Wonderful Chaos | Kostas Seremetis
INTERVIEW: Nguyen Le | PHOTOGRAPHY: Sofia Nebiolo
Dialogue | Issue 01 | p.050
It’s the last day in June, and our last day in Paris. I haven’t been back in years, and the city is as vivid and chaotic as I remember. Maybe even more so, as Men’s Fashion Week currently occupies the dense capital and violent tensions between taxis’ and Uber paralyze the circus of travellers and other tourists. I’m fading in and out of consciousness on the Metro, flashbacks of early morning appointments and the seductive abyss of Parisien nightlife have robbed me of sleep and sobriety. The heat isn’t helping either, I overhear complaints of a citywide shortage of Perrier and other bottled water, while temperatures today are expected to cap at over 100 degrees F. I pinch myself periodically, staying awake long enough to make our stop. We’re meeting with artist Kostas Seremetis this afternoon, he’s running late so we take refuge under the shaded terrace at café La Gitane in Rue de Belleville.
Situated in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, it’s tucked away on the outer edge and is a calming and welcomed break from the city. A local offers some insight on the neighbourhood, revealing it once served as a stronghold for the Paris Commune, and currently plays host to a mix of immigrant communities. She’s also quick to note that Belleville has under-gone significant gentrification over the years, not unlike certain neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, New York. We spot Kostas from down the boulevard, he’s wearing invisible frame glasses, his hair is tied back and he’s dressed head to toe in NEIGHBORHOOD. Having done commissioned works for Shinsuke Takizawa as well as numerous others in the Tokyo scene - he keeps the company of an eclectic circle of close friends. “Thanks for meeting me here guys, this is one of my favorite spots, killer chocolate croissants” he informs with a grin. He orders one to go, and invites us over to his home studio, a few blocks away. “What I really love about this area are all of the hills, and it’s the closest we can get to the ocean in Paris. By that that I mean the square of people, vintage automobiles and the landscape has a perpetual movement like an ocean.” His hands are full, a croissant in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other. He fumbles with his vest pockets searching for a light. We take a moment to observe the sights and enjoy a smoke break.
“A friend of mine, he’s a self proclaimed guru. He tells me that people who smoke can’t get over their past. And people who are near sighted are afraid of their future, and holy shit am I a smoker” The topic of conversation trails into the philosophical and we discuss the power of manifesting worldly desires as a result of mindfulness and intention. It doesn’t take long from the moment you start speaking with Kostas to understand that he possesses an uplifting and balanced view on life along with intimate knowledge of pop culture and it’s evolution. Having been painting professionally for 22 years, he’s one of the pioneers in contemporary abstract expressionism. “I’ve spent maybe 19 of those years in the studio, so I missed out on so much life. But I’ve been documenting it in my work. Every painting has a problem inside of it, and it’s up to me to figure it out. Whether it be colour or juxtaposition, whatever. So when I’m in the middle of a painting and I’m like ah I fucked it up, I still make sure to see it through to the end and figure it out. And that’s what we do in life.”
We enter a white stone building through a rustic yet bright and open corridor. There’s a gracefully dressed woman tending to a maze of outdoor plants, while two preschoolers chase each other armed with colored chalk and what looks like Pokémon cards. Kostas speaks of starting a “punk house” where he hopes to one day mentor a few from this generation’s creatives, “Kind of like the X-Men and Professor Xavier’s School for gifted youngsters, complete with danger room.” It’s not hard to imagine that taking place here.
After a couple flights of stairs we arrive at his studio. “Check my wonderful chaos” he announces as he holds the door open. The first things I notice are the stacks of vintage art books and a sea of his latest paintings carpeting the hardwood. A few dozen pieces of custom memorabilia and collaborative rarities decorate his living room, spill into his work area and continue up the stairs to the airy loft. He invites us to survey the space openly, we proceed eagerly stepping over “works in progress” careful not to disrupt anything. “Sorry, my place is kind of crazy right now, I wanted to keep it real with you guys. I’m expecting my maid today though, she bears a strong resemblance to Kate Moss.” He says with a smirk and a hint of sarcasm, though I’m hoping its true.
We work our way to the wall opposite from the kitchen, it showcases framed oddities, photographs, sketches and paintings from legends Keith Haring, George Condo, Jack Kirby, The RZA, Ronnie Cutrone, Sk8thing and the like. His home could almost be a small museum of street and pop culture.
“This area really serves as inspiration for me, it’s more of a mood board, than a collection.” He draws our attention to one of his favourites, “what really attracted me to Ronnie’s work is that he’s famous for painting on American flags, and Woody Woodpecker in particular. I think my trail of passion lead me to this Cutrone, It’s a key piece, it generates good energy.” Some of Kostas’ works grace the walls too, but not many. With his work being celebrated and revered now more than ever, I had to ask: why the sudden move to Paris?
"My last show, which was also my biggest, took place in Moscow, and on my way back to New York I lost a very good friend. I mean I saw it coming, he was an older guy, he fell ill and it was inevitable but still, it was devastating. He (Ronnie Cutrone) was like my “Art” father. Since the age of twenty he cultivated me, protected me, he introduced me to art dealers, galleries and all this stuff, and as he aged, he got really ill. The circumstances surrounding his death really made me lose focus on creating work, it made me question myself. I mean Ronnie was my Yoda. You know, you go to Dagobah, you learn how to use the force and that’s where I went. My “au naturel” father is still alive, and I’m so grateful. I’m not diminishing my relationship with him at all, but Ronnie, we had so much in common, also he was pretty much the son of Andy Warhol (Ronnie worked as Andy Warhol’s assistant during the ‘70s) so If Andy was Ronnie’s “Art” father, that makes him my grandfather in a way, and having that within my essence as a poet, it just catapults me further. And he’s still with me, meta-physically of course. I’m still celebrating his work and life. But yeah, he was the shit you know? Like, man crush 10,000. So after all that, I came to the conclusion that I needed to clean my vibration, tune myself to a new channel, and it wasn’t in New York, it wasn’t Los Angeles, and it wasn’t anywhere else. I just followed my synchronicities and I went where it felt good, and here we are."
How have you been since moving here?
I’ll be honest with you, I really had to find a purpose when I moved here. I didn’t work for a long time, I really needed a home, I really needed some “R and R.” I had to rehabilitate myself, spiritually, mentally and health wise in order to open up the next chapter and body of work. But I felt like I needed this time to really decompress and be more delicate and less pretentious. I learned that as long as I’m pure in my form and honest with myself, that’s where the work comes. So yeah, I’ve been jamming!
Let's go back a little bit. You grew up in Boston, to Greek immigrant parents. Can you tell us what your childhood was like?
Man, let's go back in a time machine. It was cool! Boston was rad. I wasn’t a thug or anything, but sometimes I’d dress up like one and act aggressive and cool. As a youth, you always have a strange resentment towards things and it was apparent that I was a creative force at a very young age. I was eccentric and I liked weird things. I collected cereal boxes and my mom was like “why is my boy collecting trash (laughs).” We spoke Greek in the house, I learned the language and I embraced the culture, I’m happy to be Spartan. Pretty sick right? You’ve seen the movie we have a good look. I had some resentment about not going to art school, but really, life is the biggest teacher and I wasn’t confined to what an institution could provide.
I was lucky to have gravitated towards artists that really evoked something from me. I was also the first bird to leave the nest. I was 22 years old with $500 in my pocket and I moved to New York City. I really wanted that essence of what NYC delivered in the ‘80s and I’m grateful to have met people like Futura, Daze and Crash when graffiti was really self-sustained when it didn’t have any institutions supporting it. It made me understand that graffiti didn’t need the support or validation of the fine art world, it was something that could survive on its own.
Was this something your parents supported?
I would say no, they were not supportive at all. There was some shame involved, because they had other plans and ideas of where I should arrive, but they didn’t meet my expectations. However, I wouldn’t change a thing. If I could take a time machine back and whisper in my father’s ear“hey man, I’m going to be fine” no, because it just made me want it more. I already had this weird thing about being creative and I felt like if I got the support then I wouldn’t have been so interested in it. It would have been too easy.
You know I’m so stoked on my family now. I’m the closest I’ve ever been with them. My mom is very creative and I think my father is the most creative but never tapped into it, but there’s poetry within him. When my mom was pregnant with me she was painting paint by numbers, and she continued to paint through her whole pregnancy, so in retrospect she was like “Yeah, I’m not surprised,” she admitted to having a few cigarettes too (laughs).
There’s this saying, “if you can spend a week with your parents and be at peace, you’re really at peace with yourself,” and a month ago I did 2 weeks and I didn’t want to leave. I was like “Mom, Dad, I want to live with you guys, you’re cooking me meals, doing my laundry” and they’re like “no, no, you’ve got to go!” But at the end of the day, parents are just people making people.
Was there a turning point where you realized you could make a living solely as an artist?
I remember being really young and seeing some success, I was surprised by it. Even if I say I’m a success now, if I do, I think that kills it. I’d rather get on with it. I don’t like the shine. Sometimes I’m surprised when I get approached in Paris. When I moved here I didn’t think anyone really knew me. I do get stopped infrequently, but not often. I think it happens when my soul is crying out for it really. Everyone wants validation, recognition in some sorts. But honestly I’m really enjoying just being alive. We’re all going to go, and I’m happy to leave some pictures behind for people to talk about and evoke conversations. When they stop talking about you, that’s when you’re really gone. It doesn’t make a difference to me if I hit that category or not. I don’t have a vendetta against fame. I just want to make cool things as honestly and purely as I can- that give people comfort in a sense. The only person I have to validate is myself, and everything else is a reflection.
You’re starting to experiment with new mediums and working within different genres such as film and music videos. How did the project with A$AP Rocky come about?
I have to say, the A$AP Rocky thing, I’m blushing, truthfully over it. I did not listen to hip-hop for the longest time. I wasn’t into it at all. And you know how we go through these phases with music? So I was painting these panther paintings at my New York studio, and all I would listen to was this Jon Spencer Blues Explosion record, over and over and over. It was just the adrenaline that I needed. And my assistant was like “Yo man. I can’t! I can’t! I need a day off, I can’t listen to this goddamn record one more time!” And I really needed to get out of my comfort zone, so I told him “ok, you DJ” and he exposed me to all this hip-hop. That’s when I discovered Drake, and all these guys. I was like “Rick Ross?” what? Then “Born Stunna” happened and I really went into this crazy trance of Hip-hop. A$AP Rocky, it was amazing to discover him. He was someone I listened to on a constant basis. Love and admiration towards his music, it really brought me to the frequency I needed to do my work and jam. That’s what music is - it’s a vibrational enhancer. So I tapped into that signal and out of nowhere he approached me.
So before I moved to Paris, my friend Angelo Baque from Supreme, who I’ve known for many years, hit me up. He wanted to get one of my paintings and asked if it was ok to invite some friends to the studio to do the same. I told him it had to be family, good vibes, you know, all that stuff. And he brought Rocky. He (Rocky) actually wanted a few paintings, but I wanted him to have something honourable, so I selected the best painting for him. That same night he asked me if I wanted to do a video. I was like “Yo, I’m moving to Paris and all this stuff” but he has a frequency where he’s a guy that carries himself well, he’s a prince in a sense and a creative entity, and he’s someone who’s really tapping into the sound of the generation, so I said yes. We hung out a few times, he played me this record that had no lyrics and he told me the track he wanted me to create. I made the video on my own and gave him some clips of edits. I worked with some animators from Protozoa Pictures and called in some favors from people who’ve worked under Darren Aronofsky. So I started making collages, and listening to the music, cross-pollinated animals, images and hybrids. I don’t know what I was tapping into but everything felt really genuine. I also honoured Marcel Duchamp in the video, who is really the father of contemporary art.
Is filmmaking something you see yourself exploring further?
Video directing is within me, but the only way I would really want to direct films, professionally is by first assembling a team. As a director, you’re nothing without a great team. But I’m a painter and creator and I like working by myself. I get approached by artists and bands to collaborate on record covers and other projects, but if I don’t like the band, I can’t. It’s dishonest. You can’t put a price on it. But I’m happy to open up a gateway into the film universe. Right now I have a vendetta against painting. Take care of me first and my ideas, and if a film blossoms I’ll embrace it. That’s why I don’t want to be tied down as a painter, I just want to be a creative force. I have so much to share, I have the ability to tap into this infinite inspiration and I can always change my channel. There are days where I don’t want to do paintings so I’ll play with collages, I do this exercise where I’m thoughtless and just mash things up.
What do you categorize yourself as now?
I’ll cut you off there, because I know where you’re going, but we’re still friends. I’d rather be uncategorized, or style-less. Because that just leaves me open to anything. Once anyone is categorized, it’s death. That really justifies why I’m using other peoples images, and really just taking this as a universal language so I can be an open channel to many different signals. So people can identify these characters, and find this vibration that I’m executing.
When I was younger I had a difficult time announcing myself as an artist, my eyes would go all over the room. When I started seeing some success I’d say “oh yeah, I’m an artist” and if you ask me now I feel like I’m a creative force. And people can take that and interpret that anyway they like because everything is so subjective. I’ve done so many different things from films, music videos, paintings and sculptures, I’m just someone who follows his ideas. Yeah! That’s how I’d classify myself. I’m an ambassador of me.
Was there a time in your life when you embraced darkness or self sabotage?
Of course, of course. You can see it in my work. When I was focused on skulls and even the police barricade situation, and the “Fuck You Mickey’s” That really threw me out of my circle. Yes, I was getting success and recognition, everything that I asked the universe for in a sense. You know, there’s the yin and the yang. We all focus on the yang - the high life, the success, money, love and health. But we forget the wrath of the yin. The yin wants to collect its cheque too. So now when I experience contrast, when something bad is happening, or I’m making something and it looks terrible, I see it as an indication that something good is coming. I look at some painters like Francis Bacon- his work was so tormenting. He didn’t have an easy life, even though he was successful he was tormented just the same. Now I can look at art and really connect with the artist at the moment, and feel the vibration of what’s being said. So a good painting can be great, but if there’s something obtuse about it, I can feel that something’s up. You know, art is sorcery. So if there’s any ill intention in me any negativity or toxic vibration, it’s being documented in that procedure.
We’re all trying to find authenticity in the things we do.
That’s what we’re here for. We are all so fucking authentic. We all have our own fingerprints. And this is totally relevant in what I do, and that is there is no such thing as an original idea, because we are a collective consciousness. Let’s say you come up with this idea of something, you feel like you’ve invented it. No. The only thing you’re getting is an answer because you are wanting. Desire is the biggest component. Once you desire for something whether it be recognition, health, success, whatever, you’re tapping into a signal that’s bringing you the solution. Like, do you ever have a great idea and you don’t execute it and like four months later you see it in another form done by someone else? The only demon in death is regret; you must take action on your thoughts and ideas. That’s why I’m a bit scattered about my work. I’m only doing things that bring me the most joy, or what needs the most attention.
So you’ve moved on from the darker elements, what would you say is the narrative of your current work?
For the most part I want to be neutral and open. I really feel like both channels are accessible, it’s up to you to choose which one you want to be. I’m happy that I did what I did, because every painting is just an introduction to the next one. I’m still questioning the vibration of the new work. I feel like this is a cleanse for me. I’m applying the same language of Kostas Seremetis that I’ve been carrying with me, but I can’t dismiss any imagery or future situation because I’m an open signal and if something comes back in my life, of course I have to document it. All the new works are very tender, I wouldn’t say I’m killing it with very controversial imagery. I also feel like there’s enough of that out there. There’s enough angst out there. I want to focus on a frequency where I’m bringing this sense of deliciousness to it without sounding crazy (laughs). I wouldn’t say it’s watered down either because it’s quite powerful what I do, though I’m still in the process of figuring it out for myself too.
(Kostas shows us his latest works, which vary in size and feature monochromatic shades of blue.)
So the concept behind these, is I’m working with co-operative components. Which means “I cannot exist without you, and you cannot exist without me” and the reason why I cross-pollinate all these characters is more or less to document the personalities in people that encompass my life. So if you know someone intimately enough you can kind of assess them in this vocabulary of cartoons. For instance, “oh that guy is so Ren & Stimpy, this guy is like Homer Simpson” and so on, it’s almost endless.
There was a moment where I was like “Oh god, what should I do, what should I paint?” and you know you hear that thing - paint what you love. And I thought of people. So these paintings are either of people I know, or the essence of them, while honoring the impressionist masters, and what they generously donated to us.
Have you given a name to this series?
I have been playing around with some stuff, but truthfully this is the first time I’ve been writing down my ideas about my work. But no I haven’t arrived at the “A – ha” But I think that will happen naturally. Some of these paintings are titled, some aren’t. Titling paintings is almost hilarious, but I’ll tell you my Da Vinci code: song lyrics, comic books, I’ll make lists and through those lists they kind of get cross-pollinated like the paintings themselves. Sometimes they really pop out, or a friend will say “bah bah bah bah” and I’ll be like “oh shit, profound or whatever, it’s perfect.”
Do you have a Gallery Show lined up?
I’m making my best effort to not forecast anything anymore and letting things happen naturally. The idea is of course they will arrive somewhere at sometime, but the thing about me working for myself is, I can’t put any expectation on any of it. My mantra has been to show up everyday with good intentions and no expectations. I work everyday, but only for four hours at a time, anything after that and the energy is dismissed. After my engine is decimated I don’t force it, that’s when mistakes happen. I also need that time for myself to you know, re-up that energy. And the reason why I’m working consistently is so I’m challenging myself to be disciplined and knowing that I’m responsible for setting a tone, because sometimes I’m in denial that I have a following. But really, you don’t get known for doing shows, you get known for doing great work. I mean, shows are 30 days, and really the work should transcend that. There’s something nice and romantic about having a celebration, but I’ve noticed that whenever I do a show of course there’s a high, but then there’s always a crash.
If you’re not into doing shows, how are you getting your work across?
It’s not that I’m not interested in doing shows, it’s that I’m more into making the work. The reason why people should go to museums or art openings or any kind of event is to find yourself, see your friends, and fall in love, and maybe you have a crush in the corner of the room. Here’s a cool story; so when I moved to Paris I didn’t have a phone, I didn’t answer emails, I didn’t give a fuck, I just wanted to take care of me. So I was getting these emails from this gallery in Moscow, I’m on their mailing list. They were emailing me fairly regularly and I’d just click them all and press delete. You know check off all your junk mail and get them out in one shot. Boom boom boom. A friend of mine, who works for the Guggenheim hits me up “hey congratulations!” I’m like “hmm what’s up?” and he’s like “your shit in Moscow is sick!” The show curated by Dmitry Khankin with theChapman brothers and Damien Hirst, that’s amazing,” and I’m like huh, that’s why they’re emailing me. So basically I was shown with these dudes, I like their work they’re well respected, but I was so excited because I was in this show without even knowing. There was no pressure, there was no “oh God, I gotta go to this show and be there for the moment” it was like my work existed without my validation. I didn’t have to be there for it and stand in front of it all and point it out in song and dance and all that stuff. And that really liberated me you know? Because my work is going to live beyond me, I have enough of it out there and sometimes it’s better that the artist isn’t present because the work really should speak for itself.
But going back to what you were saying about getting my work across, it’s more like an extension of a friend of friend. I mean I do ok. It’s flattering when people put thousands of dollars in my hand and I’m like here’s this piece of paper that I’ve transformed paints on. I never take it for granted. Shows are fine, but they’re like a relationship with a woman, the gallery has to understand you, and if it’s really for the love of money, then it’s destroyed. But if they want to really capture the essence of who I am and what I’m doing, then let’s go, I mean really, let’s go, it’s party time! Let’s do something healthy and where everyone benefits, cause I’ve had sold out shows, and I’ve done shows where I didn’t sell anything. I’ve experienced both paradigms and they’re both necessary.
Are you supportive of any of the youth who are coming up right now?
In many ways yes, by being an example. Validating the possibility of free will and being a creative. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned or even extend support to whomever needs it. I can’t take responsibily for another being’s actions creatively, young or old, age is insignificant. I feel it’s our purpose to help one another.
What’s inspiring you currently?
I went through this thing when I moved here where I was constantly searching, going to galleries, museums, trying to figure out the landscape, searching and searching. But when you’re searching you’re really giving away your power. I realized that everything is already inside of you, all your ideas, everything. You know, to be influenced off another, yes, we’re all inspired off of everything whether it be film, music, illustration, fine art, whatever. But I really got to give it up to nature. It just happens you know? I’ll say my biggest influence now is nature. I would say the future in art is in nature, and human nature.
(After ignoring multiple chimes from his iPhone, Kostas checks his messages. He informs us "Kate Moss" is on her way as he lights another cigarette.)
But sometimes I feel like all of this has no importance at all. I mean what really holds value? To me, it’s really the people you love and the personal experiences that we have. So when my work is celebrated, it’s synergy. At the end of the day we all just want to have a few laughs, make cool shit, love our friends, fuck around, smoke cigarettes like big shots and be healthy and well.