Maybe “faux-naïve” art is nothing more than what you’d imagine: simple, modest works by trained artists who choose to draw and paint in a seemingly juvenile manner despite their higher education in the Arts. But maybe there’s something more to this art tradition; maybe there are greater reasons for its emerging momentum in the contemporary art scene other than an ever-present irony or a giggle-factor. Because of its consciously contrived nature, some contend that faux-naïve is borderline-kitsch, insincere and premeditated art, but the works of Andrew Ballstaedt, Fidalis Buehler, and Brian Kershisnik—three of Utah’s finest folk artists making a name for themselves as American contemporary faux-naïvists—show the positive side of contrivance, that faux-naïve can provoke feelings of nostalgia and insight into real emotions, focusing our attention on adolescent memories or spiritual innocence alluded to in their works rather than on the lack of complexity, precision, or realism often sought after by aficionados of conventional, believable art.
Kev Nemelka: How did the three of you start working alongside one another and doing shows together?
Fidalis Buehler: I remember hearing a voice coming from the other room saying, “Some of the parts are equal to the whole,” and when I peeked in I saw Brian. Our official meeting was in the Harris Fine Arts Center. I smelled this strong, distinct scent of galkyd, and I walked in and there he was working on “The Nativity,” and he said, “Hi!” kind of halfway out of it, probably from the fumes.
Brian Kershisnik: Central nervous system damage.
Andrew Ballstaedt: He can’t have any children anymore.
F: Anyway, we had a good conversation.
A: I met Brian in ’05 when he came and spoke at a BFA seminar, and I just remember thinking how interesting it was to listen to him talk, and his pictures were really cool. One day while he was teaching at BYU in the winter of ’06 I wanted to talk to him and saw him getting into an elevator with a bunch of other students around him. He was kind of a rockstar with all the students—
F: Signing autographs.
A: Yeah, and I was like, “Hey, I just got into UT Austin, I wanna talk to you about it.” And he just went up the elevator.
B: Because he’s a rockstar.
A: There were always so many students trying to talk to him and he kind of shrugged me off but then he saw a painting of mine called “The City with a Small Helicopter” and he wanted to buy it, and the beautiful girl from Venezuela called me from the gallery and said, ”Brian Kershisnik wants to buy your painting,” and she said she’d go out with me because she liked Brian.
B: Golly, I had no idea about this stuff. You owe me, man.
A: I think she thought I’d have money one day because some famous Utah guy was buying my art. Brian asked me, “How much is that painting?” and I said, “Uhh, $250,” and he said, “Oh, I won’t pay any less than $500.” That’s never happened to me before.
B: That was my economic circumstance then.
F: I met Andrew in a critique. Andrew and I were the only guys in the class. There was a famous visiting artist that came and she didn’t say one thing about our works so we kind of joined forces in our hatred towards the critique.
A: She was talking about all these girls in the class that were like 18 years old, how they were gonna be art stars. I don’t even know who they were, they were cute but I don’t remember them….
B: I remember meeting both these guys when I taught temporarily at BYU. I think I went to Fidalis’s first graduate review—I wasn’t required to go but I had seen his work around and wanted to go. And as Andrew said, I think the first time we met was when I saw his BFA show and I remember thinking, “I want it!” And once Fidalis had a small show and I remember seeing his work so I began snatching them up while they were cheap. Andrew’s were too cheap.
F: I remember seeing Andrew’s BFA show and I felt blown away by it.
B: So the nice thing about the three of us coming together was that it was all very organic, our work just went well together. We influence each other, but it just seems to fall naturally in putting together shows. Actually we talked about doing a show together for a long time and I think it was Fidalis’s idea to do The Bible Show. I was teaching a monotype workshop and thought, “Let’s do monotypes,” so every Friday last summer we would meet together and we produced a group show, and the thing that was unique about that group show, in my experience, was that we produced the work together. We would get together and work, so all of the stuff from that show was emerging in a group presence, instead of just going off on our own and making works to later put them together.
A: I think one of the reasons we all connect as folk artists is because we hate perspective. (all laugh)
F: The world is flat.
B: We don’t hate perspective, we just use it creatively.
A: We just don’t understand it.
F: Waaait a second. (all laugh) Andrew, I think you understand it more than a lot of people just in the fact that you’re countering it.
B: And perspective is a conceit, it is the way we draw, it is not actually how everything looks, it is an approximation or a code. I love Giotto’s work more than the artists of the High Renaissance because I think there’s something about the pure, raw, human content of his pieces that distracts you from the incredible capacity of the High Renaissance artists. I feel like they kind of lost that raw, human contact in their work and I feel like part of faux-naïveté is that… I mean none of us are naïve, but we’re kind of reaching into a place not further from reality but actually closer to reality. Literal depictions approach a certain portion of reality but certainly not the whole spectrum of reality, and there is something about the human experience that I feel is left out of that kind of work. The work of children is not cute because it’s not real, it’s almost like it’s too real for us to even understand. It’s like hyper-real. It reduces things to some kind of essence that we don’t understand yet, and children all over the world draw these weird kind of tadpole people and they haven’t discussed it with each other—
F: Tadpole people….
B: There’s something about us that is just one of those tadpole people. So I think faux-naïveté is almost like looking into what is generally seen as a more naïve version of the world but for some reason seems to be closer to the core of the issue than further away. Sometimes I do drawings with my left hand because I don’t have as much control over my left hand, and sometimes stuff comes out of it that feels truer than when I do have control. Accidental gestures and distortions just sometimes feel closer to the heart of the matter.
K: That reminds me of the first chapter of Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, when the kid draws a picture for the pilot.
B: Yeah, yeah! My teacher in seventh grade had us memorize a quote from The Little Prince.
A: What was it?
B: “I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. And he sits there adding up figures and he says over and over, ‘I am busy with matters of consequence,’ and this makes him swell up with pride. But he’s not a man. He’s a mushroom.” (all laugh)
K: Considering this idea that faux-naïveté is a way of expressing the child within, do you think there is a place for nostalgia in the contemporary art scene?
B: There’s a reason why we respond to children’s drawings, and as I mentioned, I don’t think it’s just because they’re cute.
A: If you want to see some of the most powerful images that were made after 9/11, check out the images created by little kids—images of men falling from the air with their ties flapping; those drawings were more powerful than photos, I thought. Little stick figures falling out of the buildings, scribbles of fire coming from the burning building… it was just searing in your brain.
F: I tend to recognize the aesthetic of naïve art as a tool, and I think the way that children work allows an avenue for people to enter into a type of reality. I kind of like that idea, that it can be a way of accessing a feeling or experience that you might not be able to do with say photo-realism or some other medium. But then there’s also something inside that says, you know, forget what the critic thinks, this is just how I respond to something. There’s a connection, and sometimes it gets looked over as if it isn’t an intelligent response, but it is, it’s real.
B: There are of course people that will put it on a sweater, that are just contriving it. There are plenty of examples of people that are not doing good work, but I think in art there’s a certain inevitability to how an artist works, and it’s not someone sitting down and saying, “I’m gonna fake some naiveté.” They’re trying to get to something, and if there’s authenticity to their work then they are getting there, but they haven’t arrived, they’re looking for it, you know? I work with a guy named Joe who has down-syndrome, and Joe is not trying to be smart, but I get ideas from working with him because I can’t be naïve like Joe, I can only learn some things about it because I can’t return to that place and he can’t leave it. And I don’t try to draw like Joe—all his people are Mr. Potatoheads with big grins, and it’s always either a dead Indian or God. One time I asked, ”What is that Joe?” and he said, “Maybe your wife. Maybe God.” And when he said that I just thought, “Golly, I am just not smart enough to come up with a title like that.”
F: There’s something about our own personal filters as well. We can’t allow ourselves to express our thoughts and feelings through our most immediate reactions because we are educated, so that has kind of taken away from the spirit of this whole feeling. I think that’s another way to talk about faux-naïveté—the style of a drawing or painting in this manner is kind of like this call for freedom. Sometimes I think education is more of a detriment to our learning than not.
K: Do you hope to create some kind of faux-naïve school?
F: It’s never really been an inkling for me, no.
B: If anything, I think that there’s always kind of a way that artists working in this tradition will gravitate towards each other, but I think that if you almost reduce it to a series of principles or to some kind of a manifesto, then it’s over.
K: Part of faux-naïveté is that the art has no principles.
B: Yeah, part of it is that there aren’t parameters that you have to stay inside. If someone looks at my work, they’ll see it existing in a certain range of kinds of metaphors and kinds of paint applications and all these things but I don’t sit down at my easel and think, “I need to do a painting that fits into this category.” I’m always trying to push out and reach out to things that I don’t know, barging into rooms where I’m disoriented, and I think it’s possible that in retrospect someone will organize a group of artists that were working in a similar vein, and some people will have known each other well, and some of them will not have known each other at all. When I was in graduate school I had a Polish professor that was critiquing some of my work and he said, “But of course you know this Polish artist and this Polish artist,” and I said, “No, I don’t know any of these people,” and he thought I was lying but I kind of saw it as more of a validation, like I was onto something bigger, that it wasn’t just something I was pulling off of someone I was working alongside, that there was something central to that.
F: I’ve always been fearful of being informed. There’s kind of this idea that you have to research in school. And I teach it too. I tell my students, “You need to be aware of what’s happening around you,” but there’s always been this side of me that cautions over-abundance of knowledge. There needs to be a balance in my personal aesthetic, between consciousness and making what is spontaneous and free of this over-conscious deliberation in the work. I hate to be bombarded by imagery that helps inform me on how to make my next painting just because I need to be informed.
B: I feel like part of what’s being expressed—this sounds a little weird when I talk about it—is a kind of channeling of some other force, and when it works well and when it works authentically there’s a sense that there really is some kind of force in the universe that is looking for expression, that there are some people that it can work through and some people through whom it can’t, and those people do something else. But just as that same force works its way out in children’s drawings covering refrigerators across the globe, there are certain artists that gain access to that “radio wavelength” or something like that. And I don’t feel like I’m good at it; when I say this I’m not thinking of my own work, I’m thinking of others and wishing I could access it like they do, but I don’t. I access it in a different way, and I just have to do it.
F: I was trained to draw in a very classical tradition, to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. [I came to this] realization of something I was connected to more so than this approach to realism, like there was a real connection. And I think there are times when you can’t help but acknowledge when the metaphysical and the mysterious seem to creep into the actualization of artwork.
A: I just make kid art because I don’t know how to make “good” art. I just try to copy kids because it seems easier than making stuff that looks real.
F: There’s something that’s also not being addressed as well and that’s this idea that it is a language. Visual language can be spoken in many forms, and I think faux-naïveté is just another way of speaking.
K: It’s like a dialect.
F: Yeah it’s a dialect, right? So I kind of look at it that way, that we learn several languages and different aspects of languages while we’re in art school and art training from the time when we were kids. Also, I think something we’re not really saying but I think is also a part of it is learning to speak the way we feel is most appropriate to be spoken when we’re trying to deliver a message. I think there’s a time and a season to speak in naïveté and there’s a time and season to speak in another fashion. Sometimes people are just gifted at one or the other, and sometimes artists like to just spread their language and they use other formats to talk about certain issues, and if visual communication really is a kind of communication then it makes sense to talk about it in that regard. I remember looking at Andrew’s earlier stuff, some of his landscapes, and there’s a relationship to his later work but there’s this complexity in the design and colour choice and I think that he’s really gifted in the sense of colour, and colour is actually a really big portion of visual language.
K: Speaking of language, there has been some controversy regarding the terminology that has been used to describe some of these forms of art. Raw Vision Magazine, one of the most prominent journals of “outsider art,” has decided to refrain from using terms like “naïve” and “outsider” because it can come off as belittling or disrespectful. They prefer to use terms like “intuitive art” and ”self-taught artists.” What are your thoughts?
A: (jokingly) I hate when people call me an outsider artist.
B: Whenever I feel like a label is made, it never quite feels to me like it fits. And whenever I come up with my own labels for my own art I think, “No, that’s not it.” As those terms relate to what I do, I’m not surprised to feel like that doesn’t quite capture what’s happening, but my own view of the cosmos is just that language is horribly imprecise and imperfect but we have to use words so we come up with some explanations, some of which get closer to the mark. But I don’t feel like it’s belittling. I actually am kind of surprised when people say, “Oh, your work is so child-like,” and I say, “I don’t know any children that work like this.”
A: But I think sometimes when they make comments like that they are admiring your art as tapping into something else they admire.
B: Yes, and just responding. And it’s generally not meant as an insult, and I don’t take issue with that. I feel like they are kind of just saying that my art is playing some chord that they associate with something that they also see emerging from the works of children.
A: My gallerist friend said I need to be careful so that people don’t see my work as “juvenile,” and I was kind of annoyed by that. She said don’t use pink, purple, or yellow, so I said, “Well, that’s all I’m gonna use now.”
K: What are your thoughts on the contemporary art scene as of late?
A: I wish I was in it. I wish I wasn’t a crappy Utah folk artist.
F: Sometimes I go to these contemporary art shows and I just roll my eyes because I feel like it’s just people regurgitating things, like things are recycling too fast.
K: Everyone is already recycling Hurst and Koons.
F: Yeah, and they just try to put a little spin on it and I just think, “Wow, let’s sit back a little and relax.” But I mean maybe that’s just me dealing with feeling the same way Andrew feels, like I wish I were in it… I wouldn’t say I feel in or out of it actually. I’m just making art.
K: It might just feel like it’s recycling itself too fast because we exist in it simultaneously as it develops.
F: Yeah, we live in this age of the internet and everything is happening so fast. I kind of like the idea that art used to take some time to travel, that it created communities where thoughts were focused in certain areas, whereas now you can create a piece of work and people can connect to it, to that space, through an image or a jpeg. I’m more of a physical space kind of guy; responding to memories is part of me responding to the physical space.
B: As someone who is a million miles from what is considered to be avant-garde, I understand at least a part of what Fidalis is saying. Wherever you are on this spectrum, you have to look inside for the best avant-garde, and if you’re looking over your shoulder to see what you should be doing, or looking over your shoulder to see what you shouldn’t be doing, well, neither of those are looking at the core of the matter. Some of us—and I say us hoping I’m in this set—are looking inside to find something. It may or may not be important, but that’s where we have to look, and for me to obliterate my vision because it’s not currently “hip” is the wrong kind of thinking, and it breeds a kind of insincere art, even if it is popular. I remember an artist in graduate school complaining about my work because I had a painting of a mother and child and he said, “You know, mother and child has been done,” and I just thought, “Oh, are we finished with mothers and children?” That’s really hard on the human race, you know. As if because that subject has been dealt with we have sounded the depths of the connection between mothers and children. It was just amazing to me that he would excuse it because it’s “been done.” So he was just trying to do something perceived as “never having been done” and he was looking over his shoulder much more wildly than I was. I mean, I’m also looking around at what calls me, but he was looking around to make sure he was doing something that no one had done before. That did not seem to me to anchor him to any kind of viewpoint, because all of our viewpoints are just a river of viewpoints that have flowed into us. But I don’t know, maybe a lot of it is just sour grapes, that we’re not getting a lot of phone calls from major museums. But one of the things I realized over the past few years is that there are wonderful things about being a regional artist. There’s a part of my life that is seemingly very much my own, a certain amount of participation in a community that is very much available to me, that I value, as part of my religion, as part of my community, and I deal with galleries that I get along well with and my life feels more like something I have a big say in, and I’m not in any big magazines and I buy my own groceries and I’m good with that.
F: It’s sincerity and just recognizing where you’re at. This is my home, this is what I respond to, this is where I’m at, so these are my subjects anyway. I use family and I use my interactions as pivotal instruments in anything I make, so it’s natural for me to feel comfortable and accept that. I don’t look to New York to make sure that I’m making “what I need to make.” It’s all right here.
UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.