Monday, November 22, 2010

David Slater at Islip Art Museum

Every Body Needs Milk, 2008, oil on canva
David Slater, Subterranean Blues
at Islip Art Museum November 27 through January 25, 2011. Opening reception is Sunday, December 5th from 2-4pm at Islip Art Museum, Brookwood Hall, 50 Irish Lane, East Islip

                                                                                                           David Slater
David Slater's narrative painting style has morphed in and out of wavy dreamscapes, political fury and the kind of cultural warfare that came to define a generation. Eccentric and uncompromising, spend any amount of time with David and you'll agree: inside this artist beats the heart of a revolutionary.

Over nearly half a century, Slater has developed an image bank of picture stories derived from dreams and memories, notes from the underground and tales that range from his insurgent participation at Wounded Knee to cross-country train hopping to epithets from the Kabballah and the literary arts. He transcribes these stories into the visual diaries he's maintained for decades, and it is from these works on paper, now numbering in the tens of thousands, that he creates his paintings. Slater somehow manages to merge the secular and the spiritual, the rational and the hallucinatory, the blasphemous and the righteous with a kaleidoscope of skulls, schooners, sunrises and scorpions. If Max Beckmann, Diego Rivera and R. Crumb procreated, David Slater would undoubtedly be their love child.

Peace Gala, 2003-06, oil and collage on canvas
                                                              His bookshelves and closets are lined with the spiral notebooks that house decades of crafted images. In contrast to the formal architecture of his canvas paintings, his handling of water media allows for a     shoot-from-the-hip imagery that slurps across the page like melted ice cream. Slater's loose brushwork bounces between the masterful and a raw primitivism that exudes frankness. 

It turns out his story-telling abilities are not limited to painting -- he tells a good story in person, too. In fact, in January, NPR's John Biewen from Duke University, will feature Slater in conversation about John Steinbeck on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Travels with Charley. The choice of David Slater, who lives within walking distance of Steinbeck's Sag Harbor home, was inspired. 

Here's an excerpt from our interview last week:

Janet Goleas: When did you feel you first hit your stride as an artist?

David Slater: I was in my late 20s – a graduate student at RISD. Right around this time I started winning awards, selling my work. Things were really happening. I became affiliated with a gallery. Things were really moving along. One weekend I went to the gallery owner's home outside of Boston. It was a mini-Monticello, filled with Persian rugs. She started to say to me, "Well, if you would work more in this (or that) direction…"

I took my lit cigarette and ground it out on her rug -- I was a drinker then -- and I said, "I don’t compromise." And I walked out. Well...that ended my affiliation with her.

Slater's radical thinking also hit its stride around this time:

DS: I was assistant teaching at RISD while I was getting my masters, and they liked the way I taught so they hired me. At that time, I thought to myself, 'I’m going to teach so flat-out radically, that they’ll have to fire me.' And I did that. I’d be trashing the war effort, and here’s the son of the Dupont family in my class. I just kept pushing things as far as I could go. Finally I did get fired.

JG: Did you inspire your students or did you just vent?

DS: Well, some of them I inspired. Mary Boone was my student – and I’ve seen her a few times since then and she’ll run up to me and say, “Oh, this is my teacher!” You know, to Ross Blechner or something. Many of my students say I inspired them. I thought I was a good teacher.

JG: Did you feel you squandered a burgeoning career?

DS: Well, I still feel glad I did it. I don't regret any of these decisions. I was in this very safe situation at RISD. It was a good place to be in some ways -- I'd just gotten my masters -- but I just felt like I didn’t know enough. Also, I was in the whole hippie axiom thing of “tune in, turn on and drop out” – that’s what I was doing. I didn’t give up art – I just felt like all the people who were buying my art were a part of the society that was enmeshed in making money from the war. I didn’t like it.

JG: Back then, it seemed if you had any backbone at all you would reject the status quo.

DS: I felt that by leaving this very protective environment in favor of having experiences – hitchhiking, traveling, different adventures – all somewhat fueled by psychedelics, I have to admit – that I was increasing my knowledge. There was a lot of drinking going on among faculty there, and it seemed like everyone would eventually die of cirrhosis of the liver….I gained so much more knowledge by living my life.

JG: Instead of being the lonely painter drinking himself into a coma.

DS: (He nods) ...And leaving academia was important to me. It didn’t seem entirely honest – there was absolutely no acknowledgment of what you would do after you graduated. No concept of how you would make a living. No one would tell you anything. They'd just tell you to keep on painting.

JG: My education was like that, too. We all thought we’d get teaching jobs or work in restaurants for the rest of our lives – that all that mattered was making art.

DS: I don’t regret any of those experiences. I've left the past behind, but people think because I have long hair that I'm some sort of hippie. Actually it relates more to an Indian concept of the world than a hippie concept  – Indians don’t cut their hair because they feel they were born this way. That’s partly why I do it – I haven’t had a haircut since 1969.

JG: You really haven’t?

DS: No. I got a trim once. It tangles and breaks off here and there. Yesterday I was in the bookstore (where he works) and I was reading a book about the Jewish Brigade, which was an aspect of the British army – not too many people know about it—they actually had a brigade of 5,000 men who fought the Nazis – you know – they were very motivated. So, I’m reading this book and – it’s very poignant – and I have tears in my eyes and all of a sudden Isaac Mizrahi and a whole film crew come in the store and they’re taking down books and filming and running around. So they’re talking about my hair and I say I haven’t cut my hair since 1969 – and they go What!! They really liked that. 

David Slater is represented by the Gerald Peters Gallery.

More to come...                                                                                                                                   JMG
Everything Slater touches somehow mutates into an objet d'art