Geoff McFetridge

The Opposite of an Idea

Interview by Evan Pricco // Portrait by David Black

The beauty of Geoff McFetridge’s work is that it is both flexible and rigid, universal and personal. There is a malleability he creates in his output, where designs for Apple, Vans or Norse Projects compliment or even converse with fine art shows at Half Gallery, Cooper Cole or V1 Gallery. Over the past few decades, his work has come to signify a certain attention to detail, something I keep referring to as noticing the unnoticed, or maybe better read, un-noticing what we always notice. He is a man where color is the emphasis, where shapes and figures appear from an almost dreamlike backdrop. The figures seem to be speaking a language that is between what we call a connection, the moments that are in-between contact. As he is set to release a collection with Vault by Vans and open a solo show with Half Gallery from September 8—October 6, 2021, McFetridge has become more abstract and meditative with his commercial work and even more ubiquitous with his paintings. 

Evan Pricco: You’re, frankly, in high demand, so I can imagine this is a very busy time, with opportunities floating your way, whether commercial or fine art projects. What are you prioritizing at the moment?
Geoff McFetridge: Someone came in and did sort of a visit to the studio yesterday, and the only way to answer the question of “What are you doing?” is to go through my sketchbook, which isn't a sketchbook, but a workbook where I work on everything. It's a big thick book and I go through and I can see, “This is what I'm working on.” On one page will be drawings for this show I’m working on for Half Gallery, and then, flipping the next page, I was like, "Oh yeah, I'm doing this thing for Dropbox." And I go to that page and it's all these drawings from Dropbox. 
And then I flipped the page and it's, "Oh, this stuff is for Vans,” so five pages of that and six pages of Dropbox and ten pages of this other thing. Then it keeps going and it'll be like, “Oh yeah, I'm doing this thing for Surfer's Journal.” It's this list of things that are happening simultaneously, but I'm not really aware of any of them because it's just consciousness. Are you aware of your consciousness? It's like, "No." It's just that all the projects have equal footing.


Geoff McFetridge: The Opposite of an Idea


Is that because you've developed a visual language where you can speak to different projects but not have to change it up? You clearly have an ability to possess this visual language that can exist through all the things that you do.
I was surprised when I went through the book, because the premium answer is sort of that I  don't really know. I think it's hard for anyone to assess, “What do you do?” “Who do you do it for?” The book sort of goes, "Oh, it's one project." It's like there's a larger project, which is the building of language. So you build up this language that you can then apply. Do you write a poem? Do you write a list? Do you write an essay with this language? You're also sort of growing a language. “Oh, here's a new letter to the alphabet and here's a new word to describe this." But you're also relying on previous vocabulary. I think that may sound sort of conceited or something.
No, I think the question becomes, when did you feel comfortable talking about the fact that you had developed this language?
Right, I mean, I think it's over the past few years. For me to address these things, I think of how much I've talked about myself or thought aloud, but it's taken me a decade to understand exactly what I'm doing, to understand, “Oh, what is actually happening?” Because I'm just acting on instinct. And you start to think, “Well, why am I?” The answer to simple things, they're simple aspects. What projects do you choose? Why do you not have a staff? Why do you not have representation? There's all these sorts of questions that, through the years, I've sort of answered with, “I like to be independent.” At that point, you get to some real truths. That, to me, is more interesting, but also I'm a super nerd for my practice. I'm the most dedicated to my own.
I've been having this conversation a lot recently, especially when it comes to writing. You read something, a really beautiful phrase in a book or a line in a poem that really conveys an emotion that you're thinking about, and then consider how difficult it is to get from the head to the hands to express. You do that with art, but how do you differentiate if you nail it for Apple or if you nail it for a canvas? And is it different for you?
I think that the idea is that you don't have these two spheres, that there's this convergence of the work so that it starts to minimize this feeling of “work for projects, work in a gallery.” It sort of reveals what images do in our world. If we're all believers in images, then let's forget about the delivery system, let's get to what these images are doing. When someone gets something flashed to them from Apple, music of the day type of things, it's not the same as walking up to a painting.
But there is an aspect of it that's within any piece of work, that you can sort of embolden with sincerity or with something that goes beyond ideas. I think that's the interesting part, and I encourage that overlap. In creating this visual language and creating this type of work, part of it was like, "Well, what work can occupy both those zones?" That's the challenge.


Geoff McFetridge: The Opposite of an Idea


When we did a previous interview for Juxtapoz, I think about ten years ago, painting wasn’t new for you, but you felt a new joy in it at the time. There was this new revelation you were having, and a change in dedication. Where are you at now with painting? 
I come to painting through a huge roundabout.  I don't know if I talked about it in that interview, but I see it now. It was the process that brought me to painting, and it's the same way, every little thing as you describe yourself, how you understand yourself. It's understanding myself as a painter or as someone who... It's weird to say, "I'm a painter." But I found that all these elements came together, and painting was the receptacle for all these unknowns. And a lot of that has to do with controlling how engaged viewers would be with the work.
Your work portrays an almost socialist utopia harmony going on among the people. And it seemed really telling that over the last 18 months or so that your past works actually speak really well about these conversations that we need to have about each other. Have you had any time to reflect on the fact that your work does speak to the time in a unique way?
When I'm making the work, there's always this moment, because the way I develop the work is through drawing. So I’ll do hundreds of drawings and they'll sort of auto-file, and I’ll be like, "This could be a painting." Then there's a pile of ten drawings, and it's like one of those could be a painting, and then they get judged on whether they will look good or be compelling. When I look at the 100 drawings, they all start from the same point, which is just talking about our understanding of the relationship of humans with each other. In the most basic way, it's just almost at a microcosmic level. 
These little unforeseen energies or unseen energies that circulate among us. 
There is the idea, and you pursue these iterations and meditations on one thing, rather than. "Well, I need an idea." I don't know when it was, but years ago, this internal thing happened, just saying that it's the opposite of an idea. So I don't know when I first said that out loud, but I said it to myself long before I ever spoke about it. I think I may have titled a show about that. I can't remember, but it's the opposite of an idea. What's the opposite of an idea when you're pursuing work?


Geoff McFetridge: The Opposite of an Idea
Installation view, V1 Gallery, Copenhagen


I mean, this question explains itself, but if you hadn't worked in some sort of design language, would you have been able to develop the confidence to make the paintings the way you do?
No. I started with using a design process and the thinking I got from design. I think speaking out loud, as I'm talking to you, I'm working through ideas; speaking out loud about my work and the function of visuals, which, for me, comes from a sign critique. I also use techniques I learned in school that were these archaic sort of commercial art techniques. So it was a commercial art technique where I started.  
I always found it interesting that you have a very certain style, from the way you dress to the colors you wear, and it seems to align perfectly in the way that your studio was organized and the way that your paintings were made. In a way, it felt very genuine. So, are you part of the work?
Yes. If you're a willing participant, what you do in your work and what you do in your life just sort of mesh. Actually, a lot of things in my paintings are similar to clothes in that I dress these people, these sort of Playmobil people. There are people who have pants and shirts and hair that, in a way, are my version of a sort of Playmobil world. I think that when the designers sat down to do Playmobil, they thought, “How does this read as a person, how is it still fun?” G.I. Joes in America have guns and Jeeps and they're super real. But I imagine Playmobil designers thought, "We want to do something that feels more imaginative, that leaves more up to the mind of the kid." I don't know. I have no idea. 
This actually does make a lot of sense because it's utilitarian, and your work has that quality. 
I realize I dress in a Playmobil way! You could say basic guy or you can say Playmobil guy. How do you dress the void? It's leaving openness like a mandala, this incredibly complex thing that's about losing yourself in meditation. There's ways of dressing that are specific, referential... I can't even articulate it. I feel comfortable when I'm in Playmobil mode; but it has a function, it's super specific. How do you wear emptiness—with possibilities? 


Geoff McFetridge: The Opposite of an Idea

 "How do you wear emptiness—with possibilities?"


I feel there's this thing that your paintings do where you focus on what is “unnoticed noticed” or “noticed unnoticed.” If you look a little deeper, the clothes really matter. 
It's this level of how you make an entire painting that is both evocative but also where every element of it can be dismissed. You look in the middle, like a target. A target is not a mandala because it has this value system. It's a bull's eye. So a painting without bulls’ eyes is what I'm looking for. 



In my notes today I wrote, "What are the Geoff McFetridge rules?" 
No outlines, so everything works as fields of color. No faces, generally. 
Well, it's clearly not a rule anymore because your show with Cooper Cole this past summer did have faces. 
Yeah, so I already broke a rule! Because I guess it's not really a rule. There's a larger rule which is real, which is this sort of wandering eye thing. I do a lot with color, and that will become the focus, even though there is this central thing, a figure, that you notice. But you can really just see that I’m really working with the interplay with colors. 


Geoff McFetridge: The Opposite of an Idea


Notice the unnoticed. We have been talking about painting, but what about design, like your upcoming Vault by Vans release? How does that fit into the studio work? 
The Vans project is in the sketchbook, and it's so many pages. I mean, it's an experiment in how many ideas, but not using the word ideas, can go into one project. It's the opposite of what you would think, really. One might go, "Oh, you experiment in your gallery shows, that’s where you have total freedom. And then you apply those experiments to commercial projects." Whereas for me, it's the opposite. I use commercial projects as prompts. I did this series with the New York Times during the pandemic. It was a series of drawings that illustrated the collective year we were all having. And that was a prompt to be diagnostically personal and revealing, and talk about my family, something that I'm not going to do in a show. It opened up this way to basically paint faces; it led directly to painting faces. It broke this sort of cold wall. 
And then with the Vans project, I took it on as this very familiar brand. What do I actually bring to this? Or what am I interested in getting out of it? So, for me, it was exploring personal history through product and graphic design. It's not about what I want to wear. It was about how deep I could go with something easily dismissed, like a pair of shoes or a sweatshirt. That's exactly what I do in my art. If that's what I'm doing in my art, if I'm looking internally and using these sorts of personal materials to take these steps towards something genuine, I'm not messing with the consumer. As a total believer in the almost mystical properties of design and visuals, my intentions were to recreate that visual dynamic catharsis of the first time I had seen someone wearing Vans. I'm reaching for that. That's my point in space. And what you're doing, too, is almost designing the memories that are experienced when we see things that change our perceptions. 
For lack of better phrasing, there's a little room for some Bill Evans freestyle within these kinds of confines of what it is we know about brands. You expand the expectations of both the famous silhouette, or something familiar, for the person who will wear it. 
I was reading this book about jazz recently, and there was this part about how the history of jazz is explicit in the music. That within the playing, you don't need a jazz historian to tell you what is happening. When you listen to jazz, it carries the history within the form. And that really rang true to the world I operate in. That is why I love to do stuff like Vans because it's ingrained with culture. So the culture carries its history. There's this literacy we all have. So, for me, it becomes an opportunity to add to this world within the rules I have set for myself. 


Geoff McFetridge: The Opposite of an Idea


There is this really positive echo chamber aspect in what you do. I mean that in a good way, like you are constantly speaking to your work, and the studio revolves around these visual identities between commercial and fine art. In this notebook, you are listening to yourself.
​​If you read echo chamber in the Wall Street Journal, it's used in the context of political discourse in a negative way. But in terms of the studio, you can’t turn off what you see in the world, what you see around you. The studio has to have a certain amount of absorbent. I like that an echo chamber is more important in my process. 
I'm never super deliberate about things, but it's more of one’s own personal history that just comes out. "Why do I see things the way I do?" As an artist, that question is also, “Why do I do the things I do?” It's very much about how you answer these questions, how do I see things and how do I do things based on my own personal history and context? And that's something that I see very clearly now. 
This fall, Geoff McFetridge’s collection with Vault by Vans will be released, and he’ll open a solo show at Half Gallery opening September 6—October 8, 2021