As usual, I was spending way too much time on Facebook (and recently discovered that the fun new privacy settings may have blocked my birthday from pretty much everyone - thanks a lot Facebook, the NBC of social media) and noticed that a high school acquaintance-turned-artist was voted Time Out New York's Most Creative New Yorker. I'd been following his work before that, especially since his painting of ESPN Zone, a bold, lush interpretation of something normally reserved for tourists. After finally seeing some of his work, I ended up spending my afternoon reading about the creative process that went into this particular painting as well as his past work. A former ad man, Trump employee and standup comic, Borbay is now a full-time artist ready to open his first solo show, Urbania. (This Wednesday, January 20th, 6-9 PM, M&T Bank, Flatiron Branch, 200 5th Ave, NY, NY. More info here.) I interviewed him about what we can expect from Urbania.
J: In the midst of one of the most bank-hating times right now, you've decided to have your first solo show at a bank. Explain your decision to do that.
B: The short answer is that I basically want to sell all of my pieces, and I figure that it's very easy for people to make a down payment when there is an ATM vestibule three to four feet away from the first exhibit.
On a practicality standpoint, the old managing director from my advertising firm made seemed like a good guy to help out on the business front for me so I don't have to be both artist and businessman, because that's not so sexy, and he basically opened this branch years ago and was like "I can get this bank venue," and I was like "Yup, let's book that shit up and turn this into a red-rope event."
J: So, it wasn't your intention to have a conventional opening for yourself, like at a gallery. Did you think it would be more attention-grabbing if you didn't have an art opening in an art gallery?
B: It's more mercenary to be honest. The whole art gallery system is about the same as the advertising agency world, and the structure of everything seems outdated, it's antiquated, it's bullshit. I mean, I don't want to go and say "Oh, please, please, look at my slides and represent me as your 75th artist and you take 50 % of my sales, that is if you even bother to market me and/or put any integrity into my pricing." There are a ton of great artists out there, and I know what I'm worth because I know what I've sold my paintings for, so this is my marketplace, this is my price, and I'd like 100% of the profits. And if I could get a bank to host an event and we have a bunch of people show up and get drunk and have a great time, it makes them look good, and me, and if it makes a few papers, then so be it.
J: One thing I noticed about your work is that you use a lot of the New York Post. What draws you to use the Post a lot? It's obviously very sensationalistic. Is it really just the whole look of it, the aesthetics?
B: It's a little bit out there. When I moved to New York, I tried to do a lot of newspaper reading. I tried The Daily News, I just didn't like it. I read the Wall Street Journal when I was working with Trump because it seemed like the right thing to do, and I really liked it, actually. The voice is accessible, it's easy to read. It's extremely hard to fold on the train. People knew all the time that you were a Wall Street Journal poser if you couldn't fold the pages right. Then I tried the New York Times because that seemed like the right thing to do, but then I hated it. I just didn't like the writing style. And then I got to the NYP and it was like US Weekly meets the WSJ plus a pint of scotch, and I was like "This is all I need."
J: You've also said on your blog that you're not political, but you still feel the need to make a statement in your work.
B: That's right. It's sort of like you play men's beer league ice hockey and it's incidental contact, but that definitely means that if you're playing on a Friday, you're going to take out your frustration from the work week in the corner by "accidentally" bumping into people. You can't help but make a statement. I can make a painting of the Woolworth building at night from 7 World Trade Center like I did, and if I called it "9/11 Single Tower Across the Street," it would have a different connotation than "Woolworth Building From My Friend's Office." You're making a statement whether you think you are or not. What you're cognizantly doing as an artist is subject to your own interpretation, but it's based on how you've presented it, and who sees it when they see it, and what mood they're in, and it's going to be interpreted in any way. So, sure, you know, fuck around with it, push and pull, play with it. You know Jasper Johns does a cast of a balancing ale can because "I'll bet that sonofabitch can do a sculpture of a beer can and it would sell," and he did.
J: Do you think you have a common theme in your work, or do you think you try to avoid having a common theme?
B: I think any artist who's trying to generate their own kind of marketplace is always looking for a consistent body of work. One thing that I'm proud of is that is whether I'm doing a NYP-type collage, or a painting outside of a window, or just on the street or an abstract painting in my studio when I'm sitting here drinking beers, there's a kind of mark that is consistent, that it's my mark, and I'm just working on developing that. I'm in my infancy as an artist but I think the work that I have now is pretty sound, it's pretty solid, getting there. But I look at it like if my body of work is a baby, I haven't even had sex yet. But I'm working towards it. I really want to have sex, and eventually create this "baby" of artwork that is really good. You look at the best of the best out there and they've spent their whole lives creating, and they may be recognized for a certain period of their work but there's always an internal discovery process that they're uncovering on a day-to-day basis. And maybe they get to the end of their life and they're like, "Wow, it really was the best when I was 23 and hammered on Jack Daniels all day." Or maybe they never found it.
J: So that said, what are you going to be showing at Urbania? Is there anything in particular that you're the most proud of?
B: It's all important because it's time. I know that in advertising, for example, if I'm billing myself out at the level I was at, we're talking a couple of hundred dollars an hour, so just by the fact that even if I spend 10 hours on a painting, I know it's worth two grand right off the bat, but it's not like that. For me it's a combination of personal discovery, how I got there. I use a lot of social media to find my places. I ended up at the ad agency on their 30th floor down on Water Street looking at the Manhattan Bridge because I networked with people on Twitter, so I thought that was awesome.
This Woolworth painting I did at night I really like because I started out painting in the day, then at night, and it was just a challenge. And I didn't use black in it, and I thought that was cool. Everything is its own story. It's not like you're going to create this one painting and one day it's going to be this godsend. It's still just a canvas with paint. And that's all it is. It's just arranged in a way that's aesthetically pleasing to some, and to others it's shit.
J: What are some weird suggestions that you've gotten through social media for locations that you really want to do or would never do?
B: I haven't really found a suggestion that I wouldn't do. I ended up painting the interior of a cigar lounge where Rihanna and all these pop stars and rap stars hang out, this place called the Cigar Inn. I got it through this request on Twitter through this artist who is also a Grammy winner and he's worked with Jay Z, and he introduced me to this cigar lounge. I said to them on Twitter that I was going to show up and paint there. And I showed up there with my easel, and my backpack, and my canvas, and they invited me in, gave me a free cigar, set me up in the back. So I'm painting there and there are top advisers for Bloomberg, politicians, and all sorts of crazy people, and I'm just in there painting because I met them on Twitter. So that was pretty awesome. And I just sort of went with it. I met a guy while painting the Guggenheim on the street. His daughter said he was Italian. He ended up calling my studio, and he bought that and another painting. I said I would throw in shipping since he lived in Milan. It was too expensive to ship them, so I said "Fuck it." It would be cheaper for me to just pack these up and spend a week in Milan painting. So I did. I just went.
J: What was the first location you ever painted?
B: The Guggenheim. It was also the first painting I ever sold in my new professional career. I had decided that I was going to paint where I knew that it was relatively close to where I am, and where I could find the most rich people. And I was having delusions of grandeur that some rich fatcat was going to walk by and say "I must have this canvas," and that basically happened.
J: You started doing collages after you broke your leg. Did you start doing collages because you couldn't physically go to the locations?
B: I broke my leg on a Friday, my girlfriend's birthday, at midnight, playing ice hockey. And I was supposed to start painting at TONY's headquarters that Monday because they'd just done this thing and I'd gotten to know them a bit. So I was like "Oh, awesome, I'll paint from there." But then I broke my leg, and I was stuck in my apartment with Oxycodone and I couldn't really move my leg at all. I'd been keeping sketch books since ninth grade, so I had maybe 30 full sketch books full of collages. It was just my opportunity to take them off a sketch book page and put them on a canvas, and take all I've learned about color and composition and just diligently do a painting everyday, and do it while I'm on painkillers on my couch for two months.
It's just a natural progression. The world made me slow down because I was playing hockey five nights a week, going out every night, and this was just my "sit down and focus on the art" moment.
J: Like something was telling you "Stop it!"
B: There was something that was saying "stop it," and that something threw me into the boards at full speed and snapped my fibula. I didn't cry. I feel good about that.
J: What was it like being voted TONY's most creative New Yorker?
B: It was both awesome and frivolous. I'd be happy if I was voted the most creative person in my building. They were interested in people who thought they were essential New Yorkers, and I thought "I'm kind of essential. I'm doing my thing. Chasing my dream. I paint around the city. I talk New York-like. Kinda look weird. So, it looked good for NY because it's like another weird dude on the streets. And I thought "Yeah, I deserve this."