Todd Bienvenu was born in 1980 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He received his BFA from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and attended the New York Studio School, New York, New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Bienvenu work was included in many group exhibitions, most recently at Frieze New York with Canada Gallery, New York, NY (2016); Louis B James, New York, NY (2016); Cuevas Tilleard, New York, NY (2016); MUPO, Oaxaca, Mexico (2016); Bravin Lee, New York, NY (2016); Momenta, Brooklyn, NY (2016 and 2015); Sculpture Center, Queens, NY (2016 and 2015). Páramo, Guadalajara, Mexico (2015); Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, New York, NY (2015); Storefront Ten Eyck, Brooklyn, NY (2015). Bienvenu had solo exhibitions at Life on Mars Gallery in 2014 and 2015.
Todd Bienvenu’s painting was the cover image on a recent Iron & Wine album and featured on Aziz Ansari’s television show Master of None.
I try to make the paintings that I want to see.
Q&A with Todd Bienvenu
by Emily Burns
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin and how do you create your compositions? Does drawing play a part in your work?
I draw all the time, I have a large sketchbook, a small one, a phone app. I go through xerox paper with markers and crayons, I make acrylic on paper works. I look at pictures on the internet—Instagram, Tumblr, etc., I take photos, I look at my old paintings, I think about experiences I've had personally, people I know... a big part of having subjects in the paintings is generating interesting imagery. But even when I have an idea before I begin as opposed to just starting with a color and making marks which is the way it usually starts, the thing gets filtered through my painting process. It has to change, I can't work too directly from source material. Basically, if I start a bunch of things on Monday, by the next Monday, some of it is mud, some is so-so, a few things are finished and I ideally have an idea or two for some large works. But to answer your question about compositions, it is found through the painting. I usually have no idea, the painting leads me. The drawing solidifies as I go. If it sucks I scrape it all off and try again.
Have you always known that you were a figurative painter or have you experimented with abstraction? If so, how did you come to that realization?
I'd like to think I've always had a bit of both, but even at my most experimental, it was always about the figure. In undergrad my two favorite painters were de Kooning and Rembrandt, I've been trying to find a place where I can be free in the work to have elements of both. I made a bunch of large drippy abstract paintings as recently as 5 years ago. The early stages are completely nonobjective, I think the paintings work because the underlying structure isn't dependent on making it look like anything, I make a painting first and the subjects conform to that.
You have mentioned that you spent a lot of time drawing from life and working from a model in the past. When did you realize that you weren’t interested in working that way?
I think it's just more limiting than my imagination. I can put anything I want in the paintings now, I don't need a reference, and the abstraction of the form looks like what I think the painting needs, not what my eyes tell me reality is like. The biggest issue for young painters is giving up that skill set and starting from scratch again. My life paintings were really good, when I tried to tack back to painting from my head I had to start from zero. I want to be self sufficient, you shouldn't need a picture or the internet or a set up to make something. Anyway, can you name anyone besides like Cézanne or Giacometti who actually only paints from life? It's a way to learn, but in 2016 painting should be more than that.
You have mentioned that you work intuitively, and that the subject matter appears from abstract marks. What is most attractive to you about this process?
It feels organic, full of possibility, like I can access my subconscious and surprise myself. working without a net. I don't want to make good, competent paintings, I want to catch the big fish and I don't mind making some dogs.
When you make big paintings, do you still work more or less intuitively or do you plan the composition before you begin?
The only difference is bigger brushes and more paint. Although I will grant you that I try to have major ideas on the big ones so I don't get bored or waste paint having second thoughts. Lately I've been trying to make the big ones have smaller ideas and the freshness that the little ones can have. There's a new 76x67" beer can one that was painted all in one go over a few hours.
You seem to work primarily with oil paint—have you experimented with other media? What do you like most about oils?
I use acrylics on paper or sometimes as an underpainting on big canvases, I can make changes as I'm trying to find the painting. I got a bunch of markers and crayons and made drawings when I had to move studios a couple months back and didn't want to move wet oil paintings. I'm done with charcoal, I like my stuff to stay put, I'll draw with a nice pen or marker. I've done watercolor or gouache on occasion. After years of working in woodshops and NYC space limitations, sculpture doesn't appeal to me. I'd be interested in printmaking if someone would do the press for me, my hands were always too dirty in undergrad. Music and film seem cool, but you have to depend on other people to get it done, I like the freedom I have when I'm painting. Oil looks 1,000,000 times better than acrylic, and no matter how good at it you get, you're still always learning and trying to get better. My conception of what it is that I'm doing when I make a painting is constantly evolving.
The surfaces of your paintings have a killer texture, as if the canvases had another life before the final layers of paint—how does the final surface occur?
Thank you. They did, there's 10 shitty paintings underneath.
How long did you live in New York before you started exhibiting? Was this period of time important to your current body of work?
Here's some advice you won't want to hear. Don't try to show. Just make your stuff, get rid of the school voices, develop your art without that pressure. With the exception of maybe Dana Schutz, there are no painters fresh out of grad school that are ready to show.
If the work is good, they will beat down your door to show it. Don't push. I finished NY Studio School in '07, my first solo was in 2015, I had just turned 35. I had 8 years to make crappy paintings without anyone caring about sales. My paintings weren't showable until maybe 2013.
What is a typical day like for you?
No alarm clock, do the computer stuff, maybe go jog, breakfast, walk to studio, paint til lunch, take a nap, paint til dinner, walk home and watch Netflix. Sometimes I'll go to an opening or museum or meet friends for dinner. I paint pretty much every day.
Do you feel like it is important to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so how do you get there?
Crucial on a long term large painting, I can wreck one of those real quick. The morning is for looking at images, starting things up, doing mindless work, stretching, priming... after lunch I'm flying, the palette is just right, I lose time. It might be the nap that gets my head right.
What are the most important components of your studio?
I need a wall large enough to accommodate the paintings, paint—as expensive as you can afford but still waste without thinking about the cost, canvases with a 7/8 proportion, real turpentine, a good palette—ideally glass, orange juice containers for my turps (separated by color so I don't have to wash the brushes), small cups for the stand oil, squirt bottle for clean turp/damar, a knife and a tape knife. When I move studios it takes a little while to drink enough OJ to get my situation right again, ha.
I like eggbert long bristle brushes. I wear gloves to paint. Orange soap to clean myself, Murphys oil for the annual brush clean.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
Crucial, I make Spotify playlists that I have to save cause there's no internet there. I listen to music that I know so I don't have to think about hearing something new. Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sleep, Dylan, Motorhead, Cat Power, Nick Cave, Patty Smith, Uncle Acid, Willie Nelson, Mazzy Star, Otis Redding, Nirvana, Radiohead, Stones, etc.
I love your album cover paintings—can you talk about your decision to paint them? How many have you done/plan to do?
Thank you. a few things, Iron and Wine used a painting of mine for an album, I erased a 250 gb iPod that was full of music and made a painting of all the music that was in it. I found this website with MS Paint versions of classic album covers that was amazing. I'm taking 100 of them to the art expo in Chicago this September. I've got 70-ish done, another 40 started.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Hearing punk music as a teenager would probably qualify, DIY, feminism, being yourself, non-conformity. seeing my first Rembrandt in the flesh, the presence it had, like there was someone in the room with me. I've been into southern gothic lately, Flannery O'Connor, "The Violent Bear it Away."
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Matisse, Beckmann, Picasso, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Jonas Wood, Hockney, Daniel Heidkamp.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Bill Jensen says to keep your overhead low. Rents in NYC are crazy, if you can stay away from the 9-5, your art will move along more quickly.
What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
The Amy Sillman show was amazing, she can do anything.
What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
Necessary evil, Instagram seems the best to me. Facebook friends: I am aware of Trump and Bernie, please stop haha.
Do you have any news or shows coming up?
Katherine Bernhardt curated the booth for Canada gallery at FRIEZE and she's hanging two of my big paintings.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
Thanks for having me, great questions. Sorry about the typos.
To find out more about Todd and his work, check out his website.