A Conversation with Bill Amundson
OL: Your work is as intricate and polished as fine art, but whereas the ethos of so much fine art is elusive, your own work wears its heart on its sleeve. Were you always attracted to bold statements and to political engagement, or is it something that came about slowly?
Bill: Most of my work is humorous in nature, or at least filled with irony, so it’s always been important for me to get the idea across as succinctly as possible. My work is pretty literal, so it’s crucial for the title and the image to work together to provide a punch line of sorts. It’s a bit like glorified cartooning, with more attention to detail. I also want the work to be relatively populist and easy to grasp. I’ve never understood folks who feel a need to muddy the water with obfuscating “artspeak.” (I’ve actually just finished a piece called “Artspeak Remote” that provides a handy tool to solve the problems of “contextualization” and “authorship” and “post-colonialism” by just pushing buttons. Saves a lot of time and mind numbing conversational monologues.) It seems that regular folks that are routinely enthusiastic about cutting edge music and film still find contemporary art threatening and offputting, and I think the vocabulary and attitude has a lot to do with that. (I’m eventually going to make a piece titled: “Art Exists to Make People Feel Like Shit.”) It seems to me that the visual arts can be as vital, accessible and entertaining as any other cultural form, but for some reason they aren’t (of course, if you’re involved in academia or any sort of degree program you have little choice but to play along). I’ve always wanted a broader audience than just the artworld, and humor and bold statements seemed to be a possible way to achieve that. For a long time I sold the majority my work in reasonably priced doses at festival settings, so it was also important to attract the customer’s eye and wallet. I managed to place a large amount of quite subversive work in many, many suburban homes in this manner. It was very gratifying. The artist and the customer were usually satisfied.
Of course, the other reason that my work wears its heart on its sleeve could be that I’m a simpleton incapable of grasping subtlety of any sort. I do believe that it’s important to realize an idea to the best of your technical ability, no matter how absurd or ludicrous it may be. So I try to draw everything as nicely as I can. You can’t give an idea short shrift just because its “funny.”
As far as political engagement goes, well, that’s something that I’m still pretty cautious about. I don’t really think of my work as political but rather social in nature. I like to approach my subjects with a sense of the absurd. I love the idea of celebrities with their “personalities,” especially in this debased day and age, but I think of them as abstract constructs (brands?) rather than real, living human beings. So when I draw Tom Cruise as a kohlrabi or fuse Donald Trump with a hummer to get two terrible things in one picture, it’s just my way of making their existence absurd and compartmentalizing them for my own use.
Naturally I’ve had to do some political figures, since they’re part of the landscape now, but it’s worrysome. Everytime I do a Sarah Palin someone suggest that I do Michelle Bachmann or, in the case of my more conservative friends, a Pelosi. It’s pretty easy to become a caricaturist in a hurry. Plus a lot of these folks have very bland visages, so drawing them becomes a chore. I try to use political figures only when they’ll work in an unusual context. Combining Rush Limbaugh with Jeff Koon’s “Equilibrium Tanks” had as sort of inner logic, as did fusing Dick Cheney with refineries for my CheneyPlants (Tm). My architectural portrait of Palin, TOWER OF SARAH, works I think because she is such a fountain of material and sums up an era so succinctly-a time when the political and the celebrity fused with the 24 hour news cycle and reality television to create a new life form, or as Aaron Sorkin calls it, “the glamorization of stupidity.” So hopefully a drawing like that will have legs. You never know how long a piece will be vital when you’re picking these kind of subjects. Oh, and I don’t think political art is an effective agent of change. Its just too out of the mainstream. Plus, I’m too old to possess any sort of idealism. Making these folks look like bigger buffoons than they are mostly just gives one an adolescent sense of gratification, which is fun.
OL: Tell us a little something about your “Christina’s World” series.
Bill: I’ve been doing variations on Andrew Wyeth’s classic for 30 years. In junior high and high school we were shown the painting every year, accompanied by the instructor’s passionate description of the sensitivity of the painting and Christina’s specific, difficult situation. Eventually I determined to get even with Christina, and I began putting her in any and all situations I could think of. A lot of times I made her sight specific for the town that she would be exhibited in (The one pictured below was for a show in Austin Texas, where she is crawling towards Whole Foods world headquarters, located in downtown Austin. Sometimes I just use her body parts, other times she’s on billboards advertising a Christina’s World theme park and sometimes she’s just riding on an RV. A lot of folks are doing Christina now, so I’ve cut back on utilizing her in my work. She may make an appearance at her own themed casino on the Vegas strip sometime in the near future, however.
OL: Your drawings can be both gross and subtle, often at once. But I’m interested in your refusal to prettify your subjects, even to accentuate the grotesque. Is this a satire of our vanity, or do you generally see human faces as strange battlegrounds?
Bill: Why thanks, that’s terribly nice of you. I’m afraid a lot of my accentuation of the grotesque is simply the way I draw. I still like to have the sensibility of a 13 year old boy, looking for things that are “cool” and “gross,” which tend to favor the more hideous. That being said, I’ve never been terribly attracted to pretty things in general. Pretty and bland seem synonymous to me, and there’s certainly a lot of that in the art world already. You have to be very skilled to do the pretty=transcendence thing, way beyond my grasp. Also, I’m rather obsessive and anal retentive in my technique, graphomaniacal even, which comes across as grotesque friendly. I may have achieved a certain subtlety to my technique through years of practice as well, but it happened so slowly that I may not have noticed it. Still, it’s a lot more fun to draw things with a lot of cracks and crags and “character” than smooth stuff. Doing portraits of people’s children is my idea of an eternal hell on earth.
So naturally I pay attention to the grotesque and what it means. I suspect my view of the human condition is in line with that thinking. The folks I admire certainly seem to have that. I’ve always been anti-pretense and fascinated with vanity, the ego and human being’s unending ability to deceive their perceptions of themselves. In fact, that’s the central concept to the character in many of my self portraits. I’m the model for them, but the character is a sort of generic, slightly pathetic, slightly dangerous and quite delusional middle aged white guy who doesn’t really grasp the world at all. ( Ok, maybe I am really that character.) I’ve always had low self esteem, so out of pettiness I am probably constantly taking swipes at folks better than myself, but my rule of thumb is that the criticism has to be directed in an outward and inward manner equally. As my work has gotten bigger, the face does indeed take on the feeling of a battleground. It becomes a landscape of sorts, very abstract. To realize anything from its surface with the lowly pencil involves a real, concerted campaign, complete with tactical goals, nearly insurmountable obstacles and supply lines in play, among other things.
OL: You depict not only a debased politics but a debased reality. Even in a picture like ‘neighbors’ … the prying, moralizing force isn’t only outside, it’s inside — it’s the fence that keeps the neighbor out (or is it the creepy hands reaching over a quite reasonable property demarcator)? Is the sinister force you’re depicting something within us all, or something based on specific sinister nodes, radiating outward and infecting all of us?
Bill: Whoa! You’re asking a lowly pencil pusher to comment on the nature of evil? I like the term “Sinister Nodes” and could see it as a great title, but I’m afraid I haven’t thought that much about it yet. May I steal your concept? I guess I do depict things in a rather debased manner. I lived through the Vietnam era as a very young man, and I am still more frightened and cynical about the current times than I’ve ever been. So I guess I think of “debased” as just the way things are. At least I get to find something positive in the things that depress and drive me crazy-subject matter! For the pictures which I truly love to make.
That being said, as a visual artist, I tend to think of things in terms of notions and hunches. Meaning can sometimes just be applied at a later date. For example, the drawing you mention, NEIGHBORS, came from a basic desire to draw some hands on the fence in my driveway in a very sparse, square setting. So I took some photos and gave it a go. (I have been very fascinated with hands lately. They’re a lot more abstract than faces but still carry a sort of emotional wallop.) I think the drawing works because its something every viewer can relate to but remains cryptic at the same time. The creepy yellow atmosphere gives it a real sense of discomfort and foreboding. So I’m rather pleased with it, but am more interested in the viewer’s perspective meaningwise. Are the neighbors aggressors, victims or is the whole thing a metaphor for our relationship with Mexico? Or nostalgia for a Tim Allen sitcom? I’m fine with them all. I don’t believe I need to sell a specific interpretation. I just want to sell the picture. In this case I did.
OL: What’s the story with “Nervous Patriot”?
Bill: I’ve done several versions of the “Nervous Patriot.” This is my first and favorite. it’s also the largest pencil drawing I’ve done. That’s me as a scale model.
OL: Whose work do you look at when you want to admire fine art, and whose do you look at (or read) when you want to think about social politics? Or do you not recognize a distinction?
Bill: As a working artist (of sorts) I look at art all the time, it’s part of the profession. I’m trying to look at new young artists, since as an older fellow I feel it’s really necessary to keep up with things (and to avoid what others are already doing, a distinct possibility with so many good folks making things all the time.) It’s much easier to befriend like minded artists these days with the intertnet. You see an ad in art magazine and you can just write to them. I also revisit established artists on a regular basis, since as one ages their sensibilities and life experiences change and artists that once didn’t make any sense suddenly hold new interest (and vice versa). I also look at all the artists from the canon to see who I can use to make my own unseemly points (at their expense). And then of course, there’s the artists that are personal friends of mine who I just talk with on a regular basis (now that I’m living in Wisconsin, this communication is ALL electronic.) Lately I’ve been investigating Caspar David Friedeich and reading R Crumb’s interpretation of the book of Genesis. I can’t seem to get enough of Peter Breugel the Elder, and I’m looking more closely at Ingres portrait drawings. I listen to a lot of Randy Newman and have found that the Book of Morman soundtrack and the Louis CK show really lift my spirits. I’m also looking at the Chicago imagists these days and Peter’s Blume and Saul, as well as the work of Glen Brown, Frank Magnotta, Melissa Cook and (always) E. G. Rizolli and Ed Ruscha. I need to see what Sean Landers has been up to. It’s never ending. I look at a different set of artists for each piece that I’m working on-I make little file folders and also bring a stack of books into the studio.
As far as social politics, I don’t specifically seek out artists working in that field, with the exception of Bruce McCall’s work for the New Yorker and whatever is going on in the world of street art these days.
However, I am a bit of a media junkie, much to my chagrin, and I’ve listened to all spectrums of talk radio since the late 70’s, from NPR to the crazies. So I’m getting a constant onslaught of information. I’d like to wean myself from this for mental health reasons, but so far I’ve been completely incapable. Since I spend so much time alone, I actually seem to have closer relations to the disembodied voices on the radio than I do to many of the folks in my life. Perhaps I need to address this. Or make a drawing about it.
OL: What are you working on now?
Bill: I don’t have any upcoming shows scheduled in the near future and am not broke, so I have a little time to do a variety of work without a great deal of pressure.
I’m just about to finish a large, low self esteem portrait called PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST. I’m the model for the artist, who is looking directly at the viewer in a rather intense, disturbed fashion, which he probably views as “romantic.” He is grasping three pencils tightly and has no right ear, just a huge scar. And on his bald pate is tattooed a facsimile of Picasso’s GUERNICA. He’s very deep. I plan on doing a few more portraits dealing with the dillema of being an artist.
I also finished 3 more colored pencil landscapes in my HARD TIMES series. Each features a boarded up run down business in a stark landscape, accompanied by signage. The first drawing’s sign reads “Really Fucked.” The second reads “Didn’t See This Coming” and the third reads “We’re Totally Screwed.”
Next up, a large grotesque portrait featuring a businessman of sorts. I might call it BIG BOSS MAN. All I know right now is that the words “Job Creator” will be featured prominently across his forehead. Might have to look at Otto Dix for a little inspiration.
I’ve also got a large landscape planned called ART ALL OVER THE GOD-DAMNED PLACE. Actually, I mostly just have the title.
I’m thinking of a few other art based pieces, including one featuring Kandinsky figures indulging in debauched out of control activity called PARTY AT WASSILY’S and one called CAMPER DUCHAMPIAN.
I’m also going to do some more portraits and landscapes dealing with Wisconsin, where I now live. Most of the art here is really idealized; nothing deals with the real scene, with its mixture of farmers, bar denizens, Packer fans, free trade aging radicals and snowmobile scenes. I also need to address my 93 year old father and his slow witted dog Harvey. We live with both of them now.
I’ve also been trying to work Jennifer Aniston into a piece, but so far no real luck.
Bill Amundson graduated with a BS Degree in Art from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1975. Since then he has had over 40 solo shows and been included in about 100 group shows throughout the United States and Canada. He relocated to Wisconsin in 2010 after over 35 years of living in Colorado.