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Alumni Spotlight Interview: Todd Bienvenu

Exile on Bogart Street, oil on canvas, 76″ x 67″

Todd Bienvenu was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and currently lives and paints in Brooklyn, NY. He finished his studies at the New York Studio School in 2007. His current solo show “Exile on Bogart Street” is on view through November 8th, 2015 at Life on Mars Gallery, 56 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, NY.

Rachel Rickert: Tell me a little about yourself and your current show “Exile on Bogart Street” at Life on Mars Gallery:

Todd Bienvenu: I was a student at the NYSS from 2004-07, I moved to New York from New Orleans where I had spent a year painting at home and waiting tables on Bourbon Street after getting my BFA from LSU in 2003.

The title for my show at Life on Mars, Exile on Bogart Street, comes from the Rolling Stones album and my sort of self-imposed studio exile this year in my Bogart Street studio. Less time spent socializing, I really tried to be in the room painting every day.

The 14 works in the show are all from 2015, ranging in size from the two 8-footers all the way down to a few 11×12 inch works on panel. Subject matter-wise, I work in a free kind of way and try to make a bunch of things, so there wasn’t an overarching “concept” initially, but maybe more of an autobiographical kind of feeling. These are some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the last 10 months or so. Brooklyn, summertime, music, drinking beers alone or with my friends, growing up in the South, shadows, grids, the color blue, etc.

RR: Your paintings seem to transcend their seemingly quotidian subject matter through your sophisticated formal devices.  How do you balance the serious color and compositional structures in your work with the playfulness of the image?

TB: Thank you. I don’t think the “search for the subject” is ever a problem, when the image does eventually show up, it’s something that resonates with me personally. I paint the things I care about. Maybe it’s not a matter of picking something unique to paint, but finding an interesting way to paint the things that you always think about, finding a satisfying abstract decision for depicting the subjects you like.

The color and compositional structural decisions happen before the subject has been decided, I paint instinctively and eventually the subjects come out of the paint. I think that keeps it from falling into an illustrative kind of place, it was basically a purely abstract painting first. The narrative is a bonus. My narrative happens to be playful a lot of times, but even then, it’s tempered with melancholy or some edge. If it didn’t have that dynamic, it might feel overly saccharine or like I did some emotional hostage taking.

Wrestlemania, oil on canvas, 84
Wrestlemania, oil on canvas, 84″ x 96″

RR: What has the response been to some of your more raunchy paintings?

TB: Usually people just laugh, the New York art world isn’t scandalized by a dick joke painting as far as I can tell. My mom will see a painting that begs the viewer to deal with the subject and tell me that she likes the colors. And I have friends who aren’t artists and don’t care about painting that like my stuff because it isn’t passive. The viewer brings their own perspective to it, I don’t set out to shock, there’s not much I can do but make the paintings I want to see.

RR: Do you ever feel too personally exposed when exhibiting your paintings?

TB: Yeah, all the time. I find openings to be very stressful. But I would feel that way if they were minimal abstractions or totally porno. Being an artist is making yourself vulnerable, but the conversation only works if people are able see your stuff.

Dick Truck, oil on canvas, 67
Dick Truck, oil on canvas, 67″ x 76″

RR: What has been your path after leaving the Studio School?

TB: After school I got some jobs in wood shops, did some studio assisting, painted nights and weekends, tried to go to openings and meet other artists. I did a residency, painted in my bedroom, painted on my roof, got a live/work. Got fired a few times, scraped by. I basically tried to be an artist instead of having a good job and a painting hobby. Eventually I thought my paintings were good enough to show so I started approaching galleries and artists that might like the work and made friends with them. I’m still in New York painting every day, trying as hard as I can to be unemployed.

RR: What are some of your favorite memories from your time at the Studio School that still influence your practice today?

TB: The marathons with Graham [Nickson] and evenings in the Whitney, drawing with Stanley [Lewis] and Ophrah [Shemesh], crit group with Carol [Robb], going to Bill [Jensen] and Margrit [Lewczuk]’s home studio and seeing how real artists live, meeting some legend at a lecture dinner, I’ve got lots of great memories of my time at the Studio School. I was on the board of governors and won the Orvieto scholarship and spent a summer in Italy. I made some great friends and learned how to really see paintings. We used to go to this bar around the corner, the Stoned Crow and drink and talk about painting until closing time.

The two big things are a good work ethic and a support system, I have those thanks to the Studio School.

Treehouse, oil on canvas, 96
Treehouse, oil on canvas, 96″ x 84″

See more of Todd’s work here.

Snapshots From NYSS

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