Gallery artist Ty Ennis discusses his current series Stupid Man with Assistant Director, Gabi Lewton-Leopold. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ty!
Gabi Lewton-Leopold: In this new series, there’s a move away from your colorful works on paper that are often very detailed, to more abstract, mainly black and white acrylic paintings on canvas. What advantages did the latter medium give you? Why the shift in style and medium?
Ty Ennis: The advantage of the black and white acrylic was that I was able to work more loosely and I didn’t have to make color choices. With a small child and next to no studio time, I couldn’t rationalize spending hours simply deciding what colors I might use for a composition. I had also decided I was going to get back to basics with this work. I mean, High School basics, when painting was simple and free and fun and all the supplies were supplied by the school. I took it back even further and limited myself to just black and white. It was liberating. I was finding myself at work looking at the clock just dying for it to be time to clock out so I could get home and paint. I don’t remember that ever being the case with my studio practice. Art has always been a difficult endeavor for me. A real struggle. The style and medium choices allowed me to get more work out quicker, and I had agreed with myself to not be fussy but to just be myself, and if the piece I made on any given studio day was a keeper, but had some faults, we’d look at it later on and see if it was still needing adjustments. Almost every piece was set aside and in the end, I had grown to love each and everyone of them just as they were. This was a truly magical studio experience for me. Like I said, liberating.
GLL: What was the first painting you made for this series?
TE: The first painting I produced for this show was a portrait of Ken Griffey Jr. It did not make the show, but served as my studio mascot.
GLL: I find something deceptively effortless (and I mean this in a positive way) about the work, a looseness, a sense of freedom. But when you really examine closely, you can feel how thoughtful and well-crafted they are. For example, the heron in The Clairvoyant. It’s composed of loose brush strokes but it’s so well-rendered and captures the serene and quiet beauty of the bird. Or, the cleverly obscured rabbit holding a tray in Zip's Drive In. What's your process like? Do you make sketches, and plans for each painting or is it more spontaneous?
TE: I never do sketches and I don’t say that in a “I don’t need to” sort of way. I often find that if I sketch something out, I have difficulty in reproducing it and get all caught up in loving the sketch more than the piece itself. So, I avoid it completely. The heron came easy, the rabbit was the result of absolute frustration. So, I guess I approach each canvas with my fingers crossed.
GLL: Does your printmaking background inform your painting practice? Do you think there’s a relationship between the two or do you see them as completely different methods? (also interesting that you painted a version of the Goya print)
TE: Printmaking absolutely informs my work and even though I haven't set foot in a print studio in more than a decade, most of what I know about art I learned from printmakers: Tom Prochaska, Yoshi Kitai, Jayson Wynkoop, and Emily Ginsberg.
I work in layers like a screen printer and from light to dark like an etcher. In the past when working on paper, it has been difficult, with ink, to go back in and rework things, pen or brush moves are much more deliberate. With acrylic on canvas, I feel I have unlimited moves. A painting is never ruined and prints so easily are. You go back into a drawing or print and paint something out and you just highlight your imperfections. Some of these paintings in this show are paintings on top of paintings. Hell, Iggy Papa is a painting on top of a painting on top of a painting on top of a painting. And yes, I love that Goya print so much! It’s an example of a perfect piece of art in my opinion. It resonates with me deeply and on many levels and since the first time I saw it back in a history of printmaking class I took with Morgan Walker at the Gilkey Center at PAM fifteen years ago, the image has just been clawing at me. I finally let him/her out. There are a few “covers” in this show. El de la rollona is one of them.
GLL: Can you talk more about your process for deciding on specific imagery for this series? We’ve got the gingerbread man, Sam Sheepdog, Iggy Pop, and so forth. Do they represent important influences on your life? Do you see them as symbols or relics from your past?
TE: I said earlier that I don’t do sketches. Instead, I take a lot of notes, I write things down on post-its and type ideas into my phone. With that information, I start to see patterns and recognize reoccurrences. From there the information starts to grow and become more concrete in my mind and I start to visualize how things “might” look. It all starts to act as a daisy chain, where the images/ideas begin to play off of one another and start the process of becoming one unified composition/show. There is always a common thread. With that being said—and hopefully not further confusing the matter—the characters I chose to present are all characters I have a deep connection to. They could have all be titled as Self Portraits really. I did a series of gingerbread man drawings a few years back for a project with Matthew Kyba.
They really did feel like self portraits at the time, so naive, dumb, waving, and vulnerable. I was feeling really bad about myself at that time and this little figurine May had bought me was really mirroring my emotions. Sam Sheepdog is an old Looney Tunes character that clocks-in each day to go head-to-head with Ralph Wolf, who is essentially Wile E. Coyote. They greet each other in the morning... ”Mornin’ Sam” “Mornin’ Ralph”... and then put on their daily performance, Sam continually catching and punishing Ralph, in his attempts to get the sheep Sam protects. At the end of the day, they clock out and a new dog and a new coyote relieve them. I was thinking a lot about work here and the way in which I show up every morning as my “work-self” and put on a performance of sorts. I play a dumbed-down version of myself day-in and day-out, so I can come home to my family and my studio where I can actually be my true self again.
GLL: This new series also has many obscured faces (Iggy Papa, La Buffoon, Cowboy Shadows, El de la rollona, Clocked In (Sam Sheepdog), etc). Your subjects almost become more mysterious, and perhaps less specific because of this. Can you talk about your thinking behind the faces in the show?
TE: Once again I’ll refer to the Ken Griffey Jr. piece that is not in the show. In the very early stages of this body of work, I was working on drawing Ken Griffey Jr.’s Upper Deck rookie card from memory. An exercise to simply get me back into practice, I drew a handful of them in ink on paper and then decided that I liked the image so much I should paint a final version on canvas. I did this portrait in black and white and then hung it on the wall of my studio. I had put so much time and energy into this one piece that I kind of returned to point A and really had no idea what direction the work might go. Portraits of childhood heroes or portraits of present day heroes? I did a large colorful portrait of Charlie Parker on paper and another portrait of Griffey playing in the field and again, was right back to point A. I was listening to Lou Reed’s The Bells a lot in the studio at this point and decided that I was going to do a portrait of Lou Reed from that record’s cover, straight up in black and white just like the Griffey one. I hung it on the wall next to the Griffey painting and I had my first two paintings. Only problem being, they had NO soul. I kept coming back, seeing these paintings and just kind of dying of boredom. I took the Lou Reed painting and masked his face behind fishnet. I kind of liked it. I kind of hated it. I got frustrated and just ruined it. I blacked it out. I thought back to my last show, JKJKJK, and remembered the crude figures from that show and some of the textures I was getting from working loosely, and a light bulb went off. I remembered how much I loved working on them as well and decided that was the direction I was going to take with this work.
I painted Lou Reed’s face in this fashion and he was no longer Lou Reed, he was a reflection of my own frustrated self and the painting now had enormous weight and things came very freely. The plan became to be myself. I’m not a portrait painter. I’m not an illustrator. I’m a painter. With this show especially, I wanted to be a painter. I took the Griffey piece down from the wall and extracted a whole tube of violet paint across his eyes, the eyes that I had just spent hours getting perfect. And somehow, it brought the dead painting to life. For me, at least.
GLL: You often draw imagery from your childhood growing up in Spokane, WA. How has it influenced this series?
TE: Spokane is a merit badge I wear. The heron, the cowboy, the buck skinner, the fast food rabbit, they are all icons from my own personal experience. My own upbringing. In talking about Sam Sheepdog and my day job where I put on this act of portraying my work-self, what comes with that is also this realization while working with large groups of people that I don’t have many common interests with my co-workers, we don’t recall the same things from our youth from living on the same earth for roughly the same amount of years. I’ve seen so many instances where two, three, four, five people just mesh. You set them at a table and they have these long conversations where their recollections from childhood are almost synchronized. I’ve come to realize that with my co-workers I like some of the same music, but I can never remember the movies from the 80’s and 90’s that are quoted, I can’t join in on the Star Wars conversations that happen, far too often by the way, and I can’t relate with most people’s travel stories. My childhood was spent in Spokane and inside my own head, daydreaming, wandering. I had interests of course, I skateboarded and played baseball and ice hockey, I read, listened to music, I watched movies, but I didn’t retain much from any of these things. I could write a novel about listening to Pearl Jam Ten in sixth grade or Wu-Tang in the eighth and all of the places in which I listened to them, but I can’t recite more than three or four lines from either, and I listened to them a lot. A lot. And Wu-Tang I still do. Same goes for Elliott Smith and his albums later on into college. From all of these experiences, what I have retained are the experiences themselves. Little vignettes where the music served as a soundtrack. That doesn’t translate into a universal conversation that you can bring to a table, it’s way too personal. This has isolated me. It has made me unique, I suppose, but ultimately, lonely. Spokane was my WORLD. I can’t help but return to it when I sit down and try to process things or express myself. It’s the stage everything played out on for me. I know myself. I know Spokane. I don’t know much else. I think a person’s place of upbringing is monumentally important. I recently read that Ingmar Bergman once stated that regardless of where he was born and raised he would still be the Ingmar Bergman we know. That’s bullshit.
GLL: Much of this work and your past work, is deeply personal and seems to grapple with ideas and perhaps misconceptions on what it means to be a MAN. How does masculinity and the struggle for finding that identity play into this work?
TE: It’s a tough subject for me to talk about. That’s probably why it comes up in my work so often. My work is where my most intimate and personal conversations take place and they’re still encrypted. I’m 35 years old and I’m still learning how to speak. I read a lot, I surround myself with our language, I try to immerse myself in it so that I can express myself clearly and eloquently. I want to SPEAK. But, I just trip on my tongue. I think I grew up with a learning disability that I was completely unaware of. I don’t have a clear and tight grasp on things. So much of being a MAN is being able to communicate clearly, stand up for yourself, set good examples, and be strong in the process. To inspire. Then there’s this other aspect where you have to be physically strong and good with your hands and not make mistakes. You have to be witty and on point. A good MAN can’t ask questions. He has to know the answers. He’s gotta be in tune with nature and know how to tie all of the knots. Set up a camp. Dig himself out of snowdrift. Swim himself to safety. He has to be good with power tools and automotive shit. He has to protect himself and his family and not show sweat. He’s gotta be prepared for the big one. He has to fend off intruders. The list goes on and on and on. And each of these things has to be handled with the utmost confidence. My understanding, is that in our society, if you’re not into certain things and don’t know certain things, then you’re not a man, and I’m left feeling unmanly all of the time. My masculinity is challenged daily. I’m still getting bullied at 35 on a regular basis. My work is from the perspective of the flashlight holder.
GLL: I think that comes through because along with that idea of masculinity there is also a softness, a tenderness and even a sense of humor to this series that seems to counter that need to be a “tough guy.” It also feels personal and universal at the same time.
TE: We need to laugh more. We need to laugh at the “tough guy” more. Fuck the tough guys. It has gone too far, they’ve had their turn. My daughter lately has been telling me, “Be happy, Papa!” I have no idea where she got this, but seriously, happiness needs to be the universal theme. It’s got to be.
GLL: There are big vinyl letters on the wall that say your name and then “Stupid Man” below. Can you talk about the title Stupid Man? Is it meant to be self-deprecating?
TE: Yes and no. I have low self esteem, I’m insecure, I suffer from social anxiety, I grew up wetting my bed and sucking my thumb. I was called a pussy and a fag a lot as a child and even when I first moved here to Portland in ’99 I had people yell, “fags” at my roommate and I from their car window as we walked down the street. I’ve never felt masculine or manly in the slightest. I have always been afraid of men and feel that my work comes from my feminine side. I guess none of this has to do with being “stupid,” but it has to do with being misunderstood and judged. I mentioned earlier that I often trip over my tongue. I am not comfortable with the words that come out of my mouth a lot of times. I feel I poorly represent myself with my speech. I don’t have a large vocabulary and my dictionary app is my best friend. You would be surprised by some of the words I’ve looked up over the last six months. I know that I am not, but I often feel stupid. My geography, world history, and politics are bad, I am working on these things now at 35, because none of it stuck in my teens. I feel behind. In addition to all of this, my heroes are intellectual, activist types. The ones that stand up for themselves, liberate themselves. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, who both appear in this show for example. They embrace their femininity and give the middle finger to the Man’s man. Last summer, when I had finally figured out where this show was going and what themes I was working with, when I was actually able to envision how this work might appear, May and I were at our friends’ house for dinner and The Bells came on. It begins with the track Stupid Man. A beautiful song about a deadbeat dad that only Lou Reed could write. I remember as it came on telling May that my show was going to be titled Stupid Man, and we just laughed.
GLL: You showed two studies or “failed” paintings during our group studies show in February. One was of a woman (though the canvas was sliced down the middle) in a long dress and heels. After thinking about that piece I realized that there are no images of women in the final show. Was that a conscious decision to remove the female subjects to focus on notions of masculinity?
TE: You know, the figures in this show with their distorted faces and sexually cross-dressed attire are for the most part sexless. Only the buck skinner is a man, and that piece is from the perspective of the deer really, or the sickened child as the man’s spectator. In Cowboy Shadows, the real protagonist is the shadow. Those paintings are apologies of sorts to my father. And in other ways to my girlfriend and our daughter. I’m sorry I can’t be the Man that they might sometimes call upon. I’m sorry I was never able to impress my father or get his attention and that, as a result, that relationship fell flat. That my daughter has no grandfather as a consequence. It’s okay though, I’ve learned to live with it. Those conversations with her are going to be very difficult though. The figures in this show, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, they seem to have similar takes as mine on the subject of masculinity and I don’t think they would take any offense as being seen as women. There are no MEN in this show.