O n  B i g  D r a w i n g s

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Friedhard Kiekeben


       When did you start drawing? Were you naturally attracted to this medium, or is this a more recent concern and engagement?


Growing up, I remember feeling cartoons on TV were made "for me" (as opposed to adults). I got excited whenever they would come on.  In school, we would get worksheets with cartoon characters on them and I would turn them over and trace them. When I would lie in the dark at night I used to see cartoon characters I think I was inventing, sort of scrolling across my visual field. In first grade, I remember, at some point, we were told to draw an aquarium and I overlapped the fish, so some appeared to disappear behind others. The teacher held mine up as an example of smartness. I still remember it 42 years later. It was an early example of learning from my own observation of things in the world, which is so much of what drawing is, and pride.  


I was a drawing machine with no reference to academic art. I copied line drawings from the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.  I was learning proportion that way, but it was all very basic. Real illustration seemed so beyond anything I could ever do.  Shiny armor, glistening sweat on skin, sunlight through fairy wings... I was (and still am) in awe of what illustrators can do. But I didn't know anyone who could teach me such things and I had no access to oil paint; Photoshop didn't exist in the 1980's.


In 1993 I met a great mentor, Eugene Pizzuto.  I say 'mentor' but I was really just one of the many students he yelled at... He yelled at each of us, but very specifically. I remember he threw one kids drawing pad out the window and said, "Take the time while you are walking down there to fetch that to think about what you are seeing. It'll be time better spent than what you are doing in that chair." He would say, "The trouble with you is, you think you're a good draftsman, but... yer not." I was totally guilty. I thought I was great, but I wasn't. 



       What do you make of the traditional idea of 'mastery', which despite a lot of innovation, continues to have an ongoing association with drawing?


By the time I got to college, I had a certain amount of facility line drawing from life. In my freshman drawing class I was introduced to ink and charcoal. I quickly realized I could do effects of motion and gesture that were cool and evocative.  I would whip up my drawings in a fraction of the time as the other students and proudly show off on critique day, barely a speck of ink on my hands. But I recall Phillip Govedare, a great painter and my first real drawing teacher as an adult, he simply said, after the compliments subsided, "I think you got there too fast."  - I was totally shocked. I really didn't understand how getting there 'too fast' could be a bad thing, and it opened the door to the rest of my life. I remember Eugene Pizzuto saying, "The goal isn't to finish the drawing. It's to keep drawing, and ideally, draw for the rest of your life."


Working with Phillip for the next four years in school, including a semester in Rome, I really started to understand how he saw drawing and painting as an exploration. The rectangle was a window into a world he would discover. It began as a collaboration with the medium. He would spill ink, or drag charcoal with the palm of his hand. The point was to witness what was happening, much like one witnesses the effect of erosion on rocks, or a patina of rust, or layers of fliers. He would draw, and cover with gesso, and draw again, and collage, and then dig back in like an archaeologist, searching for... who knows! But suddenly, the drawing would stand up and look back at you. And then you'd know it was done. And you had gone somewhere new. And it was largely divorced from your own ego, because YOU didn't necessarily DO it as much as WATCHED it happen.  This is an entirely different concept of "Mastery" than is typically sought. I'm very proud of what Phillip taught us and how deeply it sunk into every aspect of my life. Every material in life has it's nature. You work with it. You bend it. You bend yourself. You adapt. And anything you do is as much a result of the things around you as yourself. You are just another piece of charcoal or another drip of ink. Your decisions are as random as the veins of quartz in a rock, subject to the same forces of pressure.  This way of thinking makes everything I do easier. I listen to whatever medium I am required to be using before I begin and as I work. I can quickly adjust and adapt, thanks to how Phillip taught me to listen more than 'do'.


I spent a couple years dripping painting, scumbling, gluing, digging. It was a great adventure.  And then...I recall Denzel Hurley, another great teacher who was watching me in class free-form some abstract drawing. He said, "what are you doing?"  I said, "I'm playing with the materials until some kind of space appears." To which he replied, "What if you knew what the space was before you started?"

It was devastating. I didn't know. For me, he was basically saying, "what if this way of working you have mastered was taken away? What would you do?"


I think art teaching at some point is asking questions so that students find what they care about enough to defend.  I could easily have said to Denzel, "There would be no point without the joy of discovering," and carried on. But it struck a chord in me that I was back to "showing off"; that my feet were not fully on the path I needed to follow. I think in art this feeling is more important than mastery in the long run. And we live in a century where that is possible. It is really difficult to ask yourself "what am I doing? why am I doing it?" because it often means you must change your life; and you're always building your life, so every such change can feel like real failure, and involve a certain amount of tearing-down.  Blessed are those who find their framework within which they can challenge and tear down their whole lives. Blessed is the painter who finds himself satisfied by the infinite questions found within that discipline, or the ballet dancer, or the tailor.  Matisse, David Hockney... I have wandered quite a bit among disciplines myself.  And I think for me, it all comes down to composition.


My old teacher Gene Pizzuto talked "composition" constantly.  Composition is the hardest to learn and it is everything. It is the the thing you are doing, despite all your other intentions. If you can think in terms of composition, you are finally doing something on purpose. And until you can, you are wandering, which is fine. But you're wandering.


I recently acted in a short movie. I remember thinking that I maybe had a little more training and experience than the other actors and being proud, and confident that might parts would really shine.  Turns out, upon watching the movie, I really stood out in a way that was naturalistic, but totally at odds with every other person in the film. They were playing a kind of "beverly hills 90210" reality - not real at all, but PERFECTLY FINE, light and fun. Compositionally, my performance did not fit AT ALL. My ego is big enough (and my part was big enough) that I believe I ruined an otherwise fine short movie.  The director was excited he found a realistic actor to play the lead... but I ruined their movie, just by being myself. The composition, the guiding gestalt of acting styles in the film he mismatched and it was ALL WRONG.


I've always tried to learn an art form on it's own terms, (mostly drawing, music and acting). I've meandered for years, but always the last step is thinking in composition(s). Once you have that ability, you can work, as Van Gogh said, "with lightning speed." I don't know if that is mastery, but it is a real sea-change in your daily self. You feel different. You carry yourself different. Because you feel as though you are choosing to do something, living your life, as opposed to researching, or groping in the dark.  If you can learn composition in drawing or in any art form, you can achieve anything.


I think if you are listening, your occupation chooses you. And I think your nature is more important than mastery. Mastery will come if you are blessed to continue to make things for a long time.



       What is a good drawing? What is a bad drawing? 


No such thing as a good drawing or a bad drawing. It is all information. I remember, and I have experienced, art work having a strong presence. Rodin sculptures, Matisse paintings, Richard Serra Drawings and sculptures really feel like people in the room with you. I admire these works, expressive in their composition on a human scale, walking through space. 


 But the truth is that everything has a presence. Some objects are just better at drawing your eye or your body or your heart into them. Some objects use illusion and material to keep us engaged and asking questions of it and ourselves.  We value these objects as they resonate with human attention and even mystery. I admire those artifacts on a scale of human achievement, but really, our cultural ideas of "good and bad" are just so mutable, there is no right answer than to say "mystery and presence is everywhere."  A bad drawing today may itself be the foundation of religion tomorrow.  And a great drawing may be dismissed if it no longer holds "relevance" to the culture. Culture is fickle.


We can point to certain criteria and say "does this drawing  ___?" And the extent to which it achieves that objective, we can say it did well or poorly. A map is great example of a drawing that is either good or bad in getting us where we need to go.

Different drawings try to do different things of course.



       How important is a notion of 'process' in your drawing practice?


I usually end up painting and drawing with my hands no matter how expensive a brush I have at my disposal.  There is a saying that Chinese bells do not have clappers in them and must be struck with a mallet by hand because otherwise how would the gods hear them? I feel the same way about finger-painting/drawing. 


I have often been praised for having work that exposes its own "process". But this has always been a result smashing elements together trying to achieve some objective. I don't wish to become a fine wood-worker, so the oozing glue in my sculptures etc. tells a story of haste, impatience, and a lack of technology.  I will admit, I love the way haphazard construction looks. I love things janky and tied together. I like to point out the folly of human endeavors by building colossal objects of dubious construction. Once it becomes an aesthetic, I think it loses the driving force of intention. 


I often strive for perfection. The little mess-ups, fingerprints, broken bits really make a spectacular achievement seem really precarious and vulnerable. I love seeing that human element. 


The main theme of our project is 'OnBigDrawings'. What do you make of big drawings / or small drawings, and why does it matter?


The word big is the operative word in the phrase "OnBigDrawings". Big relative to humans. Humans on the whole have lost a realistic sense of their worth and their physical bodies: the value of being IN their bodies as well as the value of their lives has been replaced with arguments and memes and downloads. So large drawings are specific in that way. They speak physically to the spectator. As Rilke said, 


from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life  



The world is drawn around us typically in the form of landscape and architecture. We accept these forms as given, as bedrock for going to work, building a family, pinning our hopes and ambitions. We dream in the architecture we were born within. 


We are living in a time of great upheaval of large culture systems and governments.  Murals and large drawings are ways in which a culture can audition its beliefs. The backdrop of a revolution is the old architecture, streaked with graffiti painted late at night, in the dark, under fear of arrest. It's a canvas for those without power to express rage and discontent on a public scale.  



       What kind of relationship do you want your work to have with its audience?


I love to hear new stories from new points of view, from exotic and strange locals. Not to diminish my role or life's work, but at some point I realized that this is not my century. The world is not dying for the lack of another white dude's ten cents on beauty and purpose in the world. 


That said, I am happy to make people laugh. To make them gasp. And to play my role in whatever context I can be useful and welcome. I don't need to speak, but I am quite happy to do so.  I'd like to leave behind a body of work that is self-contained and pleasing like a good pop song that gets played on the radio now and then. I want to make things that reassure people "Everything is going to be okay." Even if the world crashes down around us.


       What do you make of small, intimate drawings, sketchbook pages, beer mat sketches, and scribbles. Are these sheets more 'personal' or can they be art?


Of course a napkin drawing can be great art. I think the more personal an object the more universal. If only you could be as intimate and truthful in large works as you are after a few drinks on a cocktail napkin, you would display your humanity to the world in spite of your 'big ideas'. -And that would be a really good thing.


       The current student generation is hugely influenced by graffiti and Manga culture, as well as a desire to represent things in more classical ways. How do you relate to this trend?


I am currently enjoying the storylines of cartoon series such as Avatar, and HunterxHunter. In addition to being from another culture and new to me, they are just hyper-complex, much like the Bagghavita; full of stories that ramble from one to the next until there is no beginning and no end. A cool metaphysical trait built into the structure.


I love graffiti, but it's another planet for me. I don't know anything about it!


       How would you define the fundamental differences between painting and drawing? (A quote: 'A drawing is a painting made with less paint', ... Henry Matisse).


Matisse is always right.  The line between drawing and painting... possibly between drawing and anything that involves mark making is blurry. 


I guess I think of drawing as a short-hand aimed at one particular idea. As soon as there are two ideas, it becomes ambitious and becomes something else.  A hastily drawn picture of my house is a drawing. Add the corner store, and now it's a map.


       In 2010/2011 MOMA in New York staged its biggest drawing exhibition of the 20th century, and it was called 'On Line'. Do you think drawing is necessarily just about 'lines'?


I prefer 'mark' to line. And i do feel irritated by a 'drawing' that is made only by smudging graphite in a realistic depiction of a face etc.  Sure, that would count as a drawing, but... lame. Go blow your hand print on a cave wall why don't you? That's a painting, not a drawing. Even if its graphite.


What I like about drawing is the contradiction. You see simultaneously the grand image the person wants you to see as well as the dirty scratches that make up the illusion. I love that.


       Asian drawings are known to celebrate a notion of 'emptiness'. Do you seek 'emptiness' in your work?


Absolutely. Sculpting meaningful emptiness is the ultimate expression of any form and the most difficult thing to do. It is essential to consider from the beginning, but often times its the thing you end up scrambling to "put back in." which is silly. You should probably start over.


       Traditional drawing is a more intimate and 'personal' artform, yet a lot of contemporary art practice seeks a more social and participatory dimension. How is this reflected in your projects and drawings?


My cartoons are on youtube for the world to see or ignore as they wish. I dislike the immediate commodification of these videos with unrelated ads attached to the sides of the screen. Even rejecting the ads before my videos, the platform itself is just there for ads. It is a delusion, that I participate in, that the platform is doing anything but stealing our content to get rich itself.  But it is where the people are. So I put my work there. I greatly enjoy the commenting of strangers for better and worse. It is a far more satisfying creative relationship in many ways that I have with these strangers than I have had with my own work in museums and galleries; primarily for the lack of pretension. This is the bottom. We've all sold out, clinging to the corporate skirt, talking to each other. Which, I think makes me sort of a jester, entertaining mostly (my demographic reports tell me) men 13-28. Hiliarous.


Similarly, I have created a world and persona that extends to instagram. At one point I also created a fake dating page for cartoons, but it became a waste to continue to fund and brought no traffic.


       Drawing is often treated as a very technical medium in art education (especially in US art schools). Do you think there could be other ways to teach drawing?


I feel like I missed out on much of the technical aspects of education. My teachers were always more interested in teaching us to be artists first, using metaphors and crazy assignments that challenged us to rethink who we were as people, rather than taught any particular aspect of drawing.  Or perhaps I just gravitated to these professors. 


       One question foremost on my mind, was: how do the artists respond to Covid-19 and the global crisis, and do you think the new situation has an impact on your creative practice, your exhibitions and projects, and the nature of work being affected by working from home for extended periods of time? Perhaps artists start making smaller scale, more intimate works, made from simpler and easily accessible materials ?


The pandemic has caused me to scale back large endeavors in favor of smaller more modest ones. I'm grateful for my cartoon as a place to continue to present work. I have spent a lot of time writing longer work solo and collaboratively over Zoom, aimed toward develop the cartoon into a longer format. I am currently editing a narrative podcast (a sci-fi comedy) written with writer David Zorn. We finished that script during the quarantine and have been recording the voices the past month. It's great fun and a wonderful diversion from the problems of the world.




www.jeffharmsart.com

(630)205-0768





Thank you for these wonderful insights into your creative work and process.

At first glance, your cartoons, animations, walldrawings, and sculptures seem to cover a very wide spectrum of forms. Yet, I think there are some very interesting common threads. One thing that Jeff Hobbs the Cartoon, your sculptures, stories, and drawings all share is both a sense of 'longing' and 'utopia' -- striving for perfection -- but humanity never quite gets there. What are your thoughts on this?


I think there's an element of comedy in my aesthetic, whether I'm building something out of sticks or animating a character. I think I go back and forth, for example, I will get lost in getting a gesture animated just right, or the cat to look real, but then I remember, "no one cares! This is a comedy!". So then I can make very light and simple gestures alongside more carefully drawn elements. I think that's hilarious. I like art I can relate to on a human level; full of mistakes, but somehow balanced. I love the woman who recreated a whole kitchen in sequins, Liza Lou. I remember she said she came back from the Sistine Chapel and she was like "How am I gonna recreate that kind of grandeur with my history." As Americans we really celebrate these details of our humanity in a working-class way. It's why Marlon Brando's style of acting took over. It's why I love the book Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. It's finding meaning in the simplicity of everyday life. For me, humor is the quickest way to bring my 'self' along, whether I am acting or drawing; But it can also be a brush stroke or a break in the voice.


CONCEPTS AND KEY THEMES In the past six years, I went from making large-scale outdoor sculpture to acting and animating. There is this horizontal line in every cartoon. That 'horizon' is the holdover from my large drawings and public sculpture. Here it becomes a desk, or a fence, or a dashboard. Finding a million ways to use that line is totally ridiculous, but I love it. The characters all strive for something more grand than they have been dealt in life, without knowing what that should be; they try on different postures, different costumes, they seek fulfillment by dating, or making friends.


The inspiration I once found building sculpture on a human scale, I now get from animating smaller gestures in a 2D cartoon, or from making my own gestures, as an actor on camera. The sense of 'finding myself' relative to art in real space, is now provoked narratively, by sharing relatable life experiences. I realize that I sound like an alien trying to explain what movies are to the mothership. But I don't mind. I have always been a big fan of reinventing the wheel. Especially if there is an element of comedy and not taking oneself too seriously. Jeff Hobbs has a giant head and a deep voice that draws you in, but you quickly realize this guy is struggling. And that's comforting. The sadness and the melancholy is comforting and hilarious. He's my Stan Laurel, my Jerry Lewis. He takes the fall and makes the rest of us feel graceful and smart.


I am actor living and working in the world of Hollywood. So while the pandemic has got me auditioning via zoom and 'self-tapes' I've also been afforded the much-needed alone-time to recollect and plan about Jeff Hobbs. Which, in LA-speak, translates to: I wrote a Jeff Hobbs pilot. As a non-animator, I'm trying to figure out how to create these cartoons longer, faster and on a larger stage; I'm terrible at asking for help, know nothing about the business, so I just keep making them slowly, hoping they gain a critical mass at some point; which ideally draws the attention of a larger platform to launch the next step. It's a way I have learned to trust, to slowly find out why you are really making something in the first place. All art-making, even waiting for the phone to ring, is a feedback loop that helps you discover what you really care about.