A DISENCHANTED OBSERVER, YOUNG ENGLISH ARTIST WILLIAM GROB HAS WALKED NEW YORK'S CROWDED STREETS IN THE SPRING OF 2015 AND HAS CAPTURED THEM ON FILM IN "MASKS", A PHOTO SERIES THAT'S SOAKED IN CRITIQUE AGAINST SOCIETY AND WHICH REVOLUTIONISES THE CONCEPT OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY. BY PAINTING OVER THE SHOTS IN A GRAFFITI-LIKE STYLE, GROB COVERS THE CHARACTERS HE PORTRAYS WITH THE SAME MASK OF INDIFFERENCE WE WEAR EVERY DAY AND HE EXPRESSES HIS DISILLUSION THROUGH RUTHLESS SLOGANS. FOLLOWING THE RECENT RELEASE OF THE BOOK "MASKS", WE CAUGHT UP WITH HIM IN ORDER TO BETTER UNDERSTAND HIS PERSPECTIVE.
Tell us a bit about your background. What was your first approach to art?
I think the first approach I had must have been through my mother, watching her draw, watching her look. I come from a family which is based around art.
I read that when you were a child you were diagnosed a speech disorder that prevented you from communicating well through words. How do you think this affected the way you see the world?
I definitely think that it’s turned me into a very “visual” person. I was extremely frustrated for all my early years because of the lack of verbal expression; fortunately, I also had art as a means of communication and, even more fortunately, I had parents that could understand my only means of expression. I like to think that the whole tough start gave me a lot of empathy and compassion, something that I think the struggle was worth struggling for, although I guess I can only say that in hindsight.
You have travelled a lot, from London to New York and Berlin, and this certainly sharpened your gaze to the metropolis’ inhabitants and dynamics. What catches your attention as you wander the streets?
I’ve travelled a lot because I like to compare, but I always get the same feeling, a feeling of detachment of the streets. When you have no destination and can just watch the day unfold on a single street, with the contrasting characters walking up and down, there’s a sense of surrealism and you start to build stories around these characters, which is how the series “Masks” really developed. As Henry Cartier-Bresson coined, I’m constantly waiting for the ‘decisive moment’, that moment that we have and lose faster than we can comprehend it. I like to spot the detail of a disregarded object, the face of someone unaware. I guess I’m looking for the shots that haven’t already been taken. I shoot from the hip to change perspective, but the con of this is that blurred photos are commonplace. Luckily for me, blurred photographs are the most fun to work over, but it’s a game of chance.
Your work in a way revolutionises street photography, complementing photography to painting, in order to give voice to what hides behind the scene as we see it. Why did you feel the need to combine these two means of expression and how did you find your style?
I’ve been working over photographs for the last four years and it all started for my final degree project; the aim of the project was to create a more honest photograph. I based the project around landscapes, but the issue I already had was that the photograph could only show to the viewer what I was seeing and not how I was feeling or what was on my mind. Thus, I started going on long walks with my camera and a pen, and before I took a shot I’d write down whoever was on my mind, be it a lover, a friend or family. The plan was that, once I had developed and printed out the photograph, I could add this aspect of my memory to the image by painting their portrait directly on top of it, combining memory and sight to create honesty.
Everything changed once I arrived in New York, the pace, the people, and the principles. The change from Mother Nature’s streets to the dirty concrete jungle, I went from semi-photorealistic painting to gutsier, instant work that’s more relevant to my surroundings. Cartoons, characters, blocks and shapes, anything to direct attention to a subject we don’t like to talk about: society and all its fuck ups.
In your works, I see a bit of the influence of the Basquiat’s graffiti. Which are the artists you admire and who somehow inspire your vision?
I was always told if you take from one single artist you become a copy, if you take from everyone you become unique. I have got a soft spot for Basquiat, but a huge amount of the ‘masks’ series came from copying images, sculptures and artefacts from MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum.
“Masks” is an unveiled critique against today’s society. Your vision is very disillusioned, as are the characters who populate your works, among lost souls who think “What are we even doing”, ubiquitous advertising campaigns and desperate incitement to consume that resonate with monotony and persistence “Buy, buy, buy.” Could you go into more detail about that?
Well, coming from the English countryside where I had just spend six months in near isolation, New York seemed like a mighty contrast. I went from living around local independent shops, small community and green hills as those you see in advertisements, to the extreme opposite. You quickly forget about the extremity of advertising when you don’t have a constant reminder to consume. I had also just watched the film ‘They Live” which offered me an overwhelming case of reading into advertising, trying to simplify it down to its purest form, which is to buy, fuck and repeat the process. We live in a world which holds little truths, with more commodities than necessities. The necessity of mankind declines as technology progresses. I think the purpose is the hardest thing to find for the majority and that gives us this ‘what are we even doing’ mentality. We work all week to pay the rent and eat nicely, but save none and the circle repeats; the money doesn’t even change hands half the time.
Masks are the veil of indifference with which we cover ourselves not to see the world is falling apart; filters that allow us to let everything roll off our back, thus losing contact with the stark reality, as well as with ourselves and our emotions. What are the masks behind which we hide today?
The superficiality of it all. We all project this ideal in ourselves, which is a response to what we see in the papers, in magazines, on the TV, in our popular culture which we’ve been immersed in since day one. We are all conditioned to wear this mask because that’s how we perceive society, and at the end of the day we all want acceptance and to break the norm can isolate us. I started to mask the people portrayed in my photography because I thought it would eradicate race, gender, age and it could give to my subjects the ability to respond as people, blunt and honest, and not respond as a generalising view depicted from their background.
Social media are the fuel for this infernal machine obsessed with consumerism and appearance. One of your works shows a group of people involved in a fire, and their only thought is to photograph and post, slaves of the hashtag craze (in this case #ImBurningAlive). What is your relationship with social media?
I guess it’s a love-hate relationship. I think today for an artist it’s essential – soul-destroying, but essential. I guess the most interesting question is how has social media changed how we socialise. This is where social media becomes painful. Let’s take, for example, the ‘Like culture’ (and I’m a victim of this too), why give someone an honest response when it’s easier to click a like button? All the technological improvements, they’re all designed to make life easier and faster, but how does that affect us? I think it makes us lazy and maybe less spontaneous. I say this all, but I’d cry if you took it away. We’re just a product of our time.
You have wandered the streets of New York as a ‘voyeur’, a foreigner with a disenchanted eye, a bit with the same spirit in which Robert Frank captured 1960s America, and you have shattered the idea of the American dream, spotlighting problems which are hard to die. Which do you think is the best approach to solving the plagues that afflict society?
Well, it’s got to go down to mindset, we have all the tools and numbers to do great change, but we’re stuck in a mindset. As Charles Eisenstein says we’re stuck in the ‘old story’. We need to focus our time and efforts on a new ecological status, but the catch is the people who could make a drastic change ‘intellectual elite’ are too comfortable. They’re happy in the old story because they’re comfortable, and it’s easy to be numb to the plagues of our society if you’re in a comfortable place. It’s the majority of the people who are uncomfortable and demand change, and they need to shout more than ever. I think we’re seeing this with Brexit and Trump – yes, they are both true extremes, but they’re the rash of a virus; you don’t deal with the rash first, you deal with the virus and the rash should go away. We should be going towards equality within the world and what you take you give back. The plague is our mindset and we need to unite in a new one.
Your brand new series revolves around nudes. Tell us a bit more about this project, how did the idea come to your mind and what message you want to convey?
The latest series is loosely titled “Nude Flower.” I wanted to break the familiar images of the female nude, like Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” which demonstrates both domesticity and sexualisation as an example to women and for the pleasure of men. I didn’t want to sexualise my subjects or undermine their strength. I wanted to find a truth and empower the beauty of her natural unedited, makeup-less form. The exterior world is coloured with flowers from which she emerges untouched never doubting her inner strength.
In December, a book collecting the works from “Masks” was released. Do you have any show or any new project in the pipeline?
I’m moving into a new space, which will able to house some larger works, screen-printing, transfers and some big paintings. I haven’t really thought about anything else over the last few months and I’m sure I won’t think about anything else for a long while as soon as I start.
Photos courtesy the artist