The Unbusiness Of Art
Interview by Eben Benson and portrait by Dennis McGrath
Joe Roberts is endlessly curious, entertaining whatever comes into the frame as part of the collective whole. His artwork is a natural extension of this awareness, as themes and characters weave in and out, while he obliges by blending them into compositions that range from magic marker drawings, to monochromatic pen and paper creations and textured acrylic paintings. A forest alive with tigers, birds, and flora might appear next to Ninja Turtles sporting Grateful Dead logos.
It should be no surprise that he would be similarly expansive in person. He makes art for the sake of making art, embodying a welcome centeredness that we enjoyed during a visit to his studio, and hope to convey in this wide conversation.
Eben Benson: It seems like your art career spontaneously combusted. Did you ever expect to show in galleries?
Joe Roberts: I came out here from Milwaukee with a backpack and my friend's car, and, I think, 300 dollars. I lived in the Mission with Brad Staba, then moved to Berkeley with him later on. My friend Tony Cox said he was moving to New York and told me I could take his studio. When I asked if I could live in it, he was, like, "Well, you're not supposed to." But I did. I lived there for three months. Tony invited me to New York, I showed up, and he hooked me up with a show at Fuse Gallery. It was underneath a bar and that's where Leo Fitzpatrick saw my work. Later, I had a show at Leo's old gallery, Home Alone 2.
How did you start showing with Leo Fitzpatrick and Marlborough Contemporary?
Leo definitely took a risk on me. I kind of hate a lot of the gallery scene. I just don't fuckin' know about it, but how else do you show art? I've never felt like I've had a great show at a gallery either. I've never felt, like, "That was so sick," I always think that I could have done so much more, but eh, I'm always a little disappointed by it all.
When people ask about the next art show, I don't really know what to say. I'd rather just paint for fun and worry about figuring out something new. Something other than pumping up this already inflated thing. Thankfully, I have a good relationship with Marlborough, so I don't need to overthink it much.
It's almost like skateboarding, where sometimes being professional can take the magic out of it.
Yeah, I guess all my fuckin' eggs are in the art basket, though, so I've got to do some of it. I'll flake out on stuff sometimes. I also don't really know what to tell people when it comes to pricing or presentation; that's not my prerogative with art.
When did you start posting art on Instagram?
I don't know. I remember being tripped out because someone showed me, and I had an Android which didn't support Instagram at the time. I got it right after it came out for Android, and I just started posting art. It was to like, four people. Instagram is weird, I hate it.
Me too, but I guess it can have positives, somehow... When did you start putting art on clothing?
I used to work in the warehouse at Skate Mental, and did some graphics there at one point. I did a lot of different things while I was working there.
When did you start painting in general?
For the show at Marlborough.
I had, like, fucked around with painting, but I never felt compelled to buy canvas or paint. I always made collages and drawings. Before that, I just scrawled on pieces of paper for months or years at a time. Sometimes, I'd make something out of a drawing I made three years before. I don't want to try too hard.
So Leo hadn't even seen your paintings and said, "Just send us some stuff?"
No. He came out and stayed here for about ten days. We hung out. He saw one piece that I started and asked if I could do paintings for a show. And I was, like, "Yeah, well... I think so, I don't know."
I guess you were gonna find out.
I already had that show with him at Home Alone 2, so he knew I could do one. He wanted paintings because he wanted a specific idea for the gallery, and that made sense. He was very definite about it, like, "Make squares," and I was, like, squares? He's like "It's a square room, it will look cool." Then, I thought, "Squares? Fuck, I never thought about squares.”
So that was kind of a new constraint.
It was like really smart shit, like shit I wouldn't think about, so he helped me out a lot. Whereas I thought, "Okay, I'm going to make this one really big painting and I'm going to do it all in this room." He told me I was making it crazier than it needed to be. And I realized he was right, I was. It eventually started to make more sense. When I first sent him a painting, he said, "Dude, I'm not just going to give you an art show." I was, like, "Fuck."
Did you have to push yourself a little more?
He wanted me to take a risk and I just did it. He wasn't mean about it, but he needed something a little more professional.
That's the part of the art world that I like. I don't think gallerists have to be assholes to push artists forward.
Yeah, he's not an asshole. We're friends, so it was more like encouragement and direction.
It seems like some galleries want a prepackaged, delivered thing. They want to walk in and just see the show on your walls and then suggest, "How about you sell it with us and we get 50%?"
That's part of why I don't have a bunch of shows lined up. I haven't made any paintings in a while. I bought these canvasses and they're just sitting here. Until a couple days ago, I was starting to say, "Fuck it,” I don't know. Art shows can be so stupid. I mean, I don't know if they're important, but like, is it important to have an art show three times a year? Once a year? It's not that important, is it? I don't know.
I just have to keep making work. The exhibit aspect doesn't matter as long as I'm continuously making art.
I think you're a perfect example of someone who doesn't have to do that, and that blew me away when I first found out about you. You don't really show, and you don't do direct-to-consumer sales online. There isn't a visible financial intention behind your presentation.
I don't want to have a business aspect. I just want to make smart choices and let the work speak for itself. I feel like I always get roped into doing shit I don't want to do. I don't want to show all the time. I think it's weird to show all the time. That doesn't leave me enough space to make art just for the sake of it. It would feel like I'd only be trying to sell shit. That's not why I make art. It's cool, but I've got other hobbies.
Do you think there is a natural human propensity to make art in that way? Do you think everyone has the inclination to make things?
I think everyone does make things, they just don't realize it. We need it at a certain level. When you're a kid, everyone draws, it's one of the first things you do. No one's fucking judging you. I just, like, stuck with it. I don't think I'm technically good, but it seems like someone was always telling me, "Keep doing it."
I feel like, at some point, if you keep drawing like a little kid, and people keep saying you draw like a little kid, and it bothers you a little, you quit doing it. You're like "Fuck, I don't want to draw like a little kid." Someone comes along and they kill it. I remember this kid I went to school with who killed it. I was, like, "Holy fucking shit, you drew Voltron perfect." Just a pencil drawing, it was so good. I wanted to be him forever. Drawing is fun and easy too. You can just sit there, you don't have to show anyone, There's a stack of drawings in my studio that I don't want to show anyone.
I really agree with that sentiment. Maybe it's kind of good just because you made it. Who were some of the people that you looked up to when you were drawing as a kid?
Jack Kirby was one of my favorites. I didn't realize how much of the stuff I loved growing up was made by him until more recently. I always looked up to my grandfather because he made art, but he just made it because he was old and bored. He was having fun with it. He was into collage and printmaking and, like, found objects that he would make into sculptures. He'd weld sculptures, he'd try anything. Then he'd just move on to the next thing.
I loved the original Ninja Turtles, the ones made by Kevin Eastman. My father and I would go to the comic book store every week, and eventually, I tuned into the Ninja Turtles, right around when they were coming out. I also really liked Vincent van Gogh.
Really? I mean, I love van Gogh, but I might not have put him on the list.
I remember going on this school trip to an art museum in Chicago, and I remember seeing The Bedroom. I remember thinking "Yeah, this dude knows what's up.” I had seen pictures of all his shit, but when I saw it in real life, I got why people fucked with this dude. It made sense.
It seems like sometimes we forget that the masters were really good.
But it's like forced down your throat so early on, people telling you, “These are the best,” and you question if they are.
I grew up liking graffiti too. So, there's also that whole world where you think that's the best. But I was never super good at it. I lived with a bunch of kids that were “good” at graffiti, but I wasn't really. I had a name, I would go out with them, but I wasn't really there to do graffiti, I was there to have the adventure and be with them.
Were there any graffiti writers that you liked as artists?
There was this guy in Milwaukee called Obi Wan.
Yeah, and I thought he was sick. There was another dude in Minneapolis called Ewok, and I thought it was cool that they both did characters. I didn't like the name part of it. I was naturally drawn towards Barry McGee's work because he did characters, so when I got to San Francisco and saw pieces like his, I got more into it.
You used to be able to walk through the N Judah streetcar tunnels. I don't think you can do it anymore, but there used to be tags and stuff from end to end. It looked crazy when you'd ride up there on the train because it would just flash by the window. You could walk through it at night. Seeing all that was so different than Milwaukee where it's all kind of spaced out on the freeway or under overpasses
When did you get into the more existential stuff you reference in your work? Like Ram Dass, Terence and Dennis McKenna, ideas along those lines.
I read Dennis Mckenna's book The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. It's really good, it's about his life but also about how he lost his mind at La Chorrera. Terence didn't really lose his shit there, but Dennis definitely did. I was first introduced to that stuff from a video of Terence McKenna talking about the I Ching and I was, like, "What the fuck is this dude talking about?"
My dad was a big hippie, he was into the I Ching and did Tai Chi. I did yoga when I was a kid, when none of my friends or their parents were. My dad looked like Tommy Chong. He had copies of Be Here Now and I would flip through it as a kid and trip out on it. He was a librarian, and had an insane comic and book collection. I spent a lot of time by myself, and while my sisters would play with each other, I would just look through my dad's books. That's how I found out about R. Crumb and Zap Comix. They were so dark. I didn't understand all of it, but it gave me this visceral reaction. I got really into that stuff.
But yeah, when I heard Terence McKenna talking about the I Ching, I remembered how my dad was into all that stuff, and then he started talking about mushrooms. I had played around with mushrooms quite a bit at that point, but I'd never heard someone explain them like he did. He took a different kind of approach, which opened my mind to the possibility that there was more to them than I'd thought. I think with those kinds of things, you turn a corner, and then it's a different thing all of a sudden. You keep going on and it turns into a spiral, but it's always changing.
What do you think about the Heroic Dose? Five dried grams of mushrooms in silent darkness?
I think the Heroic Dose is a really gnarly idea to throw out there. I get it, it works, but to call it that? You've gotta ease into that shit. You can't just go from having never taken mushrooms to taking five dried grams in silent darkness. It's like magic, dude. You're fucking around with some powerful shit.
When did you read Brave New World? Or 1984?
I definitely read 1984 in high school. I read Brave New World after high school. I spent a couple summers reading books like that, like Behold a Pale Horse.
Dystopia and utopia.
Before the internet too, though. Now you can look on the internet and there's so much information that it doesn't even make sense.
Sometimes it seems like this is the dystopia.
Yeah, we're living it, we just live in it and deal with it. Trying to truly understand it will make you go nuts. I don't fucking know, man. That's one good thing about taking a trip, it sounds so stupid to say, like, “It gives you a new perspective," but it does. It lets you land again, in a way, like a restart.
Did you have a moment where you realized you wanted to reconnect with your childhood self?
Yeah. I feel that every day. I wish my body worked better. That's just getting old, though. You either get used to it... or you don't.