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Scooter LaForge creates wildly imaginative paintings and installation art that marry your most preverse fantasies with your favorite childhood cartoon icons. It really shouldn't be a surprise then that his clientele ranges from the likes of Nicki Minaj to the Barney's flagship store. Seeing his work (especially life-size) is like stepping into an adult horror amusement park. His work is jarring, fun, and visceral, but his motive is not just to shock and awe, or even to be ironic. No. Scooter's work is born out of punk counterculture, his lived experiences through vicious homophobia, the nostalgia of hopping from city to city, and the fictitious childhood friends of his era's manufactured pop culture. Our resident photographer, Seher, and I met up with Scooter in his Chinatown art studio to snap some candids, rap about his work, and to see how he gets down in his creative space.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Mexico in the desert.
I hear it’s a really ethereal place, I’ve never been there. But I feel like people from there have a special quality. Do you agree?
Oh yeah. You can feel it from people born and raised there. There's no state like that in the entire country. There are amazing and beautiful landscapes that you'll never see anywhere else.
How did that affect you visually?
It was beautiful. Mexican paintings--Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings were everywhere. In Santa Fe there was lots of Georgia O’Keeffe. My mother had books and posters of them all over the house. I got introduced to those kinds of artists as a young kid because my mom was friends with a lot of painters, performers, and artists. She was a singer/songwriter. There were always art people around. I would always love looking at all the paintings and wanted to do that in my life at a very young age, but my parents were very afraid for me to go into that industry, because it’s a struggle--a dog’s life--but there was nothing I could do to stop it.
They wanted me to get into accounting. I had applied to all of these art and fashions schools, but they shot that down for me and made me go to this state school, The University of Arizona. They forced me to get into accounting, and I was like, 'there’s no way'. I started getting into graphic design, and majored in painting. I used to flunk out of my classes in high school, with D's and F's, but when I got into college taking creative classes, I started getting straight A's.
It’s interesting that your parents were creative people, but shot down your own creative pursuits. How did that make you feel?
I hated it.
Were you resentful?
Oh yeah. I felt really stifled, and really combative inside because I really looked up to them and wanted to impress them, but it was going against every single grain in my body to do what they asked of me. I’m so right brained, I’m dyslexic, I’m not good with numbers--
And they wanted you to go into accounting?
I hate math. It took a while for them to see me succeed at what I’m doing and to accept my lifestyle. I never had to ask them for money so they are very supportive of it now. Both of them are, but it took years and years and years.
Then you landed in the Bay Area, and then NY?
Right after college I went to San Francisco for like eight years, and lived there and worked as an artist, but I worked in a shoe store as well as painting. I had some success there, but I had always wanted to come here to New York, so I just packed everything up in September of 2001, and moved here by October 2001. I came to New York for a job later in life in my 30s. My job was in Soho. The store that I was going to work at closed down because it was below Houston Street*, you could really smell of the burning sensation of the building. It smelled like burnt sugar, or burnt electric fire.
Later I won a fellowship at Cooper Union. That's what really pushed me into a full painting career and when I decided that 'I'm giving up my life', as far as what I was doing before, and going into and devoting 100% to art.
* Scooter moved to NY right after 9/11 and the attack of the Twin Towers that affected the downtown area
What were you doing before dedicating your life to art 100%?
I was in the fashion industry. I was working for Marc Jacobs and then for Jimmy Choo. I was also doing the windows at Barneys and I ended up doing a big in-store installation for them. At Marc Jacobs, I was a sales person. Robert Duffy--he's the business partner at Marc Jacobs, the money behind the brand and backed the Marc Jacobs line before he left for Louis Vuitton. I was randomly painting portraits of my coworkers, and Robert Duffy was like, "oh why don't you do a window?" He wanted me to paint every single person in the company, and do an installation. Eventually I ended up quitting that job, and quitting Jimmy Choo, and doing this full time, and now I have a t-shirt line exclusively for Pat Fields. That's been going really well. It's all punk rock looking.
Where did the punk influence come from?
I've always been influenced by that style. I've always been punk rock in high school and college, and then into being an adult. Vivenne Westwood is probably my biggest influence. It translates into the work that I make, the clothes, the t-shirts. The t-shirts are all hand painted. I don't really consider myself a fashion designer, even though I made these pants [points to his polka dotted hand-made windbreakers] right before you guys got here. I was like, 'I want to make a cute outfit', so I made them in like half an hour.
With my shirts, they are my paintings on t-shirts. After I quit my job at Jimmy Choo, I was like, I need to make money. I started making these. They took a while to take off, but they did and I started getting better at it, then they started selling, and I was able to pull in some income.
You have some frequent customers don't you? Who are they?
Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Iggy Pop, Miley Cyrus when she got all punked out. Remember she was this blond with long hair, and she went to spiky short hair. Right when she got her haircut, she came in and bought a bunch of my stuff.
You have some reoccurring characters in your work. Can you talk about them? It's like pop culture meets erotica meets childhood fairytale characters?
I love the sweetness with the sick. I like the really sweet stuff, and I like to make them really sick. I like to paint bears. My favorite fairytale is Goldilocks and the three bears. I collect everything, every book that has to do with that. It's a totally reoccurring theme, as well as this cat that I often paint. Also ET, I've been painting him a lot.
What's the fascination with ET?
I think it's the pop culture. That's the stuff that I grew up with as a kid that I loved that just made me feel good to have around me. I really do it for me, so they are really self-indulgent. It's really stuff that I myself love, even though everyone loves ET.
How do you negotiate between the child friendly characters and the erotica?
I just think it's all a combination of things that I've experienced in my life, because I've had some very low low points in my life as a child, growing up being kind of an outsider, an outcast, feminine and gay. I used to put my mom's wigs on and put on her high heels. I was always very femme in elementary, middle school, high school and got picked on. I think it's a combinations of those experiences, and just the trials and tribulations that I've gone through. I used to have a bad drug problem. The new ET painting that I'm working on says "Meth Kills", so I try to bring my experience in a fun way to put onto canvass and spread a message. I just mix everything up. I try to be as authentic as I can by mixing everything up with the experience that I've really had in my life, so I don't really pretend to want to paint portraits of rich ladies, you know what I mean?
When did you begin to give yourself permission to do such honest art?
When I was in San Francisco, I used to paint super tiny using really fine paint brushes that only had like five hairs. I also used to paint really hyper-realistic, and then I went to the Cooper Union Fellowship. They made me throw all that stuff away, use big brushes, paint, and really get into it. That's when I started to say, "you know what? I'm going to paint whatever I love and whenever I feel like it, whenever it's on my mind to get it out and put it onto the canvass." Whatever you put on the canvass, there's no limit to what you can do or express. You can get all of your sick thoughts out of your brain and onto the canvass, with some oil and turpentine, and relay a message.
Often, artists are asked about their final products, which are clean, and neatly put together. What's the actual process like for you?
It's messy, it's complicated, it starts with little drawings. I keep a notebook next to my bed, and when I think, oh I want to paint a witch and a bear and a cat together, I'll just write that idea down. I usually write down a story in words of what I want to paint, then I'll do water color, and then it turns into a big oil painting. That's usually how it works. I also use a lot of comics for inspiration. I just think they are really cool. I read comics and I watch cartoons almost every night before bed.
My mom would love you, she’s really into cartoons.
Oh really? That’s awesome. Well, I just really love this old stuff. I just think it’s so beautiful.
You don’t really see animations like the old stuff they used to do anymore.
No you don’t, and I really get into it. I probably will paint it again about three or four times until I get it out of my system. And then I move onto another icon or something.
What do you mean ‘get it out of your system’?
I get obsessed with stuff. Like right now I’m obsessed with witches. Before that I was obsessed with bears. I was obsessed with doing still life’s of flowers. I kind of toned that down, and then I got into ET. A lot of times I go through these things and I paint them 20 times and then I move onto something else.
Going back to earlier about your experience moving to New York, how did you come into your own, art-wise?
It was hard at first. You don’t know anyone. Everything seems so intangible. It was really hard to break into any kind of art field. I would send slides to all of these galleries, I applied to graduate school three years in a row and always got rejected, and I ended up getting really depressed, but just kept painting.
I always kept going and pushing myself. And then slowly but surely things started taking off, I started going to art shows, and then I got into the Cooper Union Fellowship, and I met some people there and got more confidence. It was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I had my life before that, and then I had my life after. So it’s two different chapters.
You said that you just 'kept painting'. It sounds like despite the difficulties that you experienced, you were still very persistent.
I was totally persistent, and getting my work out, which you have to be more creative doing that than painting. You have to market yourself. That’s where the true creativity comes in.
Talk about that a little bit.
You have to be so different than anyone else. To me that’s actually even more important than the painting if you want to be successful. I’m still the same painter. I’ll put the stuff out on my tumblr, Instagram and Facebook--stuff that I did ten years ago. People look at it now and they’re like, “oh my god, that’s amazing.” And I would have put them out 8 years ago, I would have gotten not one single word. The reason why I’m saying that is because now they’ve seen the accomplishments that I’ve had, but I had to be creative to get my stuff out there in the first place.
How do you motivate to keep going when met with so much rejection in the past?
When people see the desperation in people, that’s kind of a turn off to a lot of people. You just have to be patient and wait for people to come to you. You can’t force anything on anyone. I used to send stuff out like, “let’s do something!” It doesn’t work that way. They have to be aware of you and ask you. There are grants and things that I’ve applied to for six years in a row and never have gotten them. Sometimes it takes ten years to get them. The guy who's gallery I told you I had paintings in, on his website he has a disclaimer that says, “don’t be offended if it takes ten years for me to accept you into my gallery.”
What would you tell other artists just starting out and figuring out how to market their work?
You have to really figure out from the inside, what you want to say to the public, and figure out a creative way to get noticed.
For me, I had painted this really scandalous painting that this one gallery owner loved, and he put it in his art show. It was a prestigious gallery, and was what put me on the map. He put that in his gallery and it sold, and then he invited me to do another show that summer, and I gave him another painting, and that sold. That snowballed into me showing at another gallery, having a solo show last year, and now I’m going to do something at the Bronx Museum, a bunch of group shows, and a show coming up in England at the end of the year.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Photos by Seher Sikandar (except for Nicki Minaj, courtesy of Scooter LaForge)