QRST Studio Visit and Interview

The Brooklyn Artist Talks about Painting, Street Art, and Choking Chickens

You’ve seen his cats and dogs and birds and rats and people in wheat-pasted drawings and paintings on the street in Brooklyn the last couple of years, their big dark eyes staring plaintively at you, usually with some critters holding a banner overhead displaying his tag, QRST.

In a way, these are snapshots of his life, endowed with psychological drama and musings and universal or personal symbologies. Comedians and storytellers are always the most successful when they stick to the regular stuff that we all do and weave in the outlandish – just enough that it’s fantastic but not so much that it’s fantasy. QRST renders his characters without romance but maybe nostalgia,  their magnetic eyes drawing you past the still countenance, grounded enough to sort of convince a passerby of their realness, even though they can’t possibly be. These are his relatives, his friends, his loves, his memories melted with meandering.

In addition to his regular job he’s been painting on a heavy schedule lately so he can have his show ready for unveiling this Friday in Bushwick, Brooklyn at The Active Space. A visit to his studio reveals a spare, brightly lit quietly manic room with a laptop playing the Bush Tetras balanced on a stool and a careful collection of the tools of the trade – paint tubes, canvasses stacked on the floor against a wall, a small pile of pencil sketches, an easel with a painting of a chicken beating up a boy.

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“Yeah, it’s called ‘Formative Years,’” QRST says as he describes it’s origin, “My aunt and uncle had chickens and a giant rooster and when I was like two or three, one of them just mauled me. So it’s that story … but it’s also a lot about sex in like a generic, formative way. It’s a cockfight… he’s choking a chicken… So it’s kind of like a joke at my own expense because I’m getting my ass beat by a chicken but it’s also about figuring out masturbation and sex hangups and weird sex issues.

Brooklyn Street Art: It’s all “nested” in there.
QRST: Yeah, and it’s all inside of a childhood.

If it is a battle, the boy in the painting doesn’t look like he’s going down without a fight. His stuff on the street explores the past plainly, including the painful parts, like his serious re-examination of the influence in his life of his deceased father, called “Patron”, laden with symbols and signifiers. The work can be odd, and oddly sensitive to meaning and nuance as QRST is compelled to continually assess and think his way through the battles of life, peering at it from all angles.

QRST does a painting of his mom in a snowy park. “She didn’t know she was posing for it.” (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“I think a lot of my work is always autobiographical. It always seems to come from stuff that I’ve experienced or thought about or people or places that I’ve seen, or been in, or things I’ve experienced. I think a lot of it is that. These paintings are not obviously exact. They are little seeds of actual reality that have all this stuff piled around them that comes from my mind wandering. So the stories kind of become fantastical and weird and their own thing but they really do start from a seed of, ‘I was walking down this street and I saw this thing’ – or ‘I was with this guy on the Mississippi River’, or ‘my aunt and uncle have a hummingbird feeder,’” he explains.

Brooklyn Street Art: Aside from studying painting, in a lot of ways I can see that your work is therapeutic for you.
QRST: Absolutely. If I’m not painting regularly I go crazy basically. I get all super depressed and mean. And I’ve had people tell me “I can tell when you haven’t been making art because you’re and a**hole.” (laughs) I’m like “Great! Cool.” I’ve had more than one person tell me that. You can tell when I’m not painting enough. I get really distressed. It can be also be drawing but painting seems to be the best.

One of the 50 hand drawn sketches QRST will be giving away at his opening. ” I just like the idea that a stranger that doesn’t know me gets a thing that I made just because they showed up.” (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

For QRST the work he makes for the street is the fun stuff, the place where he can experiment and get a little looser. His painting teacher from his youth would have cringed at the idea of painting as being fun. “He yelled a lot but was a good teacher,” he remembers. “He used to yell ‘Painting is not fun! Painting is in the blood!’” On reflection, QRST agrees that painting is something more for him. “There is a certain truth to that. I mean, I need to do it and it’s immensely satisfying in a way that is not parallel to anything else in my life. But it’s not “fun”, ya know?”

QRST painted this portrait of his cousins after creating a version of them for the street.(photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST. The wheat paste version tells stories of their youth in this painted version for the street. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

It may still be a little perplexing to the average person passing a particle boarded construction site to see one of his elaborately hand painted, wheat-pasted pieces. To think that he’ll spend forty to sixty hours on a street work that ultimately gets destroyed seems self-defeating but he has clearly delineated in his mind what work is meant to have permanence and what needs to stretch it’s legs and go talk to the city.

“The street stuff is really nice. It can get really stressful too but it feels less formal. It’s hard to describe but I can do whatever I want, and it’s just for kicks. I can figure stuff out real easily and put it out and it really doesn’t matter because it’ll be gone soon. It’s like doing studies or sketches or something,” he explains.

Brooklyn Street Art: It’s also maybe a safe way to experiment with an idea or technique?
QRST: Yeah, it is. It’s easy to be experimental because with oil paint there’s a way you are supposed to do it. I’ve thought about being more experimental on the canvas but then, it doesn’t feel right, at least not at the moment.

Of the studio work and the street work, he sees separate goals and lives. “They serve different purposes, they go in different places, they are supposed to function differently. Also with the street stuff – at the end of it it comes with the adrenaline rush of doing something very barely illegal,” he smiles.

Brooklyn Street Art: They need to walk out that door.
QRST: They do! They want to go outside.

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST paints on three panels an homage to both his grandmothers in the gallery. In the family tree tradition his maternal Grandmother sits on the right while his paternal Grandmother sits on the left. The chair’s legs are represented by the roots of trees.  (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Brooklyn Street Art: That’s something I associate with your work is the symbolism and metaphor, the additional layers of meanings that can go in multiple directions.

QRST: I spend a lot of time – I come up with the idea and its something that is sort of stuck in my head and then I start to flesh it out.  As I’m painting it, I end up thinking about it a lot obviously. All of the language and connection to it comes out as I’m working on it. I’m like “oh yeah!”.

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST (photo © Jaime Rojo)

QRST’s solo show “Dreaming Without Sleeping” opens Friday February 24 at The Active Space. Click here for further details.