Justin Francavilla is a New York-based artist whose meticulously worked drawings examine issues of power, aggression and survival. The intense violence and emotional energy conveyed in his work makes an appropriate link to current world events. ArtSlant's Keith Miller met with the artist and discussed the current themes, influences and process at play in Francavilla's drawings.
For more about Justin Francavilla, see his Artist Profile (here).
Justin Francavilla, I Said You Fckn Die, 2007, Ink and spray paint on paper, 55 x 120 in; © Justin Francavilla; Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York.
Keith Miller: Where did you come up with the title for the current show? What did your grandparents say about it?
Justin Francavilla: The title is a quote from an interlude on the album Surfer Rosa by the Pixies. Music plays an active role in my studio while I am working. A lot of rock gets played while I am making small furious lines and a lot of NPR or lighter background music is on when I really need to focus, particularly in the early stages of a drawing. I felt I SAID YOU FCKN DIE! was appropriately aggressive for these drawings and neatly summed up that mentality of an individual who is only out for themselves.
My grandparents are coming to see the show in a few weeks. They are sweet, conservative mid-westerners. I will have a bit of explaining to do.
KM: In your current body of work there seems to be an exceptional amount of pleasure taken by the figures in the acts of violence and occasional cruelty. Where does this come from?
JF: I make the drawings that I've always wanted to see. I'm a physical person and I enjoy physically exhausting exercise, usually running. In my work I strive to make figures that are physical and emotional peaks brought about from struggling to exist with one another. My work isn't necessarily about people being cruel to each other but people being physical with each other. They grab each other and feel others out in primal, animalistic ways. These aggressive acts may appear violent but really almost any touching of another person when taken out of context can appear violent
Justin Francavilla, Wait!, 2008, Ink and ink washes on paper, 22 x 30 in; © Justin Francavilla; Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York.
KM: How much of the aggression in the work comes from you and how much is what you see?
JF: I definitely try to make the loudest work that I can--work that screams at you, that you can't ignore. I think of this as the rock and roll aspect. The aggression comes from a give and take relationship I have with the violent imagery I surround myself with. If these didn't exist I probably wouldn't feel the need to make the drawings I do. The source material I use falls into two categories, war photography and sports photography. The war images reinforce my anger and frustration with the ways in which humans refuse to get along. I use the sports images as sketches that capture emotion and the physicality of humans hurling through space. I search through hundreds if not thousands of images for each drawing looking for inspiration. I could just as easily surround myself with a different type of source material.
KM: Much of the work seems to have an aspect of cruel play. Is this just ‘boys being boys'?
JF: Yes. There is a definite lack of woman in my current body of work. But ‘boys are boys' for a reason, and that's what I'm exploring, the inherent Machiavellian nature of man.
Justin Francavilla, Pile On #2, 2007, Ink and ink washes on paper, 22 x 30 in; © Justin Francavilla; Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York.
KM: Your current work depicts a lot of fighting. Have you ever been in a fight?
JF: I was punched in the face on two separate occasions when I was about 10. Both times I ran away. I can't say how I would react these days, although I am a good distance runner. I consider myself a pacifist, part of the reason I make the drawings I do is because I don't understand the violence that plagues our world.
KM: Some of your imagery comes from sports photos you find in the news. Do you think sports are that violent?
JF: People tend to throw the word violence around when the talk about my work. In this series of drawings I think of these figures as physical and aggressive. War is violent. Sports are a physical but non-lethal interaction.
Justin Francavilla, Huddle, 2006, Ink and spray paint on paper, 22 x 30 in; © Justin Francavilla; Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York.
KM: Even though you get some images from sports and war photography, you place the figures in corporate suits. Is this your vision of sports, corporate America, or what?
JF: This work ultimately has little to with actual sporting events, although sporting metaphors can easily be interjected into conversations on my work and on capitalism. ‘Winner take all', etc. These figures are dressed in bland uniforms in order to separate them from the playing fields that they may have originated from. I've considered stripping them down entirely but I think that those drawings would too easily be written off as pornography. They are also not wearing ‘street' clothes because I think that would really pigeon hole them into just fight scenes. I like drawing ties because they are symbols of leashes and phalluses. So having these flapping ties being yanked about the drawings lends an added tension to the scene. These drawings are comments on human behavior.
KM: Some of the images are overtly political. The majority of it seems more socially directed against or critiquing violence, particularly male violence. Is making work for you a political act?
JF: I think making any kind of art is ultimately a rebellious and political act. I am in some respects refusing to fit myself into the American corporate structure we have built. The hypocrisy of this statement, however, lies in the fact that I, as many artists must, rely on wealthy collectors who have made their fortunes from playing the corporate game.
Goya also struggled with this. He survived by bowing down to political hierarchy and painting portraits of the Spanish royal family. Although he is widely appreciated today for his darker imagery like the Los Caprichos series, these prints nearly brought him before the Spanish Inquisition.
KM: Your work seems to have affinities to Goya's, especially his Caprichos and The Disasters of War. Were you thinking of them when you worked? What other artists informed your work?
JF: I think of Goya often and strive to make work that could be viewed in a lineage descending from him. The body of work I am beginning to produce now is more closely related to his The Disasters of War series. My other influential favorites include Albrecht Durer, Kara Walker, William Kentridge and Leon Golub.
Justin Francavilla, Mob Monkies, 2007, Ink and spray paint on paper, 22 x 30 in; © Justin Francavilla; Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York
KM: The imagery seems to take a bit from comics and graffiti. Do you read comics? Which ones do you like (if you do)? And graffiti artists?
JF: I grew up reading comics and used to draw from them. It's been fifteen years since I read one, though. Graffiti, on the other hand, I actively seek out. My favorites include WK, Blu, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Faile, Dan Witz and Swoon. I love street art because it is free and public. I am not a fan of random tagging. Although the street art world operates largely in an illegal arena I find there are appropriate and inappropriate places for it. The artists I admire most seem to understand this and their work is placed where it is for reasons that do not involve the random desecration of private property.
KM: You work in a variety of different media. Can you explain your working process, especially on the larger sprayed pieces?
JF: Mostly I work with ink on paper. I usually begin the drawing with an extremely rough pencil sketch that hardly consists of more than a few loose shapes. I dive into the drawing with the ink very early because ultimately this is the only way I am going to be forced to make decisions, and by that I mean finding the line that will build the structure of my drawing. You can hit the paper in an infinite myriad of places but once a non-erasable line is on the page can I then build upon it. With graphite you can erase, smudge, change, etc. My initial lines are done with old-fashioned nib fountain pens that are dipped in ink. I add further dimension to the drawing with rapidograph pens. But I can't always achieve the gray and black tones that I want so add to the drawing with brushed on ink washes. With the spray paint I was looking to achieve an ethereal setting for these figures. The spray paint can quickly cover larger surfaces but is made with a pattern of small dots that relate to the detail I create with my pen work. I tired of its toxicity and have retired the use of spray paint in my current work.
Justin Francavilla, Bo, Die; 2005, Ink and spray paint on paper, 22 x 30 in, © Justin Francavilla; Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York
ArtSlant would like to thank Justin Francavilla for his assistance in making this interview possible.
- Keith Miller