Interview: HuskMitNavn Is Not Just a Face in the Crowd (w/video)
As a frequent theme in fine art, portraying the mundane is usually focused on finding the beauty and the special moments in everyday life. Whether in movies or paintings, these works tend to glorify regular people and regular life moments by portraying them as something exceptional.
And while Danish artist Huskmitnavn (who has work currently on view at Beyond the Streets, including a full drawing room-interactive installation) is working with that exact same theme, both his approach and his end results are significantly different. He is sourcing inspiration from his private life or the life around him, and is usually depicting it through a universally understandable filter of humor. Not limited with a single theme, an aspect of life, or even the format of his workspace or medium, he is seeing an inspiration and challenge in everything from the flatness and the shape of the paper, all the way to global issues that threaten our future.
Far from trying to make anyone or anything feel or look special, his work is a humorous take at everyday moments that each of us can relate to. With both feet firmly on the ground, he is accepting his place in the world, along with all the flaws and weaknesses, and is determined to help others see and accept theirs too. One drawing/painting/mural at the time...
Sasha Bogojev: How did this concept of a double show you had earlier this year with V1 gallery in Copenhagen come to be?
Huskmitnavn: Well, since the two spaces that the gallery has were not connected, I wanted to make 2 gallery shows. The upstairs space show was about work and work-related subjects. There a lot of situations you can draw and paint that people will recognize. Most people nowadays sit in front of computer and sort of live the same life everywhere around the world. Downstairs I wanted something looser, so I can work in two different tempos. So whenever I got fed up with making a big painting for upstairs, I can make something quicker for downstairs. The variation is quite important when you're making a big show, to have big stuff and small stuff, something you can make really quickly and something you can work on for longer. If you don't do that you'll end up in the corner, just working on big stuff and becoming nervous. So you need to do something where you can see the result after like 2 hours.
Yeah, you seem to be constantly switching between murals, paintings, drawings, paper pieces, sculptures, books... Does that help you keep your pace?
It fills up the holes. Cause if you're only making big paintings and big murals, you have to have the right setting for it, right weather, right wall, so you need to be able to work on different things in order to fill up the holes. It's pretty important, for me at least, to always be able to work whenever I have the moment. My workdays are so full of the usual stuff, writing emails, staying in contact, sending out photos, and I can easily spend 90% of my time on just that. So I have to be able to have an excuse to actually work on something in between those.
I've noticed you have an amazing and constant output. So much work keeps coming out. What motivates you to produce so much?
Writing e-mails. Really, I get so fed up with that that my fingers start itching. (laughs) I made a webshop last December and was thinking I'm gonna dedicate some time to that, but when you start it is when you need to learn a lot of things. So that period was just packing and sending, and by Christmas I was desperate. Usually, it's ok for me to take a break from drawing, but after 3 or 4 days I'm like "This is the purpose of my life" (laughs) I try to make some finished works. I really enjoy, and I think everyone does, when you go home from work to be able to turn around and see what you did that day. And it's really hard when you work on a computer cause you never see any result - you answer an email, you get a reply, and it's back and forth. In the end, you think "what have I done with my life?", I've been pressing the reply button a lot.
Oh yes, I can relate to that feeling. I'm spending hours on the computer daily and there is no tangible track of me doing anything.
Yes, but the feeling when you get something you can print out, or look at a drawing you just made, you can't really beat that. And I also like to frame my own work, cause that way the product is complete. Otherwise, if you send it to the framer it can be done between a week and 3 months, so when you get it back you sort of forgot about it. So as soon as the paint is dry I put the work in a frame, and it's finished!
And with such large output, do you ever feel pressured that you could work more or you should produce more than you are at the moment?
I always have the deadlines, and that's always the pressure. But I also keep pushing myself. I enjoy drawing while running, chasing deadlines. I need that pace. I'm not the one that comes to the studio, thinks about work, looks for inspiration, goes for a walk, stuff like that. I'm here now, I'm taking a piece of paper and trying to work on ideas straight away. There is always a pressure - you need to pay the rent, pay for materials or whatever, so you can't just sit around for too long.
Now that you mentioned the piece of paper, how did those folded drawings started?
They started pretty slowly - first, it began with one drawing, and then, later on, I made another drawing and that was looking at the first one, so they were speaking together. And then I started focusing on how can I break this square piece of paper? Cause I've been working on a square piece of paper ever since I was 3 years old, and you never really question the format. But at some point, I began to wonder what if I just crumble it and draw a guy, so his shirt was all wrinkly. It was also about saving time—I don't have to draw things that I can just do with the paper itself. And often it works much better than if I drew that. Then they started following each other and one idea and instead of starting a new one, one idea would lead to the next one.
I remember you had certain rules for making them. Like no scissors, and stuff like that. Do you still have those?
Yeah, no scissors, no tape or glue.
Is origami allowed?
Yeah, folding is allowed and I have to be able to keep the shape with 2 hands. But when taking photos I'm sort of cheating as I need one hand for taking photos so sometimes I use blue tac.
Do you have any further plans with those?
Not really. I work on them every once in a while and sometimes I just can't think of any new ones cause I already used all the obvious ones. I already made more than 300 of them. Some of them are really good and some are just ok. But you need to do a lot of shitty ones to get to the really good ones. (laughs)
As far as I know, they really took off on Instagram. Do you think that was a significant moment for those works?
Yeah, cause all of a sudden you have a place to show them. And I think that for a lot of people, including myself, as soon as you get a smartphone it becomes your best friend and your biggest problem. Because it takes so much time from your actual physical surroundings and all of a sudden you're not speaking to your child but you're looking at a photo you already looked at 10 times.
So yeah, that's the problem, but it's also completely magical because before the social media it was hard to promote your work. If you had a show you had a write a press release, try to get free newspapers or websites to write about it, it was pretty hard. I think out of that came the whole street art thing. Cause people were taking the stuff to the street cause that's where they can actually meet the audience and they didn't have to hope for a gallery show or anything. You just did it yourself. So when the smartphones and social media came along, everyone had their own little newspaper and ability to build their own following.
But to go back on the folded drawings, I feel like they are good research for your bigger works. Like Framework body of work could be a more elaborate version of them.
Yeah, they are related. It's about looking at the material that you have in front of you, instead of wondering what kind of mountain landscape can be painted on the canvas. Instead of that, you look at the canvas and you ask "What's in front of me?" - it's a wooden frame with stuff stretched on it. Can I make that into a cloth on a table? The same thing with the picture frame - there is actually wood around the drawing. Can I turn that wood into something that relates to the drawing? It's also cause I enjoy drawing a lot of drawings and I don't have a character that I draw over and over again. I make different pieces every time so I need some source where I can get inspiration from.
I also noticed you're shifting between the techniques and even visual languages. Is that out of curiosity or you're still searching for the right one?
No, it's not cause I haven't found the right one, but it's cause I'm curious and my motivation is to be able to execute the drawing really fast. So I'm always figuring out the way what material works the best.
So oil is not an option?
No, oil is not an option. If you work with oil you need to work on many different paintings at the same time, then it's ok. But the acrylic paint is so good that you don't need oil. And it's not like I just want to get over with it, but I'm just always curious when I go to paint shop and I'm always hoping I'm buying the wrong thing. Cause my greatest discoveries came from buying the wrong stuff. The mistakes are pretty important and sometimes I'm hoping for them so I'm not repeating myself.
Do you have any formal artistic education?
I have an art teacher education. But it was never my plan to become one. In Denmark, when you're getting an education, you get money from the state so you can almost survive off it. And you don't need to pay it back. So it's free education, and you get paid to get it, and it gives me the time to figure out what I wanna do. But this was 20 years ago.
How did your journey from painting graffiti to showing at galleries and museums look like?
I was in that first generation to jump from a sort of NY graffiti into other parts of the art world. I remember in the 90s there was nobody that I could look at and say "I want this guys career". Cause if you were painting graffiti the most you could hope for is to become a graphic designer or something. But I wasn't into computers. Then in the late 90s, people started to experiment with other mediums, and in early 2000s we were a group of people here in Copenhagen that did different things like clothing or ran galleries. We all knew other people outside Denmark through graffiti community, through trading magazines, photos, so there was a network that started to do things from nowhere. Around that time I was doing graffiti, I still do it once in a while, but back then I made these hand-drawn street posters and they were pretty effective. I also figured they were a big success but I'm not gonna do that when I'm 60. So I stopped right away and started trying to learn how to paint along with doing traditional graffiti. I knew that was gonna take over. Most of the time I've been doing everything at the same time. And when I started showing it people were like "Oh yeah, it's street art shown indoors". But it's never been like that, I've always made specific artwork for indoors and specific work for outdoors.
And you pretty much reached a household name in Denmark. How does that feel?
It's a bit schizophrenic, cause within this corner of the art world that is called street art, post-graffiti, whatever, I'm one of the few dinosaurs that are left anonymous. Most people just skipped that part but I really enjoy it. I've done a lot of stuff that's been pretty visible in Copenhagen or Denmark, so if I came out of the closet, people would look at me strangely when I'm at the supermarket or at metro. And when people don't really recognize you but they are trying to place you, they tend to stare at you thinking "Did I go to school with you? Did you use to date my sister? Do I like you?" And I'm not interested in that. Because as an artist you make your living observing the surroundings. I look at the world and I try to draw it. But if the world is looking at you funny, then it's kind of hard to make something. (laughs) So I need to be the face in the crowd and not the guy that stands out.
Did you ever think about how much time you spend observing the world, coming up with ideas for work?
Well, if I come across some situation that I think looks funny, I'll try to remember it, write it down or draw it, but most of the time I sit at my desk and think of situations that people have in common. So I try to find a theme that a lot of people can relate to. So not some nerdy stuff, but something very general. Like traffic - everyone knows something about traffic. Then I start thinking about it and if within like a minute I can come up with 10 images, I know I'm onto something. And then if I'm making a show and I need 30 pieces and have only 20, I might go for a walk to search for inspiration. But sometimes its hard to come up with a theme cause I get stuck. Like "global warming", and I have 10 very depressing images. That's not gonna work.
You mentioned "funny", and there is a lot of humor in your work. Do you think it helps you personally deal with everyday stuff?
It's more fun to make and more fun to look at. I'm not particularly into going to museums or gallery exhibitions, so when I do I always think "what am I missing here?", "why am I spending such short time here?" I could be seeing Rembrandt's most famous work and spend few seconds looking at it. So I always think how can I make it a pleasant experience? It's not like I want people to stay for 3 hours looking at my work, but when you make something fun you can actually communicate some pretty heavy stuff. I tend to shut down if it's over serious and heavy stuff, and some of it is taking itself too seriously. So I figured there isn't much fun art - that can be my spot!
Do you get a lot of feedback from people, especially making work that is very relatable?
Yeah, because I draw inspiration from my own life and my surrounding, my friends leading the same life. People can relate to my age too cause I started almost 20 years ago and the work back then was about getting drunk, painting graffiti, and all that. People that have been following me since then now have regular jobs, children, same life that I have, and it's my big idea to keep doing this. So if I'm lucky enough to get that old I wanna paint life in a retirement home, pissing the bed at night, all of that stuff (laughs) When you look at painting the life, the images are right in front of you! It's like looking for a cucumber in the fridge and you can't see it cause it's right in front of you. The same thing when you need to come up with stuff about everyday life - it's so close that you don't see it. You're looking further ahead, at the bigger picture.
What about negative feedback? Did you experience people being offended or not liking the images? Like portraying bad parents or parental failures?
Well, it's not really controversial. Like I'm not drawing parents that are hitting their children. But hiding in the bathroom from your own kids. You know you're a bad parent, but you don't have the energy to actually do something. It's only human. The main message is - you're not alone. I also don't know what I'm doing. (laughs)
Do you think that your career could be inspirational to young creatives, and what would you like them to take from it, especially being a parent yourself?
A lot of things I make, like some basic folded drawings, are easy to recreate at your kitchen table. Some of the paintings or drawings too, and I also do coloring books. I try to keep it simple and make a door that you can enter through and actually take a part in it. I'm not interested in people copying the stuff, but doing the first drawing, perhaps imitating one of the mines, and then they come up with their own things. But I really enjoy drawing and I like to share that. Nowadays young people spend their time on Instagram or whatever, so instead of seeing a clip of Ronaldo scoring a goal, it's cool if they see something that will inspire them to try doing similar things themselves. Cause as you move forward, you need to have life skills. You can not be really good at checking your phone. And there is a lot of art that you'll never have a possibility to make it yourself. Like someone painting a big mural. Yeah, it's super nice mural, but you can never do that - you don't have the lift, the materials, the skills, anything. But when you see a small drawing - everyone got a piece of paper and a pen.
But along with these mundane subjects, you also create work that is focused on more serious issues, politics, refugee crisis. How important for you personally it is to express those opinions?
Most people can only shout at their TV but I can actually transform them into a drawing and I have my own channels, my social media, where I can show those. When I feel like something can be twisted into a drawing, like seeing Donald Trump saying stupid stuff, I just make it. I don't think much about should I do it or not. I know I'm looking at the biggest jerk on Earth, and there probably some other people thinking like this. It's a fun challenge to think how can I make this into a fun drawing making fun of him, instead of just a middle finger to him or something simple like that. As an artist, your role is to make fun of people in power and to point out to their weak spots.
Speaking of politics and more serious subjects, what are your memories of the 2006 show Mohamedansk, "a show about the Danes and their fear of everything that isn't Danish"?
That was crazy! In Denmark we had this "Mohammed drawing crisis", a cartoon crisis. But I came up with the idea for this exhibition 6 months before that cause the political climate started changing. So I wanted to make an exhibition about this change, make fun of it and try to address the subject. But on the very day I had the opening the Mohammed drawing crisis blew up, and I had nothing to do with that. So on the opening night the Danish embassy in Damascus got burned down, and I had to go to the gallery and double check all the works in case there is something on them that can offend somebody to the point that I get "fatwa" or whatever you call it on me. Because I wasn't really interested in that, and I'm not that dedicated. The cartoonist that did draw the image of Mohammed with a bomb on its head is still nowadays living underground and with constant security because people tried to kill him a couple of times. So I ended up being interviewed for CNN cause the whole world media was here at the time. The timing was crazy.
Yeah, but your idea was obviously something completely different. So how do you see how much the world has "progressed" since then?
It was 5 years after 9/11 and there was the whole Osama Bin Laden and Bush thing, and everything was new back then. And now is just normal. People don't raise an eyebrow when politicians make the crazy decision for refugees or whatever. People don't care anymore what's going on in places like Syria, Yemen, all these places. You don't have these immediate crises. The entry points to Europe are blocked, so you have these people in limbo in Turkey, Greece, south of Italy, but people in North Europe are like "what crisis?" So right now is on hold, but its gonna come back. The world is pretty schizophrenic right now - I'm living the same life, I'm eating the same food, nothing has really changed, but there is something on the horizon. The refugees, the climate change, all these things are huge. When are we not gonna be able to buy chocolate at the store cause there are no more rainforests left? And you know it's gonna come. You know that places like Copenhagen are bound to be flooded in the future, but they are still building along the harbor. And I wanna make these things into pictures, but some of it I'm still struggling how to do it.
It's gonna be interesting to see you transform that kind of reality into your work.
Well, I made single pieces but I'd also like to make shows but the themes are really heavy so it's hard to come up with a concept to make a show. When you make a commercial show you need to make work that people will actually buy. Like the poster I did for the refugees - it needs to look good so people will actually hang it on the wall, but it also needs to remind them of the issue. When you make stuff for the museum you can make whatever, like dead children or puppies or whatever. But when you're making it in a gallery you can't. Few artists can do it, but I can't. I need to make other types of images that still deal with the subject, and that's the whole challenge of it.
HuskMitNavn's work is on view at Beyond the Streets, on view through July 6, 2018 in Los Angeles.