Michael Hambouz is an artist and musician, using a variety of materials and techniques to capture imagery, narratives, and sensations as experienced through intimate connections with people and places. His practice comprises diverse media and processes including cut paper collages, acrylic paintings on both flat and sculptural wood panels, line drawings, and layered screenprints. Through these different approaches, he creates abstracted portraits as tributes to his family and friends, disjointed architectural models to deal with adverse personal interactions with places, and multidimensional constructs to manifest a dreamlike state. Working simultaneously on multiple series, the choice of media and technical approach are custom to solve the problem at hand. His radiantly hued and complexly layered artworks are auto-biographical, echoing the feelings of experiences through a process of self-healing and reflection.
Picnic: I like to start each picnic by asking what you’re working on now and what we’re surrounded by, which in your case, might be a long answer since every inch of your studio walls are covered.
Michael: I’m working on a few different things right now. I’m working on this painting, which is based on a cut paper model I made of the interrogation room of the police precinct in Greenpoint. Two months ago a neighbor was murdered outside of my apartment window, and the police asked me to come in to look at possible suspect photos. I had to sit in that room for hours, nervously chain smoking. It’s the only public space that you’re allowed to smoke in anymore. I did a bunch of sketches while I was in this room. I was frozen in this 1960s/70s time period where the interior and the paint and the furniture hadn’t changed and the smoke was still trapped in there. You could feel this weird intense energy. The process behind a lot of things that I work on is working through intense situations that I encounter. Through different methods of working with various materials I find that I work things out in a lot of ways, especially when I go back to cutting paper. It’s this delicate precise way of working, where you have to be in this calm zen like state to make something that is meaningful. That is the state I work in when I need to ground myself again. While working on these pieces, I actually quit smoking, after 25 years … it’s been 64 days today.
P: There are two versions of this interior, a small paper cut model, and this larger painting on wood panel. How did you get from this paper cut to the larger work?
M: I was working out this model of the room not really knowing what I was going to do with it, and I came in one morning and turned on the fan. I hadn’t affixed the pieces yet and it blew apart in the creepiest way. It felt like it was embodying the weirdness that I actually felt being in this space. So I made a painting of it blown apart, in the way it randomly fell and landed on itself. When I started working on the painting I felt I was really capturing what I had felt in that space. It was circumstantial freakiness that brought it all together. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple years, working with intuition and mistakes that lead to me going in a completely different direction. I work out an issue or a problem that I want to heal myself from while creating something beautiful out of something dark. I am constantly working on four different series, and working in different mediums depending what it is I want to articulate.
P: I saw this quote on your website that says “I use multiple processes accompanied by music to meditate, challenge, evolve as an artist, and to work through life experiences.” That really resonated with me. I feel a lot of artists and art practices are about working through experiences, and while they’re not necessarily illustrative of what they’re addressing, it’s more conceptual, more therapeutic through the medium itself. What about your processes do you find healing?
M: That can go for so many different things that I have going on here. We can back up further, but basically for 20 years I was a figurative portrait painter, and worked very differently from the way I do now. After college I moved to New York, and for 12 years I went into non-profit arts fundraising. I worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for six years, and then Pratt Institute for six years, barely making any art at all. After producing a successful fundraising gala, and raising 1 million dollars for student scholarship funds, I quit my job to paint full-time. I wanted to work on a portrait project in the same vain that I had been when I left off in 1999. I asked people I had worked with in the fundraising world if they would do portraits with me, I worked with Mike O’Shea as a photographer, doing photo shoots for reference. It was of philanthropists and art’s advocates, people that had gotten behind my fundraising efforts. The Brooklyn Academy of Music loved the project and allowed me to showcase it there. Those were my first paintings in over a decade. My mom, who was one of the only people who didn’t think I was crazy for quitting my job to paint, passed away unexpectedly right before that opening. I was trying to deal with that, trying to figure out how to cope and mourn. That in combination with having just made nine 80 hour paintings and the pressure of delivering work that I felt really good about – I was fried and decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.
P: That is very understandable. Where did you go from there?
M: In that time I was driving back and forth from Michigan to handle my mom’s affairs. I ran into some high school friends that worked at the paper mill in my town. As a way to distract myself from my mom passing away, I started getting obsessed with the paper mill. When I got back to Brooklyn, I ordered a bunch of samples and asked my friend who was a foreman there to go through and document his day to day. I don’t remember the moment when I decided to start cutting paper, because I hadn’t done that before. I made 23 heavily layered compositions documenting their entire process of making the paper out of their paper. It completely changed my entire way of making art, working with color and form and making things that brought joy to me. I realized that after some years of doing figurative portraiture I actually never enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed positive feedback, and getting satisfaction from the challenge of it, but in the same way I’d get satisfaction from solving a complex math equation. This project provided me with a very tedious series of work to make, which helped to deal with my mom passing away. It took another year or two to fully mourn the loss, we’re not in a culture where mourning is made easy. I think I created this project to distract myself, but also working with these bright crazy colors that were not a palette that I had worked with before, I realized I was making these things that were cheering me up. I liked having a lot of bright colors around, it had this psychological effect on me.
P: This self-created coping process consequently resulted in a really transitional period in your work. It seems like that outlet had an affirmative effect on your life and practice. It again goes back to you wanting to create something positive out of a dark situation.
M: I wanted to start painting again. I was so used to working in these patterns, these tight shapes and bright colors, but my connection to people was still so strong. It’s a big thing that motivates my work. I started obsessing over shelves of my mom’s books and records that she leftbehind, because I learned so much about her from looking at them. We had these things in common and we never talked about it, or we had these things that were totally different but it makes sense because our personalities were different. This is one of the first of what I call “lenticular portairs,” where I did a portrait of my mom based on the possessions she left behind. That piece is based on photos that I took of her records, when they were still on her shelf before I brought them to Brooklyn. I brought them into the studio and played the records while looking at the reference photos. It’s two totally different paintings when you look at them from the sides, and then they merge and splinter together. I wanted to use that form to capture the weird radiant energy and deep connection that I was feeling from looking at her possessions. Depending on what was playing really informed my line work, it’s all freehand, some of the lines are really rough and crazy. I was also using the music to inform the color selections. I wanted to create some sort of tribute portrait to her that exuded this radiant kinetic energy. After I did a couple of those, I did a few portraits of my friends. For me they are capturing the energy of the people that are connected to. I am trying to share that with other people, whether they know the back story or not. They are intense paintings.
P: Your background in figurative portraiture starts to come through in a more personal and abstracted way, rather than representing what’s in front of you you’re portraying what’s inside when you have these deeper connections with people.
M: From there, two projects started happening, I started doing abstracted portraits, tributes to my grandmother, who would send me psychedelic afghans that she would crochet and knit for me. I was unpacking my storage and found these crazy blankets, where she kept all of the scraps, and would just start working on one and when she ran out just tie the next one on randomly. They were totally randomly selected and I love that she worked that way, she never even thought about it looking insane. Part of me was fascinated by it. I like the juxtaposition of different materials. I like soft fabric on top of really hard edged lines, it doesn’t really make any sense, which makes it fun for me.
P: With the afghans you’re allowing yourself to be more fluid, reverting back to the painterly marks in your earlier portraiture and brush work. While adjacently you have these paintings with hard-edge linear and architectural forms. Are these referential or invented? What is the process of translating these forms onto the panel?
M: I’m starting with a photo, then a sketch, then a cut paper piece, then a painting. This has become a really big part of how I work – that constant shifting from one medium to the next. That started with these architectural ones. At the time I was living above this horrible dive bar. They were open 10am to 4am, I would only be able to sleep outside that time, if that. It was terrible. As an inside joke to myself I was taking photos out of the window of the fire escape and different ways I could get out of the building, hoping I could manifest a new apartment. I was taking photos and doing line drawings. I started making cut paper models from the drawings. I wanted to cut up the cut paper models. I was trying to come up with ways to make positive work out of a bad situation. I would do paintings from the chopped up compositions. That was super liberating. There were all these steps. Sometimes the paintings were terrible and I would paint over them, the painting was never meant to be the final product. Each one of these steps is its own piece. It was a really free way of working, where I could dabble in all of the mediums that I love, with no pressure to deliver a final piece.
P: You can see this in a lot of your work, that there is this sense of place, and awareness of environment – while observational, the forms turn into these altered states creating dreamlike compositions. As a viewer we’re not seeing exactly what you’re seeing, we’re seeing what you’re feeling.
M: Yeah, having painted in a completely different way, with portraiture where I was only painting what I was seeing, people can always relate to that and figure out – that’s a person, that’s their space, blah blah blah. My feelings and emotions were coming out as brushstrokes and in the way that I worked the paint, but it felt that I had to be guarded and not put too much of myself into specific works, especially with commissioned painting. People have certain expectations based on what they’ve seen of your work and what they want you to deliver.
P: Thinking about the lenticular works with the disjointed interiors/exteriors, you’re creating a space that becomes a collaboration with the viewer. You’ve inviting them into your own space, inviting them to move in and around in these spacial constructs.
M: I’m glad you observed that, that’s important to me, especially after I’ve had some time away from finishing a piece I like having something that I can walk up to and it’s not just a regular white wall gallery thing. You need to get in close and explore a bit and have weird spaces to look around. I hope that’s fascinating to other people too. I like spending time with pieces and not having it always be what you see is what you get.
P: This recent series is titled “In Dreams,” are you working from your own dreams?
M: Totally. I started going back into dream journals, I’ve been writing notes for years. I like creating this juxtaposition of real space and fake space, real shadows and fake shadows intermingling together. For me, it’s exciting to look at and observe and experience. I have the tools now to make other worldly dimensions and I still have the more figurative skills that I hadn’t felt like using because it didn’t feel right. But I think by joining the two in one composition I actually can reinterpret dreams – where we feel a real unreal commingle. It appeared to me that I’m also using my cut paper skills in these pieces, just now with wood and paint. Everything I’m doing is way more connected then I initially thought.
While I was working on a recent commission I saved all of my palettes. I line all of my butcher trays with Glad Press’n Seal, it’s one of my favorite studio products. I’m hoping plugging it in this interview will get me sponsorship. I was looking at them, and there were so many crazy moments, some looked like Halloween masks, or goblin faces. I started scanning them and making collages of my favorite parts of them, then repainting them.
P: I feel like that relates a lot to the first piece we talked about in that you’re working with chance and “happy accidents” in the studio.
M: Totally, why not explore everything that feels right at the time? I’m wondering if there is any connection between the randomness that occurs on the palette, if I’m channeling any freaky dreamy stuff too, it’s fun to think there is a connection with that.
P: Yeah because it is your hand, it is a subconscious mark.
M: It was fun talking with Kate Nielsen about it because she works with paint peels, I was asking her for tips.
P: Now that I’m seeing all of your work together in one room, and learning that your practice is informed by what’s going on in your personal life, your feeling of the day, it makes sense to have all of these different series going on so you can come in and chose what you’re going to work on, to be able to adapt.
M: Especially working with these really bright paintings closely for hours. It fucked up my eyes so badly, I kept painting in the wrong place on the panel because my eyes were still registering the color I was just looking at but shifted over. I was painting in what I thought were blank spaces. It was part of the crazy challenge, so as an eyeball palette cleanser in between those works I always go back to black and white drawing. Each time I switch a medium, and go back to something, I bring something new to the table that I’ve learned.
P: Do you have any exhibitions coming up?
M: I’ve been donating work to a lot of benefits lately, there is a benefit for Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief coming up on December 9th at Chinatown Soup Gallery. I’ll be in a show at Growroom // Showroom, curated by Maya Hayuk and Alethia Weingarten, opening December 5th. And I just confirmed with my alma mater Antioch College, to do a post-grad survey solo-exhibition June, July and August of next year. I feel like especially after we’ve talked today, everything has this path that connects it, and if it’s curated just right I think everything from these different series could work together.