This one might seem like out of left field, but if you think the arts are separable from each other, then you have got another thing coming. Seeing a chance to interview an amazing artist, I couldn't pass it up, and what came out of it was an amazing hour of my life talking to a true artistic genius, Marshall Arisman. We got to talking about all sorts of crazy things, and towards the end of our time he even turns the interview table on me, but for now, enjoy Part 1, where Mr. Arisman and I discuss Miles Davis, Portland psychics, liminal spaces, woodshedding, and doin' crazy dope in the jungle.
MY INTERVIEW WITH MARSHALL ARISMAN:
Jess: Now, I have to admit at first, that I didn't actually know who you were until recently.
J: A friend of mine, a fellow writer, was turning his hand at some art, and I looked at one of his paintings, and said... oh, it's that guy!
J: I remembered the Time Life book series that my dad got me when I was a kid, and quite a few of your illustrations were in there, and it was terrifying! So I knew I had to look you up, and here we are!
M: That's very funny.
J: So I guess I'll start off there. That series, how did you get into that?
M: Well, I don't know. After I had decided not to be a graphic designer, and I decided to try my hand at illustrating, and then I failed at that... Eventually when I was 28 or so I thought 'Maybe it's time to make pictures of something I actually know about. I grew up on a dairy farm in a small town where everybody carries a gun. My brother's been carrying a gun since he was 15, and still carries a gun. He's a boat mechanic. He's 74 and works alone. I still say to him “You still have a gun taped to your back?” And he says back “You've been in New York too long.” That's his answer to everything.
M: At any rate, some time in the '70s I did a series of paintings on guns, and I sent it- not thinking about it much- to a bunch of art directors and such who knew I was trying to illustrate. All of a sudden I was getting all this work, and I became the guy to call when someone's been killed or shot or maimed...
J: ...and you need some darkness.
M: So my work had been around in that kind of arena, and that's how Time-Life picked it up. I had done some Time covers and whatever around gun violence.
J: I remember seeing those.
M: So I think that's what led to that stuff.
J: Well, that of course was where I remember your work from, though I know I'd seen it around. When asking people, and mentioning that I was going to be interviewing Marshall Arisman, the response was “Huh?” So I'd either mention that or mention the cover of American Psycho.
M: Ohhh, yeah...
J: Did that bring a bit of a bump to you when that came out?
M: That's kind of funny, because that only ran in the European edition, the American edition had...
J: I forget the name, but it was a photograph of a man...
M: So I still get phone calls, it's funny. There's an incredible filmmaker out of London, called Chris Cunningham, and he called me up and said “I was 14 years old, and I was wanting to be an illustrator, and then I saw a cover you did for American Psycho, and decided to go into a film, and I think that's a compliment somewhere...” I get amazing phone calls from these English and Irish guys. Primarily men, right?
J: Well, that resonates with us for sure.
M: Then somebody recently reproduced it on a cover of a book of short stories, so it's getting a second life.
J: Let me take that as a segue, and we can talk about your videos. I haven't seen them all yet... I got to the 'sick motherfucker' quote from the Miles Davis one-
J: -and I thought, ahhhh I have to talk to this guy. I don't know if you've ever read Sting's autobiography?
J: He recounts a similar but much more drawn out encounter with Davis, where he is essentially locked in an office trying to translate the Miranda rights into French for a recording, and Miles Davis is... insane. Even that short little encounter you had, I would have loved to have met that guy.
M: He didn't like white people. But actually the woman he was dating, who had the gallery, she was white.
J: That's different, though. That's business!
M: People are complicated. Contradictions everywhere.
J: We have to embrace it.
M: That came out of, a few years ago, I have a friend who used to play guitar for David Bowie, he now writes music for the History Channel. I was talking to him the other day, and he said “Man, I am so fucking bored...” I said, Chuck, why don't I tell some stories, give them to you and you put a track to it. So we did a CD together, no pictures, just stories. At some point I thought, I have to get out some of these stories, so that generated what I did for amusement, those pieces on Vimeo and Youtube and whatnot. I do them for fun.
J: That comes through. So is your studio as... well, I think that image that stuck out for me was your phone that's in one of your videos. Is your studio like that, just covered in paint?
M: No, I'm cleaning up at the moment! As we speak! It gets so I can't walk around in here, and then I have to organize. Again. Actually, that phone call video is from a psychic who lived in Portland.
J: We're weird.
M: Yes! I've been to Portland many times. That psychic, she died, at 62. She told me she was going to live to 250, but I guess she cut it short.
J: That seems a little optimistic. The other question I want to ask about the videos, is the 'Ayahuasca' series. Is that inspired by-
J: I was going to say 'actual entheogenic experiences', but... yes.
M: The author Paul Theroux, is a friend of mine,a nd we were talking one day, and he had taken ayahuasca and gotten deadly sick for like two weeks. When he finally got better, he found the shaman somewhere in the jungle, and said “I didn't get any hallucination or anything, I just got sick!” And this shaman said “Well, you're not ready!” That led me this project. There is this great book by William Burroughs, The Yage Letters, and these are his letters to Ginsberg about his search for ayahuasca, which is just another word for yage. He got deathly sick too. I started reading about it and what fascinated me was that the purpose of it is to find lost objects, and lost souls... I've been doing a whole bunch of paintings that reference cave drawings, how they are done on top of each other. It hit me, in the 1970s was the first time I went to the caves in France. Then you could put your hands all over them, they were completely unprotected. I noticed that a lot of the drawings had drawings on top of them. I was fascinated so I started studying them. The explanation- well, they still don't know why- the explanations didn't make any sense. The shamans were the ones who did the drawing, and the cave walls acted as a curtain to the spirit world. The shamans, with an animal helper, could go through the wall, travel to the spirit world, and come back, leaving an illustration of their trip on the wall. The members of the tribe could read the illustration with their eyes, and put their hands on the wall to get the energy of the experience. I thought, that is a search for lost souls.
M: When you sit alone, you come to these conclusions. Now, okay, we'll call it 'search for lost objects' or lost souls, and that will be the heart of it.
J: Did you create those pieces intentionally to be different panels, to be taken apart?
M: They started just on flat surfaces, but I've moved to multiple surfaces. At one point I started doing them on shower curtains...
J: (laughs) There's one video where you stand inside one of those.
J: That was creepy.
M: It's a bad play on the idea that these walls were curtains to another world. I thought, well shit, I can just get a curtain. And layer it.
J: Then you don't have to explain it. It's more powerful that way. You mentioned that you couldn't hack it as an illustrator, did I get that correct?
M: Right, well I tried for 3 years.
J: When I hear 'illustrator', I immediately think Mucha or someone, that precision, but your painting is so RAW... impressionistic might be the word. Was there just some force inside you that couldn't stay in the lines?
M: Yes, I think so. Part of it was I found a niche in illustration, which was violence. Which was great. Nobody ever told me what to do, and it was great. There was also a part of that wanted to be challenged by things I didn't understand. I started making new pictures where I let myself be more raw and impulsive, and you can't really do that in illustration. You have to know what their parameters are, and your parameters are, as far as staying in the lines goes. So I ended up splitting my time between these kind of funny gigs on one side, and doing these paintings and trying to learn some control that I could apply. And I loved stories. I love illustration because it can be storytelling, at best, and at worst it's just making pretty pictures on a page. So I end up kind of in the gallery world, and doing things for magazines, and trying to start some books, and all that stuff. Aaaand then I run this graduate program. I never planned to be splitting my artistic self between all these different forms, but it's a good thing. Otherwise I'd be a hermit. Never come out of the room.
J: And then your paintings would get really scary.