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Gregory Siff: Immortal

0 Comments 25 February 2013

Neo-abstract-expressionist painter Gregory Siff talks about his creative process, dream project, and the moment that made him rethink his career.

by Daniel Barron

 

As he overlooked an infant sun, dressed in a slick black suit and buzzing from champagne, Gregory Siff stood on top of the world.

I AM TONIGHT.

It was more than the drinks.  It was everything, really.  After months of careful preparation and intensive creative labor pains, his solo art show “There and Back” had been a smashing success.  Over 700 eager spectators had lined up to the one-night event, flooding the rooftop of Hollywood’s posh Siren Studios with an assembly of his friends, contemporaries, and ardent fans.  Unfolding over a delirious, unforgettable night, it was an appropriately red carpet treatment for a luminary of the LA art scene.

Following the show, Siff and a close group of his friends reconvened at his studio for an extended victory lap.  Brakes be damned.  Minutes shy of six in the morning and the velocity of the night’s festivities were only increasing in throttle.  As he dragged a cigarette on the balcony, Siff’s friend Dana joined him to congratulate on a successful exhibition.  Along with these complimentary words came some sobering advice: “I want you to remember that you’re nothing.  This all means nothing.  You have to be hungry.  You have to stay hungry.  You have to act like this night didn’t even happen.  You have to wake up tomorrow and paint again.  Everything around you, it all means nothing.”

The gravity of the words pulled at Siff’s pride.  Nothing?  This had been the biggest show of his life, the culmination of two decades of life experience.  Of dreams pursued, of love found, of hearts broken.  He had painted ninety canvases, crafted two murals, constructed multiple installations.  His name had been displayed in big neon lights.  The city of Los Angeles had practically rested a sword on his shoulders.  Why?  Why shouldn’t he revel in the splendor of the moment?  Dana’s attempt at supplying perspective had tripped a wire within Siff.  Fired up on alcohol, he walked over and removed a clock off the wall, threw it on the ground, and aggressively cracked its face with his foot.  He then removed the cigarette from his mouth and ashed it upon the clock’s broken surface.  The other guests looked on in stunned confusion.

That’s nothing,” he said.

It was the kind of spontaneous, symbolic gesture that becomes an instant folk tale.  In his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman paraphrases the philosopher Lewis Mumford: “With the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events.”  He postulates the clock was humanity’s attempt at superseding the authority of nature.  We became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.”   But Siff, with one defiant step, had denounced this notion.

“From now on, this is it.  I’m an artist and that clock doesn’t exist,” he decried.

The clock is still in Siff’s possession, cast in resin, his moment of revelation crystallized at 5:43.  It became the inspiration for his next solo show, six months later, “Matter of Time.”  “I realized I couldn’t take everything so seriously, like objects and material things, or time and what it means to have trophies or a successful life.  I realized having nothing is having everything,” he says.  Over the course of an unusually prolific career, he’s had intimate familiarity with both.

 

Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

I’M NOT GONNA DIE ON SUNSET BLVD.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Rockaway Beach, Siff’s lust for the arts first took seed when he was thirteen-years-old.  “I saw one of my friends who I went to school with in a Honeycomb cereal commercial with Andre the Giant and I loved wrestling at the time and I was like, ‘How do I get in a commercial and hang out with Andre the Giant?  How do you do that?’”  His classmate put him in touch with his agent and a before long his parents were regularly driving him into New York City after school to take him to the opera, where he would perform in Central Park in front of hundreds, in Italian and French, no less.  It was his first paycheck. This was followed by a number of film, stage, voice-over, and television roles, including a two-season stint hosting a Disney Channel sports program and appearances on CSI: NY and Saturday Night Live.  His omnivorous appetite for creativity would eventually encompass a love of music (guitar and alto-saxophone), playwriting, and directing.

In 2000, at age twenty-three, Siff migrated to LA, carried like many before him on plane ticket and a dream.  The move signaled the beginning of an enduring polyamorous relationship between the two coasts.  But as all who have been seduced by her promises know, LA can be a decidedly fickle lover, and the strenuous song-and-dance routine of the audition process began to corrode his morale.  “As an actor you go through so much failure, so much loss, and in life you go through so much loss.  But you learn that those are the parts that build the muscle.”  He still had one love that didn’t require an agent or audition.

 

Photographer unknown.

 

YOU WILL LOSE AND LOSE.  DON’T STOP.  ONE DAY YOU WILL WIN.

Siff confesses he never planned to be an artist or received any formal training.  Sure, he had appreciated art as much as the next person, but it wasn’t until college that he developed more than a casual love of painting, when his assigned reading list included a book on graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.  At the time, the cost of the book seemed exorbitant, yet in hindsight its value is incalculable.  “I just looked at it and was like ‘Damn!  This guy’s going through something, man!’  If you look at Basquiat’s life he had a hard life and went through a lot and you look at those paintings, and even though some of them have words on them and some of them don’t have words on them you can tell that there’s a real struggle and a real statement with them.”  The effect of seeing Basquiat’s paintings up close was downright contagious.  With his distinct abstract-expressionist style and affinity for vibrant colors Siff’s pieces share unmistakable genetic code with his idol’s work.

A transformational moment occurred, one day, when a woman on the street caught an admiring glimpse of Siff’s pair of Adidas that he had customized with his drawings.  She asked to buy the shoes right off his feet, and suddenly the idea had been germinated that his affection for the craft could be more than just a hobby.  An “angry actor” had reinvented himself as a “peaceful artist.”

JUST A BOY IN LOVE WITH A GIRL.  THAT’S IT.

While some would describe the creative experience as a grueling and tortuous process, he applies a certain romance to it: “It’s like catching a glimpse of a girl and you just can’t take your eyes off of her.    You’ve gotta have a conversation with her and take it to the next level.”  This courtship with the muse achieved just that in 2005 when he witnessed a reading by one of his other heroes, artist Louis XXX.  “I went to one of his readings at Book Soup and he said, ‘Think of the craziest thing you can think of and then do it.’”  Siff, not one to think in half-measures, dared himself to show his work to the management of Hollywood’s landmark hotel The Standard.  The gamble paid off, and he was promptly commissioned to paint a mural for their display.  It was a good problem to have.

 

Photo by Michael Rababy.

 

NONE OF THIS BELONGS TO US

He officially made LA his home in 2010 and the popularity of his work landed him in the pages of Interview Magazine, Paper Mag, The LA Times, LA Canvas, Complex, and Glamour.    Reflective of his influences and yet wholly singular, Siff’s style has an immediacy that is undeniable, starting with his preference for bright primary colors that bleed onto the canvas like spurts of arterial spray from an open wound.  “Those three colors remind me what it feels like when you’re a kid.  You look at those colors and then you’re in a classroom again.  You can go anywhere with those colors.”  After all, they’ve taken him everywhere from from London and Dublin to Italy and Vancouver.

Another signature of his work is the seemingly stream-of-conscious scribblings that weave a dense mosaic of emotions.   Using direct words and phrasing to communicate sentiments as stripped down and raw as the primary colors he favors, they betray his basest fears (“I might lose everything.”), statements of self-affirmation (“Sometimes great pain brings great creation.”) and a snide sense of humor (“Buying jeans can be hazardous to your health.”)  They represent, what he calls “the sheet music” to his life.  It’s impossible to digest in on one glance and that isn’t Siff’s intent.  “I hope I take every viewer on their own adventure.  It’s like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.  You look at one of those large pieces and from far away they look really cool and then you get really close and you see all the details and I hope you pick up on the frequency that you are in that day.”

To offer an example, he scans the canvas of a piece titled “’Til the End of the World.”  “If you look closely it says, ‘Superstar,’ ‘Hustler,’ ‘Poet.’  ‘Beautiful people.’  ‘True love.’  ‘I have nothing without you.’  So that was my story today.  That was what I saw when I walked past the painting.  You come by it another day- and everyone else has a different eye-line- and so I want you to form your own poetry from it.”

Above all else, Siff sees his paintings as a fossilization of his experience that might serve as a guide to future generations.  “When I went to London I spoke to a man in a gallery and he was saying, ‘Nothing lasts forever, but art is eternal.’   You can go to a museum and pick up right where van Gogh left off.  It’s evidence of life, and that’s what I want my paintings to be.”

“Study of a Sleepless Man.”  Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

WRITE YOUR OWN MOVIE                                                  

Respected among the fine art community, Siff has also been embraced by the street art world, initiating himself early one day in 2009 during his morning commute.  Taking his three tubes of paint he covered his hands and smeared them all over the surface of billboard in a New York subway station.  Underneath his handiwork he wrote the cryptic tag-line: “PAINT IS COMING.”

That would be Siff’s longtime dream project painT, a hyper-stylized film of the life of Vincent van Gogh set in the modern day.  He envisions an impressionistic depiction of an impressionistic subject that visually depicts the artist’s passions and absinthe-fueled hallucinations.  It’s a subject that Siff regards with a certain emotional kinship.  “I think that there aren’t a lot of movies out there that really show what it’s like for artists, to one day wake up and become magnetized towards creating things, painting things, building things, and what that does to your life and how beautiful it can be and how you dream up and down.”  A complete script is written and he reports that there is “interest” in the project.

 

Photographer unknown.

 

JUST BE A FUCKING POEM.

One quality he thankfully doesn’t share with van Gogh is that his work has been appreciated within his lifetime.  Siff remains a sought-after collaborator, having participated with many veterans of the graffiti and street and scenes, including respected crew The Seventh Letter and a high-profile mural with RISK at the 2012 Art Basel festival in Miami.  RISK has fond memories of the experience: “We painted our mural in the middle of the night after a very long day working on another huge wall. However, when we started his energy was contagious and it felt as if it were the beginning of the day. He made a 24-hour session feel like lunch break.”  The result of their labors was one of the more striking efforts of a memorable event.

Along with the artist known as MAR, Siff is also one of the founding fathers of The Creative Cartel, a full-service, multi-medium art collective whose goals his partner describes in no modest terms: “To become a family of artists so deep and well-rounded that we can do anything, make anything and rethink anything…Art can change anything. We want to change everything!”  The ambitions of The Creative Cartel, whose roster also includes 2wenty and CYDE-1, encompasses everything from clothing and graphic design to musical performances and art events.

MAR, for one, isn’t surprised that his friend’s work has connected with such a wide audience.  “He lives in the moment. You can see it on his face. You can also see it in his art, that’s why he has been able to connect with the viewer so well… We aren’t big on ego, Gregory embodies that. His work speaks for itself.”

 

Collab with RISK at Art Basel. Photo by Birdman.

 

NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN

His next show will be speaking to a particularly special audience. The site of his upcoming project represents a sort of homecoming for the well-traveled artist.  “I don’t have a studio in New York.  What would I create if I was in my home?  All my friends and all my family and everybody who isn’t in LA is saying ‘We want to partake in that.  We only get to see photos online.’”  The symmetry of the project extends to the Brooklyn exhibit’s title, “The Effects of Memory,” which refers to a concept that harkens back to his origins in acting.

For Siff, it will be an unusually personal undertaking.  He was profoundly affected by the death of his father George Siff in 2007, and the show is intended above all else as a tribute to his memory.  He plans to begin painting on May 7th, the day of his father’s death, and put down the brush on June 15th, his father’s birthday.  As with the screen or the stage, there’s no room for inhibitions in art.  “In acting you can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m doing this scene because my grandpa passed away.  Act sad.’  You have to remember the details, and that’s what affective memory is.   You need to recall the way that your grandfather’s hands felt and the way that the playing cards smelled when you would play rummy with him.  You need to remember these things about him.”  Art may have the power to grant immortality, but it can take a death in the family to truly appreciate the transience of life.

“You only get one movie.  You’re the star of your own film right now, and if you’re gonna get stuck in the scene, it’s your loss.”  Like Basquiat or van Gogh before him, one hopes that Gregory Siff will be remembered long after the credits roll.

 

MY FATHER CAN HEAR THIS.

 

 

Photo by Luis Ochoa.

 

Photo by Marlena Posa.

 

Collab with 2wenty. Photo by 2wenty.

 

Photographer unknown.

 

Gregory Siff art

 

Photographer unknown.

 

Gregory Siff painting

 

Gregory Siff art

 

Gregory Siff mural

 

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez.

 

Photo by Birdman.

Video by Carlos Gonzalez:

 

Featured photo by LISTAK.

Follow Gregory Siff on Twitter and Instagram at @gregorysiff

View more of his work on his Tumblr page.

Purchase his work here or at the LAB ART website.

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- who has written 423 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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