In the Studio with Pop Artist Todd Gray

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When the Pop Art movement came into vogue in the 1950s, it threw the stuffier traditions of fine art into chaos with the introduction of Mass Culture as Subject. It was democratic—some would say vilely so—in its welcoming of color, advertisements, and comic books. Oftentimes the resulting works weren’t technically originals; they were remixes—which, as a concept, it was argued, was original itself. The movement, defined by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, was controversial, and has left an indelible mark on culture to this day. And it definitely made a mark on Todd Gray.

Based in Los Angeles, Gray creates works that could be described as a “remix of a remix.” His cubist sculptures, built from wooden blocks inspired by childhood toys, break apart familiar markers of Pop Art and physically reassemble them, occasionally alongside contemporary references. It’s a loud and vibrant grab bag of super heros, smiley emojis, POW!s, WHAM!s, and more. Like his predecessors, Gray’s work builds upon the work of others, creating something new in the process.

While Gray likes to play with dimensionality, the artist has been known to dabble with in, well, flatter formats. In 2018, Gray was commissioned to create a large-scale mural for the World Trade Center, and, as of last week, you can find one of his paintings in the lobby of SIXTY LES. Titled “Yesterdaze,” this graphic piece in black and white is rooted in the movement and energy found in psychedelia. It feels, for lack of a better word, groovy. Visitors and guests can take a bit of “Yesterdaze” home with them in the form of beach towels and tote bags, both available for purchase in-room or poolside. Now how about that for democratizing art.

Below, Gray let SIXTY into his studio to talk fated connections, Grateful Dead, and an aversion to Battleship Gray.

Tell me a bit about the merch collaboration with SIXTY:

Well… I’d have to say it’s is a mixture of divine inspiration, angels, and many years of somehow manifesting magic. I know that sounds wacky, but it’s basically the truth. I am still, after all these years—34 or thereabouts—in awe at the benevolence of the universe in continuing to allow me to do what I love on a daily basis.

Merch collaboration: all sorts of chazarai. My right-hand man Hilary Rose is in charge of it. It’s all really cool stuff. For decades I’ve been focused and (stuck) in the fine art world: make beautiful work, sell beautiful work to rich people, then never see it again. It only took three decades to realize what a ridiculous business model this is. So… instead of focusing solely on the top .1%, we decided to create all this amazing merchandise out the language I’ve somehow created over these many years.

And what about the “Yesterdaze” painting?

The “Yesterdaze” design came from my love of psychedelia from a very young age.  The piece I created for SIXTY is surprisingly one of my favorites. What is fascinating about it to me is that it is literally one of the very simplest pieces I have ever done. Black and white. Visually fascinating. Kind of trippy. It is said that some of the best songs ever written were written on a napkin in a state of simple inspiration. This is my napkin piece and I love it.

Favorite cartoons growing up:

Chester the Molester. Mad magazine. The Simpsons.

Super hero you most admired:

My father and probably Jacques Cousteau.

First noteworthy attempt at art, successful or otherwise:

I was in third grade and was somehow able to get into the sixth-grade art honors class. I think my mother had something to do with this, but I excelled. I developed the only thing in my life that is unshakeable: the confidence in my ability to make great art. Even my chronic anxiety and completely crazy neurosis were not able to shake it. This confidence is at very fountainhead of all the good things in my life and it’s carried me through the decades on a magic carpet.

Do you remember your initial encounter Pop Art?

I would have to say that my initial inspirations for art would have to be the Psychedelic movement of the sixties and seventies. Rick Griffin, Mouse and Kelly, Moscoso, Wilson. I was also heavily influenced, in particular, by Roger Dean, who was the artist who did the amazing album covers for the rock band YES.  He was a huge inspiration in my formative years as I dreamed of one day painting album covers myself. I am not sure I would be doing what I do today if it were not for him, though my work does not resemble his at all.

I was also quite influenced by the Op movement—Vasarely and Agam, in particular. Given that my parents were Jewish and into art during that time, it was no coincidence that we had a few Agam’s on our walls. I, of course, was influenced by the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, as they were coming into their prominence as I was growing up. And I loved the work of Robert Indiana. I cannot in any way discount their relevance to what I do today and I sample them as a way of placing my work and using my own language into a sort of historical perspective.

Pop Art work or artist you keep revisiting and why:

The Pop artist I think I keep revisiting the most is most likely Roy Lichtenstein. So many artistic movements and roads lead back to him. Cartoons and comics as art… as important art. The Ben-Day dots, the clean lines, the bold opaque color. It is almost impossible to not see his genius and influence in so much of everyday life and society today.

What elements of contemporary popular culture are you incorporating into your art today?

I like to include as many elements into my artistic “soup” as I can. These are all thrown into a gumbo of sorts, mixed around vigorously and what comes out is my artistic language—a language that is by no means haphazard or accidental. Rather, it is the culmination of over three decades of focused endeavor. I often use emojis these days, which, to me, are the most ubiquitous images of contemporary Pop Art in the world today. Hashtags, emojis, numbers, polka dots, stripes, opaque color, comic, and superhero imagery. Yada yada. It’s all there.

Where is your current studio and how did you find it?

My current studio is in Los Angeles. I have lived in L.A. for much of my life and have had many studios over the years, including ones in San Francisco and Hawaii. The one I am in now is attached to my cabinet company. It’s a great set-up: a very large warehouse with employees, spray booth, storage rooms, offices, all the woodworking equipment I need. I would prefer a barn in nature, but right now, this set-up is pretty great. I feel blessed.

Do you listen to music when you work? If so, what?

Music is the backdrop to my life. I am a musician myself and have been playing drums in a band for many years. One of the great blessings of being an artist is the freedom it allows you to make art and listen to music. I have been into all forms of music throughout my life. Music is often the very inspiration that gives my worklife. My favorite bands are Phish, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. I’ll stop here as there are far too many to mention or list.

Color you’re most drawn to at the moment:

The color I’m painting at this moment or the next… as Sting said when asked what his favorite song was: it’s “the one I’m working on now.” That’s accurate. Though I will say I’m not a big fan of Battleship Gray.

Material you go through the most of:

Masking tape or vinyl for my plotters. It seems we fly through acrylic paint as well.

What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?

I just finished Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda for the third time. I have recently started reading Joe Dispenza and a host of others. I listen to many podcasts as well, like Tim Ferris and Malcolm Gladwell, and I’m constantly listening to books on Audible. Also: I was camping backcountry in Sequoia last week. Mineral King. That’s is all I need to say.

Favorite gallery/museum in Los Angeles:

I don’t take advantage of much of what L.A. has to offer anymore. I hate traffic.

Favorite gallery/museum in New York City:

I’ve always loved Robert Miller in NYC because they carried the work of Al Held. I would regularly hit 100 galleries in Chelsea in one afternoon so it’s too hard to remember them all. My favorite gallery in NYC at the moment is The Compound in the Bronx. It’s a jewel and you will all know of it soon.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received:

Don’t eat yellow snow.

At the moment, would you say you’re feeling more ZAP, POW, or WHAM?

I’d say more BIFF or SNIZZLE.

Photos courtesy of Tyler William Parker for SIXTY Hotels

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