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Arow Collective, PART II // The Drop Out Kids

Ian Mitchell Wallace, "Friends With Golden Benefits." Watercolor. (Image courtesy of Ian Mitchell Wallace.)

Two young artists, two vastly different backgrounds, one art show in a vintage thrift store where I used to find and buy three-dollar grandma blazers in its basement. Presented by Arow Collective, The Drop Out Kids features new artwork by Gianni Onassis, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, was introduced to art through graffiti, dropped out of art school, and has a passion for theater and filmmaking; and Ian Mitchell Wallace, who moved to Chicago just this Fall, was a double major at a small art school, juggles fine art with graphic design work, and spends nights DJing. But when it comes to creating art and putting on art shows, does an art school education really matter? Just what, exactly, does an education mean anyway? Just how much did we geek out over sci-fi and fantasy during our conversation? Isn’t “Gianni Onassis” a total movie star name? The answers to [most of] these questions and more in the joint interview below.

Read PART I here.

The Drop Out Kids opens this Friday, February 17, at Clothes Optional Vintage.

 

Jenny Lam: Tell me about your art.

Ian Mitchell Wallace: I went to school for art at Lawrence University. I was a double degree, one in Euphonium Performance in the Conservatory, and one in Studio Art, which is all-encompassing studio art. My focus was painting, specifically watercolor. I also had a knack for graphic design, which they didn’t have any courses for, so I had to do my own thing. I made M.A.D. Design, which stood for Musician Artist Designer, and I would provide cheap graphic design for students: posters, stuff like that to get into my portfolio and make a few bucks. I was the first student at Lawrence to actually complete a performance major and a studio art major because it takes a lot of time outside of class: rehearsal, practicing, and doing everything.

I didn’t really start doing graphic design until after my sophomore year. I went to Blue Lakes Fine Art Camp to be a camp counselor, and it was like a ray of light. When I went back to school, that’s when I founded M.A.D. Design, started working for the newspaper doing layout, joined all these art groups, and just really focused on it and tried giving it my all.

The artists who inspired me to start doing that includes an artist named Para. He has these voluptuous figures and a bold graphic style. His style gave me this freedom that I never had before, mostly sexual freedom that I was afraid to do in the past. I feel like I can do anything in this style; it’s very free-hand, and you can see the artist’s marks in it.

So in this show you’ll see a lot of my graphic design works. I’m going to have a whole series of them accompanying Eddie [Yang]’s EP release; I did the covers for that and expanded them into a series of prints that have that style. It’s sort of evolved because I’ve been doing it for three years. It’s called Da Reveal, and it’s inspired by burlesque shows and the female form, which is an inspiration for most of my artwork, and the color red, and I sort of wanted to be more explicit than the past. Picasso had his blue phase; I’m sort of in my red phase, which deals a lot with female anatomy, sexuality, a lot of energy, and a lot of it goes back to youthfulness and sexual prime of life, and just being goofy and witty.

Ian Mitchell Wallace, "Prancin." (Image courtesy of Ian Mitchell Wallace.)

JL: Why the focus on the female form as opposed to the male?

IMW: This style of graphic design was mostly a freedom to be able to do these things that sort of has a stigma, and now I had an outlet so I could really… I can’t really explain it. It’s just something that happened because it was this outlet, it was freeing, and it was sort of natural that it would just pop up in my design work.

In art museums when you go see classic mythology, there’s a lot of nudity, and it’s really crazy stuff if you look to see what the content actually is, like rape, but when you put it in the context of a modernization, like a bold graphic style where it’s very explicit and you see the shapes right there, people are offended by it, which I don’t really understand, because it’s so accepted in the proper upper-class, going to museums and seeing huge paintings of a rape scene. It’s like, “Why can’t you see that?” Ridiculous, really.

I’m trying to imitate the Masters in a modern context. Most of my artwork isn’t just doing nudity for the sake of doing nudity; it’s trying to establish, first of all, my own style within this form of expression, but also putting my artwork in the context of art history, which is very academic. I really don’t think that I can escape my academic background.

Ian Mitchell Wallace, "My Golds Are Up Here." Watercolor. (Image courtesy of Ian Mitchell Wallace.)

JL: Why did you guys decide to do a dual show together, as opposed to two solo shows or one big group show with other artists?

IMW: Gianni approached me with his idea of The Drop Out Kids, and I said that I would definitely be on board for it.

Gianni Onassis: The Drop Out Kids actually started out as a documentary idea. At the time, I was working for a production company and had access to all this equipment, and, having dropped out of school, I wanted to document kids who were not in school but still were pursuing artistic endeavors. I found that really fascinating because with a lot of people I was around, a lot of the emphasis was on education and school and how those two things correlated, so I just thought that it would be a great idea to put together a show that would showcase artists who were not in school but were still actively involved in an artistic community.

JL: What made you turn your documentary idea into an art show?

GO: As far as a show, that idea was more feasible, something I could make happen immediately, as opposed to a documentary which would take a lot more time to put together and get footage and do interviews and whatnot. It’s something that I definitely still want to do, but just to see something come to fruition is cool. So it’s a building block to other things.

[For the work that I’ll have in this show], watercolor is a medium that I haven’t worked with in several years, so it’s been interesting getting re-acclimated with just using watercolor, but I’m excited. And I’m skeptical, because it’s kind of like if you didn’t work out for a long time, and you got chubby, and then you start working out again and you take off your shirt… it’s kind of like, “What are people going to think?” [laughter] So you gotta flex your muscles.

IMW: Gianni came to me with the Drop Out Kids idea, and I proposed it being something where we feature two artists, and one artist went to school for art, and there would be one who was unschooled in art and still wants to pursue it, and have that juxtaposition at the show. So we both thought that was a good idea, and that was the basis for this show.

GO: Yeah, the only thing about Ian having gone to school is that he definitely has a lot more artwork than I do at the moment. But the main thing is that it’s been really encouraging to be around someone who has an incredible work ethic and to see his process and approach to art. I think that’s why I wanted to touch on the subject, because I think that’s what school provides. It provides you with a consistent work ethic, and you can definitely see in his work and his process that school gave him a sense of direction.

IMW: Yeah, I see art as a business. You’re a worker and you have to work at it every day; you have to do it like a nine-to-five basically, so that’s how I approach it most times. Although it is, for most artists, very meditative and I enjoy it—like I’m an artist and I can’t see myself doing anything else—you have to make it work, so you have to have a work ethic, and you have to be at it at all times.

GO: Having not created pieces of work in a while, it can be a bit discouraging to put yourself back into the art world and to be around other artists who have been very productive in art, but the art sensibility and the feelings that you had whenever you last made your pieces or had your last show… it’s still there. It never leaves you. So now, it’s like, “OK, let’s do something about this!”

IMW: “Show the world what you can do!” I think the greatest part about putting a show together is a sense of satisfaction that goes into putting in all the work and then showing it to people and then bathing in the glory of the opening. You’re so focused on making all the artwork and trying to put everything together that you get caught up in the moment, and then you finally get to relax and see what other people think, and what they say adds a lot into how your artwork evolves after that point.

Ian Mitchell Wallace, "Beerd." (Image courtesy of Ian Mitchell Wallace.)

JL: Do you think your show has a certain conclusive stance on the subject of attending art school versus not attending art school? Obviously, you two would have personal biases towards one or the other.

IMW: [laughter] I think, in the subject matter, there’s an artistic message in… [Gianni’s] figures are based off [his] graffiti background, and graffito is basically an unschooled artistic form. Compared to my watercolors that have a definite border—stuff doesn’t go off to the sides and it’s very structured—I think there’s a definite contrast between those two, between what you think of as school-taught artwork and unschooled artwork.

GO: For me, the message would be that education through art can be found through various sources, various mediums, whether it is the classroom or the streets, and those two things are contrasting but they’re still an educational process. With the streets, especially with graffiti, your homework is to go out, scout, find locations, and be aware of your surroundings. Having been in art classes, it’s just being aware of your curriculum and being aware of due dates. [laughter] So they’re very different environments, but both can allow you to express yourself.

To me, the ultimate point of anything artistic is expression, and those forms of expression and how you can convey that to an audience. The biggest thing that I learned from graffiti was that you don’t do it to get paid; you do it for the simple fact that you want everyone from that particular community—or not—to see your name, that simple premise of that glory of that moment. Putting together an art show, I can relate it to having a space where I have to sneak in and do a piece, and people come in to see it.

Definitely I’d say the statement for my aspect of the show is educating through art by various means, whether it’s school, whether it’s the community, whether it’s doodling, whether it’s just having discussions about art, at multiple levels, just making art for the common person, and how we can take everything we’ve learned from other artists’ structures and break it down in a way that my Grandmother could understand. Because she’s heard of Picasso, but… [laughter] She doesn’t really know what the deal is.

So I want to create art and make shows where my Grandmother would come and enjoy herself, without the oftentimes pretentious atmosphere that comes with art and galleries. I guess there’s a very “bohemian, underground” lens to look through, but I like it. [laughter]

Gianni Onassis, 2012. Watercolor. (Image courtesy of Gianni Onassis.)

JL: The Grandmother Test! That should be applied to every art show.

GO: If my Grandmother likes it, it must be cool. [laughter]

JL: Tell me about what influences your work.

GO: Aesthetic-wise, I’ve always been fascinated with ancient feudal-era Japanese block prints, like the Japanese masters. Definitely Japanese animation. It sounds very nerdy to say, but that’s been an influence on how I view art. I always compare it to a lot of Disney classics and MGM cartoons. I would always like to take that American sensibility but mix it with that fluidity that’s in a lot of Japanese art.

And then anything that’s always been what we would call pop culture, especially a lot of material and art and music and things that came in the late 80s and early 90s, and heavily influenced by my mother. Actually, her love of house music that started here in Chicago, that rhythm and that beat and that feeling, that mood… she would describe to me the events she went to at my age, and I always carried those things with me, and I always felt that I wanted to recreate that for my own generation. Just maybe with better clothes and style. [laughter]

And just everyday people. When I first started drawing, I would like to do portraits of people that I would see. I would spend a lot of time on the trains and buses at a young age, and I was allowed free reign to move around the city, which is probably where I got my first interest in graffiti, because I would see it all the time, but I always had an interest in sketching people in the moment. They were completely unaware that I was drawing them, so it felt more pure and unadulterated, and that was their essence. I always loved to capture people in their essence, without words, without them speaking.

Gianni Onassis, 2012. Watercolor. (Image courtesy of Gianni Onassis.)

JL: You know, I’m so glad you answered the way you did, because whenever I’m asked what my influences are, I go, “Well… music, pop culture…” and then I start rattling off 90s cartoons.

GO: [laughter] Just mash them all together.

IMW: [laughter] Yeah you shouldn’t feel bad because my influences included MAD Magazine.

JL: We’re just a bunch of nerds here.

GO: [laughter] NERDS! [three-person high-five]

IMW: Nerds unite! Graphic novels too. Hellboy. Mike Mignola’s artwork is fucking amazing. It’s not just that he’s a great storyteller, but he’s also a phenomenal artist. When I was still focusing on graphite pencil, his deep shadows and geometry were very influential on how I would form people and things.

Also classic people like Matisse, with fluid lines. Picasso of course, but also Basquiat and Andy Warhol. With Basquiat, it was his very loose style, and I think my watercolor style was probably mostly influenced by his works. My graphic design is probably mostly influenced by cartoons.

Gianni Onassis. (Image courtesy of Gianni Onassis.)

JL: How do you guys integrate other parts of your creative life with your visual artwork? Ian DJs and Gianni does acting, theater, and filmmaking.

GO: I’ve always been fascinated with the process of making film, and I feel like the artwork is maybe capturing still images of what I would love to see as an elongated version of that, but in motion, so having had experience with performance art, musical theater, and working for a film production company, those three things in particular continually shape the things that I want to create. With still images, I just want to have a series of works that are cinematic in feeling, as if it were a really epic battle scene frozen in time. It doesn’t have to be realistic at all. I draw a lot from fantasy—definitely Star Trek, Star Wars, and reading J.R.R. Tolkien and anything fantasy was always what got me up in the morning, what got me excited about life, and it’s probably because the things that I saw around me… A lot of times they were really dire.

I always liked to remove myself from that environment that I was in, and that’s why I performed and that’s why I painted or that’s why I wanted to recreate stories that were of what I saw and what were around me, maybe just with a different ending than what I actually saw. Those things are primarily everything that I want to encompass in future works. Even my current paintings take from different emotions and feelings that I’ve had throughout my life. Paintings are just about emotions and feelings and capturing those feelings.

IMW: What are you feeling when you do stuff like that?

GO: I like to just go into something and see what comes out without getting into too much of a process, because that initial idea is probably the closest thing you’re going to get to what you envision in your mind. The whole rush [you get] if you go out tagging or anything, if you think too much about it, more than likely you’re going to get caught. Now I don’t have to run from anybody, and I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get arrested. I can just sit down and draw something, but I still want to keep that fear and that rush that you get and replicate that feeling.

IMW: But I feel like there’s an original idea in your head of what you want, and that’s this ideal, and you want to recreate the ideal on paper, but there’s always going to be something coming in and distorting it a little bit. You still want to try to go back to the original idea, but more often than not the materials you’re using are going to limit you, or your skill, or things that happen in your life that you just can’t plan, so I think, as an artist, your job is to always have that purity of thought.

GO: And to be honest.

IMW: And to be as straightforward as you can. Which is why you have to practice, so you don’t think about how you’re going to do it. It just goes right through your arm and your hands into what you make.

GO: Which in my process I need to continually develop, being able to reshape or reform the idea, because when I’m just sketching, it always comes out freely, and the moment I take a second to criticize myself, I think, “Oh this sucks!” That’s when it falls apart.

IMW: You gotta be your own biggest fan.

Ian Mitchell Wallace. (Image courtesy of Ian Mitchell Wallace.)

JL: I feel like artists are their own biggest critics.

IMW: Yeah, definitely.

GO: For sure!

IMW: But when it comes to graphic design, sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you yourself think, and that’s what I didn’t like about doing a job for somebody else. You give them a draft and then it’s, “Oh this is wrong; you have to change this,” so when I do graphic design for shows like this… I can do whatever I want!

JL: Gianni, you have lived in Chicago pretty much your entire life.

GO: Pretty much. At one point in time I did live in California—not extensively, but enough to get acclimated to that Bay Area culture—but other than that, definitely Chicago my whole life. A lot of times I meet other artists who come from other places, and they go to school here and whatnot, and they have shows in the city, and sometimes I feel like something is missing, and it’s not that the work wasn’t great or that there wasn’t a good turn-out; it just doesn’t always represent the essence of what I’ve come to know as Chicago, and that’s why I feel more than obligated to make art and showcase it here and have more of a what I would call a true Chicagoan sensibility.

And it’s just having an understanding of the city from various aspects outside of the art scene here. Growing up in multiple neighborhoods and having seen so many parts of the city, I feel like that’s invaluable to the potential of developing a counterculture. A lot of times people say some dumb shit, but instead of being upset and angry, the theme of the whole show is education, to be educated about the neighborhoods, be educated about the people and where they come from, be educated about the particulars of what’s going on. And who better to do that than artists who will take the time to actually hear the stories of the people?

JL: Ian, how long have you been in Chicago?

IMW: I was born in South Carolina but I don’t remember it at all. Because my dad was a pilot, we moved from base to base. I moved to Arlington Heights—don’t remember that either—for a year, and then after that we moved to Glen Ellyn. I went to school in Wisconsin. I moved here in September. I’m trying to do as much art and music as I can. Art is life, I guess! I feel like Gianni’s definitely giving me an insider’s look, showing me places I’ve never been before, things I’ve never seen before.

GO: I will say, though, with the art scene, I’ve been familiar with it, but sometimes things will be new to me and I’ll be like, “Oh man! This shit was here? It was right around the corner the whole time?” It’s one of those beautiful friendship deals… We play off of each other when it comes to different strengths and activities and… it’s definitely interesting and fun. I think that’s the main thing, to always have fun.

I feel like the only reason to do art is to have it in the community, have it for the people. You need structure, but don’t lose the sense of that grassroots, blue collar feel, because once it loses that, then we’re just like everybody else.

IMW: Although I wouldn’t mind if at one point Arow Collective got a really big show and got their own venue again—

GO: Oh yeah. At some point I would love to be able to get funding and I would love to be able to do artist residencies… those are the things that I’m interested in and look into on my own time that I think would be great for the collective. I’d like to be able to do really big shows while promoting ourselves. I’m very much interested in being a part of the collective, bringing a different viewpoint, making things as professional as possible, having more shows, getting more coverage, expanding. But most importantly, expanding without losing artistic integrity.

 

Jenny Lam blogs at Artists on the Lam. Her Twitter handle is @TheJennyLam.

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2 Responses to " Arow Collective, PART II // The Drop Out Kids "

  1. [...] back next week for PART II, in which I interview collective members Gianni Onassis and Ian Mitchell Wallace for Arow’s next [...]

  2. buffalo bill says:

    sounds great, can’t wait to see it all

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