In my decades of being an artist I realise I've never developed a means to talk about myself or my career in such a way that shares my experiences in the proper context. Nor do I ever speak about why I have become an important artist to a community of artists world wide. I never enjoyed self promotion, or even indulging those thoughts that make me something other than equal to my peers and friends.
I think it’s important to emphasis that I always believed that my work is far less important than the works of those artists who look up to me. I have always tried to tell artists that I am only a part of their game of leap frog towards their potential. Their job is to take the vision further than I have. Often times, they are the future.
Knowing my spot in art history is secure, to whatever level it reaches is something I recognised while I was still in my 20’s. At a certain point in my mid 20’s I began to effect groups of educated artists (although I am self-taught) in ways that confounded me.
My work and who I am form the centre of many artist’s world. My influence is something that is described by other artists as being something they resist and can’t because its so pervading. I’ve had artists apologise for painting like me. Many artists come up to me and tell me that I am their favourite artists. One artist unabashedly stated that he is from “The Van Pelt School of Art.” And out of four mentor’s I’ve had in my life, three admitted that my work has invaded their works. One even called me to say “I now paint like you Van Pelt!” I have many galleries and dealers who are huge fans of my work, even if they never represented me. I have art journalists who collect my work. And when I am sure the greater art world has forgotten me as I hide out in New Mexico, I am corrected when an international magazine tells me they are huge fans, want to come out and check me out, or when I’m offered another museum show out of the blue.
Maybe I give this impression that as a group, artists are really open and kind, nice people. They are highly competitive (less so out in the Southwest, but on the east coast, very). They would rather talk crap about another artist’s work than to give them their due for a job well done. They can be envious of other’s success.
There was a time when a very famous artists and I had a rivalry, although neither he and I would have noticed, we have always been and still are friendly and supportive of one another. I think the artist’s community created this rivalry on their own as entertainment, something to gossip about.
I have known or know some of the biggest players in the art world, this includes Allen Ginsberg, Chuck Close, and I met Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Not to mention some of the biggest names in acting and music. Long before I ever decided to become an artist, I got to spend a number of days with Kurt Cobain, before his own fame ever existed. I got to know him on a level that most never did, how he interacted with the youth unguarded. I was 13, I think he is seven or eight years older than I, but yet he never spoke to me like a child. He was curious about my world, and engaged with interest, never treated me like I was some child. He was very much an open book with me, recognising me as a freshman member of a scene he would one day bring to the global consciousness. I got to hang out and become the focal point in a long conversation with my favourite singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, and give her a portrait I made of her, being invited to continue the tour with her and the band, I was 19 at this time.
As this person who has influenced artists, been a favourite of those professionally involved in the art at all levels, a person who has known or met some of the biggest names of culture, including those who have influenced their peers and the fulcrum point of global movements, meeting them before my own professional journey began, I know who I am as a cultural figure. Although the greater world of art doesn’t even know my name. I lived at an interesting time, and accidentally participated in ways and on a level that most never experience.
And none of this was ever because I sought it out. It just sort of happened. I realised at a certain point that I was doing on accident what great artists in history do. When you read about great artists one thing you learn is that they are often connected to a greater world of creativity through others who will one day be known as greats. Although we live in an age where fame seems so big, so outrageous, beyond reach, it is odd to think that someone like me sort of snuck his way in without meaning to. Sometimes this was literal. When I met Hirst I was going to do the rounds at the Museum of Modern art with my then wife. Instead of walking through the museum as planned an attendant asked us to follow her. She assumed we were part of the party going on in a private gallery. I honestly though we were being taken to security for some infraction they imagined, I had no idea where else we could have been headed to, I mean unless they give guided tours of the rest rooms. We literally had been in the museum for under three minutes, so I was trying to logically piece together as to why we were being asked to follow a museum attendant. My wife and I gave one another a look that expressed our confusion, but nonetheless, we followed. Very much on accident, I "snuck" into this party where a number of the greatest artists of my time were hanging out, I suppose previewing Hirst’s newest works, of Pills.
What I have experienced greatly has been afforded to me by accident.
I don’t believe I ever questioned my trajectory, although I understood it was unorthodox. Part of my life’s philosophy is really about being open to life’s experience. In a sense to live life, you must allow yourself to get sucked into moments and allow those moments to play out. To resist is to fight against a current, putting pressure on the natural order of things.
However I made a huge career decision that did go against the current. I declined representation in a major gallery in what was to be known as the Chelsea Art District in NYC. THE art district in the city. I didn’t go for the money or chase fame. Instead I focused on my work, which at that time was the start of a style of art that I am (now) famous for, and have evolved my whole life. That choice was made by me being educated in the art world enough to know that being asked to preform at a higher level when my style was being developed would rush things and place pressure on me and the work artificially, that ultimately I would be more concerned about keeping my spot in the gallery and my work would eventually suffer. If you are worried about deadlines and the future of your career, you are not free to explore and develop without boundaries.
While the majority of my career has been with an art dealer who is legendary, who represented modern masters, who provided the biggest accolades of my career, it really was more a means in which I was able to develop my work without any pressures at all while keeping a level of exposure with the greater art world. This exposure was on a huge scale. One group show we often participated in yearly (it's an invitation only show, at least at the time) was attended by over 30,000 people over two days. By the time of our last participation, it’s estimated around 270,000 people in total attended. This is but one show of many, including museums, in a 17 year stretch, not to mention the shows I had in 11 years prior to representation. I think the low estimate would be close to a million people have seen my work in my 30 year career (at the time of writing this). Although I didn't go an orthodox route, nonetheless I still have had the sort of exposure only the top artists in this nation get, and perhaps even more exposure to those who's career took them further in terms of conventional success.
My goals are not what is typically desired by artists. In 2022 I've brought my artwork back home, to New Mexico, my next major show will be in the Santa Fe area in 2023 with a gallery that I hope I can establish as my home base moving forward. It is one of the few goals left on the list of my professional goals. My career belongs in NM, it is where it began, and is at the heart, my foundations and what informed me as an artist in the beginning. As a state we have a rich tradition in the arts, and have our own unique culture in NM. I am proud to have contributed to our state's legacy as a place of creativity. While my career has not at all been typical, I achieved my dreams in a more unusual way. In some ways I began my career online, predating the trend in art to make careers online only by nearly 30 years. I have thought out of the box and have made the art market a secondary concern in my career far before others have, and in some odd way, succeeded! In a sense, my career is a study of what, decades later is the new paradigm in the art market. I was never incentivised to impress the larger art market on a whole, but rather set out to impress myself instead.
However this doesn't mean I never respected or thought the gallery system wasn't to be valued. What has happened in the art world, at least from the perspective of we artists is that the art market has grown stale, for the lack of a better and gentler word. They are trading on work informed by artists who began their journey more than 70 years ago. In some ways I must wonder if what is happening is very much like a store who bought a lot of stock of a product that they need to sell and make relevant to do so. The galleries are forced in making choices that propagate an artistic culture, feeding into an education system that has created a closed circle. New artists therefore are added, and act as validation for what the big galleries have invested in. But the ultimate result has been to keep the old paradigms around while the chosen artists become pastiche.
Meanwhile the art world and the aesthetics have moved on. Instead of Warhol being of global influence, its Basquiat that is informing much of the new movements in art. Even in the world of graffiti art, a place Basquiat took to new levels, it's not his paradigms that are being investigated, but rather the straight on portraitures of Warhol. At least that is the shorthand of what I am saying, it's more complicated than how I present it here.
What is being lost is the public's education on these new movements, and sad to say as a patriot of my nation, it is a cultural change in which America is far behind, with at least one exception, I predate this art movement by 20 years at least. So while America currently has a poor showing in this movement (which does not yet have an official name), there are allot of European artists who are creating big careers on this movement. There is allot of discontent amongst artist about the art world that won't really change until the big galleries realise they are harming culture. And even so the big galleries will steal those artists from galleries who believed in their works before the other larger galleries ever took notice, or the big galleries will reach out to the MFA programmes and find those who might fit into the criteria they seek. But this choice, no matter how it is made is not out of a love of aesthetics or catching up (which is what it will be ultimately), rather it will be a business choice based upon graphs and sales.
The reason this movement I belong to is not named is actually because of something I noted over a decade ago, I attempted to talk to my art dealer about it, and one of the top artists in the Outsider Art Movement (where I am one of the top artists of this genre of art too), and there was little interest in contextualising what I began to note happening around me, and those artist's I'm influencing. This is of course all these educated artists who are being influenced by so called "Outsider Art."
My entry into Outsider art is due to me being self taught, so these artists who lead the vanguard of this new movement, they might technically belong to "Outsider Art" if it wasn't for their education and degrees in art. In the big galleries world wide, education is very important, in the genre I have spent much of my career, a lack of education is important. Obviously the two would have to be bridged eventually. And in my small way on a small scale I have provided such a bridge. Although I am part of a movement that eschews education, my traditional background was all about becoming versed in art history and the works of part artists. However, there is a problem with this...
We are not part of anything new... We are only picking up from where art was during Modernism, where "Art Brut" or "Outsider Art" was influencing great artists like Picasso. Modernism never really died out, but in the post world war years, a sort of art form began to get traction over other forms of art, and this art was very impersonal, which makes sense of a global consciousness over stressed and traumatised by feeling the highest and lowest of emotional forms during the war. Abstract art, Pop Art, Conceptual art, Photo-realism, all makes sense in a world that wanted to turn their emotional selves on low and not have to deal with art that evokes an emotional response or made you think in ways that push deep down.
In a sense, there have been few art movements that actually pick up where art left off prior to WW2. This is of course my own ideas about why art is stale and lacks emotion or personal connection. I am sure those who are fans of the art I feel lacks emotional or is impersonal do feel connection to it on deeper levels emotionally and etc. Nor would they feel it is stale.
While there is no poll ever to be conducted on this subject, there is evidence from studies of the business of art galleries that clearly state that slowly these biggest art galleries are representing art that leaves many people scratching their heads. From my own experience in my community of artists, from acquaintances, and even reading comments artists leave on social media on the posts made by the largest galleries in the world, probably 7 out of every working professional artist feels zero connection to the art being shown by the major galleries. In simple terms, the art market is no longer serving the public, but serving their own investments.
Q&A Most Commonly Asked Questions
Why don’t I title my paintings?
One aspect of my work that is noticed by many professionally as well as art viewers is my lack of titles. My philosophy, at least beginning in 1997 is that I didn't want to dictate how others translated my paintings, I wanted my art to mean something personal to each individual who experienced my work. I learned the hard way, during a time when I created descriptive titles, that if your title doesn't match the expectations of what the viewer sees or how it feel for the viewer, they simply won't buy it. Nor why would they when the artist actually dictated what the painting was about and means? It is always my hope that I am tapping into something beyond me when I paint, and I hope that I create images that has universal meanings. Although there are times very rarely when I actually do title my work, when I created something that specifically is attributed to something I experienced or felt. An example of one of my titles come from the experience of being involved in a long term relationship with someone with a personality disorder, titled "The Yo-Yo king meets the Lasso Queen."
Who and where are the subjects of my paintings?
I never think about the actually figures or locations in my work. It is difficult to explain why, but basically what I create comes from a place where I don't know what I am painting until I'm painting it. One example I give (in person) is of a purple line in a painting I made, and then I show another painting of a city in the background. That background of the city probably started its life as a line that I had no idea of what it is was suppose to be. It is the same of the people in my paintings. I have no idea when I begin a figure if she'll be male or female. I have no idea if my background will be a room, outside in NYC, in the nature of Upstate NY, or in the Southwest. I know I have themes, though never preplanned, of locations that represents New Mexico, Upstate, or NYC or an urban area.
Why does it take me so long to finish a painting?
One aspect of my art that is often noted is that amount of time it took me to make a painting. For the start of my career, about the first six years or so I would spend on average a year or less to finish a painting. Over time however it began to be a longer amount of time. Years, then decades, and now it takes me over 20 years to finish some of the art work.
It has gotten to a point where people question if I know when a painting is done. It is even a joke amongst those who know me well. And some people wax philosophically about is a painting ever done? Well... yes, a painting is done when I say it is done. Literally it can be one gesture that finishes a painting. I recall once of working on a painting for about four years or so, and it wasn't until I did one thing to the canvas that the painting was done. But it took years of viewing and meditating on that painting to know what that one thing was. Many of my paintings get done quick after a certain point, so I will have worked on it for decades, and then boom, out of the blue, it's done.
I work in an unorthodox way, in an assembly line fashion, so that in a session of painting, say six hours, I will have worked on as many as 30 paintings. I am literally working on over 500 paintings, and when it comes time for a show I break off the most developed paintings or those I am most challenged on to focus on until the deadline is met. When that is done, I go back to working on all my paintings at once. In some ways my method was created as a mechanism to teach myself how to paint in my earliest years, when I noticed that one painting informed what I made on another painting. I realised that I couldn't have made element X without first making element W on the painting I had just put to the side.
I must remind my peers that my art will outlast any of us, and if I don't give it my best, someone is bound to notice. I don't want a bad assessment because I was lazy or couldn't reach my potential as an artist because I was worried about finishing something. I have had experiences, actually too many to count where collectors wanted a painting right then and there, and literally, I stop working on it and exchange money for an unfinished painting. They haunt me believe it or not. I am not satisfied with that approach, because I made money the deciding factor of when a painting is finished.
On a final note, it takes me so long because I am in my own way a perfectionist, that is the bottom line. If I don't like it, I figure others won't either. If I see flaws in the paintings, other professionals, be it artists, critics, or those involved in the art market will see it too.
What do my paintings mean?
I touched upon this in the section about titles. I don't attribute meaning to paintings unless I purposefully have something specific, which is actually very rare. In some cases even when there is a specific meaning, it's usually not noticed until the painting is finished or if I have it hung up in my studio to meditate on it. Meaning is something that I hope I achieve in ways I cannot fully understand.
Do I have a theme? Probably I do, but I have no current awareness of what those themes might be. I think one would have to understand my process and philosophy on art and life to understand why I don't attribute meanings to my paintings. For an example, a painting is only finished when others see the painting. I feel it is the viewing of that painting which finishes it. In the same way I rely upon the viewer to "finish a painting" for me, I also rely upon the viewer to bring their own meanings into my paintings. It is the viewer who finds the meanings in the paintings, not me as an artist.
What does self taught mean and why does it matter?
The idea of being self taught is deceptive, there is often this idea that self taught artists are created in a bubble of what amounts to ignorance, and in some cases this is true. There are artists who are self taught who make art utterly out of the box. My friend J.J. Cromer is one such artist who has utterly created an aesthetic based upon his own pantheon of ideas.
In truth, most artists come from the background of being self taught from a child. Hell, let's being honest, every human on earth most likely had a talent that was exceptional until a certain age where doubt or other concerns or attentions began to stunt this development. Professionally speaking, until a certain point late in the development of art history, there was no degrees or institutions concerned with advance pedagogical studies of art.
If this is the case, and it is, my education as an artist is far more traditional than most, I was the apprentice of another, more masterful artist as a youth, from age 17 to 22. I learned art from the studio floor on up, whereas my personal development and aesthetics was for me to sort on my own. I began from a background where my foundations are in art history and then, and only then could I build a structure (a knowledge base) of actually making art.
Yet in the larger scheme of the art world, this traditional background is not respected for what it is, of continuing a tradition of on hands and theory based learning. They're not going to give me a master degree for being an apprentice, although my education is far more knowledgable in most areas. In fact the only place I lack the knowledge for, which has effected me in ways I feel woefully ignorant about is print making. Had my master been more interested in printmaking, this would not be a negative issue. On my own I learned how to make traditional woodblock printing, although I dislike it. I can transfer that knowledge to other printmaking mediums like linoleum prints. Beyond scaling the techniques to various mediums, I have no clue about the process in ways that would allow me to make more than a handful of prints every number of years when in fact I wish printmaking was part of my normal art routine.
Am I famous?
It is assumed that I am famous, let me put that out there. Even when I try to downplay my successes, other artists will point out the various successes. Whether or not I wish to claim I am famous is not in question, I would rather there be a different word like "well known" or "renown." I joke with people by saying "I do well enough to where I don't have to give hand jobs at truck stops dressed like a woman anymore." Yes, it's crude, and do I want my mother reading this? Not really. But I honestly don't know what to tell people because either answer, "yes I am famous," or "no, I'm not" is neither true or untrue. If I have to explain, I'll say I am famous to a degree in a segment of the art world that is specialised. And that is really the truth.
I think the real problem in answering this question has to do with the reality of the art world in general. Let's pretend there are 100 people in the world who follows art in a close way. Out of 100 people, only 50 people would follow art in such a way that had a more detailed understanding than a general knowledge. Out of those 50 people, ten people would be interested in genre X, another ten in genre Y, and so forth. So out of 100 people a small segment of people would even know enough about my genre to be able to tell another person, "This is Outsider art. This artist is _____"
As an artist, fame is simply off the table of conversations, unless you're dealing with a public that has no understanding of the greater art world, who would not know the variables that qualify this answers. I have personal friends or acquaintances who I consider famous, however again, this is qualified in ways I recognise, but not that anyone else has ever heard of them, although their paintings sell for $14,000, $25,000, $60,000, or even $200,000.
At the same time, as I stated before, my art has been seen by somewhere near the million mark. That deserves a place in this conversation.
Other than art....
I have been asked to talk about my life outside of art. To share with others what I do with my time. I'm told this is an interesting topic, although I don't agree. I don't do much outside of art. I take my Jeep out into the hinterlands of NM, exploring nature and enjoying friendships. I ride motorcycles nearly everyday. I have put 40,000 miles on my car in the last eight or nine years. Versus the average 10,000 miles insurance companies figure with those who don't drive allot will rack up in a year. So much of my transportation needs are met by my motorcycles, of which I ride a vintage BMW from 1973, a R75/5 SWB and a 2007 1200 Harley Sportster. I won't get into my world of motorcycles here, but I was once a famous collector of vintage bikes. So I do take my bikes serious. I know far more than the average motorcycle enthusiast, especially about pre-1970's European bikes.
I do a lot of civil activities. I mentor artists, including Zuni and Navajo artists. And I helped create and foster art communities. I participated in one huge success in Binghamton NY, helping to create an art scene there. I have in more recent times greatly improved the local art scene in Gallup NM, where my hometown is, but not without experiencing how political small towns can be. We have an old art scene here, our Art's Crawl began many decades ago. However organisations have moved in reversing the progress we have made by attempting to take over and turn the art scene towards their agendas.
In my hometown art is currently used in a scheme by local business and property owners to beautify and thus add value to their properties. They are getting funding from art organisations who most likely don't understand they are providing funds for building and business owners who simply have never supported art in the past, never made their rents cheap enough to start local galleries, who struggle under the yoke of high rents in what amounts to a civic duty. There is no art market here for contemporary art. They use the Art's Crawl event we created, we no longer even have a say over our own art scene or event. It's absolutely in the hands of others who sit on boards, are not artists and do not come from the art industry at all.
Fight for my region's artists has been my newest and most passionate project. I won't allow others to steal an art scene those elder artists created five decades ago. I owe it to them to not allow this to happen.
My day to day life typically looks like this: I wake up, I start my day with coffee and catching up with my social life and reading articles, etc. Or I will start working immediately. Irregardless, I get to working within an hour or so of waking, often reviewing the work I've done. Sometimes there are issues I have to address from the night before, like a a web or other graphic art's work. Sometimes it's reaching out to the greater art world and community in business or civic capacities, etc. And eventually I begin to paint, and will paint either periodically or with the rest of my waking time. I then eventually go to sleep.
I hope you have enjoyed this slice of my life. If you have any questions or want explanations for certain topics, let me know, I'll be glad to add it to this page.