PeopleMatter: Interview with Nic Rad


Nic Rad, Baratunde Thurston

Lara Cory: How did you get the idea for PeopleMatter?

Nic Rad: PeopleMatter was the result of staring at the unfinished novels piling up next to my laptop with many browser windows opened on paused YouTube clips. I had endless lists of authors I wanted to read and people I wanted to email and thoughts I wanted to complete.

Instead of completing them I’d open another window and engage in casual foreplay with some other set of ideas.

My internet habits were mirroring my analog habits. Authors begat journalists begat friends begat celebrities begat bloggers and all turned to avatars and twitter streams. Faces were becoming little graphic symbols and placeholders for whole philosophies.

I thought this might be true for others. That’s what I wanted to paint.

LC: How does the selection of your subjects (journalists, bloggers, media personalities, and infolebrities) relate to the concept of the PeopleMatter exhibition?

Nic Rad: If you spend any time around the digital media industry you’ll hear a lot of talk about eyeballs and index fingers. Who is looking and who is clicking. There are so many economic and analytic ways to evaluate this. But what I am trying to do is assemble the blurry, gooey, organic features of the other humans staring through this window. I’m obsessed with eyeballs and index fingers too—but for different reasons.

It’s a very vain effort and there is an awareness of failure in each image. I am trying to create something very imperfect. The aim is to make something better than “work-for-hire”—not illustration or flattery—but certainly short of a masterpiece.

LC: Interesting . . .

Nic Rad: I’m not talking about “bad painting” exactly. I’m more interested in concision and a few focused techniques to tell loose visual stories. I like to allow for the intelligence of a viewer to browse through the visual field, and “link” out. I’m trying not to give myself too much credit, and also not overestimate the viewer’s engagement. It’s hard to strike that balance.

The greater effort, and I hope the greater impact, is contained in the cloud of intrigue and process surrounding the work. The works themselves are just the platelets. I want them to be produced and also to flow in the right proportions. Giving some of the work away “free” is an effort to regulate this movement. I tried to select subjects which I believed would aid in that flow.

Nic Rad, Clay Shirky

LC: Are there formal decisions behind how each subject is painted? Is your choice of colour and style relevant to the subjects?

Nic Rad: Absolutely, yes. My formal decisions are reactions to the subjects—which vary greatly depending on the day I’ve painted them. I am an obsessive formalist who is in the middle of a kind of career-suicide. I’m painting in plastic.

A calmer way to put that is that I’m increasingly aware that art-making as a closet activity is not a life I admire or want. If you’d like to geek out with me about technique—you’ll have to come visit me in the studio. I’m after the community and the relevant cultural conversation however ugly, messy, short-lived and embarrassing that can feel. Great art is some combination of the hermitic life and the extroverted.

This kind of painting requires a certain speed and stops looking and feeling like art. It starts to look like fan fiction or signage or candy wrappers; it looks like everything but nice furniture . . . which is why I believe I’m doing something right.

It’s also pretty much insane. Using traditional materials to paint about digital conversations is an exercise in alchemy. When it’s working it’s basically a miracle.

I’m generally a pretty rational person. But it’s thrilling to know that I can paint a picture of a complete stranger, and a week later have a cup of coffee with that stranger. I feel like an oracle, communing with the spirits. It’s joyful, and silly, awkward, and perhaps very creepy. All good things to me.

LC: Can you explain the “Should I paint you?” section of the website?

Nic Rad: When this project began popping up on blogs and social networks—it became interactive. I wanted to be clear that I was on a search here, and that if you really wanted to join, grab your things and come on!

That’s to say: if you feel that you’re a member of the media and are on some inexplicable trajectory and that I should consider painting you instead of one of my current subjects—tell me why. There’s a decent chance I’ll agree with you and make a replacement.

Nic Rad, Perez Hilton

LC: You make a distinction between selling and giving away certain portraits, what does this mean? Will any of the portraits be sold?

Nic Rad: 99 of the portraits will make up the official PeopleMatter project. Those will be given away on April 29th. As new subjects lobby to be painted (by email, twitter, Facebook, in person, etc), I’ll remove previous subjects and put them on the Paywall.

The Paywall portraits are for sale traditionally.

There is a question about which is more exclusive. You can simply buy the Paywall portraits—you cannot buy the free portraits. You’ll have to convince me that you’re the best person to own it.

Not everyone has the means to buy the Paywall paintings. We are dealing in different types of exclusivity.

It’s as much of a reaction to the erratic models of pricing in the print and media industry as it is a method of selling. I am emulating here—not claiming that this is the best, or even a very clever way to approach it. My art is not about being right, or winning. Not for now.

LC: How did RARE gallery feel about hosting this unique exhibition? What’s in it for them?

Nic Rad: This is the most difficult question for me to answer because I feel fortunate to have a gallery which supported these efforts at all.

On the other hand I feel a bit of personal pride in defending the value of projects that are not typical or simple or cash-for-sweat based.

RARE supports the work of a variety of artists with different aesthetic tastes—the general link is that the artists make objects. There are plenty of painters there who make terrific images. I like them very much. They typically don’t dabble in overt economic experiments. “What the market will bear” is a very difficult way for an artist to make a living and deserves great respect. To that end I’ve rocked the boat a little.

LC: Can you talk more about this?

Nic Rad: I’ve gotten nothing but support from the owner Peter Surace, but I’ve wondered all along if it was the proper location for this kind of project. An apartment show may be just as appropriate. We had discussed this a bit before settling on the show in a gallery. I’ve also made four large, and three average sized works that are for sale in a traditional manner. It’s two shows in one, I suppose.

This was not about cutting the gallery out of the conversation. But yes I do think the future of the art conversation includes a kind of dissembled gallery. Escape Into Life is intriguing. So are many of the “priced for flow” print experiments like 20 x 200. How these sites will mirror or alter the art and commerce relationship is something I’ve thought about a fair amount.

I prefer to think of the physical gallery as a place to celebrate and party. But that’s because I don’t run it. Peter’s never had that “shark in the water” mentality that you hear associated with New York art dealers. RARE gallery is a very personal undertaking for him. It’s undoubtedly for the love of the artists, and not the money. If I’m being honest, I’d encourage him to make it more about the money. Forgive my contradictions. I have an MFA in painting.

Nic Rad, Salman Rushdie

LC: How have people received the idea for your project on the web?

Nic Rad: I’ve been encouraged by the response; in fact it’s been rather overwhelming. I’ve been swimming and now drowning in emails, responses, requests, and other stranger things. I didn’t understand page views and uniques until this all began and now I feel rich 2.0 (meaning, only in theory). There are a tremendous number of people aware of my work and RARE that had not been before. They’ve engaged with a kind of art-making that I feel is in stride with a cultural dialogue. “For whatever that’s worth.”

Prior to committing to this project full time, I worked for around six months at a PR firm. I was not exactly cut out for the separate peace I needed to make with the guesswork in setting a value on those kinds of services . . .

I could argue for the value of attention that this project has brought to the gallery. I could run the press clippings through a word count and use an algorithm to tell you what we’d charge in contrast to ad dollars, for this “buzz.” All of those things would make me horribly sad. You wouldn’t believe them and neither would I. Somewhere in the churning belly of the beast, sales would dictate our fates as lonely and miserable and unfulfilled. Maybe we’d try to buy art with our profits.

LC: Does this experience then inform a personal philosophy of yours?

Nic Rad: My political leanings sit somewhere between radical individualism and absolute socialism. This is where I’m coming from . . . it’s a very dysfunctional mindset. My more successful political allies are fabulously wealthy off their art and would shank me on the train if I name dropped here. So far I’ve succeed as an ambitious and earnest failure—which is the most direct line to selling out. That’s not lost on me.

The great majority of shows you’ll see in any metropolitan art district, especially in a place like Chelsea, are economic failures. If your appreciation of art begins by reading a price tag, your future is already sealed. “What the market will bear,” is usually the celebritization of the many other cultural dialogues that produce “Art.” I try to see that for what it is.

I’d rather manipulate that mechanism in reverse. Wind the wheels.

Not surprisingly the dissent and disgust for my project comes from the same sort of artists that would have cash-and-carry type shows and sell a few things and not make the nut before moving to Berlin and getting really into Techno and psychotropics and working at bookstores that are actually subsidized by hash sales. I can’t say I don’t understand this kind of dissent.

Jen Dalton and William Powhida made one of the best projects that has ever taken this issue on. They turned the gallery into a thinkspace with chalk board walls and organized an incredibly uneven and diverse number of events based on open submissions.

I was included in that show, but it should be noted that my contribution was a 20 minute love poem to James Franco. Sincere. Non sexual(ish). Call me sometime, James.

LC: How do you feel about giving away 18 months of work?

Nic Rad: I feel great! It’s like I’m Santa Claus and Stalin, together at last. I’m mad with power.

To be honest, I don’t know yet. Get back to me after April 29th. Let’s get lunch.

Check out Nic Rad’s PeopleMatter Series


Lara Cory recently completed her first novel and she’s starting a food blog. She’s always been interested in music, writing, art, film and books. She studied Communications and Music and lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband and two small boys.