Evan Gruzis, Artist


Evan Gruzis explored altered states of awareness a few years back, and while he was wigging out, managed to scrawl down such revelatory thoughts as “there once was a movie, it was amazing”; “welcome to the temple of showers, please take a shower in one of our many showers”; and “no bother, it’s just the remix.” Having rediscovered the notes recently, he turned them into a series of works on paper by scanning and enlarging them, cutting out the individual letters, then sweeping over the cutouts with the flat, ’80s-style gradient that forms the background for many of his works, including semi-photorealistic still lifes and geometric abstractions inspired by Saved by the Bell and Memphis. Rather than using an airbrush — “blasphemy!” according to the 31-year-old artist — Gruzis builds up the gradients in meticulous layers of India ink, spreading upwards of 20 separate washes across wet paper with soft squirrel-hair paintbrushes until the effect is practically flawless. “It’s about taking a moment that isn’t even remembered and turning it into this layered, highly crafted, highly rendered thing,” he explains of the acid notes, the kind of process that keeps him locked away in his studio six days a week. “It’s about taking meaninglessness and glorifying it. That’s another way of putting what I do: Making absurdity seductive, and making the seductive vapid, so you get caught in this feedback loop.”

It’s that approach — applied to similarly trite subjects like digital alarm clocks, Florida boardwalk t-shirts, and wayfarer sunglasses, which he’s painted onto faceless men or turned into marble sculptures — that won Gruzis his spot in Jeffrey Deitch’s stable in 2008, while he was in his final year of graduate school at Hunter. (He’s since followed Deitch director Kathy Grayson to The Hole, where he’ll have a solo show this fall.) Indeed, Gruzis isn’t just a hipster who got lucky: Before he arrived on the doorstep of sarcasm, he was actually attempting to take the high road, as a traditional oil painter with a focus on landscape. “I was living in L.A., doing this dark, Albert Pinkham Ryder, romantic-but-simple, neo–Edward Hopper bullshit,” the Milwaukee native recalls. “I got turned down a lot; people weren’t really responding to it. So out of a reflex of shame and frustration, irony entered the work.” His landscapes became cityscapes, and the cityscapes became punctuated by random bursts of pop culture. “I’d do a peach sunset with the word ‘awesome’ because I didn’t care anymore, in a way. Then I was like, maybe there’s something to this romantic oil painting with this totally cool flippant attitude, and I tried to rationalize the combination.” The moment it got him into Hunter, he didn’t need any more convincing.

When Sight Unseen visited Gruzis’s Brooklyn studio earlier this winter, he gave us a deeper insight into both sides of his work: The cool conceptualism and the traditional craftsmanship, an alchemical combination that’s since earned him an admirable measure of success. When we arrived, he was knee-deep in preparations for his fall show at The Hole, which — among other things — you can enjoy a glimpse at in the slideshow at right.