Chicago, July 2010 -- Ray Noland is perhaps better known here in Chicago as CRO, the street name of this artist whose work can be seen all over Chicago, indoors and out. Noland gained attention with his grassroots campaign "GoTellMama" for Barack Obama's 2008 election. Politics has remained a major source of inspiration for Noland especially considering that shortly after Obama's victory in 2008, then-Governor Rod Blagojevich (now impeached and removed from office) was arrested on a myriad of corruption charges. Currently Blagojevich is in the middle of his Federal trial stemming from those charges, creating a spectacle of justice, one in which French theorists coud have a field day. I caught up with Ray Noland outside of Chicago's Mies van der Rohe-designed Federal courthouse in the middle of Chicago's downtown area, while Noland passed out Blagojevich-themed cupcakes to the public as the trial went on inside the building.
Abraham Ritchie: Where’d the idea of cupcakes come from? Anywhere in particular?
Ray Noland: I was talking to Lauren [Lauren Pacheco, Executive Director of the Chicago Urban Art Society] and the idea just came out to bake cupcakes and take them down here and pass 'em out. We were at the gallery talking and we thought that this would be a fun way to get the word out about the show. The thing was Lauren had her niece make about 500 cupcakes for the V.I.P. sneak peek to the show and they were pretty successful, they were a riot actually, and we thought that it would be fun to bring them downtown.
AR: It’s pretty ironic of course to be giving away Blagojevich cupcakes, in like a bakesale style handout, considering the charges that he’s facing. Was that a factor in your thinking?
RN: Well I think it adds to the comic element of it!
I’m trying to produce stuff that resonates with people, that makes them laugh and they remember it. One guy came up to me and he asked, “How much are the cupcakes? $50,000?” [Blagojevich is accused of selling Obama's Senate appointment to the highest bidder.] Of course I had to say, “No dude, this is a commentary on that. They’re free!” It’s all in good humor and I think people appreciate that.
AR: So how do the cupcakes fit into your artistic practice? What are you trying to do with them?
RN: I’m trying to put together the right components—that’s what I’m trying to do with every show. I’m thinking about the artwork I’m producing, the gallery with which I am showing, the promotion out on the street and letting people know what’s going on, making people aware of the work. These things make up a show, and I’m always working on figuring those things out. This event and others are little social experiments, a chance to cast a line out there as far as possible, so to speak.
AR: In the sense of social experiments, we’re just down the street from the Art Institute of Chicago, which is definitely a giant repository of art, so is this your attempt to bring art out to the people? Taking it out from a more sealed environment? We are literally on the street here . . .
RN: Well, loosely that is the premise of my work.
RN: I’m trying to be, like, the people’s voice in a lot of ways. Maybe that’s arrogant or whatever, but I’m a person. Depending on the year, I’m a middle-class to lower-middle-class artist that’s living in America [laughs]. I’m on the street-level, my concerns and the things that I talk about are real, on-the-ground subjects. And that’s what I am trying to communicate.
I’m taking the things that a lot people think about, maybe talk about, that are possibly taboo. I’m taking that stuff and putting it into a visual image or framework that we all can get or enjoy and then try to understand each other from it. I like to hear someone say, “Hey man I get what you’re saying through that piece.” It would be absurd for me to make art for the people and then have people not get it, or not be able to afford it. I’m really conscious about people seeing my work on a street level but also being able to afford it. Like I’m saying, I’m casting out a wide net. I want people to collect my work who are major art collectors, but I also want the middle-class mom to buy one of my prints for her living room. I think that’s possible, if you want to do it.
AR: That sounds like tactics that Andy Warhol developed, a wide distribution of works available for different income levels. Of course now his stuff goes for millions of dollars and the artists that we talk about as being “Warhol's heirs” are these guys who are catering to very expensive taste—
RN: What is changing things right now and the thing that I’m really trying to build on is the internet and technology. Now people can know about me in Chicago, or in Michigan, or in San Francisco, just by doing a search online. Its really changing how, as an artist, you can have a relationship with an audience; you can have a niche audience or through the internet there’s a whole other network that [you can reach].
AR: And this interview which will be posted on ArtSlant’s website will have that kind of international exposure and appeal.
RN: Yeah, I’m not just trying to put my work in a gallery, I’m really trying to produce work that resonates with people generally and that they can acquire. That’s the most important thing to me and Warhol was the beginning of all this, in our time. Integrating art and music, bringing together highbrow and lowbrow, you had heroin addicts next to stockbrokers hanging out at the Factory. That’s when I think scenes are really vibrant, and that’s when new ideas happen and when freshness happens.
Think of it like this: to me, Def Jam [Records] was Def Jam because of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, you have that combination of aesthetics. If you don’t have that kind of combination, you’re really just kind of in mono, to me. I’m really looking for that kind of diversity, because I think that it stimulates something special, and especially in America because you are bridging these gaps. It goes back to spreading your net as far as possible.
AR: It seems that a lot of artists are trying to emulate Warhol in their business model, or worse, in a blatant rip off of his graphic style. But to me the interesting things about Warhol are his distribution strategies, and the energy of bringing together different artistic fields, musicians and artists and that type of thing—
RN: I’m very interested in the logistics and the way that Warhol developed his career. I like his work, but I’m not trying to make work like that. I’m inspired by the work he did, but more so, how he did it.
AR: That’s definitely the more interesting approach for an artist. Going through the Art Chicago this year there were so many people still trying to do what Warhol did in the way that he did and it was disappointing.
RN: I’m a keen observer; I see everything as far as what’s happening culturally and artistically, at least I try to. I see a lot of art and I see what artists are doing. Sometimes how they’re doing it is more important to me than what they are doing visually . . .
AR: But you’re obviously not disinterested in the visual aspect?
RN: Oh no no no! I love that work and I’m inspired by it, but at the same time I’m not trying to make soup can artwork or something. I’m trying to speak the language that’s right now, that Andy Warhol couldn’t speak in the 1960s or ‘70s, just because he isn’t part of today. He spoke a language that resonated with the time he came out of—the soup can resonates with that time: the sense of comfort, the sense of home, the postwar era of plenty. That was something that made sense then.
I’m making artwork that makes sense for me, today. For instance, just today I came up with this idea for a piece: aerosol spray paint is illegal in Chicago, you can’t buy it in the city, but I just actually bought some bootleg Montana aerosol, there’s a guy who sells it out of his house, in Chicago. It was funny to me because it’s kind of like prohibition but instead of alcohol it’s aerosol, so I want to make this image of these two guys but instead of passing each other a case of alcohol, they’re passing each other a case of spray paint. I’m really trying to have a commentary on what’s going on right now, it wouldn’t even make sense to me to make derivative work of what Andy Warhol’s moment was.
AR: So would you make a stencil for that, or a drawing? What’s your process for making work?
RN: Once I come up with an idea, it’s all about executing the idea well. I know how to draw of course, I’m not really trying to prove to anyone that I can draw. To me, whether I draw the image or not is not really a concern. I’ll go online and do a lot of searches and I basically find what I want, kind of, usually it’s photography. I’ll cut and paste it, and vector it all together. With the Blago image, the body was from an actual photo of him, and the head was from another photo. A lot of my work is taking things that are already out there and subtly changing it. So, yeah, I’ll probably go online and find an old image of one guy passing another guy a case of beer and I’ll change it around.
AR: Ah, something from the proud prohibition era of Chicago!
RN: Yeah, exactly. That era has a legacy to it!
AR: Yes, we’re still very famous for our Capone heritage here in Chicago. Just recently the paper had a story on some hideout of his that burnt down, so it’s still very much with us. You’re downplaying your abilities as a draftsmen, but you’re vectoring the image for a very specific end, there’s a reason you are not drawing it—
RN: Yes, that’s exactly why. This would possibly go into a screenprint, which I would break the image down into color layers for and vector fits into that process the best. Or it could go into a multi-color stencil that I cut out. So that’s why I convert to vector.
AR: And that process and medium choice fits your ultimate goal of how you want the artwork to exist in the world?
RN: Sure, I can make duplicates with the screenprints which means I can sell the posters more cheaply which means more regular people will have access to them. Or even with the stencils, I can make two or three pieces if I make a good stencil. That is all part of my process.
What excites me sometimes about my work may not be what excites the public, the technical process. I’m excited about this, like, “Oh my god, this is a 25-color stencil, I might need about 94 cans of spray paint . . . this piece should just be monochromatic.” I have these technical things that I try to work out that are exciting and the viewer benefits from that in the final outcome.
AR: We’ve touched on distribution strategy but let’s dig into that. I know you post your work up online and then others take it to the street—is that how the distribution of your work happens sometimes?
RN: I don’t take credit for anything that’s on the street, but it is my work. Oddly enough the way that started was pretty innocent, someone saw the stuff online and they put it up on the street to impress me. That same dynamic has continued.
I intentionally keep it murky because it is the street and there are laws out there. It is what it is.
AR: So you’ll make the artwork and post it online, but people do with it whatever they’re going to do, you can’t control that.
RN: Hey man, people are going to do what they’re going to do! I mean the same thing happened during the Obama campaign, that’s why you saw Obama posters everywhere; people put them up in their windows, people made stencils of it. The subject resonated so much, [they did that].
AR: And it’s interesting that the Shepard Fairey logo almost supplanted the official logo, at least in the public mind, I think.
RN: Oh it did! It totally did!
AR: I mean even the banners that they flew down at City Hall when Obama was elected were the Shepard Fairey ones, not the official ones that the campaign made.
RN: The Obama campaign used this similar tactic very well, they sold the posters on the one hand and the ones ended up on the streets, it was like, “well we can’t control the overzealous nature of our supporters.”
That’s how it goes. I can’t control or stop other people from doing what they’re going to do, but I am going to keep making the artwork and if people love it that much to put it up on the street, then, hey, I’m happy.
ArtSlant would like to thank Ray Noland for his assistance in making this interview possible.
(All images included in this interview are used by permission of the artist)