Morgan Blair

Survival Tactics

Interview by Kristin Farr // Portrait by Morgan Blair 

Connecting with Morgan Blair on a super-sentimental level is easy, but it’s more important to explore how her new aesthetic feeds off contemporary media saturation as she abstracts language and visual culture into a wave of recognizable but enigmatic imagery. What does that even mean? Who knows? The titles of her paintings are far more interesting than any other introduction, so here’s my favorite: Cool Cool Cool Cool Cool Cool Cool Cool.

Kristin Farr: How did you end up working on a farm, and what did you do?
Morgan Blair: I grew up in central Massachusetts in a really small town called Berlin where I worked at Indian Head Farm during the summer from when I was 13 to 20-ish. The farm has been home to our neighbors and family friends, the Wheelers, for seven generations, since the late 1700s and early 1800s. They are the best. Their two sons are basically my age, so even though I went to school in a different town where my mom taught, they were two kids I always knew and played with growing up in Berlin. We stopped at their farmstand all the time, so it was a nice, familiar place to start working. 

There was always a rotating cast of other local kids who worked there, too. It's a produce farm, so we would do all different tasks relating to raising fruits and vegetables, including planting seeds, transplanting seedlings, laying plastic, loading bales of hay in the field, rolling out blueberry netting, throwing and catching watermelons and

From the Magazine: Morgan Blair "Survival Tactics"

putting them in crates, weeding, picking bugs off the plants, trimming diseased leaves, tying up the tomato plants with twine and pulling their suckers, picking strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, lettuce, swiss chard, cabbage, herbs, flowers, etc. And then in the stand, there was always sweeping and running the register, as well as reading this one bounty hunter novel by Janet Evanovich that was always in there under the counter for some reason. 

They also had a kitchen where we would sometimes help make blueberry muffins or some of the wide variety of jams that they sold. We would also cut up strawberries we picked that had little rotting spots, so that the good parts could be saved and sold frozen in bags. They called that task "cutting grungies." That's what I was doing on my first day of work when I fainted.

I never figured out why I fainted that time. Low-ish blood pressure in a tall-ish person with not enough water and too much sun, I guess. That's happened a handful of times. More often, I'll get a super head rush and my vision and hearing kind of goes away for a moment, so I've learned to just kneel down and pretend I'm tying my shoe or something. Otherwise, evidence suggests I'll faint. It's cool! 

From the Magazine: Morgan Blair "Survival Tactics"

Very cool. Let’s talk about your painting titles. They feel very stream-of-consciousness or web aggregated.I just think of them as jokes. They are definitely part stream-of-consciousness, as that seems a good way to extrapolate the totally limitless absurdity of the way reality gets processed through the internet. Those click-bait article titles are often so inane and hyperbolic at the same time; like I just read one that said, "I Got My Dog's DNA Tested and What I Learned Shocked Me." It's just a funny format, taking something mundane and blowing it way out of proportion, which I guess is the same way Seinfeld works.

Comedy and art are very related, and your titles make abstract paintings funny again. How did you acquire this skill?
I think I might love comedy even more than painting. It feels like such an immediate pathological impulse for me somehow. I don't feel like I'm making the paintings themselves funny so much as just retroactively pairing them with some absurd contexts that tie in loosely with the real world and maybe reference the origin of the imagery somehow. And I want them to be funny, so I make them funny. I think that part might be like a primal, subconscious survival tactic. If I can make you laugh, you are probably less likely to kill me.

From the Magazine: Morgan Blair "Survival Tactics"

True. What are your strongest pop culture influences?
Seinfeld and Paul Simon's Graceland.

Yes, you made those Seinfeld paintings. What’s your favorite song from Graceland?
I'm not sure, maybe the first one or two. The whole thing. It came out the year I was born, so it's the first music I remember hearing and really knowing. Now I realize that there were some questionable politics involved that I'm learning more about, including having recorded in South Africa during apartheid. But, on a surface level, I can't un-love the album aesthetically and nostalgically.

Tell me about that big mural you made of Kevin from Home Alone.
I don't remember why I wanted to do this, aside from being a big Home Alone buff. I painted a blown-up pixelated still of his face when he's holding the BB gun with his back to the door, just before turning around and shooting Daniel Stern in the crotch through the mail slot. It's when he says, "This is it. Don't get scared now." Anyway, I had been wanting to paint that for some reason, so I did it in a friend's apartment. Each pixel was like 3" x 3" or something like that, and I taped each one off. It took a long time. That was like 2010 or so. I'm sure it's long gone by now. 

What’s Worcester, Massachusetts like? You painted a mural there too. 

Good and plentiful thrift stores. Good denim. Good tapes. Good accents. My favorite thing there is Rehab Nightclub, though I've not been inside.

How would you describe the smell of thrift stores?
If it's a good thrift store, it smells like mold. Some good ones also have the chain-smoker and cat piss combo scent, which is tough to get through but can yield good results, cassette tape-wise. If it smells like cinnamon, stay away.

What made you start doing the wooden Jigsaw Puzzle collaborations? Any new ones coming up?
My grandfather has been hand-cutting wooden jigsaw puzzles as a hobby for decades, so I grew up always doing his puzzles and loving the craft, the patience it takes to cut each piece by hand, and the personal quality and uniqueness of all his pieces. A while back, my uncle also took up the hobby, and in thinking about selling them, had the idea of asking contemporary artists to feature their work on the puzzles. Up until that point, he and my grandfather had both been pulling pictures from calendars and magazines, and so wouldn't have been able to sell those without permission or rights to the imagery. I thought hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles with specific contemporary art on them sounded like a cool idea that I had never seen done before, and immediately thought of all these people whose work would be so rad as a puzzle. If figured if we did it right, it would be cool for the artists, and they would get some cash, appeal to their collectors, and also resonate with people who don't really have any connection to the art world at all but who love puzzles. 

My uncle eventually decided cutting the same image over and over again was too tedious—and to be fair, it is—but, I had become really committed to the project, so I learned how to cut the puzzles myself. My uncle gave me a lot of advice on what equipment and materials to get, cutting techniques, and so on. He's still way more skilled than I am, but I was able to pick it up easily enough. It's a very satisfying and meditative process, kind of like drawing in reverse, where the tool stays put but you're drawing lines by moving the surface around under its point. 

Eventually, I figured the project should be called Puzzle Time. Now I make the puzzles in limited editions, they're in these nice little sliding-top wooden boxes, we slip a card in there with the edition number, number of pieces and artist's signature and stuff... they're one-of-a-kind art objects that I'm really excited about! I haven't had time to crank out all the editions I would have liked to by now, but there are many good editions forthcoming. 

What’s the last weird thing you saw?
A huge cockroach just fell from the ceiling and bounced off the lamp right behind my head.

Is there anything you would like to say about cats? 
I have a deep love for cats. My two cats, Puffins and Dibs, were born in our house after a friendly stray cat, Mayor Dinkins, showed up super pregnant and needing care. She had her babies under some drawers in our kitchen the day after Christmas 2015. It was intensely magical. My parents adopted two of them, the Rascal Scooters, and we kept Puffins and Dibs. I just feel so honored and lucky when they snuggle with me. We know each other so well. I do a lot of staring into their eyes. This is an endless topic for me.

Any other current obsessions?
John Early and Kate Berlant. 

Tell me about all the artists you’ve worked for and how they’ve influenced your practice.
Coming up on four years now with KAWS. Before that, I worked for Erik Parker for a minute, and when I was sharing space with Maya Hayuk, I helped her on a few mural projects. I've always admired Maya's ambition and confidence, the scale and freeness of her work, and its presence all over the world. Meeting and getting to know Maya a year or two after moving to NYC really opened me up to a whole world of art, artists, music and places that I probably would have remained removed from otherwise. She really made me feel at home and has been a great friend over the years. She also has the best sense of humor and collection of thrifted stuff. I will also say that she once briefly lit my eyelashes on fire helping me light a bong (sorry, Mom and Dad) after I had broken my arm. Maya, I forgive you.

My friend Michael Dotson hooked up the job with Erik. He was fun to work for too. My most lasting memory of working with him is painting and listening to The Melvins on full blast, which was a good feeling.

From the Magazine: Morgan Blair "Survival Tactics"

Working for Brian (KAWS) has been really good. I feel like it's been valuable just to be immersed in a super high-functioning studio, observing how things should go when everything is done right. Being in that environment has accelerated my understanding of what being a professional artist with a successful career entails. Then I go back to my studio and go to wrap a painting, and there's immediately, like, cat hair stuck all over the plastic and a raccoon slamming together cat food cans outside my front door. But I'm thankful that I can come into work and say, “Hey I got this email, should I email them back?” Or like, “Hey, is this painting I made garbage?” And he's, like, “What is that? Weird guys riding quads?” And I'm like, “Cool, yeah.” He's really supportive in lots of different ways. Once in a while, I remember how lucky I am to be in that position. It's also really nice to be able to ride my bike there from the garage where I live and work in a temperature-controlled environment.

How do you find a way into unpredictable territory? You’ve talked about how painting patterns can feel safe. 
Until a little while ago, I often planned out everything in Photoshop before projecting it onto the panel or canvas and airbrushing it in. It's easier and faster to go through a bunch of different compositional and scale options, and to stretch and repeat the shapes. And starting the painting already knowing what it's going to look like does feel comforting and safe.

With my more recent work, I'm forcing myself to work more improvisationally. I'm trying to lean into the discomfort of not knowing what to do next or how to solve a problem in a painting, without becoming paralyzed and abandoning it. I'm learning to trust that uneasiness because I make weirder choices when I haven't planned ahead, and the painting feels more alive and interesting to investigate when everything isn't so consistent and predictable.

From the Magazine: Morgan Blair "Survival Tactics"

What materials and techniques have you been working with lately?
I've just been using the airbrush and then paint mixed with sand. Also some graphite drawings.

What made you add sand to your paint?
I got the idea to do that because I did it once as a little kid, and I got the idea then because I always liked playing with sandy, muddy concoctions that I mixed in the driveway. Now those sandy areas of paintings seem to create a different kind of space, which I like. And they're fun to touch.

What’s your favorite shape and why?
The silhouette of a pterodactyl grabbing Donald Trump's head off his body and dropping it into a volcano.

Yes. Is there any shape or color that you can’t quit?
The shape I just described in every color simultaneously

From the Magazine: Morgan Blair "Survival Tactics"

What are the last three things you screenshotted?
A receipt from donating to Planned Parenthood, a moment from an Adam and The Ants video, and a moment from a kid’s claymation project where there's a hand-drawn brick background with "CHICK MAGNET$" graffitied on it in colored pencil.

What’s your best joke?
Probably a scenario in a dream I had where I went to Coachella but couldn't find parking anywhere for the giant, hollowed-out butternut squash I was driving. That was sort of funny.

What are you doing tonight?
Going to the Surf Lodge in Montauk for a little second iteration of The Hole's Post-Analog Painting II show that I made a new piece for. Dragging Ryan Travis Christian and Marcie Oakes with us. Looking forward to our CD selection in the car, which consists of Megadeth, Onyx, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and Can.