REVOK Disrupts With Series of Anti-Paintings and Abstract Work
"After twenty years of doing graffiti it was embedded in my body." -REVOK
Photos: Jon Lake, REVOK
Jason REVOK has set his sight on the infinite void beyond human experience in his newly launched show, Systems. In a very deliberate effort to forge an artistic path that is visually almost completely removed from his background as a graffiti writer, REVOK pushes his work in a more conceptual direction while at the same time utilizing some of his old tools of the trade for the first time in a studio setting. The show is comprised of seventeen works, of which his loop paintings, a series of geometric abstractions, are the strongest. REVOK uses his own distinct tools and technique to enter into a dialogue with influences as varied as the works of artist Frank Stella and composer William Basinski. A group of “anti-paintings” pays homage to the memory of fallen friends, while REVOK’s instrument exercises put an interesting twist on the ideas of repetition and multiplication that form the basis of graffiti, but in some ways also of modern art. The show is rounded out by a series of passively created self-portraits. A conceptual fit with the rest of the work, they nonetheless appear to be a bit of an afterthought.
Only a handful of artists with a graffiti background have had lasting success exploring other mediums and exhibiting their work in galleries and museums. Those who did have done so by exploring ideas outside of the narrow confines of marking a surface with letters. REVOK’s work may have little of the pop-cultural appeal of a KAWS toy or the self-referential looseness of Barry McGee’s piles of surf boards, but his earnestness and willingness to expand his artistic arsenal have generated a number of very interesting experiments in this show.
We talked to Jason REVOK about his artistic process, the influences that inspired the work in Systems and his search for artistic isolation in Detroit and L.A.
How has your approach to making art in the studio developed and evolved?
I grew up very far removed from art and museums. It was entirely foreign to me. When I first became interested in exploring ideas beyond the very limiting and restrictive scope of graffiti, I wasn’t at all interested in recreating what I had been doing for so long. That just seemed pointless, because graffiti is only potent when it’s illegal, in a place where it’s not supposed to be, that’s where all of its power lies. After twenty years of doing graffiti it was embedded in my body. My muscle memory, the way that I make a mark, it’s going to undeniably reflect my graffiti persona.
Using the tools and the materials I was using [to make art] was a way of forcing myself to grow and evolve. By making work almost entirely out of found materials, I wanted to bring the environment of places that I had spent so long exploring and painting on into the studio so I could reshape and reimagine them into something else. With a table saw, you’re super limited in what you can do. I had spent so long loosely, freely making paintings, these big gestural movements of my body, that I really enjoyed restricting myself to this really rigid format of making art.
This is your first show featuring paintings on canvas after working on increasingly complex and abstract wood assemblages for many years. Why did you switch to a different medium?
When I moved to L.A. [three years ago],I was still using almost exclusively wood, but I decided that I was going to only do assemblage work with materials that I was creating in the studio. My current way of making things informed my art practice far more than my graffiti, because I hadn’t done graffiti much at all the last few years. Doing this wood stuff that I had been doing for six years at that point, I still enjoy it, I just had to try something different. Another challenge was that I wanted to realize larger and larger pieces, and with that material it gets really heavy and gnarly. The last real wood piece I made, it weighs about 800 pounds. I caught myself thinking “this would be so much easier if I just painted something on canvas. Let me try to play with this for a minute and see what happens.”
What motivated your shift in direction and who are some of the influences that helped inspire your current work?
I knew that I didn’t want to make paintings that were going to be gestural paintings. That type of mark-making is so embedded in me, the moment I start moving my body around and making marks on a surface it instantly starts.
It wasn’t until I moved to Detroit in 2011 that I went into a museum just to look at art. I remember instantly really being connected to Frank Stella’s work. I kept wanting to go back to look at these pieces more. When he had his retrospective in New York earlier in the year [at the Whitney Museum], I had to go. Seeing those massive paintings on canvas, they had a huge impact on me. Some of his really early works, these square paintings, there’s something really calming and meditative about this kind of format. It builds almost a meditative path, goes towards something way beyond yourself, disappearing into the distance, but then also repeats, reflecting inwards, introspectively. There was so much going on in that simple design that I really connected with.
I had also recently discovered the composer William Basinski. He made really fascinating sound collages. He’d record a little phrase of a classical piece of music on old analog tape. He’d cut the tape and tape it back together to create a loop. And he’ll play it on a reel-to-reel and this one little phrase just repeats over and over again. But because of the nature of how sound is recorded onto the tape, spinning it over and over makes the material erode really fast. Over the course of 10 to 30 minutes, the sound slowly starts decaying, withering, falling away, until it’s almost static noise.
It was like a mantra. It felt meditative and introspective, but also like a portal to intellect and a different head space. Almost like transcending your body and traveling in your mind and not even being present in physical reality. I really enjoy that.
Another artist whose work I respect a lot, Tauba Auerbach, had a show [in New York] at the same time, at Paula Cooper Gallery. She is fucking incredible. She would quickly lay down a bunch of layers of paint onto a flat, hard surface and she would take these tools that she had made and just make one action, one stroke with one of these tools, one specific for each painting, and that was it. There was nothing gestural. She would take one tool and make one mark and drag it across the surface. She was the author of the tool and the way the tool interacted with the surface created a unique mark and that was the painting. I thought there was something really powerful in that.
How did you adapt your use of tools and your technique to working on canvas?
I experimented with a bunch of different things, and the loop paintings are what I came up with. I’ve done thousands and thousands of [graffiti] pieces all over the world, and none of them exist anymore. I’m fighting this war against the opposition that’s always trying to erase me. Everything I’ve ever painted has been destroyed by either a roller or an airless sprayer. I thought it would be really interesting to adopt these tools. They’re the tools of my oppressor, and now I’m using them to make my paintings.
I would make one specific tool that was unique to that painting, a roller with tape, and never use it again. The paintings were all broken into four quadrants, it’s the same phrase repeating over and over, looping back into itself. Theoretically it’s an infinite mantra, just going around and around. The way that they end up working is similar to the Basinski compositions. I push the roller straight across the surface, but as I do each pass, the paint gets in there and soaks the fabric and gets underneath the tape and starts breaking away that adhesion of the tape, so it slowly starts to loosen up and unravel. With each pass it deteriorates and gets further and further away from its original form. It’s emulating this life and death cycle of the universe.
With the series of what you call anti-paintings you are using buff tools to commemorate your fallen friends.
Those are old actually, from 2014. I felt that they worked really well with what I’m currently doing, so I decided to bring them out. Everything in my work is always about opposing forces. It seems obvious to me that in the universe, way beyond the human experience, nothing exists on its own. Whether it’s helium and hydrogen or whatever. Things come into existence as a simmering down and settling of two opposing forces crashing with one another.
Painting graffiti you are still paying attention to the surface and the environment around you. You have this clean, pristine surface, and then graffiti guys come along to write all over it and then somebody comes and tries and clean it, but it’s never quite restored back to its original state and something else comes into existence that neither party ever really intended. There’s something really beautiful about that.
Sometimes you catch a tag and they’ll try to remove it and on either side there’s a faint color that’s smeared and left behind that ends up looking kinda like a ghost. I started thinking about that in terms of real life, humans and people. I’ve lost so many people, so many friends who were really close to me, so much family, and started thinking about, when someone is gone, they’re never really gone, they’ve all left something with me that’s a part of who I am now.
As a way of honoring the dead, I would write their name, and then almost ritually I would use graffiti remover and erase it. I would write all these names over and over and erase them, and this other physical presence starts to take form, the accumulated remnants of all these people that have come and gone. It has really nothing to do with aesthetics. The way these pieces end up looking is almost entirely out of my control. I write the name, I erase the name, and that’s what happens, and I just do it over and over. There are thirty-three or more names in each of these paintings.
How did the instrument exercise pieces, which are made using an array of spray cans, come about? Are you getting more comfortable with using the tools of graff for your studio art after limiting yourself to other means for so long?
It feels only natural that at some point I should use spraypaint. But I didn’t want to use spraypaint the same way. Going out and painting graffiti, what graffiti has always been to me, just doesn’t really hold much appeal to me anymore. How many fucking times can I paint a wildstyle REVOK piece? It’s just tired, it’s played out. I wanted to go back to the very first time and how excited that felt, and how euphoric that felt, like a thirteen-year-old kid. You’re terrified, but so fucking stoked and excited at the same time.
I wanted to do that but in a totally unique and original way. I’ve been playing with making all these different tools to expand and multiply a single action, where you’re making a line and it’s mirrored over and over again. It just felt really good and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could create that with a spray can. I found this mechanical engineer and did these little drawings to show him what I wanted to do.
When you started working in the studio, did you talk to any other artists who had made a similar transition in their work to get their advice?
I’m friends with a few other artists and we talk a bit, but for the most part I live a really isolated life. Part of me leaving L.A. and going to Detroit was to isolate myself. I started feeling that part of being a group and a scene was in direct conflict with being an individual. I didn’t even go back to L.A., I’m way north of the city, not even in the suburbs. I have my assistant who’s in the studio with me every day and other than my wife and my kid I almost don’t see and talk to anybody. There’s a huge art scene in L.A., but I’m a complete outsider to that. For the most part I’m just out here in the hills in my cave, being a weirdo, doing my own thing.
You attracted a lot of attention in Detroit and in many ways elevated the graff game there. Did your original plan backfire?
Kinda, yeah. I wasn’t trying to make that place the new graffiti mecca, for sure. I just wanted a quiet place where I could get weird. I ended up being a beacon for all these kids. It’s like you’re switching the porch light on and all these bugs come swarming. Going there the last time I couldn’t believe how much they buffed. I was even more shocked how scared all the graffiti writers are. They threw their hands up. “Oh, I guess it’s over.”
What made those years when everybody was painting crazy amounts of graffiti in Detroit special to you?
Graffiti created this atmosphere where it felt like anything was possible. You’re free to do whatever the fuck you want. Local people that are doing things there, almost everybody that I talked to really liked the graffiti. It created this atmosphere out of tragedy and absolute despair. All you see is collapse. All you see is financial failure. And this building that has no roof and the back wall has fallen down and it’s just this skeleton shell of a former structure, it’s really fucking sad and depressing. But when all of this awesome graffiti started happening everywhere, it really changed the energy. Out of tragedy, triumph could happen.
The city erasing all of the graffiti, it stole a bit of the spirit, a bit of the energy. It felt lawless before. That’s exciting. When it feels a little chaotic and anarchic that’s empowering. That type of opportunity doesn’t necessarily have to manifest in a malicious or evil way. Really awesome or creative things can happen when there’s not a lot of government control. There’s definitely more stuff happening there than ever, probably since the 1960s. But now it feels like any other city in America.
Is the art world more receptive to artists with graffiti background now than it has in the past?
I don’t know. It’s impossible for me to think of myself as an artist without thinking first of my years painting graffiti. That’s ultimately what led me to art-making. I really hate that word street artist, and I never use that term to describe myself, and I’m not interested at all in that label being involved in the conversation. I’m in the studio making art, like anybody else. My practice of painting graffiti in the street was my education, but I’m just an artist making work. I’m not a graffiti artist, I’m not a street artist, I just make art.
System is on view through November 12 in Los Angeles at the Library Street Collective’s pop-up space.