Words by Mitch Wilson / Photos by Nazar Khamis
Russell Nachman Russell Nachman Russell Nachman Russell Nachman … itʼs a name thatʼs been going off in my mind like a state-sponsored alarm clock from something Vonnegut that interrupts my chain of thought any time I ﬁnally sit down and try to relax. Look, life is fucking busy these days. So it doesnʼt help that when I can actually chill out for a second, I realize that Iʼve been procrastinating the last three months on something that any sane person would have successfully put in the rear-view mirror by now. Being stressed when you’re trying to relax is no fun, especially when itʼs about something youʼre into. But I guess people torture themselves with things they are interested in all the time, just look at Coachella.
Anyway, about three months ago I stole myself to the gale-force winds brought upon we unlucky inhabitants of Kings County by the Polar Vortex and headed over to see this artist guy with my trusty Ukrainian photographer Nazar Khamis. We left the cold and the gloom of the Brooklyn streets and headed into Russell Nachmanʼs warm art studio slash apartment. When we got there, we were confronted by the artist, his living situation, and his work. I guess I felt rather nervous when he started showing us around, but there is something extremely comforting when a person says, “these guys,” and theyʼre talking about the characters in their water-color paintings. Any time I walk into a room and someone, (even if that someone is a complete stranger), throws on a Kris Kristofferson record and gladly accepts the six pack of beer Iʼm offering, I get this feeling like, “Shit. Weʼre gonna get along.” Sufﬁce to say we started to get cozy in no time.
You play music?
I scream in my friendʼs band. I wouldnʼt call it playing music. Itʼs a lot of fucking fun, but …
As long as youʼre having fun.
Yeah, absolutely. Weʼve got a solo show coming up at Paul Loya’s Gallery and weʼre shooting for the fall. I hope to have like ten paintings.All of this stuff, especially the stuff Iʼve been doing for the last year and a half, is really heavily based on Christian illuminated manuscripts. I want them to look like illustrations in prayer books.
I was interested in your influences from Christian art, from pamphlet books, and I know from a previous interview you had with Matt Kuhlman, that you had mentioned Caravaggio as an influence of yours.
Yeah, I love his work. His work is amazing. He’s kind of scandalous in a lot of his pictures; he used some of his lovers as his models. He was gay in a time when that just wasnʼt cool. He stuck all of these secret-coded messages in his very religious paintings. Aside from that fact, I just think that heʼs a fucking phenomenally good painter. I did a whole series of remakes of his paintings and drawings, turning them into these drunken black metal guys.
I did a quick Wikipedia on him and it seemed like he was also a total asshole. There was this one period where he became famous and for a month after he finished a piece of work, he’d walk around with a sword and pick fights with everybody.
Yeah, he was kind of a troublemaker. The other guy whom I use tons of quotes from in my work is this guy Francois Villon, who was actually a “highway” man. Heʼd roam the highway drunk. He wrote most of his shit from prison, and again, he was just this kind of rebel. Iʼd like to have a more sort of crazy metaphysical belief in something. It just all seems self serving and when you actually start thinking about it, it doesnʼt fit the bill for everything.
Iʼm not really an Atheist, Iʼm more like a reluctant Atheist. I think the idea of the world just being fucking blood and guts and, you know, a little energy that keeps it moving, just fucking sucks.
I like having big ideas and weird mysterious stuff in the universe. This is kind of a longing for that. Like maybe in a post-religious society after everything has collapsed, these drunken idiots just pick up all sorts of detritus from Western civilization and remake it in their own image. So I never think of this, even though theyʼre black metal guys with tattoos of upside-down crosses and all that, itʼs never anti-Christian for me. Itʼs kind of like a post-Christian homage.
Almost like a maturation process where religion is no longer necessary?
Yeah. And these guys are definitely in an existential crisis and theyʼre just getting wasted.
Whenever people ask if I believe in God I ask them, “Do you mean the Invisible Sky God?”
Yeah, yeah. You know, usually when I reply to that question, Iʼm like, “Some kind of sentient higher power? That sounds idiotic to me.” But on the other hand, thereʼs something about that that I think is totally alluring and necessary in the human predisposition.
A lot of guys like Richard Dawkins live in their fucking perfect little British cottages and are like, “Everybody would be happier without believing in God.” But they have no fucking concept of what most people are like.
I think most people need something to believe in. Their life is not as interesting without that.
I know. Itʼs a very personal journey, spirituality, but what do you rely on then without God per se?
Fucking wits. I donʼt know, art for one thing. Music, art, books, friends—thatʼs my spirituality. When Iʼm painting and listening to music, Iʼm having the best time that you could possibly have in the world and itʼs a total reason for living. And part of that is that I do this and then hopefully it gets out there. Some people like it and have the same kind of thing—kind of pay it back a little.
You talked about symbolic art that you were drawn to and also iconic art. You saw meaning in certain artwork. The phrase that you used was, “a rabbit under a tree meant something.” If Iʼm to look at your work, are you putting symbols in there that weʼre supposed to glean some sort of meaning from? Are they a critique of something or are you pointing something out? How would you describe the symbolism in your work?
When Iʼm in Europe, people view stuff from this poetic place and then they ask those kinds of things after. In the US, everything always seems like youʼre trying to make a moral judgement. The art is either telling you something or it’s trying to criticize something. Iʼve always been more experiential; Iʼm telling a story. Iʼm creating an emotion—not really saying good or bad, yes or no. Itʼs just something that I feel. I construct these like those old Christian paintings, where you have Saint Matthew in the foreground and as the road winds up the side of the mountain, you see the rabbit under the tree and the rabbit is supposed to be Christ and the tree is supposed to be God. I want to have these things so that when you see them in places you go, “Oh, that means something.” Especially with the tattoos. I am kind of coding my paintings, but itʼs more of a construct than me trying to sneak in hidden agendas and secret ideas. The other thing for me is that this is these guyʼs language and weʼve discovered it. It doesnʼt make any sense because theyʼre pulling from the sacred and the profane in an equal way. What does that mean? And maybe thereʼs just a total innocence to that based on ignorance, or maybe itʼs calculated and devious. To me, I would prefer the former. They just grab at things and say, “That means that? Whoops. Oh, shit.” You know?
Iʼm trying to get back to that first concept when we first started thinking and running around. Lightning strikes a tree and you gotta go, “What the hell? That means something!” You create this story about what it means.
I think thatʼs how the first religion came about. They saw things that were happening and had to make up a story. The kind of giddiness and drunkenness of that experience must have been pretty amazing, going, “I know! That means thereʼs a dude and heʼs throwing lighting bolts at us and we gotta fucking get under a tree!” I think they made up the world as they went along.
Modernity does give one the feeling that weʼre doing that all over again. We made all these symbols and explanations for everything, and we used them for a long-ass time. Now we donʼt need them anymore and we donʼt believe in them because weʼve found other things. Weʼre in an interesting experimental phase. Weʼre done with these icons. Now what?
Contemporary society has reached a post-religious environment and weʼre all fucking so close and connected together by the Internet and computers and everything. I think that the idea of being human is going to be significantly different from here on out than it was for the past two thousand years. I think itʼs uncharted territory. These guys in my paintings are more like theyʼre in the future but theyʼre mentally stuck in the past.
Are they an emblem of that transition in a sense?
Theyʼre like these kids in Williamsburg that are trying to dress up like itʼs still the ’60s or something like that. They werenʼt even around to experience it, so theyʼre just kind of making it up. Theyʼre revering something thatʼs past.
Do you think your art is satisfying a social need?
No. Not at all. My work is my work. Itʼs personal. If it reaches a large audience and they decide what itʼs about; thatʼs their right. Thatʼs their privilege. Thatʼs cool.
A great majority of my aesthetic choices have always been about the weird little other guy. Obscure bands. Obscure literature. Obscure comic books. The little thing in the corner that no one is paying attention to.
I donʼt ever think Iʼm ever gonna be that big guy. And I would much rather be the small niche artist, that a small, but cool, amount of people totally dig. I donʼt think I could handle being a superstar. I donʼt think my work would be able to mature in that. This is a lot more of an intimate experience for me. And even when things start going well, I have to temper myself because I start getting affected with the idea of what they expect—what the collectors and sellers are responding to. And every time that I’ve let that influence a line of work, Iʼve fucking hated it. If Iʼm in here jerking off and laughing and giggling and having the time of my life, thatʼs when I think I do the best work.
I think thatʼs the blueprint for success nine times out of ten anyway. Consequences be damned. Are you in these paintings?
Oh yeah. I think thereʼs a huge amount. Itʼs weird, but my best thinking and analogies with my work devolve from music and writing and very little art history. I think thatʼs where I get my impulses and I think of myself more as this story-crafter. This is definitely autobiographical. There are recurring themes in it. One of the things is this tattoo that all of my friends have. It ends up in almost every painting.
What do you see when you look back to the beginning?
I went to graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute. I wasnʼt painting. I was doing sound installation stuff, because thatʼs where I thought I was headed. Then I moved out to New York. I knew what art looked like and I was making it, but I was like, “Fuck that shit man, I want to make my stuff.” And I asked myself, “Well, who am I?” And I started thinking about that. I grew up drawing comics, like these little watercolor drawings. And I thought, Fuck, Iʼm gonna start doing watercolors again. Iʼm gonna start drawing again. This is kind of like the end result of those ten years. I found something that totally keeps my interest and I can keep growing.
Thatʼs amazing. I always work along the principle that if you arenʼt enjoying something no one else will. Do you consider yourself part of a school of painting?
I donʼt think there are schools anymore. Have there been any movements in the last fifteen years in art? I canʼt name one. The last one I remember is like Neo Geo or something in the ’80s, you know? I know there have been people that have been grouped together. In the mid to late ’90s there was the painting resurgence with John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage. But that wasnʼt really a movement. To me movements are like old school. There are a set of principles that everyone is into. There is a cultural moment in time that everyoneʼs pursuing and itʼs pretty uniform. Thereʼs nothing really uniform about anything I see right now. Then again I havenʼt been looking very closely in the past ten years because I really donʼt care much anymore.
Today anyone can learn about high art. Is that maybe better?
I think itʼs better. People arenʼt as political. It used to be that a lot of these art movements had manifestos and there was a fucking political intention like, “Weʼre going to destroy the marble and oil painting dominance in the art world. Weʼre gonna be Dadaists.”
One of my problems is with contemporary art. Youʼve got people that just put a cardboard box on the floor and throw a bow over it and sprinkle glitter on top and they go, “Oh yeah! Dada!” or whatever.
But then I think, Yeah, but why? With Dada, they had some shit that they wanted to do. They were fighting some pretty harsh battles. But they were fighting those battles so you could do this? One of the reasons why I go back to doing very intense, detailed, labored drawing is that I want to put forward that this is something labor-intensive. This is something I care about. I think that thereʼs a lot of art that goes on today that is lifestyle-based. Itʼs like, “Iʼm gonna do it because thatʼs cool. Iʼm gonna be in a cool gallery with cool people. Iʼm an artist and isnʼt that awesome?” Well, those are the fringe benefits, man. Thatʼs not why you do it. You know? I donʼt do this just so I can get into the fucking party. Iʼm actually more surprised when I get an invite. Itʼs like, “Oh, really? I was happy doing this shit by myself.”
Do you believe in free will?
Iʼd like to. I think I do. My mind’s a little clouded with things Iʼve read. Thereʼs this philosopher Daniel Dennett, who wrote this book basically explaining how consciousness works. We think we have free will because there are so many things that weʼre processing: emotions, other people, ideas, whatever. Itʼs like the butterfly effect; you canʼt really isolate why youʼre doing something and because thatʼs so complex and the reason why you behave like you do is based on so many things, there is an illusion of free will. Well, that kinda fucking sucks. Iʼd like there to be some sort of cool other-worldliness to our being. I definitely donʼt want it to be Christianity, Muslim or any organized religion. But Iʼd like there to be something bigger that we havenʼt comprehended yet.
Do you have a prefered state of intoxication or highness when youʼre doing your work?
Umm. Yeah. I like to have a little buzz. Itʼs somewhere between three beers and one hit of grass and three more beers and the second hit. After that I canʼt really produce anymore.
Thatʼs the sweet spot?
Yeah. Thereʼs definitely a sweet spot.
One of the autobiographical things about these guys is from when I was a kid. I drew these big hippy vans that had swimming pools or bars and TVs and things. I remember they had joints in their mouths and were drinking beer and the art teacher was concerned.
But it was totally innocent. I didnʼt even know what a joint was, I just knew that thatʼs what hippies had in their mouths. So a lot of my work is recurrent; these guys are always holding a beer and have a cigarette in their mouths. It’s a direct homage to that sort of innocence and that love of caricature. Part of the reason why I like the black metal corpse mask is that it depersonifies. The makeup accentuates their emotion, like Japanese Kabuki theater.
Not to end on a negative note but what do you hate about New York?
I would say New York is like being a heroin addict: you love it and you hate it but it makes you happy and it also kills you. I hate how expensive this place is. Honestly there are so many days you wake up in this place and youʼre just like “God I love this place.” But then thereʼs so many days you wake up and you go, “God I fucking hate that guy. That guy right there I hate him.” You know? Iʼve met the most incredible people of my entire life here. They keep me here if anything. Whenever any one of them is like, “Iʼm gonna go to LA.” Iʼm like, “Fuck you!!! I lived in LA! Youʼre gonna be in your car all the time. Itʼs the same day every day. You just donʼt know.” So many times I was just shit-faced behind the wheel. Iʼm amazed that I never got pulled over or killed anybody. Iʼm a small-town kid and the idea of a big city that functions like a small town is very cool. You kind of get that in San Francisco, but you definitely get it here. And I would never go back to San Francisco because I canʼt stand the passive aggressive hippy shit out there anymore. Just…no way, not gonna deal with that. I like the no nonsense New York.