That’s the thing. A few years ago, I wanted to have a show in Bushwick to get some eyes on it. Nobody has seen these. And I would love to have a solo show one day. I would love to have a gallery represent me. Oh that would be so cool to get a show in Paris. Oh I would love to be in a museum. Love for it to be in a book. Start checking things off.
M: I get it. For me, I like going for it then when I have it, it’s not as exciting as I thought; well it is but it isn’t.
B: It quickly isn’t.
M: It’s like “Woah, I got it” then yeah.
B: Right. It’s like meeting a hero and they are just a person. Oh, you’re just a guy with problems too. I used to be so intimidated by the girl at the gallery. She gave that bitch face when you walked in. I just want to be friends with y’all and chill and show you my paintings. They are people from Brooklyn, it’s nothing. I want to never have to go back to waiting tables or working a nine to five. But I mean we will see.
M: You are doing well now.
B: Yeah. I totally can’t complain. It’s a thick hole. Look at an Art Forum/Art America magazine, I never have been on the cover of that but a lot of people have been. Like fashion, they like the young. I have to figure out how to navigate this. I have teachers with great success. They bought a building in Williamsburg in 1980 for $50,000. Rent in Williamsburg right now is $4,000 a month. Okay. (laughs) Then, you have a gallery that represents you and a solo show every two years and that’s it. Every dollar you make, the gallery makes. But if you are not in New York, it’s sort of difficult to meet people. The other day, I met Peter Saul.
M: Oh my god, I love Peter Saul.
B: You just don’t get to meet Peter Saul if you are in Buffalo. And so he knew my paintings. He gave me the prize of the thing.
B: Thanks but that’s what it’s like to suck it up and being in New York. Highly competitive and energetic town where you can go to the Met hungover and go to the MoMA and downtown galleries and talk to artists. Like Jenny Holzer is in this building. I ran into this guy who was visiting her one day. Oh shit, that’s cool!
M: This building is beautiful.
B: She is probably paying market rate for her studio.
M: Did you apply for this studio.
B: Yeah, everybody applied. This is a residency not a show.
M: Awesome. Thanks for the interview!
Artist website: www.toddbienvenu.tumblr.com
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You can spot Tess Martens performing with all her heart during karaoke night because she has to compensate for her singing voice or cracking jokes at a music open mic night. She is a performance artist and painter that exploits her vulnerabilities and humour. When she is not doing art, she is working with seniors. She recently received her Masters of Fine Art at the University of Waterloo. She now resides in Waterloo, Ontario. Follow Tess on Instagram.