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Friday, February 08, 2008

R. Crumb? I'd let him spit on me!

Or, An Interview With Chris von Szombathy

The Fire Away book launch in Vancouver at Lucky's Comics, 3972 Main St, February 22nd.

Chris Von Szombathy is a Vancouver based artist whose book Fire Away was released by D+Q in late 2007. The book is a collection of paintings, illustrations and sculptural works that invoke a sense of dreams and nostalgia. Oscillating from extremely graphic, decorative patterns to naturalistic, nearly realist representations of junk foods to painted shoe-stretchers (among other things), Fire Away remains cohesive through its saturated palette and its paralleling of dream logic. A musician as well as a visual artist, von Szombathy cites influences as seemingly disparate as Piet Mondrian, Ralph Goings, R. Crumb, Bach and Kraftwerk.

Von Szombathy has recently been profiled by the website Fecal Face, CBC Radio 3 and the Vancouver Province.

This interview was conducted by D+Q controller Jamie Salomon in February 2008.






Now, I have a bit of a problem here is that I can't really articulate what the art in Fire Away looks like to people when I'm trying to shove it down their throats. The back-cover copy barely begins to get into what happens between the covers. Superlatives, simile, and metaphor rapidly fail me. So please bear with me and excuse my inability to deploy the proper lexicon here.

There are several distinct strains running through Fire Away; the easiest for me to label are the painted shoe-stretchers. The majority of the book has "cartoony" figures, often with these, and here's where I run into trouble, fractal-like curly swirling (when trying to describe this in conversation I mainly have recourse to accompanying my finger-wriggling hand gestures with verbal sound effects that sound like roodooloolooloo). There are also some pages of line drawings, mostly in black-and-white, as well as more three-dimensional, um, things, like one of these bad boys (I'm thinking here of these two facing images of white ceramic-deals with faces painted on them). Then there are the pages with text in combination with some of what I've tried to identify above. There's another graphic element that crops up repeatedly in the course of the book, these... matrices, sometimes with cartoony faces superimposed on the vertices. There's also small relatively straightforward paintings worked into the composition with some of the other elements in this graphic stew. And, as I keep going back to it to, even more kinds of pictures, both two-dimensional and physical objects that await the lucky reader who has yet to unleash this book upon themselves. Since this isn't a question, I was wondering if you could comment on these various kinds of pictures running through Fire Away, and how they relate to each other.


This is a good question for me and does require some thought for sure. I'm not super sure how the different images relate in a totality other than, you know, I guess I made them! Sometimes it's a function of time... I can see progressions in how I work... change of medium or something like that. I feel it's the same with sounds. You have some kind of vague timbre or feeling that you're trying to achieve and, hopefully, if you're able to make it "real," it will somehow help you gain some kind of clarity! It's funny because looking at the book the other day I realized which things have continued and which haven't. The swirling bits have kind of vanished for example. Generally, when I start working I just… look at the paper and there it is. Either that or it came in a dream. I work a lot from dreams and visions. Sometimes there's just no reasoning with it either. I AM happy though that perhaps it defies some clear category of what it is. Hopefully it's enjoyable.

As far as regular questions go, first of all, almost all I know about you is that, according to some D+Q promotional copy, you live in Vancouver, do graphic design and make music. Can you fill in some basic biographical data? I think you're 27.

I am indeed 27 as of this writing. I'm turning (gasp!) 28 in March. The rest is right. I don't really do much graphic design stuff these days however. It would drive me crazy probably.

Did you study art formally?

I did. Kinda. I went to art school after high school for 4 years and kind of just disappeared and never went back. I don't know if I could really say I "studied" much there. I spent most of my time drawing in my books and wondering what the heck I was doing. In truth, for me, art schooling is kind of an amorphous environment and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. There was certainly no other place for me to go.




Who are some artists, both visual and musical, that you feel an affinity with?

Well, visually (and sonically) there are lots of various artists I really like. On the "fine arhhhts" side, growing up I really liked (and still do) folks like Mondrian and Morris Louis, really flat artwork! I'm still pre-occupied with "flatness" in my own work... the elimination of the majority of brushstrokes. I'm big on craftsmanship and cleanliness. I think that type of "plasticity" really attracts me in both sound and visuals. I think visually I have been more influenced by objects and certain "non-art" things. I have a rather large collection of various goods like old toys, packaging, soda cans. I'm actually quite proud of it! Some artists who I'm really into these days are the realists like Ralph Goings and Richard Estes. Amazing technicians!!! I also love people like Augustin Lesage and August Walla. I do feel very close to those "outsider artists." I know it's all the rage these days, this "outsider art," but I can't help it. I feel very close to some of these people, much more so than the peers I had at school who seemed so topical and heavy all the while making these monstrosities. I just couldn't relate! I like work that makes me wonder what drives the person... such personal dedication to ones own singular vision, beyond all else! It's really so rare! Why can't more people do that? Some of my good friends who are artists are like that and I really admire them, just the attention to detail and the promise that what they're doing is really worth it. Every sacrifice!!! I'm not sure I have it in me.

On the musical side I like a bit of everything. Due to my parents, I grew up on classical and surf music. I like a lot of found music and amateur music, promotional records and novelty songs. But if I'm going to be lost on a desert island and can only bring a couple records with me it's going to be Kraftwerk, The Mothers of Invention, Bach, Eric Dolphy, [Brian] Eno and Y.M.O.

How's that for a rambling ridiculous answer?

Do you have an artist's statement that differs from the copy on the back of Fire Away?

Maybe? I'm not sure! I'm not good at the ol' artist statement really. I'd like to think that people will just enjoy (or not enjoy) what it is. I like the statement on the back of the book. It's pretty heavy duty!!! I think the best work is well crafted, simple and bold. I don't know if I accomplished that but that's what I'm going for anyhow.

Besides certain common visual ancestors, do you have any connection to comics?

I drew comics growing up. I still have them. I never really read too many comics as a kid. I knew I LIKED them but I couldn't really get into the superheroes and whatnot. I did read tons of Garfield and Archie however, and both have some great periods. In fact, I STILL read Garfield and collect one certain Garfield PEZ dispenser with mad fervor. His expression on this one, it's just absolutely perfect. I used to find tons of hidden meanings in Archie comics, and I believe they're still there. Seriously, you’ve got to leaf through them! Chester Gould was BIG for me. I love everything up to the end of World War II. Dick Tracy was/is just a perfect serial comic to me. Norm Saunders was a pulp artist who did all of the original 'wacky packages' (of which I have a LOT of as well) and I love his work. Still do. That was probably more of influence on me than comics really... like Dennis the Menace on the Dairy Queen cups. Very attractive to me. Something about the "object"... like this early thought that you could take "an object" and apply yourself to it. I love comics but I can't write them. I have no attention span and can never come up with a character I'd love enough to use over and over again. Not yet at least. I like the whole Crumb family's work... I mean... gosh! R. Crumb!!! I'd let him spit on me! I love Carl Barks too... Jack Davis… Old Japanese stuff. But mostly advertising and "pulp" work.






What do you mean by "totally square creative concern" at the top of your C.V.?

Totally square... I guess it's a "professional moniker" to use to cover all of the audio/visual stuff I do. I love how Japanese industries are called "concerns" and so I used that. It makes sense to me... I am my own industry... and I'm concerned with it... so it's a concern! It's just for fun but it does give a little common thread running through everything. Square, as my dad pointed out, could mean "lame" in the olden slang. That's fine with me. It's more fun than being a hip daddy-o.

Over what period of time did you create the work in Fire Away?

Most of it was done in about 8 months. One of the drawings, the circle with the hotdog, was done in 2000 or so. The sculptures mostly were done in… 2005-2006 I think. Some of them were newer. One that I know is newer is the eagle/tooth. That's my wisdom tooth so I know it happened after it came out!

What was the context for the work originally?

There's no really context for it really truth be told! Some of it was done for my first solo show in 2006 at this, now defunct, gallery called WRKS DVSN. But most of it was made just for them; I'm glad they look good together. I'm with no gallery or anything, so I'm interested in books and making something in which you can see everything back to back to back and so forth. Some pieces work well next to one another. Some look better on their own. I love books though. They way they smell, the way they age. So a lot was made with a book in mind, as one unit!

Also, and this is the one thing nobody will tell me: how did you connect with Drawn and Quarterly in the first place?

Can you believe I sent them a CD-R??? I know. It's really crazy. Like I said, I'm still not sure I believe it myself!





Can you tell me a bit about how the book was put together? Like, who chose the order of everything and put the thing together?

Sure can! Ahh... I actually did it myself and wrote it down and sent it off. It actually didn't take too long. It just kind of formed itself, a couple of edits and it was off! I just thought "I want this to be really packed full!" which I think it is! (Incidentally, there is ONE image that was totally cropped wrong and looks nothing like the full picture. I have no idea how that happened but it still looks great!)



What can you tell me about this "non-linear" graphic novel that's mentioned in our promotional copy? Says here that it's about "other time dimensions, angels, demons, people, animals, other spiritual entities and instructions on the nostalgic meditation method." Anything you'd care to add to that?

Yah for sure! It's changed a lot. Basically, I wanted to incorporate more text in my work and try something that was simpler visually but had more "instruction" in it. Words take up a lot of space in the brain. You put down words and they just hang there in the mind in a way visuals don't. It adds a layer of metaphor but also decreases the interpretive process so I'm really careful about how I'm putting it down and what I'm using. I want to be really clear about what I have to say since I don't use many words at all. There is a lot of art with "text" and "fonts" in it and I'm not really into that "words for words sake." I really want to be clear about it. It's hard!!! I'll have the visual done and it'll take days and days to figure out what the words are going to be. It's changing all the time. I'm hoping to have more "comic" elements in it but so far the ones I have done only have 2 panels! It's more of a serious of vignettes, all from the same world. I like where it's going right now. The meditation method is interesting... you know I get these hallucinations and this is a way of bringing a certain feeling or attitude to the work. I know when I'm done something if it's REALLY good to me: it has to feel right. It has to give me that wonder that makes me feel like I'm reaching through time or space. The method is about focusing on something and trying to become nostalgic about it like it exists only in memory even though it's right in front of you. It's really hard. I've only really "done it" once or twice for sure... it's an odd experience.

More importantly, can you guesstimate how long it’ll take to complete?

I'm hoping to have it done this summer. I'm about 15 pages into it... doesn't seem like a lot! I'm throwing a lot out. I mean, not literally, but I won’t be using them. I got some new sculptures on the horizon; hopefully they'll be in there, too. I'm still thinking about format and size and all of that.

So that's pretty much it for now. Good luck with the launch and please keep up the good work.




You can check out Chris von Szombathy's website here and you can buy Fire Away from your local retailer.

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