On elephant dick: A conversation between Todd Bienvenu and Cynthia Daignault

Todd Bienvenu in his studio.
Todd Bienvenu in his studio.

On the occasion of “Water Sports,” Todd Bienvenu’s solo show on view at yours mine & ours through May 14, friend and fellow painter Cynthia Daignault talked to Bienvenu about learning to paint, art history, and the material reality of painting. “I don’t have to look very hard for ideas,” Bienvenu told Daignault. “My favorite paintings are about really dumb and obvious things. But then, through the act of painting and looking, I sort of wind up in this new place where I can really see something in a new way.”

“Water Sports,” Todd Bienvenu at yours mine & ours (Installation view).

Cynthia Daignault: I want to start our conversation with a bit of background to give readers some insight into your rigorous training as a artist, and also to share the primal connection we forged as painting students at the New York Studio School on 8th Street. You were in the MFA program and I regularly attended their summer intensive workshops. In terms of material skills — anatomical study, perspective, working from the model, and so forth–the NYSS curriculum is very traditional. That’s rare these days. By the time I enrolled in college, many painting programs had become fully engaged in conceptual strategy at the expense of traditional technique, especially at the MFA level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down with ideas, but for some reason, I found myself drawn to old-school material education. I was hanging out in dusty ateliers with 65-year-old men arguing about Rembrandt’s glazing. You have a similar background. How did you end up at the NYSS? 

“Water Sports,” Todd Bienvenu (Installation view).

Todd Bienvenu: I’ve always drawn. I was the artistic weirdo kid in class, which led me to study architecture when I got to college. Then, at 18, I took a bus across the country. While I was in California I went to a figure drawing class. I was hoping to have a cute female model, but of course it was an old hippy dude. I remember him bending over and doing lunges and I could see right up his hairy ass. Despite the anatomy lesson, this introduction to the world of gesture drawings and vine charcoal was enough to make me quit architecture and switch to a studio art major. It had never occurred to me that this other life was even an option. Meeting these artists of all ages in the room was totally transformative. I had some good teachers at Louisiana State University who saw something in me and encouraged me to be a painter. One of them had done a summer program at New York Studio School, so I applied there. I think if I had been a different kind of student–more conceptual or mix media–maybe they would have suggested another program. But I wanted to paint, and I wanted to be in New York, so I went to the Studio School.

Water Sports,”” Todd Bienvenu (Installation view).

CD: How do you see that really traditional background playing out in the work now? To you, is it reflected in it or in opposition to it?

TB: I guess I’m “traditional” in that it’s paint on a rectangular surface. The imagery is recognizable. You can tell that the object is a painting of people doing stuff. Also, I know the craft side of things well. The supports are traditionally built and the paint is not going to peel off and fall on the floor. The color has harmony. The structure is solid, but all that stuff is second nature. I don’t think about “tradition,” like, “What would Michelangelo do?” I’m not interested in paying homage to art history or to any particular artist or movement. These aren’t academic paintings that have an 18th-century formula so that they come out the same every time. For me, the work needs to be contemporary and go in the direction it wants. I’m trying to make something that I want to see. I look around and I love lots of art but can’t find the thing that I want to see, so I try to make that.

CD: I guess it is always about making on some essential level. I mean – to be a painter – is to be one who paints. To be engaged in the action of painting. To me the practice can’t be separated from the material reality of making. It can’t be cleaved in two: thought and action. Action is thinking and thinking is action. I remember you saying that you could never imagine outsourcing any of your painting to an assistant, nor would you ever want to. I feel the same way. I mean to me there are no ideas, but in things. No concepts but in conception. No manifestation without material creation. I didn’t become a painter to think up pictures that somebody else paints. I came here to paint.

TB: Totally. As a young artist, I remember loving the idea of Picasso, this genius artist from the time he was a boy, taking his father’s brush and becoming the greatest painter in the world. I identify with that “making” side of being an artist. Building tree houses and zip lines, making puppets, drawing all the posters for school, pinewood derby in boy scouts, designing skateboards and building ramps in the backyard. I remember one summer I built skim boards for everyone to take to the beach. I painted ladies wearing thongs and hotrod skull-and-devil imagery. I was about 11, and all the parents were pretty scandalized. It’s all making, and somehow central to the type of artist I became… That compulsion to draw, that desire to find solutions in the making, rather than just illustrating some idea you had before. I can’t imagine having assistants make my paintings. I could barely trust them with stretching and priming.

CD: Thinking about those hot-rod thong babes on the skim boards makes me wonder. A lot of Studio School was about working directly from life, but a lot of your work feels more like it comes more from memory or imagination. Like the difference between a classical pianist who plays only from a score, versus a jazz pianist who improvises from her mind. Was there a change or shift in your work after leaving school or were you always doing this kind of imaginative work outside of class?

TB: I had three years of rigorous painting from life at the Studio School. After that, I didn’t really know how to go about painting something that wasn’t in front of me. Like I forgot how I had done that before grad school. There were growing pains. Plus, I had had a wide range of teachers in my last year of school. Bill Jensen, Margrit Lewczuk, Susanna Coffey, and Chris Martin. So for a while out of school, the work was schizophrenic. I made these huge abstract paintings with enamel on drop cloth in my backyard, works with text, and deconstructed figures— searching for a voice. Eventually I sort of started again from scratch. What do I like to see? Who am I as an artist? Then, the problems of depicting the figure finally yielded and the work you see now emerged from the mud.

CD: So if not from life, where do these images you paint come from? Ideas, jokes, language, memory, imagination, photos?  

TB: I draw. I read. I go to museums and galleries. I take screenshots of my Instagram feed. When the subject of the work starts to be “the artist in the studio,” I know it’s time to shake things up, break the studio/home/studio routine. I can become a total hermit so I try to go do something outside, have some new experiences, travel. I remind myself that I have to make work about other things besides making work. I have found that if I look too much at source material, the painting can look too much like the source. There’s a fine line where I decide something is too specific to paint. It has to feel fresh and not get too particular or rendered. Rules of perception can be broken in favor of rules of abstraction. The viewer can tell that it’s a figure in a space without much description. So, I prefer to devote my painterly resources to color harmonies and solidity over rendering or being “true to life.”

I don’t have to look very hard for ideas. My favorite paintings are about really dumb and obvious things. But then, through the act of painting and looking, I sort of wind up in this new place where I can really see something in a new way. I guess I’m riffing on devices that are part of painting tradition, but making them contemporary. Keyhole painting, through the window, Giotto with different scenes in the same space, Manet with the reflection at the bar, cubism, etc. Using a screen, like a phone or computer monitor is just a new way to get multiple figures at different scales. Or a high-key contemporary palette breaks up what would be a classic composition. There’s a long history of bathers, Titian, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Picasso. I think I used shadows as a way to add something psychological to a bather painting. The shadow puts its hand on the bather’s bottom. It feels cheeky or sinister. But it’s a way for me to access that “bather” subject matter in a way that I haven’t really seen before. Vermeer’s contemplating milk-maid can be brushing her teeth with an electric toothbrush in a pink-tiled bathroom. Rembrandt’s windmill can be a plastic bodega bag stuck to a chain link fence. The shroud of Turin can be a dick pic on your cell phone. Vanitas still-life with beer cans. Sisyphus as laundry day.

“Water Sports,” Todd Bienvenu (Installation view).

CD: Some of those paintings you just described (the bathers, the pool party, the plastic bag) are in your new show “Water Sports” at yours mine & ours gallery on the Lower East Side. I’d love to talk about the title of that show ’cause it’s a pretty bold pun. Literal water sports (like the beach and the pool from the paintings), but then there’s the sexual pun too, as in erotic play involving bodily fluids. It’s a kind of crass joke, equating the realms of public and private play.  I’m curious to hear more about how you think about the title?

TB: I always have a few show name ideas percolating. I’ll write things down as I’m working.  Endless bummer, watersports, divebar… I never work towards a show, I just make a pile of things and the guys at the gallery and I try to figure out what it could all mean. We probably could have had three or four different shows, but in any show I just want to show the 10 best paintings. I like “Water Sports” because it feels a little risky, naughty, like it’s probably a bad idea for a show title. I had that big pool painting that we wanted to show and around the time we were brainstorming show names someone peed on me, and it seemed prescient. So yeah, pool party, the body fluid thing, beach, shower, seemed to encapsulate the indoor/outdoor, wild/domestic, intro/outro thing. Titles should be like Nirvana lyrics, say something sincere, then make fun of it.

CD: I won’t ask who peed on you. I will simply assume you peed on yourself and move on. I will also not reference the connection between water sports and our current president. Either way, “Water Sports has a kind of irreverent flip the bird, fuck the man, vibe that I like, but it’s also funny. Nirvana was funny too for that matter. Like just because Kurt killed himself in the end, people forget how comical some of those lyrics are.  A lot of my own work hinges on jokes. I made a painting recently where I just laughed out loud in my studio the whole time I was making it. I’m really into that side of my own work, but I find that other people get really nervous about it. Like they’re not quite sure if they’re allowed to laugh. Like, do I know it’s funny? Did I mean it to be a joke? I think humor is something people are still a little reticent to talk about relative to painting – like it’s all supposed to be so serious sometimes. Take someone like Guston. Art history texts read those with a kind of monk-like reverence, but those paintings are hysterical. Two KKK guys go for a drive? It’s the set up for a joke. Dark comedy. Your work has that. So, I’m curious to hear you talk about how you see humor functioning in your own work, or in painting at large.

TB: When I was younger I thought I was supposed to make cold and thoughtful “Art.” Like, really moving work to show people how deep and smart I am. Really serious abstract paintings with titles from obscure books. I feel like a slightly above-average intellect who likes to draw and has a decent sense of humor. I can be in polite society, but I better not say too much or I’ll give away my baseness. I went to a Carroll Dunham lecture where he shows slides of paintings with buttholes in all of them and he talked about structure and what type of gesso was used. It’s weird to me how serious the art world can be, or, more like, ignore the elephant.

CD: Totally – like there’s an elephant in the room, but we refuse to see him. And there’s also an elephant penis in the room, and we refuse to see that too. So… now that I’ve brought up the elephant dick in the room, let’s talk about sex. A lot of your work is sexual – or depicts sex – or more broadly is described relative to a stereotypical “male” libido. (Let me aside to say that gender is a concept and so is male libido – plenty of women like to fuck – ahem). But still, it’s a cliché that people invoke sometimes when they talk about your work. Sex. The voracious bohemian male painter. A kind of party-hard, paint-hard character. Like Caravaggio or Pollock.  Paint from the hip (dick). Jizz on the canvas. Can you speak to this since it’s swirling around you already? Like… is it that you paint what’s on your mind and sex is just on your mind? Or is there an irreverence that is purposeful, like shamelessly deviant? I think of someone like John Waters in that way… a kind of championing the weirdo, or subculture, or a war against taboo. Thoughts?

TB: I love trying to make sex paintings. I used to be a bit more worried about it, catholic upbringing, offending the family, but I try not to censor my urges anymore. And my mother will always appreciate the colors even if the cocks make her roll her eyes at me. To me, it’s just a part of life. A part of life that is endlessly fascinating. Thinking about sex occupies a large part of my brain, so it’s got to end up in the work. But I’m a feminist too. I think my sexual depictions are tender and more likely to be self-deprecatingly funny than libido fueled lust or misogyny or graphic penetration. I’m attempting to capture the quiet fleeting moments amongst the candid sexual encounters. And they’re totally auto-biographical. Let’s just say that there’s no blondes in there right now. I take cues from my life, hair, underwear, body types. The muse appears. I try to be honest and direct, not purposefully shocking. But I don’t care if it ends up shocking either. It’s funny that a painting can be shocking when you can see a famous person’s sex tape on your phone. Overall… It’s less about depicting people fucking than searching for a subject to hang my content onto.

CD: I like that. Or perhaps “searching for a subject to hang your paint onto.” Besides sex, I also made a note about ‘fun’ when I went to your show. I wrote down “Good times” in a notebook.  Like a lot of the work seems to depict happy moments. Parties, the beach, hanging with your girlfriend. Youth, fun, sex, beer, and gatherings. The salad days. Even in the painting in this show that depicts a giant insect swarm – it’s more miraculous joyous explosion than a nightmare. That painting could have been a kind of Kiefer horror show – but instead it was like a happy giant swarming insect rave. Have you ever painted a really dark or painful moment? Is there a space in your work for sadness and darkness?

TB: I think this goes back to the humor thing. Everything looks fun and happy and colorful, but there’s darkness in there too. I use a lot of yellow and pink paint, but a ton of black as well. I love making paintings, so that love of process shows, but as much as I hate the new president and read the paper every day and freak the fuck out about humanity, I just don’t see myself directly painting subjects that I hate. That said – in my mind all the paintings are sad and dark. The beautiful girl leaves you, the summer ends, the party is over and you’re stuck with a hangover. Light in a painting only works if you have darkness.

That insect painting came from a real experience. I was up in Wassaic doing an art residency last summer and this huge bug got in the house. I was trying to think of things to paint while I was up there in nature cause I don’t really do the whole paint from landscape thing. Then one night we were BBQing and a gigantic dobsonfly got stuck in the screen window. Nobody wanted me to squish the bug, but I didn’t want it getting in the bed with me. And there were mosquitos keeping me up all night in the bedroom. And then I realized I don’t really love being in nature. I like the city. But bugs would be fun to paint if I put a lot of them in the painting. I like making all-over paintings. So, I wanted to paint about Wassaic and bugs, and here’s how it landed. Joyful in the making, but ambivalence or annoyance about the real-life experience too. The hope is that the right ideas and the right language come at the right time.

CD: All this talk of landscape painting makes me think of myself. More about me! So can I ask a selfish question? You also have a painting up right now in my show at Flag Art Foundation (shameless plug). As a project, I asked twelve contemporary painters each to make a copy/rendering/interpretation of one of my works. The original painting (my painting) was of a vase of flowers. Yours was also that vase of flowers, the same but different. Some of me and some of you. To me it was a project about our connection as peers. You are always in my work, and I in yours. We’re bound to each other even if we’ve never met, just by sharing the contemporaneous moment, just by existing and working in the same years, at the same time. Anyhow, I love the painting you made. I remember after you were done, you said “I never paint flowers. It turns out they’re really hard to paint.” Which is funny, cause I was thinking flowers are literally the single easiest thing to paint. Hah. Selfishly, I’m curious to hear your experience making that work since we never really talked about it.

 TB: I was flattered you asked me. We have a few mutual friends, but I remember first seeing you at a Lower East Side opening of yours a couple years back and thinking you were so cool. I was pleasantly surprised to be included in the Flag show. I was in Europe for my Geneva show when you mailed me the canvas and I had arranged for a studio in London, so I ended up painting it there. I usually work in oil but was doing acrylics to keep things simple. No dealing with turpentine and oil drying time. So, there was a bit of a learning curve with the materials. It took me a few tries to get the right feel. I wanted to be true to your original piece, but I also wanted to keep it direct and more in the spirit of the painting than a straight copy of its image. Later, I saw some of the others and wished I had been a little more free. This was before I got to know you, but at the time that seemed like it would have been somehow disrespectful to take too many liberties.

CD: Hah. Well then let me set the record straight for our readers on two points. 1.) I am indeed “so cool.” You were right about that. And 2.) Everyone– please feel free to take all the liberties you want with me. As they say in the NBA, World B. free. Let’s close with a rapid-fire round for all the paint nerds out there: What’s your studio schedule like?
TB: I work every day. I don’t notice weekends or holidays. I’m slow to get out of bed. I get there around noon. I step out for lunch. Then I work until 6ish. I nap. I putter. I’m actually not really sure how I get so much done. It feels like I’m always stuck looking for something to paint. But the pile somehow grows. Sometimes I work late, Sometimes I get there and do nothing but lay on the floor and play with my phone.

CD: Do you paint to music, silence, or talk?
TB: Music, I make Spotify playlists. Sturgil Simpson, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sleep, Cat Power. I need to listen to things I know so I can zone out. And it should be sad or angry.

CD: Are you a paint snob?
TB: I’m not rich enough to be. You need to be indulgent with your paint, so I tend to use Utrecht. Gamblin for a few colors. Williamsburg if I’m flush. I wish I could paint with buckets of Williamsburg (does anyone know if they sponsor artists?)

CD: What’s a favorite historical painting?
TB: Rembrandt’s Hendrickje Bathing. That thumb! And she’s lifting up her skirt and looking at her reflection in the water, pretty racy. He uses the tone of the canvas as the shadow in lots of places, wipes a painting rag across the background to abstract the deep space. I’ve copied it at least four or five times.

CD: Did you ever have a painting that just didn’t work?
TB: They never work. It really takes some coaxing to get it to work. Or sometimes you’re not ready to see it. I’ll paint something and scrape it out only to see it show up years later.

CD: Favorite painter(s)?
TB: Just one? I’ll give you a few: Rembrandt, DeKooning, Guston, Picasso, Matisse, Beckmann, Hockney, Jonas Wood, Alice Neel, Romare Bearden.

CD: Any historical painters that you just don’t get or can’t stand? Pet peeves?
TB: The Pre-Raphaelites.

CD: Any other contemporary painter(s) / Peers that you’re into and want to give a shout out to for people to check out (besides me)?
TB: Lauren Luloff, Helen O’leary, Matt Phillips, Meg Lipke, Clintel Steed, Alex Nolan, Mike Olin, Matt Kleberg, Hannah Rowan, Dan Flanagan, Alicia Gibson, Mandy Lyn Ford, Canyon Castator

CD: Five ideas for a painting you haven’t made yet?
TB: I’ve been trying to make a red painting and I can’t figure out how. I’ve been thinking about doing some life portraits. I keep threatening to make friends come sit for me. I want to do another crowd painting. I want to do a large night sky with planets and star formations. I’m working on some paper collages, been thinking about blowing those up to big scale, not sure how to glue or what the palette should be made of. Painted canvas? Bigger paper?

CD: Next upcoming show?
TB: Galleri Kant in Copenhagen with Kathy Bradford and Jason Stopa next month, and a solo at Harper’s Books in Montauk this summer.

Todd Bienvenu: Water Sports,” yours mine & ours, LES, New York, NY. Through May 14, 2017.

Related posts:
Starry night: Katherine Bradford at Canada
Thomas Germano: A response to Roberta Smith’s review of “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design”
Alicia Gibson: The awkward early years

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