Jason Schwartzman interviews Andrew Kuo for Bad Day #11

In the realm of magazine-making, photographer Eva Michon and creative director Colin Bergh could be considered populist heroes. Whenever they begin an issue of their four-year-old side project Bad Day Magazine, they make a wish list full of dozens of potential subjects they happen to be interested in at the moment — Sofia Coppola, Glenn O’Brien, Ariel Pink — and then, except for one fateful attempt to woo Nicki Minaj, they actually manage to go out and persuade those disparate personalities to appear together among their monochromatic pages. The pair have gotten so good at the curatorial hunt that when Michon, who serves as editor, agreed to let us reprint an article from the recently released Bad Day Issue #11, we were spoiled for choice: There were interviews with Sight Unseen favorites Martino Gamper and Tauba Auerbach, both of whom we’re planning to feature on our own in the near future, plus stories on Mike Mills, David Shrigley, Tomi Ungerer, and David Shearer. But ultimately we settled on the curious multidisciplinary dialogue between the actor Jason Schwartzman and the New York artist Andrew Kuo, who meander between topics like music, color-mixing, hangovers, and what it would be like if they looked like Jesus. Read the interview in its entirety here, and then head over to the Bad Day website to order your copy of issue 11 before it inevitably sells out.

By Jason Schwartzman
Portraits by Jeff Henrikson
Andrew Kuo has a lot of feelings: moody, funny, sensi-obsessive, and categorical. He records his musings and musical opinions in a manner of self-preservation, like we all do, releasing small statements, and reaching out to no one—but he does it in a beautiful way, rendering them in elaborate, colorful, digitally-produced charts, some of which run in a regular music column for The New York Times‘s ArtsBeat. Last year, he released What Me Worry (Standard Culture, 2010), a book of his charts, personal emails, and tasty recipes. Jason Schwartzman was first introduced to Kuo by his uncle Bobby at one of Kuo’s openings in New York, and the two recently shared a phone conversation between New York and Los Angeles.

Jason Schwartzman: Now, I don’t know a lot about art shows and the art world, and when I was at your show I was struck by the fact that a) there were a lot of hunting jackets, but that’s a separate thing, and b) there seemed to be a lot of artists there.
Andrew Kuo: Right.
Jason: Do you have a lot of friends that are artists? Do you feel that there’s a community? Do you ever see hatred or jealousy?
Andrew: Oh it’s so competitive. But I try not to get tripped up on that kind of stuff. It’s always there though, you know, like how well so-and-so’s doing. But in reality, I don’t hang out with a lot of artists. Not on purpose, I think I just get people like musicians more, you know? Or burnouts. I really like burnouts.
Jason: It’s funny, I too tend to gravitate towards musicians. I act as a profession, and love movies so much, but I don’t have a lot of friends that are actors.
Andrew: Why is that?
Jason: I don’t know, but often-times I find that I’m in a minority and I think that—and sometimes I just keep my mouth shut about this— when I talk to some actors they’ll list off the reasons why a part would’ve been so wonderful to play because it was so tormented, and they could cry a lot. And I personally get a little bit uncomfortable, or embarrassed when I watch a performance that’s extremely emotive.
Andrew: Right.
Jason: Because I just don’t feel like that in my real life. I like restraint a lot. And I like it when the emotion is sort of below the surface. When someone is crying and there’s snot coming out of their nose, it really freaks me out, it feels kind of like slam dunking as opposed to passing the ball. I read this interview with Stephen Merritt, whose music I really like. He was saying that with a sad song, if you sing it sad, it’s just too much, but if you sing it almost from a distance, then the real emotion can come out.
Andrew: Oh, yeah.
Jason: And there’s something interesting about that, the idea of wanting to move someone. With your work it seems like you have to do it, but other people feel like they have to do it because they want to show you they can do it.
Andrew: Right, exactly. But at the same time, there’s a lot of jokes in my work, and I don’t do that on purpose.

Kuo’s commentary on the 2008 CMJ festival for the New York Times‘s ArtsBeat blog

Jason: But what about when you’re in the room with some of these artists, like the guy who does art where he cuts his wrists open and bleeds on the canvas and then lights it on fire, and throws it in the mosh pit, and then takes it to a devil rally, and then has them all shoot it for some reason? Can you get behind anger, and crazy, speedy things as well? Do you have a range, or are you just really boring?
Andrew: [Laughs] I like pretty things. I do like ugly things too, but it’s all relative.
Jason: With your stuff, from a distance it looks very beautiful, but when you approach it, you begin to read some of the things, or you look at the title, and you realize there’s other stuff happening.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, sure the stuff is pretty, and I use pretty colors on purpose, and the forms aren’t supposed to bother you, but some of the stuff I do is really hard to talk about. And I have to sit there in my studio and wonder if I really want to tell somebody all this stuff. And I usually do, and I think that is just as intense as someone screaming, or playing something that’s hard to hear. But I try not to think about it, I just close my eyes and do it, you know?
Jason: Why do you think you’re motivated to do that?
Andrew: I only like to talk about things I know about. All I do is talk about myself—it’s all I know. And also, I feel like life is too short not to have someone know how you’re feeling. I like feelings. And I have a lot of them.
Jason: Some relationships break down because people stop talking to each other about how they feel.
Andrew: I’m kind of the opposite, I feel like my relationships fail because I talk too much.
Jason: Terrible. Do you regret anything you’ve ever put on canvas?
Andrew: [Laughs] Sometimes. At the show that you saw, my mom was coming to see it, and we were thinking about taking a lot of it down.
Jason: Wow.
Andrew: It was just too personal. But we left it up, and she didn’t really look at it anyway.
Jason: How do you physically do your work with such precision? That’s one thing I wanted to know when I saw it, I was like “How does he do that?” Do you have really good motor skills?
Andrew: I guess so. But you know, compared to the next guy who’s making a Renaissance oil painting, I’m a hack.
Jason: No.
Andrew: They have to look good, and I’m kind of weird about that. And that’s why I started making those figurative paintings. They kind of release me.
Jason: Sure.
Kuo’s “Plastic, Plastic, Paper,” 2009

Andrew: And of course, the more figurative paintings I make, I feel like the more precise they are too. I’m just a dick that way, I guess.
Jason: Are there a lot of rulers and things?
Andrew: Yeah, there’s a ton of rulers, and there’s all sorts of measuring contraptions in my studio.
Jason: But some of the ones that aren’t circles are so psychedelic, like crazy patterns. Some of them are so crazy mathematical that it’s mind-blowing. Do the words come first?
Andrew: The words come first.
Jason: Wow, it really is like talking to a musician right now, like, “What do you do first, music or lyrics?” Interesting.
Andrew: Yeah, the words always come first, and then I have the forms in my mind, but I don’t worry about that, really.
Jason: And the colors are so beautiful. Do you mix the colors yourself?
Andrew: When I first started making them, I told myself I was just going to use straight-out-of-the-tube colors, but now I do a lot of mixing. You know that scene in I Love Lucy where the conveyer goes too fast?
Jason: Yes.
Andrew: That’s sort of like me mixing colors, it’s just like, I get paint everywhere, my cats have paint on them.
Jason: And do you feel like you had it, and then you wanted to see what it looked like a little darker, and then you lost it?
Andrew: Every color I mix ends up this bloody green, I don’t know how it happens. I’m like “Okay, this color is going to be amazing” and it just comes out this nasty green.
Jason: I don’t know a lot about flowers, but I read that every year, people make new combinations of flowers and colors. Like, you can actually make them.
Andrew: Really?
Jason: I don’t know how to make a flower, but if they’re made from seeds, you combine them and then there’s a new color that’s only available that year. I’d love to see you mix flowers.
Andrew: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t necessarily believe in that.

Kuo’s “A Year in Review,” 2011

Jason: When you look at a guitar, it’s the same six strings as any other guitar and all the chords have been played, all the possible changes have been done, but the rhythm and the melody is constantly new. I think that musical breakthroughs always seem to be somewhere near a technological advancement. There’s always some new piece of equipment that comes in.
Andrew: Right, I hear you. Like, have we heard every possible sound that humans can hear at this point in 2011?
Jason: I don’t know.
Andrew: And I mean, that’s the eternal question with painting, right? Is there anything new to paint?
Jason: Yeah.
Andrew: But I’m not really worried about that because the stuff that you can paint can take you your whole life, you know?
Jason: Yeah. And there’s only one of each of us, so everyone will do something different.
Andrew: Right. I play music in this improv band, and basically we sound like fax machines dying. We don’t practice, we just get up there and we press buttons. And the feeling of guilt is never larger than when people come to see us. I mean, I am actively like, “We are a bad band, don’t come to see us.”
Jason: Right, that’s so funny.
Andrew: But I also feel like life’s too short not to give it a shot.
Jason: Music is such a physical thing, and that’s why I think lawyers have bands on the weekend. It’s just so much fun to play music.
Andrew: I know. When I was making the work for my last show, I was paying really close attention to my health, I was eating great, I was running, I was doing push-ups, and it helped the work.
Jason: Interesting.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, it was surprising when I realized that. And since that show, all I’ve been doing is trying to take care of myself, and it’s like a full-time job.
Jason: It’s hard, right?
Andrew: It is hard, and it’s no fun trying to eat well.
Jason: What are you eating, and how are you exercising?
Andrew: I try to run every day.
Jason: Wow, that’s so neat.
Andrew: At first I was just doing it to clear my mind, get some thoughts out of my head.
Jason: Sure.
Andrew: But now it’s just like something I need to do. I realized that if I didn’t feel bad physically, I wouldn’t feel as bad mentally. And it kind of affected the work. It is such a physical thing, like with the music.
Jason: I find it weird when I talk to people and they’re like, “Yeah, we went on a date, we went to this place, we got stuffed, we went home, we had sex,” and I’m like “Really?!” Because I know that if I eat a really big meal, and I feel terrible, I don’t feel sexual or good, or happy. I feel disgusting, I feel my heart beat in my stomach, so I’m mind-blown by people who seem unaffected by poor eating habits. I eat terribly a lot, but when you see like those guys in bands that are skinny and they’re sitting there eating like a really insane thing of food, and grease, and a bag of chips, and they’re Australian. And I wonder, do they feel just fine? Or do they feel like shit?
Andrew: [Laughs] I don’t know. I mean, it’s a toss up, I had this theory that if I was hung over every day, I would never be hung over.
Jason: Did you put it to the test?
Andrew: Yeah. I was fine!
Jason: So you’re saying because you’re always hungover, there is no hangover.
Andrew: Exactly. Like, “How are you feeling?” “I feel great” “Are you hung over?” “Yes I am.”
Kuo’s “A Late Hangover on February 17, 2009”

Jason: Sometimes I stand on a ladder, and I’ll be 6’2”, and I think, “How would I be if I was 6’2” all the time?”
Andrew: Oh my god, I’m obsessed with that thought.
Jason: Would I be really confident and happy? Or sometimes you see people walking around, you see guys who take off their shirts, I’m like, “Aw man, what a dick.” But then there are times when you feel really good about yourself, and you think, “Would I always have my shirt off—”
Andrew: If I looked like Jesus.
Jason: Totally, a Jesus-meets-Fight Club body.
Andrew: Yeah. I am convinced that if I was a foot taller, I would not be an artist. Absolutely.
Jason: Yeah, if I was a foot taller, I would have Lasik surgery.
Andrew: Right, exactly. I have this thing where I think about the proverbial seven-foot-tall people who can’t dunk. You shouldn’t be that tall and not be able to dunk a basketball. That is crazy, you know?
Jason: I know. Hey listen, sometimes I’ve been around some really handsome, tall, incredibly in-shape people, who are like “I’m so sad.” It’s impossible.
Andrew: “Fuck you and your fake British accent.”
Jason: First of all, take off that beanie.
Andrew: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly!
Jason: Second of all, you probably think you feel sad, but I guarantee you, if you stepped into someone else’s shoes, your idea of sad is their idea of an incredible day.
Andrew: Yeah, I know.
Jason: It’s interesting to see how people deal with that, like if someone has a tremendous amount of success, do you think that their art then has to evolve with it? Or do you think they have the right to just keep singing about what they’re singing about? Because maybe it’s just part of who you are as a person in your DNA.
Andrew: Yeah, I do. I mean, all joking aside, fully, I mean, even with that guy Bon Iver, he wrote this first record when he had mono in a cabin, and it’s great and depressing. And that’s like, all the success in the world, sold out shows, people really love this dude. And he put out this second record that’s like, just as brutalized.
Jason: Yeah.
Andrew: It sounds genuine to me. But I guess every case is different.

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