Michael Neff’s Amazing Chalk Art and Photography

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An Interview with the Artist Himself

I’ve looked at your website, and at your little corner of Gawker.  Your chalk art fascinates me.  You use a temporary medium to capture a temporary state – the shadows that fall in the evening and at night.  What made you think of starting this project, and what was the first thing you decided to capture that way?

In 2006 I was living and working in the West Village, walking 8 or 10 blocks from my apartment to work every day. I worked late a lot and one night I was walking home and thinking about how beautiful some of the shadows were and for the first time thought about how one could draw attention to them. The first piece I ever did was on a wall on Bedford St between Carmine St and Leroy St. My brother, who had been a tagger in his youth, was in town and I told him about my idea. I pointed out this great shadow that was being cast by a tree onto a cinderblock wall and we outlined it. Ironically that was probably the longest lived piece I’ve ever done. It stayed up for more than a year and I think it finally just wore away. The second piece was the only daytime shadow I’ve ever traced, that of a fire hydrant on the Upper East Side after visiting the 2006 Whitney Biennial with my brother and girlfriend at the time. All of the pieces that you can find on the web are shot at night. I color correct them and sometimes that makes them read a bit like it’s daytime. The night in New York City is actually very bright.
As for why I chose chalk, I have been interested in graffiti for a long time. I used to photograph Shepard Fairy’s wheatpaste and sticker work as far back as 1998. I knew that working in the street was going to equate me with graffiti and street art but I didn’t feel pressure to use spray paint. In fact, I recognized that a lot of the best shadows fell on buildings. People’s homes. And I didn’t want to deface people’s homes. I wanted to share something beautiful and surprising. And if someone didn’t like it they could wash it away or wait for it to rain. The photograph is an important part of the work so the fact that the drawing is very fugitive doesn’t bother me. In fact, I think it’s great when people tell me they’ve run across the drawings in person. There haven’t been that many and they don’t last very long so that is a special experience.

Obviously, you are a fantastic photographer.  How old were you when you started taking photographs?

I don’t really remember. I don’t have one of those creation myths all photographers seem to have where their grandfather gave them a camera for their birthday that he had used to document WWII from the front lines. My dad and grandfather both worked in the photo industry so it was always around but I didn’t take photography seriously until my dad left his job and my grandfather died. I remember first taking artsy pictures near the end of high school. They were terrible!

Your website says that you dream of living on the west coast.  Are you interested in returning to the Pacific Northwest, where you were born, or are you more interested in California?  What are your reasons for wanting to make that move?

I love New York but hate the weather. I also miss the ability to escape from people. You can do that pretty easily on the west coast, even in a big city like San Francisco. It’s harder here.

What does 2011 have in store for you?

I have a two-person show opening in February in Seattle with a very talented guy named Brad Ewing. Other than that I think it is going to be a big year of work. I’ve been making a lot more prints and drawings so watch for more of that and perhaps a few paintings. Maybe even some cast sculpture.

What type of equipment do you use?

When I’m photographing I shoot with a Canon 5D on a sturdy tripod. I color correct and sharpen in Photoshop but don’t do anything else. People always ask about that, even commenting, when they come upon the work in the street, that it looks fake. It really is a trick of the eye because of the strong contrast of the dark shadow and the light chalk. This is actually the same principal at work as when you digitally sharpen photos. Prints are either archival inkjet or laser-exposed c-prints.

Do you have an uncharted territory that you plan to conquer?  A certain type of photography you’ve always wanted to do?

I’ve used almost every type of photography in the past and don’t plan to do anything too crazy in the near future. I plan to make some more cyanotype photograms of security envelopes in the coming year. I don’t know if you saw those.

Do you have plans to do more chalk art?

Always, it just takes time. I work after dark and like to work later at night. It’s tough to work when it’s raining or when it get’s really cold so I tend to work most in the summer. This summer I rode my bike from Durham, NC to Denver, CO and was gone for six weeks. That definitely impacted my output this year.
If you look at the work chronologically on Flickr you can see my line quality change over time. I plan to continue exploring different ways of responding to shadows. The rule for this work is that the shadow or void where the shadow was has to catch someone’s eye, chalk may not always be the medium I use to do that but it is right now.

You’re so creative, do you have other ideas for other mediums of art similar or completely different from your chalk art?  You like to play with perspective, so it would be neat to hear about what you’re thinking about.

I’m currently working on a series that has a similar core tenet about paying attention to the things that surround us everyday. I’ve been exploring what things look like when the text is removed from them in an attempt to explore whether these structures are still recognizable without their content. I haven’t settled on a title for the series yet but have made a lot of sketches. I think my show in Seattle will be composed primarily of works like this. I can tell you this: I never stop thinking!

Photographs of Other Work

Post No Bills Photographs

I wasn’t quite finished interviewing this fascinating artist, so I tacked on some other questions at the end.  Here is that part of the interview:

The After Party

You’re a serious artist, and This Blog Rules isn’t always a serious blog.  What made you agree to have us interview you?

I’m happy to share my work with a broader audience. Sharing is a major part of the work itself. And of course, Andy Warhol said, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.” Also, I like that you called me serious. (laughs)

Similarly, since the internet is such a huge thing in all of our lives, what are some websites that inspire you, make you laugh, and what websites do you hate?  What do you like about the state of media today (meaning how easy it is to communicate, social networking, etc) and what do you dislike?  Do you have music that you listen to while you work?  If so, what is it?

I think social media have made an incredible impact on our lives. Strangely we know more about more people now than we would in the past but sadly I think we spend less time with those same people. Along those lines, I’m not a big fan of texting. I send and receive a lot of texts but I wish that we all picked up the phone and called each other more often. It’s much easier to misconstrue the meaning of a text or email than a phone call. There’s just so much more information carried in a call. You can hear stress, elation, the background noise of where someone is. All of that context is helpful. Calls are also real time and continuous where text and email can be very disjointed and become separated from their original context. You can also get a lot more done in a one-minute phone call than in $2.50 worth of texts. The modern focus of having a record of everything has certainly pushed email deeper into our lives. I relish face to face interaction, especially with a good pint of beer.
I am inspired by the fact that the Internet can still surprise me. Greg Rutter’s Whatevs.net makes me laugh every time I’m on Tumblr. I know Google has been getting a bad rap lately but I use a ton of their products and I don’t pay for any of them. That’s pretty amazing. I hate when people don’t think through the user interface of their website. Goody.com is a site for a company that makes hair accessories. I was looking for a product of theirs that my girlfriend loves and literally stopped looking on their site and just searched for it instead. It’s clear that the designer’s super cool idea won out over usability. If a website is supposed to do something it should do that first and be pretty or cool second. I’ll always remember first how bad the site was whenever I think of the product which is sad because a number of their products are really innovative.  I’ve been on a big Philip Glass kick recently. I can’t believe I’ve never really listened to him until now.   And talk about an influential composer. I don’t think we’d have Radiohead or the score to American Beauty without Philip Glass.
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Then I decided I’d “Inside the Actors Studio” him.  Yes, I just made that into a verb.

What is your favorite word?

Yes

What is your least favorite word?

Poot

What turns you on?

Collecting

What turns you off?

Having to go to bed when I’m in the middle of something exciting so I can get up in the morning

What sound or noise do you love?

The distinctive growl of a 12-cylinder engine

What sound or noise do you hate?

People clomping back and forth in heels on a hardwood floor directly above me

What is your favorite curse word?

Dickhole

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Novelist

What profession would you not like to do?

The security guard who has to watch lots of security camera feeds at once.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Really? I could have sworn you weren’t on my list… (looks down at clipboard)
Many thanks to Michael for his patience and his willingness to come along with me on this rambling interview.  Check him out on his Michael Neff website, and look for him on Gawker as well.
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By Lizaio
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Comments

  1. imitation_is_the_highest_form_of_flattery says

    google these guys to see some street art history regarding works in this style:

    facundo newbery

    zevs

    ellis gallagher

  2. says

    I was tweeting away on twitter trying to find something to cure my boredom – and ZANG – someone I follow tweeted this post. Now, I am not quite as bored. Thanks for posting nice material. – Frisbee

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