Looking at an Andrew Pope work, the room begins to close around you. You are struck with a sense of claustrophobia and an innate, unsettling fear. You look at his protagonist, suited and sunken eyed, and think, “Oh, my god. Is that me?”
In his paintings and drawings, the New York City-based Pope offers infinite panic in limited colors. The scenes are equally restrained. Pope does not need much to effect a great deal. One is struck with a palpable sense of doom in the angular tapering of a road, the jutting roof of a house. A central figure appears often: a bald, long-faced man in a suit, the collar in an unrelenting chokehold around his neck. The character brings to mind men of the 1950s–dutiful robots, cogs in the machine. It is an exploration existential ennui. American corporatism as the ultimate abduction of the soul.
Naturally, it’s not all doom and gloom. Those who understand tragedy so often have their grasp firmly on the comedic nature of all. In 2014, Pope co-produced the limited-edition zine Inside Outside Baseball with fellow artist–and fervent Pope champion–Raymond Pettibon. The cover features a cut-out version of major league pitcher Don Mossi’s head over a drawn-in body, sandwiched by the words “Vague aspirations, no burning ambitions” and “Why Your [sic] Poor, I’m Rich.” Entitlement, desire, laziness, our welcome surrogates for success: it’s the American Dream and its nightmarish complications, all rolled into one.
On the eve of his new show, But You’ve Never Been to Berlin, running through February at Half Gallery, we talked to Pope about Alice Neel, invaluable friendships, and the one thing that should have killed him by now.
Former occupation and your most memorable experience there.
When I was young, I worked mostly in restaurants. In high school, two friends and I drove from Atlanta to Wyoming and spent the summer living in a tent at a pretty sketchy campground. I found a job washing dishes at a restaurant down the road. The guy I worked with was a Vietnam vet who lived in his pickup truck. He had been through a lot, been to war and to prison and all that, and I hadn’t seen or done anything interesting at all. He was a damaged, flawed person but was full of wisdom and had stories that were equally horrifying and fascinating to me. I had never really spent eight hours a day with someone who was so completely different from me and it really opened my eyes. I needed to seriously expand my universe when I was seventeen. That dishwashing job helped on that score.
How long have you been in NYC?
I moved to New York at the end of 1993. My older sister came here to go to culinary school and I moved with her. I had wanted to settle here since I was a kid. In the late ‘70s, I came with my family to visit friends who had moved up here. I was probably seven or eight at the time. I totally fell in love with this city. The main thing that hooked me was that I could just walk to the corner store and buy candy and comic books and stuff. Just like that. I didn’t need a ride from a grown-up and I didn’t have to walk for miles and miles. And that’s still what I love about New York. You can pretty much get whatever you want, whenever you want it and you don’t need a car. Everything I need is within about ten square blocks of my apartment.
Your first apartment in NYC was _________.
Cramped. I lived in a tiny two bedroom place with my sister and my girlfriend. It was on 84th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. Certainly not the most interesting part of city–in my opinion, anyway.
How did growing up in Georgia shape you as an artist?
My feelings about the South are pretty complicated and conflicting, I suppose. This is true for a lot of Southerners, I think—especially expatriate ones, like me, who are maybe more liberal politically or whatever. My bigger works, the paintings, have less and less to do with any particular geography but I know my Southerness creeps into my drawings where there are more text and collage elements. I’ll have Southern cultural or historical references in there, guns or biblical imagery, and rarely–if ever–do I cast those things in a flattering light.
Some of the more benign aspects of Southern folklore I’m more charitable about. There is definitely a sinister undercurrent down there but also a sort of sweetness, and I hope that comes through in my work. I don’t have a religious or particularly patriotic bone in my body, and I don’t own a gun, but I come from a place where many people do. So while I’m personally not into those particular things, I am intimately familiar with them. I’m mining familiar territory because it’s what I grew up around, for better or worse.
The South has a horrific past and still has, frankly, a disturbing present where racism is concerned. And that’s just the racism. There are all kinds of mindsets and traditions and customs down there that make me uncomfortable. Which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to live elsewhere. But there’s so much I do love about the South: so many of the people, the food, the music, the literature, the scenery, the folklore, and the quirks. Half of my best friends are Southern. But increasingly I find myself less and less nostalgic about the place itself. So if a Confederate flag shows up in a drawing, it’s not because I have any affection for it. Quite the opposite. I do love Lynyrd Skynyrd, though.
Where did Raymond Pettibon discover your work?
He saw my work on Twitter. We used to banter back and forth on there, talking total nonsense, amusing one another and all that, and when we finally met in person—he told me to come see him at his studio—he looked through a box of my drawings and said he really dug my work and wanted to collaborate with me on a zine. I was really blown away because I always looked up to him as an artist, to say the least.
Anyway, I assumed he meant we should do something together theoretically, like down the road or something, but he meant right then and there. So he picked out some drawings of mine and some of his—mostly things he did when he was a kid that he had been sorting through at the time. Anyway, we copied them on his crappy 3-in-1 printer that was low on toner, made a hundred stapled copies at Kinkos, signed and numbered them and that was pretty much that. It certainly wasn’t anything fancy. You could buy them at Printed Matter, Gagosian Bookshop, Karma, Ooga Booga, and places like that.
It was good for my notoriety for sure, but more importantly, it was the beginning of a nice little friendship with Raymond that I value a lot. He’s a kind soul, just a really fascinating person. And generous to a fault. He’s given me a lot of thoughtful guidance and opened some doors for me. I mean, I’m not even remotely successful as an artist or well-known—I’ve only ever showed my work publicly a few times—but to the extent that I have any credibility or following at all, it’s because of Raymond’s blessing, as it were.
Who is the character who frequently appears in your work and what does he represent?
Ha. When people ask me this I usually just say, “I don’t know,” but that’s kind of disingenuous. People naturally assume it’s my father—even he did before he died—and I’m sure that’s part of it, and perhaps even the root of it. But the figure has morphed into something more universal, a sort of “everyman,” I guess. He seems to be at a bit of a loss, isolated and unamused, and looks either underwhelmed or overwhelmed by things. It’s almost always a middle-aged guy who seems to be stunned or stewing about something. Maybe there’s more of me in there than I care to admit. I would like to say that, while this figure is repeated a lot, he’s never the same person twice, if only because I’m not a skilled enough draftsman to duplicate him exactly. So whether I like it or not, each one is unique, like a snowflake. A deadpan, depressed snowflake.
Re: Inside Outside Baseball—did you grow up on zines?
Not really. I mean I read a few music-oriented zines here and there growing up, but I wasn’t really cool enough to be that deep into it. When I was really young I liked war comics and Mad magazine and then stuff like National Lampoon. It wasn’t a zine, but Daniel Clowes’ Eightball was always a favorite of mine, and I still love his work. I got into zines–art and literature ones–more deeply when I moved to New York. St. Mark’s Bookshop, Kim’s Music, and Printed Matter facilitated that.
Preferred method of communication:
Well, I don’t really like talking on the phone and I’m terrible at keeping up with emails, so I guess that leaves texting, which suits me pretty well. And I’m pretty good with face-to-face communication, though my wife might say there’s room for improvement there.
How did you find your current workspace and where is it?
My studio is on Broadway, a few blocks below Canal. I did some work on a documentary film that was edited in this building so I knew it from that. It’s a good mix of creative-types and the people who run the building are nice. I like being close to Chinatown and it’s only two stops on the subway from where I live.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Yeah, I do. Lots of Neil Young lately. Old favorites like Spoon, REM, and Smog. I’ve always really liked Stephen Malkmus, whether with the Jicks or Pavement. So stuff like that. Or sometimes more ambient stuff like Pye Corner Audio or experimental like Tim Hecker. I try to listen to Brian Lehrer most every day on WNYC. That’s my version of talk radio. I need to have some kind of background noise to work. I have terrible concentration, but sometimes I’ll be painting or drawing really intently and realize after a while that I haven’t been listening to anything at all and it’s been totally silent. That’s when I know I’m doing particularly good work.
I read that you’re a poet, as well. How, if at all, does the written word inform your visual work?
It’d be an insult to actual poets to call me a poet, though I used to enjoy writing poems and was lucky enough to have one published in The New Yorker, which was cool. But the fact is it was a total fluke and it was a long time ago. I do like writing–at least in small doses–and, in works where there’s a text element, it’s every bit as important to me as the drawn or painted part, if not more so.
What medium or tool are you most interested in presently?
I’m much more into palette knives and more comfortable painting wet-on-wet than I used to be. I’m using more colored pencils and crayons in paintings.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Not much. Left to my own devices, I’ll usually have nothing, but my wife, who is Swedish, likes that Scandinavian kind of breakfast of crispbread with soft-boiled eggs or cheese or smoked fish and stuff like that so sometimes I’ll have that with her. And I like the occasional smoothie. But in general, I’m not a breakfast person.
What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?
I’ll try to eat breakfast with my wife and 9-year-old son, or, rather, watch them eat breakfast. And then I’ll see him off to school and her off to work and get to the studio by ten or so. I’ll typically work straight through ‘til about four, when I pick up my son from school. Then I’ll help him with his homework and cook dinner and look forward to my wife coming home. And the three of us will eat and catch up and goof around. That’s the best part of the day. After Henry goes to bed, Pia and I will usually—okay, always—stay up too late and binge-watch TV shows we like.
Bad habits you want to quit in 2016:
I want to stop eating so much candy. I’m a total sugar junkie. I should be dead from all the candy. I’m determined to tighten it up on this front.
Artist, living or dead, who you would most like to do your portrait:
That’s a really tough one. I mean it’d be cool to be immortalized by one of the great masters like Rembrandt, Sargent or Van Dyck or something. But honestly, I’d like to have been painted by Alice Neel, who was also master of portraits as far as I’m concerned. I just really love the way she painted people.
What are you currently working on?
I’m continuing to paint oils on canvas, fairly expressive stuff, which is what I’m most comfortable doing. But lately I’m trying to be a bit bolder line-wise and color-wise. I used to do more muted. Most of the paintings have some kind of figurative element, but less and less so. I’ve been painting houses and strange structures and slightly familiar shapes. And I’ve been making odd landscapes where I might normally have placed a person but now decide not to. I’m mining the same themes—alienation and isolation, but a bit more obliquely I hope. I’ve also been painting female figures, but they are from behind, wearing long fur coats and walking away. Not entirely sure what’s up with that. And I still do drawings and collages while I’m waiting for the paint to dry. With those I’m usually breaking no new ground really but that’s okay by me.
What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention?
Two shows really impacted me, and both happened to be at the New Museum. One was the recent Jim Shaw retrospective, which I found incredible on every level. The other was a show they did called Here and Elsewhere, which was a survey of contemporary art from the Arab world. It was a total eye-opener, full of brilliant work. Oh, and also the amazing first show that the new Whitney had: America Is Hard to See. Humbling and inspiring at the same time.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
I honestly have no idea. It would have to be something creative, I guess. I have no other skills. No marketable skills. I guess I have the dishwashing thing to fall back on.
What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
My father always encouraged me to see the world. And I’m trying.
Images by Atisha Paulson for SIXTY