RE/STRUCTURE: An Interview with Bisco Smith
To celebrate the launch of new gallery OMNI, New York based artist Bisco Smith brings his dynamic, calligraphic mark-making to London's West End. With a new body of work developed during lockdown, Bisco considers what it means to RE/STRUCTURE. Navigating extreme isolation, becoming a father; to managing the overwhelming swell of news, power and politics as our boundaries readjust to their new realities. Through music and art, Bisco celebrates movement and meditation to ruminate on our shared experience with moments of transition.
Charlotte Pyatt: RE/STRUCTURE! Tell us a little about this new exhibition.
Bisco Smith: So the show is titled RE/STRUCTURE. It's a creative response to everything the world has gone through the past few years. I haven't done a show since 2019, my wife and I have just had a baby. It was strange times going into lockdown, as it was for so many.
This idea of restructuring, our lives restructuring… the baby restructuring us, the pandemic restructuring everything, the world… has re/structured. The title is rooted in this deep sense of change and rebalance. Most of the work is based on writings reimagined, the idea of ‘re’ is in response to structure, the idea of structure is no longer the same. Learning how to balance priorities with painting… i’ve always been work centric. The exhibition is like a ‘note to self’ to find your new center.
How does this current body of work differ both conceptually and visually to activity in the past?
Visually its close to the same language, but conceptually, my life is completely different, as are my experiences. This body of work was all produced during the pandemic, through these turbulent moments of change. All the works are writing and language based, to the untrained eye it may look very similar, but the content of the words are based on the life and moments i’ve lived the past few years, the experience and meditations on the state of the world and my own being.
The work is responding to current news like the war in Ukraine, my life is transition into fatherhood its direct and personal. Even the colour yellow which features prominently, my son loves these diggers, subconsciously these moments bleed into my work. When I first started it was like waves and breakthroughs. Going through the red waves, the yellow waves. I knew RE/STRUCTURE, I knew what I was feeling and where the intention was… I just trust that it will get to where it needs to go.
Can you talk a little about your process and technique?
Each of the works come together in a different way, some have a vision, most do not. The process is very intuitive, I want to be in the moment feeling where to go next, when I start being too conscious, I stop. This rhythm was born out of a state of automatic writing, freestyle rap lyrics, the energy of tags, living out a train of thought, meditation on aesthetics. The works all come to be in this way. I used to do a lot of hip hop, freestyle was some of my most grounded moments, If I over think them, I lose my way. I honed this process and applied it to my art practice.
Music sounds like it serves both as a significant influence for you, but also another creative outlet in itself?
I used to do a lot of rapping and I think my aesthetic is born out of music. In my head, I'm rapping all the time, but I’m just not making records or shows . Since I started taking my art practice more seriously, I've put the music down and stepped away from it for a little while.
For this exhibition, I developed a playlist of beats all made during lockdown and they accompanied the development of this new body of work. I don’t listen to music with lyrics, I need to access what’s happening in the moment.
Movement feels like a fundamental part of your practice; whether it be the rhythm of a beat, freestyle lyric, or the sweeping pull of paint across a canvas..
Totally, even with the painting, it's like a dance. I still do traditional graffiti burners, there is this thing that happens, when your whole body has to move in order to get the piece up. Im moving around, it’s interesting for me because it’s all just motion.
The works all have their own flow, when i’m writing the smaller works, there is this speed with short and sharp movements. The larger pieces take my whole body. They all have their time and place depending on the mood. I enjoy all if it, Its all a meditation for me. I don’t have the patience for detail or correction, it’s about capturing the energy, getting that moment out and trying to capture the next.
How did you make that jump from street to canvas, from music to the visual arts?
I'm a 90s hip-hop kid from the suburbs of New York City. I've been writing graffiti since I was 12 or 13 years old, I'm 40 now. I was doing graffiti, skating, DJing, I loved everything that came from it.
The big change came when I moved to LA, leaving NY after 15 years. It was dope there, but perhaps a little monotonous. When I got to LA, I feel like I left behind this survival mentality that I had in New York, I evolved into this thrive mentality instead. I didn't know much about painting, some people were paying attention to street art, but I'm from graffiti.. it's a very different thing…especially back then. I wasn’t tuned in - I following bits of it, ESPO, Barry McGee, doing their thing. But I always thought that in order to make a living, you just had to struggle… then die, and then maybe people will love you. But LA changed everything, the attitude was so different and the energy, it just fed me.
Anything I do, I want to do it to the capacity that I don’t want to do anything else, not make a living, make a life. I hit that crossroad with music I love music, I still love music, but the visual arts was different. I went to school for graphic design in Brooklyn. I rolled up there with crates of records I was DJing, I wasn’t doing art, I only went to art school because of graffiti, these are my deepest roots and I still pull on them for my creativity.
Can you talk a little bit about the scale and the medium of your work, is it always on canvas?
Often, but not always, there is a sculptural installation in the exhibition stacked at different ratios that form a visual metaphor for my RE/STRUCTURING, where do my priorities sit and how do they shift. The sculpture is on wood but typically I paint on canvas and walls… the scale is what excites me, the larger pieces…they move me.
The first time I realised how important this was, I had just seen my first Jackson Pollock, it wasn't so much about the drips, it was the size.. like wow. I remember being in front of it, feeling it and just doing graffiti you know, this is like a Tuesday scale, its not like a crazy thing. The medium is typically house paint, in the States I like to just go to home depot, it’s an ode to the roots you know, its what you do you go to the paint shop. I don’t like art store tools and material, I keep it blue collar. Some of my favourite painters from the abstract expressionist movement used house paint, so when i’m in a fancy gallery they give me this nice paint…. it's like “nah, give me my house paint!"
I respect it. I like to keep it at that level.
Do you draw much of your inspiration from art history?
You know, It was something that kept happening, people would come up after experiencing the work and tell me that it reminded them of someone from art history. I don't know that kind of thing, I was a one track human and I was very hip-hop before this world opened me up. I learned so much from other people felt and thought when experiencing the work. My lens; for better or for worse, is focused on what i’m creating in that moment.
How do you hope people will experience the work?
I hope that it inspires people to be free and chase what they want from their life. Like getting to LA for me. When I write about it and share it, if someone takes anything from that then thats great. I try to remove myself from the audience, i’m doing my best with developing the work and thats what i’m responsible for; How does it look, how does it feel to me. I hope it resonates, some people won’t like it… and thats alright.
I never dreamed of being a painter, it happened, so for the work itself..make what you feel
RE/STRUCTURE Opens at OMNI 12th May until 5th June 2022