Robots Will Kill: An Interview with ChrisRWK
In anticipation of ChrisRWK's solo exhibition, Promise Made, Promise Kept, opening at Harman Projects in NYC on February 11th, Raul Barquet visited the artist's studio to discuss the new body of work and get a preview of the work in progress.
Raul Barquet: When did you start making art, and what were your earliest influences?
ChrisRWK: Well I was like every other kid drawing but as I got older I kept drawing and all the other kids stopped or started playing sports. Then I found graffiti.
Early influences were Gary Larsen, Jim Davis, Disney, that comic in the newspaper where you had to find the little person and the dog (that might’ve been a NY paper thing), sci-fi stuff, comic books and cartoons in general. I watched a lot of stuff with my dad. Universal monsters, Abbott and Costello. All that stuff might seem odd as influences but I think the comedy and sincerity influenced me.
The humor and graphic style definitely comes across without a doubt. At what point did you start to notice graffiti? When did you begin to practice?
When I was young I remember passing stuff like Lee murals and Haring's wall on the Bowery. I remember skateboard ads and stuff with graff in them. Around 1988 is when I got into it fully. My brother and all his friends were doing it. I remember I had the chicken pox and my dad brought home Subway Art and Spraycan Art for me. So that was all around age 11. None of my friends cared about it. My brother's friends did a lot of graff and I was young so I’d go and photograph it. People like Edge and Vers were huge influences. But it wasn’t until high school when I found other writers my age. I met Said, Col, Fade and a few others. That’s when I really started doing stuff. We’d leave school and go paint abandoned spots etc.
That's interesting, one of my early memories of graffiti was standing next to my Mother at the bus stop where Lee's old "Allen Boys" mural was, not too far from the Haring wall. I can still remember it vividly. You're largely known as a graffiti artist or perhaps a street artist depending on whom you ask. You also have a formal art education, can you talk about how you think that experience has effected you as an artist?
That’s a good one. I learned stuff like lighting and shadows from graff guys. Markers and materials etc., so I knew that stuff and cartoon and comic book stuff. Of course I saw famous stuff like old masters work on school trips but never understood the importance of it. So senior year there was an art class you had to get accepted into. It was end of the day so kinda like a free period. The teacher asked me “what are you doing for college?” I had no clue. I said community college I guess. She strongly said “no you’re not. You’re going to art school!”
I just laughed. Then realized she was serious. So I got into FIT and started learning about fine art. I had some amazing professors there. After that I went to Hunter for my BFA. There I had a few great professors. One being Emily Mason. She hated that I used black lines, but she believed in me. She sent me for a fellowship for a few years in Vermont.
So I took all the graff stuff I knew and mixed it with the fine art info. Knowing light and shadows and color theory. They transcended both. Like in graff you had to know where your shadows went or it threw everything off. Well same for a portrait. Although it was great to learn that shadows weren’t always grey or black. One really big thing was learning about materials.
In the early 2000's your website Robots Will Kill was unlike anything else on the Internet. Can you explain the impetus for creating the site and what do you think is its legacy now twenty years later?
So after I graduated Hunter I went to galleries to try to start showing my work. Most of the people working in the galleries would ask "How old are you?". So they weren’t even giving me a chance to show the work they just wanted to focus on my age. That’s one thing school didn’t prepare you for was interacting with galleries and all the business end of it. One day I came home and my friend Kevin and I were speaking about this and how galleries weren’t even looking at my slides. Kevin said "You should create a website for you and your work so it’s easier for more people to see". So we started to work on the website and this was before everybody had websites. This was back in 2000 when you had to know things like HTML and binary code and stuff. As we talked more about it I said to Kevin "I think I want this to be a place for people to show their work not just my work". I knew what it was like to be rejected with no legit reason. So we turn the website into more of a gallery for other artists, and we focus on things like graffiti, sticker art, stencil art all things that were overlooked by the main stream.
Kevin was brilliant with the technology. He was able to create an anonymous upload feature that allow people to upload the photos without any kind of trace and this was long before any social media came around. Back then there was only a few websites that featured graffiti and were not updated as quickly and frequently as our site. We had hundreds of pictures uploaded every day.
It’s funny because it existed for so long and people would tell me how much I loved it but I didn’t really realize the impact until a few years ago. It was when I had really talented people telling me how much time they spent on the website back in the day and how much it influenced them. People like Vew, Goomba etc.
I think part of it had to do with age because people are older now, and they can actually admit the things that influence them or inspire them.
Over time your eponymous robot character has become forever tied to your identity. Aside from a number of variations on the robot, there are entirely separate characters that show up in your work as well. Can you tell us about them?
Thank you for asking about them, most people over look them. Which kinda goes along with how I feel with some things in life. The boy and girl characters are a nod to everyone out there. The people we pass on the street. The ones with stories but we’ll never know them because our interaction is so quick. That’s why they don’t have mouths. Because they have a story but can’t tell it.
I do my version of batman a lot. He’s a nod to my uncle who got me into collecting comics. And he helped me understand that they were more than just a kid’s novelty. The animals show up a lot because I like to mix that feeling of the robot who is mechanical and then an organic element. I try to use them together to show the robots inquisitive nature and that wanting to belong.
Characters like the kid in the catsuit predate the robot and most people don’t know that.
How much are the characters in your work a reflection of yourself. Would you consider any of them autobiographical to some extent or are they used to express other ideas?
Oh I feel any character is some kind or representation of the artist. I joke about how a lot of the “character” based artists look like their characters. Like you can point 'em out in a room. That’s not a bad thing either. I mean who knows us better than ourselves. So we’re our own model to an extent.
The robot has that slouch that is definitely representative of me. Also his emotions and non- graphical qualities.
In your career, you've worked with so many brands on a variety of projects including Armani Exchange, Spotify, Dr. Martens and the World Trade Center just to name a few. Do you have any favorite projects that stand out amongst the rest?
Hmmmm. They all hold a sentimental space in my heart. Like Spotify was incredible because I got to do these cool pieces but I also made great friends while working on it. The WTC was amazing because I would go there with my dad as a kid. So knowing I contributed to something there was amazing. And Doc Martens I’ve worn my whole life. Bands I’ve worked with helped inspire me. Working for clothing brands like Urban Outfitters back in 2000 was cool. I can’t say one meant more than the others to be honest.
You're an absolute workhorse and I can hardly wrap my head around how prolific you are. How do you find the discipline to create work with such quality and regularity despite your day job and commute?
I think about wasted time a lot. I commute two hours to work then two hours home. So with work that’s twelve hours I’m out of the house and not able to create. So when I’m able to work I do. I think of it as do what I can while I can. Going to work makes me want to get back to the artwork. Also I think of something my dad would always say “I’ll be dead a long time”.
Well you're certainly making the most of your time on this planet. Just recently you've taken the plunge into creating several editions of bronze sculptures. Is this something you've wanted to do for a while? Why take that step now?
I’ve always wanted to see the robot in 3D. Have him exist with the people he’s wanted to fit in with. Working with UVD Toys and Strange Cat Toys on projects, the reality of him in a 3D world didn’t seem far off. So UVD and I released the bronze bust and people went nuts. I’ve always loved that reaction, and doing stuff others haven’t. Like the puffy stickers, prism stickers, the magnet or pin with the hinged panel etc.
It definitely felt right having him take the next step into the 3D world. It has made me think of more and more to do which is great.
How do interpersonal relationships come into play with this body of work? There are countless references to camaraderie and love in these paintings.
Relationships, good or bad are a huge inspiration to me. I love all types of art but there’s stuff that I can’t relate to. I can enjoy it and be amazed by it but not relate to it. I paint what I know. I know love, I know friendships, I know loss, I know sincerity, I know doubt, I know insecurity. I love stuff like Herb Smith's paintings but I can’t discipline myself for those details. I think I’m more amazed at work I can’t do.
You've dealt with a great deal of loss in the past few years. It's hard for me not to notice words like "forever" and "rosebud" come up in this body of work, and make a connection there. Is this something that you work through on the canvas?
Yeah the past five years have been rough. I Lost my Dad, my Mom, my Mother in Law, my dog, six friends and have dealt and am dealing with other things. The art is my sanity. The staying busy and moving helps me process stuff. Writing a word like forever over and over is cathartic. Once I lost those people they were gone forever but only on earth. They’ll forever be in my thoughts and my heart and the work.
Your work features scores of these built up layers, full of meaning, some clear and some less obvious. How important is the seen versus the unseen in your paintings?
Ohh that’s a tricky one. They exist together. You can’t have one without the other. The layers are a way for me to show time passing, and emote feelings that the viewer missed so they become invested in what they see, what they find, what they feel. There’s been parts of paintings I’ve loved. I’d try to skate around them but that’s not normal. I had a professor say to me “sometimes you have to loose your favorite part to get to the next favorite part”.
Your upcoming exhibition with Harman Projects is titled Promise Made. Promise Kept. Can you explain a little about this title and its meaning to you?
Throughout my life the word promise has held a place high on my moral list. When I was sixteen me and Col made a promise that if either of us passed away we would keep each others names alive. I made my Dad a promise that I’d never give up on art. I made my Mom the same promise. I made myself a promise that I’d do what I can while I can. So I’m trying to keep all those promises.