press photo of Sam Rolfes at the WEST of EAST Show
Sam Rolfes is a multimedia visual artist, graphic designer, experimental electronic music producer, turntablist, writer, and co-founder of the Chicago and Austin based art and music collective, Join The Studio. His thought-provoking multimedia works have attracted considerable attention, yet the young artist doesn't rest on his laurels. Instead, he rarely rests at all, sleeping on the floor (so he doesn't get too comfortable) and waking every morning to create genuine and dramatic work. Sam Rolfes is one hard-working, expressive artist worth following.
UR Chicago: You define yourself as a lot of things: designer, musician, artist, and writer. How are those roles intertwined? How do you have time for all of it?
Sam Rolfes: Well, the short answer is I don't have time for it all; I just like getting certain things done more than I like sleep and having an appropriate life expectancy.
Every creative venture I decide to delve into is really just a different permutation and elaboration of the same creative impulse, and each particular practice or process feeds into and informs how I approach the others. Something I focused on heavily last year was synthesizing these disparate practices even further; combining my digital design and new media interests with tactile painting and print media — along with involving interactive sound experimentation, folding, collaging, and 3D modeling — and I'm working on a more concerted effort to paint like a turntablist, produce music like a designer, and one day write like a literate person.
Speaking of, working in all of these tangentially-related fields helps me out a lot when it comes to finding clients and building projects. I make experimental beat music, for example. Well, to be able to play shows I first had to get to know a fair amount of people in the various music scenes (many of whom would eventually become clients for design projects or collaborators), and as a result I found myself with a large base of people I could tap for interviews, tutorials, other Join The Studio online content, and a network to draw on for putting on our show series. The business and client design work then in turn informs how I create my fine art and music, in some kind of twisted, positive feedback loop of work of additive work-synthesis, if you'll excuse the nerdy-sounding metaphor.
Working like this goes a long way toward having the mental bandwidth to handle the constant IV-drip of concentrated stress I usually have coursing through me; however, many days are merely a continual attempt to trick my otherwise lazy ass into being productive. I sleep on the floor most nights, so as not to allow myself to get too comfortable and sleep in (I passed out on a yoga mat rolled out onto the floor of my studio downtown something like 50 nights during the last semester at SAIC); my closest friends are Join The Studio artists and musicians who collaborate with me, and most of our time together is spent collaborating, talking about collaboration, writing erotic fan fiction about collaboration, etc. I constantly have a list of daily work scrawled on the back of my hand as if I were a low-rent version of that guy from Memento.
That said, I have a tendency to get heavily burned out every once in awhile and at times may be found collapsed on a couch watching an endless stream of Fooly Cooly and Ghost in the Shell, wallowing in a chin-high pool of self-loathing as I scroll through my nigh-sentient to-do list.
'Sam, Slightly' by Sam Rolfes
UR: What moves you most in life, both negatively and positively?
SR: Well, I wish I could say that I leap up every morning from the floor and exclaim to the sun in all caps that TODAY IS A GREAT DAY FOR A PAINT, arms akimbo as cartoon blue jays sing to me, but I don't go to the gym because it's fun, and most of the time I don't get motivated to work because I enjoy it. I exercise because donuts are delicious, and I have no plan to halt my slow extinction of their kind. My initial motivation to act creatively is most often a neurotic convulsion of, "oh-sweet-screenprinting-jesus-if-I-don't-work-harder-my-life-is-over-and-I'll-never… judge-a-Bravo-reality-show or something" rupturing my relaxed haze; however, once I've finally started working, the act of creation is normally pretty rewarding in and of itself.
'Post Humane' by Sam Rolfes
UR: Where do you spend most of your time, Austin or Chicago? Which has a better art scene in your opinion?
SR: I've spent the last few years bouncing between the two cities fairly equally, living in Austin in the summer and Chicago in the winter for art school. I'll likely spend the majority of my time working in Chicago for the next couple years; however, Join The Studio's main branch is based in Austin and is the site of our biggest projects and partnerships, so I'll have ample reason to brave the 30-hour Megabus ride back down on a regular basis.
Honestly, I'm not quite sure what city's scene I dig more — they are on completely different levels. Chicago is a city replete with monied benefactors, influential and relevant galleries, and a not-small level of the sheen of pretension that comes along with that patronage. Austin is the kind of city where you might see a mud wrestling competition and a synth rock concert at the show opening. It's a city without a heavily fortified art scene, one where you can make strides fairly quickly if you're good.
I often equate things like this to a business model. Austin has low-entry barriers to many of the scenes and is therefore far less closed off to newcomers. They are only now beginning a period of rapid expansion and bubbling maturation that will eventually boil over and harden to form the unapproachable bastions of high-art cliques and impenetrability that Chicago has had for decades. If you're an emerging or non-professionally trained artist, it can be a relaxing, affordable place to get in on the ground floor of a scene that may well be a relevant player in the American art or music world down the road. Right now, however, it doesn't have nearly the resources, connections, or respect that Chicago has. The payoff in Chicago is far, far more lucrative.
I go to Chicago because I thrive in the frigid, abusive and abrasive struggle between the skyscrapers. I go to Austin to feel okay with spending my life working in places like Chicago and remember why I'm doing it in the first place.
'Just Any Feral Pinning' by Sam Rolfes
UR: What niche do your works fill in the contemporary art world?
SR: Most artists generally react as if you're flashing them a set of particularly gruesome genitalia when you ask them to pigeonhole their work into a distinct genre or niche, and I'm not really the one to say where I fit, in all honesty. Truthfully, I don't fit anywhere right now, other than maybe the super exclusive Post-Lowbrow-Glitchy-But-Not-That-Glitchy-Emerging-Painters clique that I just made up. We'll have to see where I am in 10-15 years to really see where I fit into the contemporary art dialogue; however, I can at least speak to my current overarching aesthetic and conceptual influences; my inspiration generally vacillates and vibrates between glitch/NA/new media, lowbrow and illustration, street-art/graff, design, and surrealist painting, but that doesn't necessarily say anything about how I fit within them.
Time will tell whether I contribute a genuinely relevant perspective in my genre-collaging or whether I'll just get distracted with chasing a laser that someone moves around the floor for a while.
'All Together Now' by Sam Rolfes
UR: Is there an artist whose acknowledgement of your work would mean the most to you?
SR: That would probably be a close, heartfelt tie between the designer and painter Michael Cina and an experimental tech artist like Daito Manabe. Also a hug from DJ Shadow would be nice. Just putting that out there.
UR: Does your music reflect in your artwork and vice versa?
SR: They certainly have a number of similar aesthetic elements in common: fairly sharp layering and collage, a focus on intermingling textures, and in particular an interest in the similarities between analog, tactile, or organic elements and their digital or electronic/synthetic counterparts. If I can wax poetic/pretentious for a sec: using a turntable, a sample-manipulating MAX/MSP patch, and a looping pedal I can fragment and collage sonic material in the same way that I reconstitute an angular design using a polygonal lasso tool and mouse or X-Acto knife. I can take organic/analog source material and shape it into a digital narrative with either form, and with both there's a dialogue between abstract expression and somewhat recognizable source material, a tug and pull between what is "real" and what is "simulated." At least that's what I'm going for.
Music has the distinct ability to please nearly everyone in the room by just dropping in a repetitive, heavy bass line for a bit though. Maybe I should start bringing subwoofers to my art shows…
'Mistook' by Sam Rolfes
UR: Your works are very expressive. How did you develop your techniques?
SR: They're not nearly expressive enough for me yet, but I'm working on it. My current arsenal of processes and techniques are a result of consciously working towards synthesizing the different methods of creation I've grown up practicing. I got to a point where I could paint, screen print, collage, digitally manipulate, graphically design, code, make music, and 3D model fairly well but often only one at a time... which seemed wrong to me. I'm constantly attempting to figure out a more expressive way to make things, so I felt that if I could somehow bend all of these skills to my will simultaneously then I would be able to develop a purer, less contrived form of expression that would be more representative of my personal sense of creation.
'Consul' by Sam Rolfes
UR: Many of your works are portraits. Are they based on existing people?
SR: I'd say much of my work is based on existing people in the same way that hot dogs are based on pigs; the source material is sent through a myriad of collaging, modulating processes and ends up enmeshed with a whole host of foreign elements, and is eventually formed into a particular shape or likeness that might be completely removed from the original source.
For years, many of my portraits were based on specific people only structurally; I would use the form of their face and body and the accompanying pigments in their skin as the source material for the foundation, which I would then modulate, contort and elaborate on, but I found that particularly formalist well of investigation to be only so deep and have moved onto more narrative pursuits. As I collage and fragment the bodily structures of my source subjects, I've begun thinking far more directly about cluster identities of individuals and the narratives that might be constructed from pulling their likenesses through my myriad of digital and traditional processes. Combination identities resulting from ruminations on group mentality and the digital worlds' stripping of coherent individuality.
'Yamakata' by Sam Rolfes
UR: If there was ever a movie made about your life, whom would you like to play your role?
SR: I was described as a "delicate Jack White" at a recent show of mine; perhaps Jack could trade off acting duties with a speed-babbling Quentin Tarantino and a comatose mole rat sporting a leather jacket to best approximate my likeness. Ed Harris did a pretty great job as Pollock; assuming he's still fairly cognizant of his surroundings by that time, maybe he'd be up for a job. Half of my life is spent sitting in a coffee shop all night writing e-mails, I can't imagine that'd be too hard to pull off.
'Cannot Sleep Or All Will Be Lost' by Sam Rolfes
UR: What do you hope to achieve as an artist?
SR: At the end of the day, all I want is to be to a few people what DJ Shadow, Shepard Fairey, and others were to me. I want to make influential, genuine work that doesn't rely on bullshit or car-salesman style antics to give value to a piece. There is enough derivative trash-art, background music, and hyper-ephemeral memes and fads out there, churned out by the endless torrent of carbon-copy art school graduates already, and I can only imagine it's going to get worse as time moves on and technological novelties upgrade quicker than we can become jaded with them.
If I'm going to spend my time doing something as ridiculous as putting pigment on a flat surface and maybe folding it a bit and then demanding a lot of money in return, it'd damn well better be furthering the progression rather than just adding to the pile.
Visit Sam Rolfes ONLINE:
Official Sam Rolfes Website
Official Join The Studio Website | Facebook