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Wednesday, October 27

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Interview Wed Jan 04 2012

Rainbows, Yarn and Other Scary Things: a Studio Visit with David Sprecher


Sprecher in his studio

I became aware of David Sprecher and his violently playful work during last fall's East Garfield open studios/art walk event. His studio is on the second floor in the Albany Carroll Arts Building, which also features a majestic garden, not unlike the one in The Secret Garden, except that it's in the middle of the 'hood instead of the English countryside.

After graduating with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2006, Sprecher spent a few years working at a chemistry lab in New York, saving up money, and then about a year in Berlin (until he ran out of money). When he found a good deal on a studio space in Chicago via Craigslist, he jumped on it and he's been working here since.

Sprecher's work is engaging and accessible, lively and mischievous, but also deeply dark and potentially disturbing -- not unlike a frat house keg party or, for that matter, an African witch doctor keg party. Or an after-hours, staff-only keg party at a Louisiana state fair.

At first glace, Sprecher's work seems like it would look fantastic in a child's playroom, but don't be fooled -- that child would likely rack up therapy bills later in life.

I visited his studio shortly before Christmas to pick his brain.


Sprecher in his studio beside new work in progress

Sprecher: I've always been interested in art, but when I was about high school age I decided I would concentrate on it. In college, I majored in Printmaking. I was doing a lot of wood cuts at the time and that sort of lead to painting on wood. I started to really like the way the block looked more than the prints. I would sketch something out on wood and then start carving it and I really liked the way the carving and the drawing worked together. So I started doing that, carving and sanding. I really like wood because it's so resistant, it has such a personality.

Is there a certain type of wood you like using?

All kinds of plywood. It's really cheap and really soft which I like because you can scrape the surface off really easily. I use birch a lot. It's a little harder. Oak is even harder and a little more expensive. I'm still experimenting.


Sprecher's studio

Your older work seems a lot darker than your newer work.

I think maybe I've been inspired by art that takes itself a little less seriously. Or maybe that's not a good way of putting it. I'm really interested now in a combination of darkness and lightness. Maybe a superficial, funny, silly, goofy, childish quality, with some dark imagery mixed in there. I think that adds a depth that I'm interested in.

Definitely. And it gives people more to connect with. More opportunities to engage.

I'm really enjoying using yarn and these kind of crafty, kindergarten-type materials to make work for that same reason -- the contrast between creepy and cute.

A lot of your work is portrait-based.

Yeah, I did a lot of figure drawing in high school and college. I've always been interested in portraying the figure. I guess I got really interested in the face recently because it's such a stable image. People recognize them really easily.

Cameras do too now!

Yeah and it's the first thing as a child that you focus on. I guess it was kind of an incidental thing. I really wanted to play with new techniques and new mediums. I wanted to see how far I could distort what I was representing, so the face seemed like a stable thing that I could really fuck up and it would retain its faceness.


"Fred", 2011; latex paint, bondo, yarn, screws on wood, 24x32"

Do you ever set out to make portraits of people you know? Or do they ever end up reminding you of people?

Yeah, (points to "Fred") this is a friend of mine. Er, he was a close friend of a very close friend of mine. My friend was a friend from high school. He came to visit and introduced me to this guy Frederick. We hung out for like a week, the three of us, and then he [Frederick] passed away two weeks later. He got hit by a car on his bike. I did that right after hearing about that. I wasn't intending to draw him at all but it really took on his character and I think I pushed it further in that direction once I was in touch with that. And this is Käthe Kollwitz, (points to "Kathe K"(below)) a German expressionist who I've always been interested in. But that again came about during the process of doing it.

Is that graphite?

It's ink on wood that's been scratched out. But this is cool - I mixed iron filings with ink and then put a magnet under the wood to move it around.

Did that just kind of come to you?

Yeah, I was playing. I got a bunch of magnets at American Science and Surplus and some filings. I was fooling around and that popped in my head.

That's a really creative way of working.

Yeah I like to experiment.


"Kathe K", 2010; ink on wood, 10x16 inches

What other artists inspire you? Who are you into?

Well this show...(reaches for the catalogue raisonné for DeKooning's current retrospective)... I suppose he is a common answer for that question...

Oh, of course!

This is at the MOMA now. I just saw it. I've always been a fan but it was the first time I've seen that many of his paintings all at once, and it kinda hit home in a new way.

That's funny because that one didn't occur to me right away but now that I'm looking through the book it makes perfect sense.

Yeah he's definitely one of my favorites.

There's also something kinda voodoo-ey about a lot of your work. Like with the dolls hanging from this piece... (points to "Fred")

Yeah I'm definitely inspired by a sort of primitivism. I like going to the Art Institute and looking at all the African masks. That stuff really resonates with me.

Your work seems to tie distant art history to contemporary art in a very nice way.

I guess I've always felt a little un-contemporary in some kind of way.

It certainly doesn't seem trendy.

I've never felt super in tune with whats going on right now. I think the more I do it the more I realize that everything that's being made now is contemporary. I feel like a product of the times regardless of the fact that a lot of my inspirations are of a different era. Especially with these new materials. That feels so modern in some way (points to drywall tape). I used to be very earthy, oily -- I used to used oil paint more. I'm sort of starting to embrace contemporary materials.


"Smart Guy 1", 2011; patterned duct tape, yarn, fiber tape, collage on wood, 12.5x16 inches

So if you find yourself in need of inspiration do you go to the hardware store?

Yeah, a lot. There's nothing that makes me want to paint more than going to Home Depot and spending a bunch of money. I rarely shop at art supply stores. I get almost everything at hardware stores.

You're working a lot with latex paint and wood stain right now...

Latex paint, wood stain, drywall tape, charcoal has been a big staple forever. I scratch and sand... carve...

Have you ever heard the term horror vacui? It means fear of empty spaces.


I guess it's kind of an art term. It's common in folk art -- artists fill every little bit of the paper with something. And that's kind of the way it seems like you start out. Instead of just working on a pristine white surface, you kind of almost destroy it and then work it out.

I do, I clean chaos. Pull something out of chaos. I've never been able to pre-conceptualize something. It has to be a mess for me to sort through.

You're very process oriented.



Sprecher's studio in October; photo courtesy of the artist.

How did you come up with the idea to use screws in the wall to create shapes out of yarn to interact with your paintings?

I'd been putting paintings directly on the wall for a while. And that was the first time that happened. I thought, Ooh, that would be silly if there was a little piece of yarn hanging from it. And then it just went further. I was working on this at the time (pulls out "Yarn Face").


"Yarn Face", 2011.

I've been drawing weaving for a while. And so I was trying to figure out how to pull the string out of the frame. I've been wanting to do real weaving.

Like on a loom?



"All's Well", 2011; gouache, charcoal, screws, yarn on wood
24x32 inches

Cool. That's funny that you mention that because I was just imagining that (points to "All's Well") without the yarn and it would be really dark!

Yeah, it makes it really silly. But still kinda creepy.

You said you've been making art your whole life. Do you see your little kid sensibilities popping up in your new work?

Yeah. I've been meaning to go back and look at a lot of that stuff. But I am living out the cliché of turning into my childhood artist self as I get older. When I was a kid I made a painting that was an M shape, just rainbow lines in that shape that filled the composition. I feel like that aesthetic is creeping its way back. Even just rainbows. In my adult life, I've been drawn to monochromatic, repressed color schemes, but in the past couple years I've been embracing using lots of color. There's something ugly about it that I like. I have also always been drawn to patterns.


Three of Sprecher's photos; (left to right) "Grrr!!", "Hey! Fuck off!" & "Business". All digital photographs, 2011.

How did you start photographing your painted body interacting with your paintings?

I got a book of African face painting. I was kind of blown away. They were really beautiful. I was drawing and painting all these faces at the time, distorting them, and it felt like a continuation of that interest - distorting faces.

And turning them upside down!

Yeah so then I just started painting my face, trying to figure out how to get it to look silly.

That sounds like a hanging out with your friends, drinking beer sort of revelation.

Yeah except that I was alone. That was a lot of fun.

It's wild because you have to look at them for a while to figure out what's going on.

Yeah and I like using photography because, with photography, your starting point is reality. So I've always been interested in moving in the opposite direction, I guess. It's exiting when you know it's a photograph but it doesn't look real. I like that kind of illusionism. I'd like to do more of them. And the text in those - I'd never used text before and that was fun. I'd like to bring that spirit into my work more.


"Princess" 2011; Charcoal, ink, fiber tape, collage on wood. 24x32".

Where are you headed, artistically?

I'm exited about this drywall tape. I want to move more and more toward playfulness and doing things a little faster. I want to make things that don't feel overworked, but loose and alive. I don't have a natural inclination to work like that. I dig and dig for months, push things around, paint over things constantly. I want to move out of my comfort zone.


Sprecher's studio in October; photo courtesy of the artist.

For more information of Sprecher and his work, please visit his website.

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Nick Williams / January 8, 2012 3:13 PM

Great interview!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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