Multi-Dimensional Perspectives: Interview with Michael Hambouz
New York based artist Michael Hambouz was born in Niles, MI in 1977, and received a BA in Fine Art from Antioch College in 1999.
Hambouz uses multi-dimensional perspectives, layering, and shadows as tools to capture profound experiences and complex information. Hints of familiar shapes peek through radiant hues and kinetic forms to elicit a sense of connectivity when documenting: dreamt narratives involving known and unknown acquaintances and interiors; channeling the energy and spirit of loved ones through experimental method-studies; and capturing overwhelming environments through an empathic lens. His ever-evolving process involves a constant curiosity with multiple mediums and techniques, the implementation of sequential steps and rules, and the desire to dive into unfamiliar territories filled with problems to be solved.
Hambouz has had solo exhibitions with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Chashama, NYC, The Krasl Art Center, St. Joseph, MI, Calico Gallery, Brooklyn, Kayrock, Brooklyn, and a solo survey exhibition at Antioch College slated for Summer 2018. He has participated in select group exhibitions and benefit auctions at Luhring Augustine, Cheim & Read, Bridget Donahue, Honey Ramka, The National Arts Club, and the Williamsburg Art and Historical Society. His work has been featured in Artnet News, Hyperallergic, Vice, and Design Milk. Outside of this context, the artist never speaks in the third-person.
Briefly tell us about your journey as an artist.
Some of my earliest memories are from age 3, holding a fat crayon inverted in a clenched hand to paper—drawing everything that I could see in front of me. This medium peaked with a 12’-high drawn interpretation of the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk I made on a roll of Kraft paper- I burned through every communal Crayola in my second grade classroom—dwarfing all of my fellow students’ projects by a good 11 feet. When it was done, I stopped using crayons and moved on to papier-mâché, modeling clay and markers, and later pencil, colored pencils and collage into my teen years; painting would come even later.
It now clicks with me that this second grade year was the year that would define my process and relationship with art to come—constantly challenging myself to create a concept that exists in my mind that I’m not completely confident that I can execute, going somewhere that I haven’t before, and once figuring out that puzzle and starting to feel a little too comfortable with these new abilities, wanting to move on to try new materials and build new skills—all the while creating methods for making something positive and fun to help process and heal from darker forces. That year my family had gone through a very upsetting and vicious split, and I was left alone a lot to my own devices. I created to take care of myself and to use distraction as a means to process. Even during slim, heavy-student-loan-debted years in NYC in my twenties when I couldn’t afford studio space or materials and worked 10-12 hour days, I would find time to play in bands to keep an active creative component in my life. I’ve since quit my day job and am fortunate to juggle both music and fine art, and I knock on wood every time I mention it (in fact, I just did).
Share a few steps of your process. How do you come up with each painting? Is there a lot of planning involved?
For the last couple years, I have implemented a pretty loose but consistent plan for my work: write everything down (dreams, thoughts, words, phrases, and observations), take lots of photographs, always listen to music, be open to re-working and revisiting compositions in multiple mediums, and embrace happy accidents and unexpected discoveries that may happen in the studio.
Much of my work begins with a photo and a connected experience. Next, I cue up music that matches what I’m feeling and I begin to draw elements of the photographic composition that most resonate with me—I am often drawn to simple forms, patterns, and lines that forge great depths and dimensions. Music helps to guide my steady/unsteady hand.
From the drawings, I create cut-paper compositions. The cutting of the paper allows me to reign-in some needed zen-like calmness (this helps me take brain breaks from thinking about current events, for example). When I’m using sharp razorblades, I must be in a calm headspace—or errors or injuries can easily occur. And the use of a limited palette of paper colors creates a set of rules and limitations—I cannot mix colors of paper endlessly to overly scrutinizing degrees like I can with paint—I have what I have, and must thoughtfully choose what not only feels right at the time, but also what values and color combinations will help me to achieve the depth and dimensions that I am seeking.
I then photograph the cut-paper pieces so that I can keep with me on my phone/computer and revisit from time to time until an ah-hah moment occurs and the next direction is revealed to me (or it may not at all). I will then reference a choice piece for a painting—either a literal reinterpretation, or an altered reinterpretation based on digital manipulation, or by physically going back into the paper composition and reconfiguring. Or in a more recent situation, I came into the studio and one of my models, which hadn’t been glued together yet, was blown apart, and then I painted the mysteriously scattered results. These paintings can take the form of 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional sculptural paintings. And then in some cases, I will challenge myself to go one or two steps further and reinterpret the 3D paintings into 2D paintings and/or into cut-paper compositions and/or screenprints—the possibilities are endless if the challenge exists and intuition gives me the green light.
This system of working not only allows me to actively experiment in several mediums that I love, but also by cycling through one-medium-to-the-next-and-repeat, each time I circle back to “Point A”, I have learned something new and have figured out a new approach and new techniques and twists to apply apply my work—keeping me engaged, evolving, and fascinated in every moment. And at the end of this process, I’ll have 3-5 pieces completed. Sometimes the painting doesn’t feel right, but it’s the drawing or the cut-paper piece that I love and choose to keep—it’s a beautiful way to keep myself busy and prolific as a multi-medium artist without the stress of expecting a perfect painting each time. There can be duds, and that’s ok—but I’ve worked out what I needed to work out, and I can move on
In your statement, you mention that "channel the energy and spirit of loved ones through experimental method-studies" in your work. Could you tell us more about this aspect of your work?
For many years, I painted in a very realistic nature—mostly figurative. Exploring the worlds of people in their environments has always been interesting to me, and I liked knowing that it was a universally relatable (people know people)—accessible to everyone and not particularly intimidating…but also, it became expected of me, as my “thing” that I was good at.
I was finishing a portrait series in 2006 for a big show at Brooklyn Academy of Music, which was a long and arduous process. The subjects were all very important figures in my life, and I was very hard on myself to deliver exceptional, flattering, next-level homages. And I was dedicating 20% of the sales to arts funding and student scholarships, which added more self-induced pressure for success. My mother unexpectedly passed away just weeks before the opening. I finished the final paintings, crashed, and realized that the way I had been working no longer felt satisfying and comfortable for where I was in my life at the moment.
The next time I touched paint, a year had passed. In the time in between, I had become fixated on photos I had taken of my mother’s records left behind on shelves that I had to go through, pack up, and decide what to do with, along with all of her other possessions. This overwhelming process left me fascinated by the intense wealth of information that I learned about her—things we did and didn’t have in common, how she organized her belongings, how diverse her tastes were—information that I should’ve known and would’ve loved to have had a chance to discuss with her. I loved how this deep information about someone’s personality were sneakily hidden within a row of seemingly arbitrarily ordered bands of colored LP spines lined-up, leaning and folding onto each other on a shelf—a beautiful, vibrant, abstracted portrait.
Referencing the photographs, I painted the line patterns of the record spines while listening to the specific records contained within the photographs—my way of channeling something very personal and distinct about my mother. I found that the music strongly informed my color selections and brush work—poppy music drew me to bright colors (colors I had never painted with before) and bolder lines, darker music brought out darker colors, and off-beat music or music that I didn’t enjoy totally screwed up my steady hand, creating wobblier lines.
To better articulate the frenetic energy of the music, I turned to one of my favorite optical tricks as a kid from Cracker Jacks’ box toys, and chopped up the painting and reassembled into a 3-dimensional kinetic lenticular painting—allowing the colors and lines to shift and vibrate with the viewer—to a very powerful effect. And though it was not necessarily clear to me at the time, I was also introducing bright and cheerful color into my world and palette that had positive healing properties that were essential to my mourning process.
I’ve gone on to use similar studies of acquaintances’ belongings and musical immersion combined with optically dynamic forms and dimensions as a means to introduce viewers to a new form of portraiture/interior/landscape and in essence, the energetic spirit of the subjects I’m capturing. And without knowing the backstory and process behind these works, viewers tend to find a connection with the positive energy emitted through the stripes, colors, and/or playful interactive movement of the forms—abstract and conceptual but still enjoyable and relatable as much as my direct portraiture of past.
How do you feel living in New York has influenced your studio practice?
For me, like many, the struggle to maintain and afford space in NYC greatly affects my day-to-day. I have to be very mindful and penny-wise when acquiring only the most essential working materials—I definitely have dangerous kid-in-a-candy-shop tendencies at art supply stores. And I’ve learned to be very strategic and selective about the scale of my work—which can be limiting. Only after I’ve worked out smaller renderings and know 110% that it must be big, will I go BIG! But of course, not too big, because I need to get work in and out of doors and hallways without a wrecking ball—which again can feel limiting at times. But overall, I think that these limitations really lend to creating a strong body of work and high percentage of output that is confidently show-ready—my time and my resources are precious, and I do not like to waste either.
What inspires you and keeps you creating?
Love, friendship, music, politics, the need to be constantly tactilely engaged–all inspire me greatly. I have a hard time sitting still, and there is so much around me to react to and so little time to make work to capture it all. And once I confidently decided to own a personal mantra “as with how life changes from day-to-day, so shall my work—organically in tandem”—it has been liberating and I can’t stop making. I’ve set myself free from the conventional expectations set upon most artists to feel like they need to deliver the same work like an assembly line developing a brand—and it feels incredible!
Also, after over a decade working in fundraising for arts organizations, the drive to use my skills to help others—whether through bringing excitement and happiness through my work, donating work/a percentage of my sales, or volunteering my time—nothing feels more satisfying than being able to make a positive impact on this crazy world through my own creativity. And also keeping in check that having time at all to make work is a beautiful gift, and I want to and have to make the most of it.
Share a piece of advice that helped you in your art career so far.
Again, I cannot stress enough—write everything down. Ideas come and go, and you don’t want to miss anything. And likewise, opportunities, hints, and tips are floating in the air all around you, and if you blink or forget something, it could mean a lost sale or show, or a dynamite masterpiece that never gets made. Be kind, honest and sincere in general, and supportive of your friends and fellow artists. Reputations carry a lot of weight…you can be incredibly talented, but being self-absorbed, cutthroat, and obnoxious will inevitably catch up with you and hurt your work and your lasting power. Use your gift as a means to support your community when you can—donated work, time, and sales’ percentages to institutions that you believe in and/or have supported you—give back as much as you take. And if no one is asking you to be in a show or you aren’t seeing the ones that you’d like to—step up and make them happen.
What are you currently working on?
I'm finishing work for a fun group show curated by Maya Hayuk and Alethia Weingarten titled The Likes of Us, (December 5, 2017-January 20, 2018) here in Brooklyn, and a solo retrospective at my alma mater Antioch College (July 12-August 31, 2018) in Ohio. And making new work for what comes in between and beyond.