In a dungeon-like basement studio in Williamsburg on a drizzly November afternoon, Aubrey Mayer is settled in an easy chair. Scattered around him are scraps of paper on a paint be-speckled cement floor, a box of American Spirits. A drawing of a kangaroo with boobs adorns the bathroom door—apparently freshly rendered by Henry Taylor the night before. On the wall to Mayer’s left, “POLICE THE ART WORLD POLICE” is scrawled in black paint. With a pensive look on his face as he surveys a table covered in ‘brillo’ boxes and several walls of photos and autosheets in various states of construction, he almost seems as if he’s holding court. By his count, he spends about 18 hours a day in the studio and has a lot of work to make considering that earlier this year he began to sell enough of his art to sustain a full-time practice. Wearing a baseball cap, glasses, jeans, and sneakers, Mayer can go from laid-back, twenty-something urbanite who enjoys a good bullshit over a beer, to intense with a hungry look in his eye. And if recent history is any indicator, he does have an all-or-nothing ballsy streak. Before making sustainable sales, he did what almost no one else should do and quit his job to pursue a full-time career as an artist, in his words “threw a Hail Mary.” His talk about the discipline with which he approaches making art verges on old school visions of the great artiste, but then he’ll soften, lower his voice and speak very deliberately about putting a sense of humanity back in images, keeping subjects comfortable, getting audience to literally touch and toy with art. His extensive portraits of other artists, some of which are published in zing 23, exhibits a similar twofold nature. The gaze is decidedly heterosexual and male, but emotionally vivid and nuanced. There is something calculating happening and a strong whiff of seduction, but the expression is anything but cold. There’s none of that stale masculine voyeurism in the energy of the images and subjects frequently seem to be captured on some psychological edge, as if looking out from the frame of a strange film.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
How do you choose your subjects for portraits? They’re usually other artists.
Yeah, I photograph like one person a year now basically, but when I was really heavily doing a lot of portraits of other artists, one artist would lead to another. Or, I’d get interested in an artist because of another artist. It just naturally umbrella-ed.
I saw that you photographed Agathe Snow, another zing contributor. How did you meet Agathe?
I met Agathe when I was maybe 22 or 23. Carol Lee (then) of Paper Magazine had me do this thing where I would photograph an artist and ask them twelve questions, actually send them a short interview. So I met Agathe. I think I photographed her for the first time for the Whitney Biennial when she had something at the Armory and that’s where I met her. Then she rented a house on the same street I live on in Orient Point on Long Island. I don’t know how we saw each other there, but then we hung out. It’s where I took my better photographs of her.
When did you start making art?
I’ve been making pictures for a long time. Since high school. It was never my major. I never got classically trained, but I’ve been taking pictures for a long time. I took pictures as a teenager. I took pictures in high school. Like, I did a lot of nudes starting in high school.
What was your earlier work like?
I took some pictures of a couple having sex in high school. I was taking naked pictures of girls and I asked this one girl who was my friend and also doing photography if she would pose nude and she said, “Yes, but can we take pictures of me and my boyfriend having sex, too?”
Why do you think you’re so drawn to photographing people?
I don’t really know. I just think that’s the most interesting thing. It was just natural. I don’t know. Everything is just natural for me. Everything I do. Every move I make . . . I just make it and you know I have no idea why. I think that portraits and artwork of people has always seemed like the most important to me until I met Christopher Wool’s work.
What I’ve learned about my work and what pushed it to evolve is that in the beginning it was hard to get an audience, it was hard to get people interested in the photographs. I felt like I had the best photographs in the world and I had the responsibility to figure out how the fuck to get them out there and that’s what has pushed my work—that’s what’s pushed my work into the books and now the ‘brillo’ boxes.
I didn’t go to art school, but I’ve learned a lot from the artists I photographed. I chose which artists to learn the most from.
Can you describe what you mean by this feeling of “natural”?
It’s gut. It’s all gut. Everything I do is gut.
So this picture (gestures to black and white photo of creek). I think it’s an amazing picture. But in today’s art landscape, a lot of people would overlook an image like that. So I painted it neon yellow to make sure people didn’t forget to look. That was a gut instinct.
You seem to think a lot about audience.
Yeah, because a lot of people say that photography is dead or different versions of this. And it’s not dead.
I believe in classical, traditional photographic techniques, but I believe that photography needed a new energy. I don’t color correct, like shit is straight through. There’s no artifice. I deal with it without artifice. I guess I’m painting on it because other people are ruining it with Photoshop. That’s why photography was dying, because of the way people manipulate images.
If you want to know why I think photography’s dying, it’s because of fashion photography.
Interesting. How so?
Because a lot of young photographers come up and they think they have to be a fashion photographer or they use all the fashion photography re-touching and it just sucks the life out of their photos. And also, fashion photographers aren’t even photographers, they just do fashion. They’re getting told what to shoot and how to shoot it. They just have to show up, look pretty, and shake hands.
What is your process then for creating a portrait?
That’s interesting. It’s definitely a collaboration. I don’t think when I’m taking a portrait. That is a natural thing. I don’t really talk to the subjects other than that we’re hanging out. They don’t even really notice that I’m doing anything. I’ve been told many times that it feels like I’m not even there. I try to make the subjects not feel me, the weight of my presence. There’s just like a right way to do it. I have instincts.
I think it’s important to note that I went on a photo-shooting spree. I always wanted to be an artist and it always bothered me—it probably shouldn’t have—that people would call me a photographer. What I do is art. We’re all image junkies and everybody’s got a camera. But what I do, nobody else does. So I always thought I was an artist. The whole process of getting other people to realize that was very difficult. Really hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But the most worthwhile, obviously.
How did you fight the label photographer?
By making the best work I could. I just work hard. I spend 18 hours a day at the studio.
Elizabeth Peyton is from Orient. When I was younger, that was the first artist that I photographed. She was down the street from these awesome people who I used to stay at their house because my parents used to work in the city in the summer. And I was taking pictures and they’re like, “Oh you should look up this person who lives down the street, she’s really sweet.” And they said something like she wants to learn how to sail. And at that point in my life, the year before, I was campaigning for the Olympics. I was on the 2005 U.S. sailing team. I went to St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We were ranked 1st in the country. My freshman year we won a National Championship.
It sounds like these features of ambition and competitiveness are very much a part of who you are.
Extremely. Ever since I was little. I grew up very overweight and I was tortured as a child, really ostracized. And my dad would always try to get me to sail and one night when I was like nine years old, for some reason one night, I was like, “Man, I’m gonna go race the older kids.” They were 18 year olds and I kicked everyone’s ass. It gave me something to feel good about. From then on, I sort of just found happiness through hard work. When I was younger it was sailing and now it’s art. I enjoy the process. I enjoy being here 18 hours a day. I enjoy pushing to get it right.
The StoneScape group exhibit earlier this year was curated as “portrait work that unveils the identity of the artist as well as the subject.” Is that something that’s going on in your work, the revelation of your identity?
I think it’s portrait and about portrait, and definitely because I think that the thing about the new portrait is that the work’s just as much about the person taking it as it is about the subject.
It’s about including everything. When I was little I would look at a Peter Hujar book and then I would go take a Peter Hujar photograph. Then I’d look at a Robert Frank book and then go take a Robert Frank photograph. Eventually I ran out of people to take pictures like and it all started to become my own, but the one thing it taught me is that portrait and about portrait is an important idea. There’s not one portrait for me. A portrait of somebody is really in one of these auto sheets, you know, hundreds of pictures. The feeling of being with somebody. The warts. The bad pictures. It’s almost like I’m filming.
I try to do everything so that the artwork can’t be put in one compartment. I use every compartment so as to keep all the balls bouncing, to keep it really alive, really happening, really fun, a lot of energy, fun to look at. It’s by doing everything that that happens, not by doing one thing. My mind is like on a constant hamster wheel. Once it becomes one thing, I’ve hit a wall and now I have to go in the other direction.
There were three years where I felt like, “Why aren’t people paying attention to this?” [gestures at work hung around studio.]
How do you get people to pay attention to art?
I was a photo assistant for years, which enraged me, because I thought I should take the photographers’ cameras and smash them over their fucking heads. It disgusted me to go to work everyday. I was the lighting director on the Gap campaign last year. That was the last straw. [My wife,] Toby and I went to Amsterdam for Christmas holiday to see the Mike Kelley show at the stedelik. I went every day. Over and over again. I got back and I just got in touch with a couple people that had known my work and had bought some things in the past. Thea Westreich is one person who I got in touch with. I was like, “I can’t live like this anymore, I need to make this work, please help me, give me some advice, tell me what to do. I know that I should be an artist right now for a living.” And we talked about the work and she highlighted some things she liked about it and at that point I went from working to living off my credit card. Basically, I was throwing a Hail Mary. And that’s when I came up with the brillo box. I wanted to put all of the photos in one place. I knew they took up too much real estate on the wall, so I put them in a box. The box was a natural evolution from having no money and having to make books for five years. The only way I could look at my photos not on a computer screen was in a copyshop book from Staples. So that naturally pushed me into book-making. I have so much material. The only way to deal with it was to put it in a box.
It sounds like it’s important for you to have the work in an object form instead of on a computer.
Yeah, I was so tired of looking at a computer screen because I’d been looking at it only on a computer screen for so many years. I think it’s crazy how people treat books and photography. I wanted my audience to touch it . . . to feel it . . . to be able to experience it like I do in the studio everyday. Not preciously but rather roughly, aggressively, fun-ly. I mean the touching part is really important to me, fingerprints.
Do you have any self-portraiture?
Yeah, it’s a big naked picture of me. It’s in here. [Picks through brillo box]. Sometimes I hand off the camera to the people I’m photographing too. Wool took good portraits of me, Jacqueline Humphries and Charline Von Heyl did too.
It seems like you take a lot from Warhol, but you haven’t referenced him as an influence so I’m curious about your thoughts on him.
We just share some things in common because we took a lot of pictures of other artists. That’s it. Also, he’s really good at making pictures. I think about all this stuff and I think about painting and the reason why I wasn’t afraid of it is because it’s all just picture making to me and I think that Warhol is a really prime example of that. He was just really good at making pictures. In a way, that’s how I got people to look at my photographs. I realized that I had to make them into pictures that were imposing, they’re big and on linen or stacked tall in a huge box. They just have to have weight for me. Literally. Metaphorically. Everyway.
Another thing that’s been written about you is that your work captures introspection and has a capacity to capture interior life.
I guess that comes from people just being natural, letting their guard down because we’re just hanging out and it’s cool. I was more nervous than most of these people, especially in the beginning. We definitely collaborate. The most I say is if somebody was sitting in one chair for a long time, I’d be like, “Maybe we can go sit somewhere else.” I want the images to keep changing, to keep moving and I wanted to hang out for a long time so I realized early on that you sort of have to keep the situation stimulating somehow and that’s where the instinct kicks in. Everybody’s different, there’s so many different personalities, but that’s where it really kicks in. What’s this person comfortable with, what’s this person uncomfortable with. The reason why I love my work is because it’s all humanity.
How do relationships with other artists and subjects figure into your process?
In every way you can possibly imagine.
There’s talk about whether the role of artist is changing and what that role is.
It is changing.
I don’t know, but it is.
As an artist I’ve tried everything and it’s just gotten to the point where people have started to buy it so I can make more of it and that’s a great privilege to make art for my living. Especially being so young.
What do you do when you have a failure?
Throw it in the trash. Rip it up. If it’s not good enough for me, if I’m asking the question, for me, it’s not good enough, it’s a ‘maybe.’ If I don’t totally love it, I throw it out.
What are you working on now?
Heaps of new paintings on Linen over black and white pigment prints. Wool in Marfa junkyards, Laura Owens in her backyard in LA, Raymond Pettibon stripping his girlfriend in Zwirner’s Gallery, a Japanese Cow, a Wild Horse.
Finishing up the user manual for my new Brillo Box (#4) ‘Prisoner of Ismaul Volume 2’ . . . It’s like a giant puzzle or board game . . . you can make it into a Carl Andre . . . you can make it whatever you want. I’m just trying to make a manual that helps people figure out their own ways to play with it. It’s a toy. A giant sex toy for art collecting adults.
And another sort of felt record tower, I guess Brillo (#5). It’s the first printing of 6-17-10B the rest of my photos of Christopher Wool in Marfa on June 17, 2010. Stacked in two sections 9×6 double sided pages mounted on davey board. 22-inch tall tower.