When I started Picnic in 2011, I had conducted three studio visits, my third with Mike Taylor, whom I had just met shortly after he moved to New York from Miami. Following a hard-drive crash that deleted all photographs and transcribed conversations, the project was put on the back burner. Four years later, even after countless studio visits and working together on a handful of exhibitions, it is rare that I’ll see the same piece twice; and if I do, it’s been ripped up, reworked and incorporated into a larger multi-dimensional construction. Mike’s practice chronicles a dynamic experiment converging screenprinting, painting, illustration, collage, artist books, and writing, overlapping techniques into layered assemblage compositions. These works combine comical and contrastingly confrontational musings on social injustice, pop-culture, politics, and everyday idiosyncrasies. Having self-published comics and zines since his teen years, Mike’s recent artist books have been acquired by such acknowledged collections as the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, Stanford University Library, Harvard University Art Library, and Cornell University Library among others. I visit Mike on a Monday afternoon at his studio in Bed-Stuy.
Picnic: This problem came up in my last picnic interview, that I already know the answers to obvious questions that I could ask you, so I just wanted to start by talking about what you are working on now.
Mike: The deadline that I’ve been most ignoring is a record cover, but more excitingly I’m doing a collaboration with a writer friend of mine named Jaime Lowe. She’s a freelance journalist, but also writes short form fiction, and is an excellent photographer. Many months ago she asked me to do a collaboration, we just got done honing it down, editing the story, and making room for the visual. I just started feeling out what it’s going to look like, it’s called Sunken Forests. We haven’t talked about format yet, but we want to do the least obtuse format possible. I just want to do something that’s easy and holdable and doesn’t read as much as an art object. So I think it might just be a small self-published paperback.
P: You’re both doing the writing?
M: She’s doing the writing, she came to me with the story and I started making recommendations for clarity and making room for the visual. Stories have different pacing, it’s not going to be a comic, it doesn’t have panels. Each page is going to have its anchor illustration, a single illustration, and then the text. It’s a good dark story… I also have this idea that only currently exists in my mind and somewhat in my sketchbook.
And now in this interview.
And now in this interview… I want to do a movie or a play, but I think a movie is more economical because you can show it over and over again. I’ve got this idea where two people take some sort of hallucinogen and they’re doing that very practical checking-in moment before the drugs kick in, where they’re like “ok if we freak out, who do we call, who is going to be our anchor person?” Then they start going through their phones. Here is where the formatting comes in, I don’t want to talk too much about what it’s going to look like yet. I have the performative nature of this nailed down in my head. They go through their phone and it takes on a Canterbury Tales method, episodic short vignettes of these peoples’ personalities and why there is not a single person in each of their phone lists that they would feel comfortable trusting their drug addled mind with. I’ve got some collaborators that are really into the idea that I can really count on.
How many characters do you think you’ll go through?
To be realistic, it’s gotta be at least sixty, right? To be a believable phone list. Illustrating between fifty seconds and two minutes on each person.
Do you have people acting out each episode?
No, it’s going to be illustrated, the two main anchor characters are almost monologuing, and then we get projections of the characters that become increasingly abstracted throughout the drug experience.
You have to do a trial run, where you take hallucinogenics and go through your phone list… you know… research.
Where do you think I got the idea? That’s always what I think when I take drugs, who do I call if the shit goes down?
Does that mean you’re taking drugs alone?
I prefer to take drugs alone, but that happens like only once a year, I always like to have them on hand, but when do you have 5 hours to spare? The more general non-deadline thing I’m working on are these collages.
And these are using old screen prints?
I am doing everything, I’m bringing out old screen prints, I’m actually re-burning old optical images to make new versions on better paper with better color selections and making new drawings that I’m cutting up. For a while I was just doing it to stay busy throughout a creatively difficult time but then it started taking shape finally. So now I’m looking at it as modular constructions- say those three over there, the big collage [below], the face woman and the optical above that, I’m thinking of that as one piece, maybe even, I really like it on the foam core.
With the tacks hanging it?
Yeah, I wouldn’t show it with foam core, it’d have to be something as equally bland but a little more rigid. And the rest of that stuff is in progress, modular pieces. I went through the last six months really working on my painting, trying to do more believable painting. I got to a point where I can carry some things off. I don’t need to be a Hudson Valley painter to do what I do. I just have to make believable light in physical spaces, just the least bad is good enough for me. So I liked the idea of having all these approaches on one piece. The really rapid gesture is accepted when it’s in figurative art, but to treat a really tightly done optical screen print as a gesture is interesting to me, by placing it right next to some of these casually marbled papers. At this point I can’t even say it’s marbled, it’s not, it’s like stained paper.
Yeah, exactly. And throwing some of the narrative in there, throwing some text in there, and then playing with the arrangements until it strikes a harmony that makes sense.
It also has this romanticism of a studio visit, as the viewer you generally don’t get to look at it behind the scenes this way with the tacks and the tape. But in this case, it’s finished, you’re a voyeur privy to that information.
Oh wow yeah, I didn’t think of that, that’s nice. That’s my favorite way to look at art. I like the salon style, I like seeing it behind the scenes, especially because right now we’re in a moment where everything is so tightly conceptualized and so dependent on its implicit text.
Without the context you’re just looking at a ‘leaning piece of plywood.’
You’re always looking at a leaning piece of plywood. You’re also looking at a lot of concrete cylinders, a lot of rebar.
Oh yeah- I forgot how much I hate art, but I love your work!
Thank you. Art is in a dark spot, it’s weird. I don’t like to talk down about it even though I think a lot of people look to me as critical or mean, because everyone who is doing this- I’m assuming they are doing exactly what they want to do, but I feel it’s a byproduct of collectors getting into the equation sooner and sooner upon graduation of MFAs or even BFAs and so these artists are just fresh off their teachers’ dicks.
They don’t have time to learn on their own and fuck up.
Right. I love Paul Thek, and he didn’t get the attention he deserved.
Did you see that retrospective at the Whitney a few years ago, 2011 maybe?
Come to think of it- no.
Oh man, so good, I cried, it was set up somewhat chronologically, and by the end you’re looking at his last paintings before he died. Those early sculptures are a conservators nightmare!
Oh yeah. Did he do a hot dog in a plasticine block?
There is a lot of meat in plexiglass, but it wasn’t real meat, I think it was resin, and plaster, and beeswax. But I remember reading how moldy they were before that show and they had to hire these outside chemists to work on them.
On a different aspect of his work there is a small gallery in Chelsea that did a show a couple months back that was a lot of observational drawings and correspondence, and it really revealed him as this romantic classicist that had a great hand, his drawings are wonderful.
You mentioned you came out of a period of not making art, or rather not being interested in making art, was that after your last book work?
I was definitely interested in making art, I just couldn’t finish anything. Yeah after I made the Saw Dust book for Baltimore, I did a collection of watercolor books. That was fun, it was like painting bootcamp, like doing the Monkey Vision comics but more realized.
Those books were all original paintings?
It was five books of original paintings, so each one was 16 images, 80 paintings total. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. The University of Vermont bought it. The box itself is really pretty, I made a nice box covered in some op-art paper I made a long time ago. After that I was like, ok well I’m really effective at doing these immediate things, and any number of those pages, not everyone of them, could’ve been their own painting. I just finally realized its value as being source material for larger things, and now I have something to chew on for a while. After I made that book, which wasn’t that long ago, subject matter was evading me. I don’t just want to do illustrations, I don’t always want to have to lean on the text every time. I’ve always made these abstract patterns but really privately. So I was just scratching my head looking for a way to bring them all together. In the meantime, I made all these [below]… there are four or five different patterns in there, four or five different colors.
This feels like a throwback to the older work I’ve seen of yours from when you were living in Providence… op art, fluorescents, repetition…
Yeah, I was making a lot of bright colors, when you live in Providence in that time, it’s just in the water. I was glad to make some work that was maybe more thematic for a long time, but now I want to find a way to do it all at once. I feel like a lot of my old art is just somebody who eats pizza and chocolate for every meal. The bright colors and the gags, it’s all really high calorie and just hits this one note. I just want to be more multi-dimensional, maybe bring some calm into it. For a long time my antidote- if things got too funny or bright was to go very dark and sad. So you’re just eating pizza and chocolate, pizza and chocolate.
It seems like you’re having a lot of fun playing around in the studio, while contrastingly the last thing I saw of yours was the book Hammer of the Dogs, which was so clean, very planned out, such a high production.
Yes, so black and dark.
Yeah, it’s funny, I feel like I bummed a lot of people out with that book. I definitely hit my limit of how much I can ask from the viewer to engage with these really gnarly topics, that one is about torture in Abu Ghraib among other places. In music and literature I feel like there is way more room, you can really draw people into your environment, and you can go very dark, and people are more willing to give themselves to that. But that’s a recent discovery for me, in art it seems that people are more hesitant to get any enjoyment from feeling terrible.
Maybe it’s because in music and writing you don’t have that visual aspect, that’s really the punch to burn those images in your mind.
Maybe, because people love to listen to sad songs, people love to make themselves cry. People love The Bicycle Thief, I love The Bicycle Thief, and Blue Velvet, are all very excellent dark sad movies. With this book people reacted, people would pick up the book, and as soon as they got what they were looking at would make a bad face and put it down. The collections that are buying it are doing it in the name of social responsibility, that’s the reason I made it. If you live in an unjust place in an unjust time you have to come to terms with it, you have to face it, even if you’re not the one with your boot on the throat, you know, punk stuff.
Did you get into zines through punk?
I discovered them separately, but at the same time. When I was 12 I started Xeroxing a horror comic at my dad’s office and there was a book store called Columbus Book Exchange in Columbus, Georgia, where I used to sell it. I made horror comics for 2 years. Then I met these older weirdos and I started writing zine reviews for a little comic called Comic Update. I don’t think anyone knew I was 13 years old. At the same time I started getting really into punk, then I found out that fanzines were slightly different from the underground comics of the time, it felt different. So I was embarrassed for a long time once I started making a fanzine that I used to be into comics. Then with age and perspective you realize it’s all the same thing.
Then you get embarrassed you’re making fanzines and start making comics again.
Horror comics! So you’ve always had this dark undertone, this black mirror on society.
It’s what I’m good at, I don’t know, it could be argued that I’m good at it. It’s the most fun stuff. The best writers are always the ones with strong social satire, even though now social satire and irony are just built into art. That’s just the way art happens now.
Especially in NY. You have to be sarcastic, ironic, cynical. I feel with the three limited edition artists books [Hammer of the Dogs, The Bigger Chill, and No Future] that you’re taking on this bigger picture/ darker tone than with the larger edition Late Era Clash comics. They are all satirical, but the comics tend to be more jokey. Is that a consequence of the medium you are using? The multiple layered prints, coptic stitch, the case binding, the nice book cloth.
Yeah, I always want the subject matter to be worth the paper it’s printed on, so to speak. If you have a big idea then you deserve to do it big, if you have a casual idea, why not use Xerox paper. That’s not to speak down on Xerox paper, I’ve done a lot of things that are really close to me with house paint and Xerox paper.
Was that artist book series intentionally a triptych, or did that just happen?
Not at the beginning. I started shooting off my mouth saying it was going to be a series of 5. But with Hammer of the Dogs, I made an edition of 14 and I’m still not done binding them. So I don’t think I’m going to make another one anytime soon. I am into making books, but with the last, the Saw Dust book, that was just fun from start to finish. And I know it defeats the purpose of making a series of unique books.
Multiples are supposed to get your art affordably into the world, that’s the reason I make zines. But these were still cheaper than it would’ve been to buy 80 small paintings, it was ridiculously cheap if you think about the price of them as individuals. But there is only 1. It’s a unique art piece.
Do you miss the conveniences of Xerox?
If I had a Xerox in my house I would use it all the time, but mostly for transfers, going back to high school and just using acetone and blender pens. I had a high school teacher in 12th grade who was a Cooper Union guy and was a devotee of Rauschenberg. He taught us how to do acetone transfers, he unfortunately did not teach us how to wear gloves when you did it. That shit is scary. Apparently Rauschenberg used gasoline sometimes too. I haven’t done that one.
Here are some other things maybe you haven’t seen…
And then most everything else I have is garbage, I’m never going to show it, but it [below] was definitely part of that learning curve. There was a time I wasn’t ashamed of it.
Is that a tiny Jackson Pollock painting hanging in the background?
Yeah, lil’ tiny one.
This is you teaching yourself to paint?
Yeah and it turns out the best part of it, is the shirt. I’m gonna cut it up, that’s how it happens. There is a point in the painting where I’ll just quit. [cuts painting in half]. There done. I hate to admit that so much of the power of painting comes from that you can buy a really good color in a tube, you don’t have to mix everything. I wouldn’t let myself do that for a long time, I had to mix everything.
Do you mix all your own silkscreening colors?
Yeah, but then you can’t buy a better purple than what they have in the store. Speedball violet is the best purple there is.
Mixed purple always ends up looking like mud. Orange is hard too. It always turns peachy.
Orange always looks like disease color, I do have my own orange pigment that I mix. This is Italian pigment, but if you mix it wrong it’s dusty.
What do you mix it with?
I mix it with clear matte medium and water, although it’s probably made for oils.
I remember you messing around with oil painting for a while?
Yeah those three oil paintings, I’ll do it every now and then. It’s so messy, you spend all your time cleaning. But, I still do really like this one. [below]
I’m seeing all this new work. Are you working towards something, do you have any shows coming up?
Zero. But I do have a painting hanging down the street right now, in that community garden on Broadway and Greene. It’s about half a block, they got a bunch of artists to hang paintings in trees. So I gave them a very old thing that I like a lot, it’s a screen print of woodgrain onto a piece of plywood, and it looks great hanging in a tree. Hyperallergic covered it this morning and put my photo on there. It’s great for them they’re doing it as a fundraiser, they raised quite a bit of money for the upkeep of the garden.
Check out more of Mike Taylor’s work on his website, www.miketaylorart.com and at the shows mentioned above. Mike Taylor’s prints + artist book editions can be purchased through Booklyn Artists Alliance.
I visit Mike the day after raiding my dad’s garden. Our picnic incorporates a seasonal harvest of fresh mustard greens, rhubarb, strawberries, and asparagus… Click here for this week’s recipes.