David Lloyd and the Collision of Everything, An Artist Talk 2.17.12
DEB KLOWDEN MANN: Thank you everyone so much for coming to hear David talk about
this great show, Monas Hieroglyphica. We love it, it’s a great body of work. I have to say,
we’ve been living with it at the gallery for five weeks now, and I’m still seeing things I haven’t
seen before. There was a man who came in to see the work a couple of days ago, someone
who looks at a lot of art, and he kept standing in front of this painting and saying, “I keep
seeing things! I keep seeing things!” But it really is work that brings that out in just about
everyone who gets a chance to view it, which is pretty exciting.
So, there are so many different possible places to start, but should we start with this show,
and the name of the show, and go from there? What is Monas Hieroglyphica?
DAVID LLOYD: Well, it’s a… you discovered a couple of things about it… It’s a manuscript by
a 15th century philosopher, mystic and astrologer named John Dee, who was trying to put
together kind of a theory of everything. I’ve read some of it and it is utterly indecipherable.
Which is, I think, really interesting, because [the manuscript] is pages and pages of stuff that
nobody can figure out, but it seems smart. It’s kind of smart and unknowable at the same
time, and I feel like this [exhibition] is kind of smart and dumb at the same time in a similar
way. When I say dumb, I mean it in the sense that I’m interested in a lot of fringe ideas. I’m interested
in things that are really considered way out there, and exist on the edge of what most people
consider normal dialogue. My wife is here tonight, and she makes fun of me
because I go on the internet and look at all this information about UFO’s and astrology and
Christianity and Judaism and Islam and the way all of this stuff goes together. It kind of
becomes this soup that I’m trying to make sense of.
I’m trying to make sense of the world because I’ve really come to the conclusion that there
are no truths. [I think] that truths are somewhat unknowable, and so this is what this work is
really about, these collisions of ideas that make up our world. And the more I get into this
kind of thinking, the more open it is. It’s a really interesting place to be as an artist. When I
went to school, I was taught to sort of come up with very clear ideas and then go about
illustrating them. I have a friend who went to Cal Arts who is here and went through the
same thing, and it was really the idea that you get a conceptual framework and then you
work off that. And [what I’m doing now] is for me a very different way of working. I work off
the idea that there are multiple ways to come at something. You go here, and you hit a cul de
sac and you turn around and you take another direction. So, there’s sort of an inclusive
element. It’s like I’m trying to make a theory of everything, which is completely impossible
DKM: So, where do you think that impulse comes from? That impulse that Deb [Vigna,
Lloyd’s wife] makes fun of, like looking online at UFO’s and astrology, and then, to create
DL: I think it’s trying to find some sort of meaning. I don’t tell too many people this, but I’ve
spent the last year or so going to an Episcopal church, and I don’t even know if I believe what
they’re saying, but I’ve been very very interested in the process of sitting in church every
Sunday and going through that process of experience. I’ve read a lot of Buddhism. Ed
[Butwenick, former owner of The Brentwood Art Center where Lloyd teaches] gave me a
book by a really famous rabbi, too… Abraham Joshua Heschel. I’m looking at all of these
different things to try to make sense of the world, and from an art point of view, I love the
collision of all of these ideas. I literally put myself in a church to sit and listen and think and
be in that environment– to see. Because you can’t know these things by just reading about
them. I want to experience this stuff.
DKM: I think that’s interesting in terms of what you were just saying about going to school
and feeling like you were supposed to illustrate concepts–in possibly an objective way–and
you’re now taking the objectivity out of the whole process by actually jumping into the
DL: Right! And you know if people ask me, “Why do you use this material over that
material?”, I always tell them whatever’s at arm’s length, literally. And I like that way of
working. My studio becomes ungodly messy, and I sit in this pile of stuff, and I make things.
And I just let it go, and it let it develop into what it is. And when I was at Cal Arts it just drove
them out of their minds that I worked that way. I don’t want to indict all of Cal Arts, and It
didn’t drive them all crazy, but the nature of the school was that they didn’t want people to
work that way. And they would say, “What’s it mean?”, and I’m going, “Well, what’s any work
of art actually mean?”. Art’s a series of questions, not answers. If it’s got all the answers,
then, you know… It’s not a political cartoon. It’s like the New Yorker, you don’t look at it and
get it, you look at it and you don’t get it, and that’s what’s interesting, at least for me.
DKM: And then, at the same time, [your pieces] end up feeling so well-constructed. You
know what I mean? I think there’s often a criticism of work that happens organically, that it
can’t have the same kind of conscious feeling of construction, and your work can still have
that even though your process is different.
DL: Yeah, I was telling Ed [Butwenick] that I started out as an abstract painter before I
started doing this, and with pure abstraction, I always wanted to make things that work
together in a formal way. I like to make stuff and construct things, and I think interestingly
that coming from such a formal background, now I put things together in a very formal way.
I think your’e right, I think that if you do just throw stuff together it won’t work. But if you
have an intuition about how to place things and put things, it makes it. The formal and the
conceptual have to meld. One of the problems I have with a lot of very conceptual art is that
it doesn’t have the visual thrills. It comes off as highly didactic, and my mind doesn’t work
that way. And a lot of very formal art feels like it doesn’t have… What’s the word…
Audience member: Substance.
DL: Yes, substance is what it is. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I like a lot of pure
abstract painting. But there’s some need to kind of reflect the world, especially in this
world. I feel like the world’s gone insane, and I can’t make art anymore that is just about how
blue sits next to yellow. [My practice] just doesn’t go there anymore, and I think that’s a
reflection on the fact that the world feels like it’s falling apart. And some artists approach
that by just pulling back and saying, “I’m going to make a red square because that’s all you
can do when everything is chaotic.” And what I do, is I take it all in. [laughs] And one of my
favorite influences in art is Lincoln Boulevard, the ugliest street in America. Drive down
Lincoln Boulevard and you see everything colliding with everything else.
Audience member: Not for long, it’s changing!
DL: Is it? Bummer. It’s got all the signs… what you see when you drive on that street is
nature and all this stuff coming together and trying to compete with all these ideas, and to
me, that’s where things get interesting.
That same kind of mashup of ideas is what you see in this work. The work has a lot of
references to science and mysticism, and philosophical ideas and political ideas. But to me,
they’re all equal. It’s not a hierarchy. There’s an intersection where they all come together,
and that’s where things happen.
DKM: When you talk about doing something like going to church and putting yourself in the
middle of it, but not knowing what you believe… Would you say that you believe in.. this is
going to sound a little cheesy… but would you say that you believe in mystery? That you
believe in something?
DL: Yeah, mystery. I don’t feel that I’ve become a Christian, I feel that I’ve become a person
who… it’s not about Christianity, it’s not about Buddhism, it’s not about physics, it’s about
putting yourself into a position where you understand something enough to sort of reflect on
it and then use it as part your process. And I think that going to sitting in a church every
Sunday has been a real eye opener for me, because it’s so different than the way you go and
do things in art school, do things on the other side. I don’t know, I guess it’s just about
experiencing things, and that’s one experience. I’m a surfer, and surfing is a very primary
experience. It’s a non-intellectual experience, it’s a sort of… I don’t know… You came up with
an idea about how surfing fits into all of this?
DKM: I think when we were talking I said something about how I felt that surfing was really
related to mysticism. Because we had a lot of talks about your work trying to find this
common ground between science and some idea of mysticism, and I feel like a lot of that has
to do with the idea of ceding control to an experience. And I see in your work a lot of these…
it’s like you’re grabbing at all of these different concepts but at the same time it’s you’re
ceding control of the idea that you can logically and rationally make sense of them.
DL: Right, like in that painting [War Painting] has a reference to something called
Superstrings, which is String Theory, which is on the farthest reaches of physics. It’s the
idea that the world is made up of these tiny pieces of energy that are so small that they
basically come in and out of existence. And above it is a little paragraph about people who
spontaneously catch on fire. All over the world people are just sitting at home reading and
spontaneously catch on fire, and nobody knows why. They have every major scientific
experiment going to try to figure out what this string theory is, but nobody’s trying to figure
out why people just explode for no reason. And to me, why wouldn’t they both be in the
I call this “War Painting” because not only does it have references to the endless wars that
are going on in the world, but it also has this war of ideas, a war of the kind of sublime and
the ridiculous fighting it out on this plane. You have to look, there’s so much going on in
there, and I think it is those collisions of ideas… what I want people to do is make their own
kind of narratives, it’s like a deranged story board.
DKM: [laughing] A Choose Your Own Adventure? It does seem like people do that a lot when
they come into the space. I don’t think I even had a chance to tell you this, but there was a
gentleman who came in a few weeks ago and he was standing in front of one of your
paintings and he said, “I completely get what he’s saying. I know what he’s saying.” And I
was thinking, “I want to hear this!” And it turned out that he was somebody who had been
part of the machinery of war in the 60’s– he was building bombs. And so for him, he was
looking at these pieces and he saw a straightforward critique of the industries of war.
DL: Well yeah, and there are a lot of references to war and religion, and a lot of references to
war and science. Because the weapons industry is where we get most of our technical
innovations, going through the military. But there’s this whole feeling, for me, of not really
getting it. I don’t know if anybody sitting in this room really feels like they get what’s going
on around them in the world, but I don’t. I mean I feel like every day I wake up and and it’s a
friggin’ mystery. You know, God’s talking to Michele Bachmann, but not talking to me, so I’m
trying to figure it out.
Also, I just wanted to mention about materials, that I don’t make distinctions about
materials. I think any material in the world is appropriate for art making.
DKM: I do like when people ask for more specifics about the mediums of your pieces,
because they’re all listed as mixed media and when people ask for a specific list of materials
used, I get to say, “Well, paint, polymer, bandaids…”
DL: One of my favorite things is dog hair and dirt. And old tshirts. No, but dirt is a great
medium. Take dirt and go out and mix it with something to stick it together and slab it on
there. From a material point of view, literally anything could be used in a work of art, so I like
the fact that I end up with materials that are not traditionally art materials per se–in the
vocabulary of painting–because it gives them more collisions. That there [pointing
at Hydra], I’m using a bunch of old sails, boat sails, that take paint amazingly well… So, if
there’s any artists out there, don’t do it! It’s mine. [laughs]
DKM: Do you find yourself particularly attracted to contemporary imagery or vintage
imagery, or do you just pull it from random sources?
DL: I think old imagery, and not because it has a patina of artiness, I think its because it’s
been emptied of associations. If you show a picture of George Bush it has so much
baggage, whereas I go through and buy old books on ebay, and there are images that are
long out of copyright. I have a book I got that has a lot of images, there’s one in the other
room of cannibals, old pictures of cannibals in the Southern Pacific Islands. And these are
pictures of real cannibals. There are images out there that are very usable… old National
Geographics. I think that one of the things about painting is that painting’s been turned into
this thing where people say, “I’m a painter” and that gives them these parameters where
they have to use paint on canvas or something like that, and when people say, “What do you
do?”, I just say, “I’m an artist,” because I don’t want the baggage of ‘painting’. I just want to
be able to make things as they come.
DKM: I think you said something to me, going back to the issue of vintage imagery, about
how over-saturated we are with contemporary images, that it becomes difficult to see them
as non-digital. And I feel like your work does a really interesting job of creating this
alternative, where if the idea is that we are now accustomed to seeing things very quickly,
you’ve created this work where we still see things very quickly, but because the imagery isn’t
our standard contemporary imagery, it almost forces us to pause and stop.
DL: Yeah, and I think that happens because I’m mixing it up, too, with collage. Some things I
paint, some things I collage, and leaving a lot of air between them, to read the space.
Because how you can even be an image maker in this day and age seems insane in the first
place, because we’re just overwhelmed. There was an artist just recently, I think I saw in
ArtForum, where all day long he just printed things that came off of Flickr, just random, and
he filled up a gallery up to eight feet with multiple printers going all day long printing out
endless images. So with all [the constant visual overload] going on, it’s hard to make
something that anybody wants to look at, so you just have to pick and choose what
resonates. I find that old, out of date stuff really does. Plus, nobody owns it, which from a
logical point of view makes sense. I’m not interested in using images of people who are
producing things now, and taking their work.
DKM: [to audience] So, does anyone have any questions?
Audience member: One of the things I love among much of your work, is that with all of the
non-linear and thoughts and debris, you bring order to it. There is a sense of order. That
makes it easier to see everything, and it makes it almost like a finalized statement about
what art needs to do. I’d like your thoughts about your sense of how you can relate to that
statement.. I don’t even know what to ask. It’s just everything is so non-sequitor, and all of
this stuff is coming from all of these different aspects of our life, aspects of the future and
the past, etc. and yet you bring an orderly sense to it.
DL: I think that in order to make a work of art compelling, you have to have some visual
smarts. You have to have some sort of chops to make things work. You know, Frank Gehry
makes those amazing buildings, but he’s got all these tools to make them become what they
are. [The designs] start our as a crumpled piece of paper, but then they become something
through the help of other people, through computers and all these different tools. So, they
formalize into something. That’s how it goes, you have to be able to formalize things into a
way that works. It would be like saying, “I want to make music, but I don’t care what notes I
use.” Well, that could be kind of interesting, maybe conceptually, but maybe not, because
you have to kind of have a grip on it. I think what’s happened with me is that I worked with
materials for so long–I didn’t make images, I just made abstract paintings. I worked with
every material on earth, and you get good with making things look a certain way. Because it
is visual art. It’s supposed to have a kind of visual kick or something to pull people in. But
that’s just me. I like things that are kind of theatrical. You know, I’m wearing white shoes and
a crazy colored shirt [laughing] That’s just me.
Audience member: I have a question for you. I’ve never thought to ask this before, and I’ve
been looking at David’s work for a long time now, but I think that a lot of artists would find it
very divisive to bring text into their practice. It’s like, you can be Lawrence Weiner and just
make words, or be Ed Ruscha and make quiet imagery with words where it’s really enforced,
and you seem to bring text in very casually, and sometimes it’s graphic, like the thing behind
you [Hydra], you don’t really want to make sense of the letters, they’re just shapes and it’s
like a chromatic, but then other times you bring in the words and it completely adds
structure to the paintings. So, I’m wondering if you can speak to your impulse… When do
you know that a word needs to go in, and when do you know that a word just shouldn’t be
DL: Right, some paintings, they are begging [to be read]… Like, that one says “The Cosmic
Pendulum”. What it does is it make your eyes go around in circles, and you begin to read the
painting as this cycle of stuff happening. There’s this cycle where the materialist point of
view moves into a mystical point of view, into chaos, and then coming back again. So there, I
hope [the text] serves a purpose.
But, text can also serve a formal element. It can just be shapes, but you have to be careful
with that because shapes have meaning. You know in the 80’s, David Salle– I don’t know if
you know who this guy is, but in the 80’s he was a huge art star– and he was interested in
making paintings that were just layers and layers of images on top of each other, kind of
chaotically, but he would throw images of, like, pornographic pictures of women and he
would say, “Don’t look at them that way. They’re just images.” Well, all these images have
huge baggage attached to them, you can’t look at these things and not bring what they are.
So, I’m interested in text as a kind of monkey wrench. You know, in this painting [War
Painting] you’re thinking about new physics and then all of a sudden you’re looking at
something as ridiculous as reading about people sitting in a living room and reading the
paper and spontaneously blowing up. So the text becomes something that is just a kind of
way of screwing with the viewer, and not direct…
Audience member: And sometimes [the text] seems almost like a custodian to the idea.
DL: And sometimes it is.
Audience member: Like the text is chaperoning the idea in, and then there are other times…
DL: [pointing to different paintings] That’s about the idea, that’s about the idea, that’s about
throwing in a monkey wrench. But again, images have meaning. So, if you take an image of
something like a Pepsi logo, all of a sudden you’re going to start thinking about the
commodity of whatever you’re referencing, and what that means. So you have to be careful.
But what I do sometimes is in this one [Cosmic Pendulum] I mixed up ideas about sort of
fringe science ideas over there with ideas about the IMF, the International Monetary Fund,
and there’s a lot of conspiracy theories about the way the money runs in the world, and
there are a lot of conspiracy ideas about science and philosophy.
You know, somebody like Ed Ruscha, I like [his pieces] because they’re so likable, but they’re
also so forgettable on some level. You look at them, and then you get them and you kind of
chuckle, and then… who cares? It’s like, it’s egotistical, you want to make… You know, if you
go the Louvre and you see a The Raft of Medusa, or one of those paintings, these things are
the most unbelievable paintings. Back then people wanted to make paintings about the
cosmos. They were literally making paintings about God coming down. Well, you can’t do
that now, but you can try to make some sort of sense, and for me, in my last few years in this
world as an old man [laughing], I want to make something that has something to do with the
world I live in. And this is my way of doing it. For another artist, it could be making
something like a Rothko where it’s all about just the glow of a color.
But it’s hard to be an artist in this day and age. It’s a crazy time to be an artist, because
there’s no… I don’t know if art is needed? I don’t know, what do you think?
Audience member: Needed.
Audience member: Do you ever visualize your paintings before you paint them, or do they
become what they are through the work?
DL: I’ll tell you this: I visualize them like crazy, and they become something completely else.
Audience member: For instance, I want to know when you decided to attach three of your
own heads to that shark. [in Hydra]
DL: I have a friend of mine who goes, “Lloyd, why do you always put yourself in your
paintings?” And I’m going, “I don’t know who else to put in them!” I can’t get my wife to sit
still, she doesn’t want to be in them. And artists put themselves in because you’re a perfect
foil for your own work. It’s not an ego thing. I don’t look good in any of these things. But I’ve
done a number of things where I painted my face and took pictures of it and cut it up and
collaged it. I made a piece a number of years ago where I built a head shape out of wire and
plaster and all this crap, and then I took pictures of my own face with a micro lens and had all
the pictures developed down at Thrifty, like the old style, and cut them up and built a skin
out of photos. So it’s this three dimensional photograph of my head. And it’s big! And it’s
completely creepy. I mean, it’s so weird. I thought, what if somebody had used this
technology on Abraham Lincoln? [laughing] We’d have a three dimensional photo of
Abraham Lincoln head right now! And they’re very difficult to make, and I made one of a
buddy of mine, Chuck Arnoldi, and it scared his kids when his kids were little so he made me
take it away.
But using yourself as a model is just an easy way to do it, you don’t have to go out and find
people, and instead you just use yourself, that’s the basis of it. And the idea is, again, that
these are photos, words, paint… it’s all kind of part of the whole process.
Audience member: For me the success of these things, the paintings–back to the point you
were just talking about–using yourself, in the imagery and within… For me, there’s all this
chaotic imagery, and images of yourself and all this stuff, and for some reason, it never
becomes narcissistic, and I don’t know why that is… So, back to what you were talking about
before is that the conception is that when often people using their own experience is that
they can become so narcissistic. And I think that the success of these works, when I look at
these, is that you’re there, but it clearly isn’t about you.
DL: Well thank you, that’s good to hear. You know that’s the hope. And it’s easy for work to
become self-indulgent. Particularly when you first get started. You know, it takes a long time
to get to a place where you’re really making things that reflect and are about what you have
to say. I think you have to actually spend a long time, you know when you first start making
images or come out of school, working through all of your influences. Before you get to the
point where you can use everything you’ve learned and everything at your disposal to say
what you have to say.
DKM: So, can you give us a sense of who those influences were, and are, for you? Who did
you have to work through before you got to where you are now?
DL: Well, it might sound a little cliched, but Picasso is definitely one. There are a lot–
Guston was one of them — but Picasso always sticks out because he’s just the guy. I
remember when I was a kid I had a Picasso picture book that had a lot of photos in it. I was
probably eight or nine years old, I was pretty young, and there were pictures of him
surrounded by all this crazy stuff… by bits and pieces of painting, and sculpture and
ceramics and assemblage, and it just blew my mind and it kind of made me want to be an
artist. There was this one picture of him standing in his underpants surrounded by all this
stuff he was making, and he just looked basically out of his mind, but to me at eight years old
it seemed to make perfect sense. And of course later I learned to understand him on a
different level, but at the time that was really exciting to me. And still, I really feel that that’s
part of what you get to do as an artist, part of what it’s all about. You get to stand around
and make things, and have a dialogue with this crazy world, just hanging out in your
underpants. It’s pretty great.