This Guy Gave Up His Dream Job For Life As a Graffiti Artist

Photo by Stuart Keegan

Up until his mid-twenties, Mohammed Ali was following a pretty standard path for a kid from an immigrant family. He’d done well in school, gone on to earn a cutting edge degree, and landed a dream job as a game designer. But his artistic streak and moral compass were making other plans.

“It was my job to make little children addicted to their screens, to take kids away from playing outside with their friends or doing their homework and turn them into screen zombies. That’s not something I wanted to do with my life.”

Ali’s priorities began to shift.

It started with graffiti when he was a rebellious teen. You know, the usual did-that-kid-really-paint-this-on-my-wall stuff. All popping letters and neon colors. But in his early 20s, Ali started thinking a little bigger.

I suppose I was wrestling with this whole identity of being raised as an immigrant, but also of Muslim faith, especially at a time when Islam was (and in some ways still is) demonized, post 9/11.”

He moved on from bubble letters, and began experimenting with Islamic script while documenting the ups and downs of Muslim faith in an intolerrant world. And while spraying a public wall with paint (and no permission slip) is illegal in the UK, Ali was connecting with communities. And the news stations, community planners, and big businesses wanted in.

“Back in the early 2000s, while I was working my gaming gig, I built a website on the side and continued with my street art. Having an online presence was why I got noticed. News channels like CNN were finding my work online and calling me at my day job. I had to tell them to call back on my lunch break! I was so lucky to ride that trend. I don’t think I could do it the same way these days. In those days, so few artists had any presence online. It was all new to them.”

Ali admits he tried his best not to become an artist. But his path to being a full time artist was so laden with purpose, he couldn’t resist. Now he spends his time making tangible difference in the world. Not with a sword, pen, or brush. But with a spraycan and mission.

“I want to try and change the condition of society and the world that we live in. I realize not everybody can do that. And not everybody should do that, because everyone would be poor!”

Since becoming a full-time artist, Ali has taken on other roles as well, as an educator, a speaker, and an advocate for his community. In 2013, he was invited to give a TEDx Talk at the Vatican and in 2016, he was awarded the MBE for services to art and community cohesion. He’s been invited to create enormous murals in cities around the world.

We spoke more with Mohammed Ali about his life, his influences, and his work through art to build stronger communities.

Explore Mohammed Ali’s Virtual Galleries.

If you want to get a sense of how Ali covers entire walls, you can now experience them virtually on D Emptyspace:

Johannesburg Mural / Birmingham UK Murals / Untitled Gallery

Want to create your own galleries? Click here to download D Emptyspace for IOS from the app store.

How is street art uplifting communities when most people consider graffiti an eye-sore?

This Cromer Street mural by Mohammed Ali is enhanced by augmented reality where you can hear the stories of local residents.

Let’s take one of my latest projects as an example. It’s a new mural in Kings Cross, London(not the train station but the neighborhood behind it). Even though this work was sanctioned by the City Council I didn’t hold back on painting the very real issues that the neighborhood inherited from the 70s and 80s.

Back in those days, there was massive drugs and prostitution activity going on. Nowadays, Kings Cross has undergone a bit of gentrification. There are all these posh cafes and nice apartments… but below the surface, the inheritance of drugs remains. While I was painting, I saw drug deals taking place in broad daylight, so problems are still very much there. But I also met young people who were full of potential and pride. The area has changed and I wanted to acknowledge that, to tell a story of its transition. If we are oblivious to such past narratives, how can we work to resolve the current issues?

So I wanted to create a piece that told the story of the people who live here. I wanted the wall to tell a story to people passing by. So that’s exactly what I did. Using augmented reality, I’ve embedded 10 interviews from locals that automatically start playing when you hover over a part of the wall with your phone. I’m literally making the wall speak.

That’s how I use street art to reflect the local area and the stories that people are truly living. So that the ideas and thoughts of people who live there are actually heard. I expressed to the council that I want these interviews to be accessible in 200 years time, so we can remember and reflect on the truth of people. Not just what the biased history books want us to remember.

How do you paint those massive murals?

D Emptyspace Gallery of street murals by Mohammed Ali

Well, first of all, you need access to equipment like a scissor lift. I tried to use a scaffold, but it’s very tricky. So if you’re doing a big mural, it’ll have to be legally sanctioned, because you need the time.

To scale the art up isn’t really that hard. It’s just a case of understanding how to break your drawings using up using a grid so that you can scale them up. Once you have a grid worked out on paper, you can transfer it to the wall. It’s a well-documented technique. Just practice and follow the method.

I’ve recently made the switch from oil-based spray paint to water-based. They are generally safer to use plus it’s great for doing workshops indoors with kids and that sort of thing.

You do a lot of live performances in collaboration with vocalists and musicians. How do you set them up?

Through life, you sometimes encounter a “Fireworks moment”. That spontaneous moment, that golden moment in time, and it goes just as suddenly as it comes.

I was invited to do a TEDX talk at the Vatican a few years back. In my 18 minutes, I spoke for about 5, and then used the rest of the time to paint. After that event, someone came up to me and told me that a row of about four or five people were crying during my talk. And I thought, how strange, I wasn’t doing anything immediately emotional.

I realized that I needed to gauge what it was that made them feel such emotion. So I started tracking and monitoring my performances to capture that magic formula. I wanted to replicate, repeat, and build upon that moment. To develop and share a strategy or method to making an emotional reaction.

I approach people after my performances and ask how they feel, and when exactly they felt that way. Then I attribute it to specific timing, like smoke coming on stage, or a narrative that was particularly personal. I realized that what I was doing was using light, sound, music, and visuals, to make a multi-sensory experience.

Live performance by Mohammed Ali in Malaysia

If you get the right timing it’s fireworks. Say we start off pitch black, then slowly, the light fades in. And then this happens. And then there’s some music fills the space. And then there’s a moment of silence.

If I can get all these in the right measures, I’ve got some something really golden in the bottle.

Being a revolutionary is very nice and all… but with three kids, you have bills to pay. Do you ever compromise your morals for a commercial gig?

No, I try to stay away from the commercial sector where I can. Some street artists get snatched up by big corporations once they start making a name for themselves. But I didn’t want that. I’d already worked for a big corporation. I don’t want to compromise my morals or dilute my message to fit the agenda of some massive company.

I do corporate commissions, but I’m pretty picky about my clients. I won’t be a part of someone’s meaningless PR stunt.

A while back Ben & Jerry’s contacted me… Alarm bells went off, and I was all like “Really? The pink bubbly ice cream chain store wants me for some street cred? No way.

But I heard them out. And in the brief, they said something that immediately struck me.

“There’s a building negative attitude towards immigrants in Britain, so we want something that makes immigrants feel welcomed.”

I was shocked. I thought at first that it had to be some PR stunt or corporate social responsibility gig, so I took a deeper look into the history of Ben & Jerry’s. I was completely wrong. Turns out the owners have a long standing history of social activism and have even been arrested for demonstrating.

Now that’s the kind of company I’ll work with.

D Emptyspace Gallery of street murals by Mohammed Ali

What do you think artists have to offer the world in terms of real, tangible change?

Look, art makes people feel something. And it makes them think.

And it’s incredible. A bunch of bricks with a bit of pigment, bit of color, can make an emotional connection between a human being and a wall. That’s quite something.

Sometimes artists need to think methodically and strategically and tangibly because otherwise, the arts forever remains this esoteric, abstract thing that society doesn’t value.

Mural in Johannesburg by Mohammed Ali

What can we offer the world as artists? As creatives? The one skill I have is to create beautiful things, to present things beautifully, so that they become something that people desire. That’s my talent, so how do I use that for something that benefits the real world? Every artist needs to ask that question.

If we want the arts to come away from the fringes of society, then we have a responsibility to make the arts tangible and accessible for people. We need to engage communities with our art.

As an artist, you need to ask more relevant questions. How can my art talk to scientists and doctors? How can my art talk to schools and educators? How can it influence school curriculum?

How can my art talk to town planners and politicians, when they’re battling to try and find answers to a broken society of segregated and divided groups in cities?

It’s men in grey suits who make all the big calls, and I say it’s time for them to seek help. We need to be taking a seat at the damn table. So we can start solving problems with creativity and intuition where logic is so obviously failing. And getting the city council to hand over walls so artists can tell the real story of a community is step one.

To get to that goal, creative people need to learn to talk.

Instead of crazy conceptual ideas, we need to break it down to an accessible level. Artists are trained to think and respond differently to problems. And if we get a say in the problem-solving process, I think the world will be a better place for it. That’s what gives me hope and purpose.

Bringing people divided by race, culture, and religion is hard. Really hard. How have you been tackling current issues?

You’d think that various minorities in the UK would stick together. But unfortunately they often self-segregate. That’s why it was so incredibly powerful when Tanmanjeet Dhesi an openly Sikh Lawmaker, stood up in parliment and publicly defended Muslim women (after Borris Johnson referred to them as “letterboxes”).

For this openly Sikh man to stand up and defend Muslim women on national television was inspiring. It was a brave act of solidarity towards the Muslim community, and I wanted to honor that.

So I did a stencil of Tanmanjeet Dhesi in a Sikh neighborhood. I want to capture these fleeting moments in time, to memorialize them in paint so they don’t get lost in the dustbins of history. I don’t think society preserves these moments enough. I mean, who is it that decides on city monuments or commemoration statues? It’s certainly not the people who live in those neighborhoods. Even the history we’re taught in school is biased.

For example, did you know that in Andalucia in Spain, Christians and Jews lived under Muslim rule for hundreds of years? It was a stable Islamic state that even put non-muslims in government. (Editors note requested by artist: The situation was nuanced. You can get the full story here). So if you thought Islam and Judaism were natural enemies that couldn’t possibly co-exist… you’d be wrong. Why aren’t we taught THAT in school?

Photo by Peter Lopeman

In a time of turmoil, where people in power enable hate crimes, I think seeing a man of color wearing a turban on a wall says something powerful.

I did a similar stencil for Greta Thunberg — she’s been an icon of environmental activism and deserves to be remembered for a good time to come in my opinion. Youth should be encouraged to speak the truth. Don’t you agree?

Explore Mohammed Ali’s Virtual Galleries.

If you want to get a sense of how Ali covers entire walls, you can now experience them virtually on D Emptyspace:

Johannesburg Mural / Birmingham UK Murals / Untitled Gallery

Want to create your own galleries? Click here to download D Emptyspace for IOS from the app store.

Download D Emptyspace for iOS:

Android version coming soon!

Follow D Emptyspace for more company updates and art-curated content!

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Download

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The Science of Abstract Art with Daniel Stuelpnagel

The Science of Abstract Art with Daniel Stuelpnagel

If Thou And Nature Can So Gently Part by Daniel Stuelpnagel (2019)

One of the most incredible things about art is how it connects people.

This week we’re talking to Baltimore-based artist Daniel Stuelpnagel. Working abstractly with acrylics, he’s created over 850 pieces and participated in more than 100 exhibitions.

Stuelpnagel studied with Herb Jackson at Davidson College in North Carolina. He now works from a studio near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Throughout his career, he has practiced philanthropy and donated some of his best works to causes and communities in need.

Experimental D Emptyspace gallery. Images and curation by Daniel Stuelpnagel

What led you to decide to be an artist? Was it something you knew from a very young age or did your passion develop over time? Tell us your story.

I decided to become an artist to discover all the things I never learned in school.

What led me to the decision was a combination of frustration with working an office job for eight years, mixed with a vision of a life in art. I’ve been painting for twenty years, and the past ten years with even more technology immersion. I create images in my paintings that evoke a neural network, or a surreal dream space, or an architectural vector space. So my broad interests in the sciences have informed several facets of the artwork I’ve been producing.

“I love being able to create original paintings that enable me to articulate a non-verbal conversation about science, tech, architecture, emotionality, and human psychology.“

I love how these themes relate to the ways in which we humans have adapted our brains to the latest tech toolsets of the new millennium.

Tech is a really new trend in our society that only goes back one century or so. We’re fostering so much change, yet always struggling massively to “keep up” with the intellectual and emotional and even physical challenges of tech.

I think if you’d ask twelve people about tech, you’d get twelve different answers. But all of them would say that they’re immersed in tech and their working lives are characterized by full days of interacting with computer systems.

So in my work as a counterpoint, I actually use kind of quaint, mid-century modern, “traditional” painting techniques and materials. But the hyper-stylized paintings I’ve been sinking my teeth into for the past two years are a synthesis of my own styles driven by influences from contemporary narrative surrealism, street art, and other movements.

Daniel Stuelpnagel’s art studio

So you can see my passion has developed over time. In my mind, the non-verbal nature of abstraction makes it a perfect arena for exploring intricate emotional, psychological and social forces.

Your process is unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Can you walk us through how you create your pieces?

I layer acrylic on wood panels and use tape to compose many layers of geometric structure. It delivers a collage-like effect but it’s all thin layers of paint. This sequential process is contemplative and also dynamic, it gives me a lot of room to experiment with color and the psychology of composition.

I’ve been sanding down the surface texture and then painting additional layers to yield some fascinating textural yet subtle effects. An interior designer purchased six paintings from me recently — she was thinking of photographing and enlarging the images, but as soon as she saw the originals, she said that the texture made such an impact, she would only buy the originals.

I usually work in series. Sometimes with a dozen or two squares of various sizes, but more recently a landscape format where the land mass is comprised of geometry implying a built environment. This inevitably shows the implications of climate change and the confrontation between human civilization and the natural world. It means the mood of some of my most recent paintings is joyful but tragic.

Now The Fleeting Moon by Daniel Stuelpnagel (2019)

I’ve done about 850 artworks now. My artistic eye and decisiveness that I’ve nurtured for twenty years have brought me to a place where I actually trust a lot of my decisions and choices in the studio.

I feel really galvanized into action by the dynamic zeitgeist of the time that we’re living in. There’s no room for complacency and being prolific helps me grind under constant scrutiny without hesitation to turn things upside down when a new idea emerges.

Do you see technology changing the way we appreciate art?

Tech has absolutely redefined art and continues to expand the boundaries. It’s a force to be considered in every facet of the arts now.

For example, with the D Emptyspace app, I was skeptical at first, thinking “What does it do? Oh, it looks kind of simple.”

But after two days of using it to display and curate photos, I was totally hooked, and having a vision of this enormous virtual museum, or San Francisco gallery, or an art fair exhibition hall, or warehouse, or whatever, right?

It’s a kick in the ass for an artist to have access to tech that encourages you to take a fresh look at your photos of art and nature. It’s a great way to reframe a whole conceptual photo shoot, or storyboard, or take any kind of visual documents into a different scale and context.

Some Innocents Escape Not The Thunderbolt by Daniel Stuelpnagel (2019)

People often label successful artists as ‘talented’. Do you feel like your art comes from a place of talent or hard work? Or do you see art like your TedX collection, always Under Construction?

Ah, for sure you can see both sides of this. On one hand, you have to consider the continuous nature of practice; some type of hard work intellectually and emotionally to figure out the central design principle to focus on. Building the physical skills, the craft and improv, and the techniques and processes of painting.

On the other hand to compare with talent… where does that come from?

I spent much of my school years daydreaming, so I guess being pensive and in solitude gave me a very vivid imagination. I also inherited a ton of intellectual and analytical talents from both my parents.

But that raw talent had nothing to do with painting until much later when I did decide to pursue it as a way to express myself.

Art really inspired and enabled me to travel more also, so that was super important in expanding my world view. I found it’s mostly persistence and determination. Which they call being stubborn when you’re a kid.

You often mention that you work on collections simultaneously, how does that affect your process? Do you consider if the artworks will fit together or do you let the moment guide you?

I guess it’s just like writing a book and having plenty of blank paper or a proper space to work in.

“We’re products of our choices, and by choosing to be prolific, I’ve certainly made some bad paintings, but I also have given myself room to pursue lots of exciting opportunities and variations.”

Some paintings want to spin off ideas for other new paintings, so there’s plenty of catalysts in the process. But it’s only later on that I look at them together and interpret the themes and implications.

When you work on series, the best work sometimes comes first, sometimes later, but invariably I enjoy the visual conversation and curatorially it gives me a lot to select from, which is helpful.

Images and curation by Daniel Stuelpnagel

I would say the D Emptyspace app kind of takes this to a new level because it helps me take a fresh retrospective of some new work in the context of earlier work. The virtual galleries I’ve uploaded have given me a better sense of dynamic interplay, sparked fresh ideas to bring into the studio, and developed my ability to continually think about color and contrast. The app is a great theoretical workspace to analyze the visual characteristics of your photos in a new context.

Click here to visit Daniel’s D Emptyspace gallery “Vector Space Paradise.

How do you know when a work (or a collection) is finished? And do you have a favorite work?

Haha! I do have a ton of faves, almost every series happens because I keep working and feel inspired and encouraged by recent paintings that really took off! That’s another great reason to be as prolific as possible — you kind of have to be self-motivating.

I have a favorite painting from a recent show that is called “Nature Teaches Beasts To Know Their Friends.”

Nature Teaches Beasts To Know Their Friends by Daniel Stuelpnagel (2019)

It’s a return to a dreamlike landscape with some quirks, beautifully saturated colors, and makes me think of a theatrical stage as the psychological arena of the mind for an AI algorithm or something; but it’s still about climate change, human nature, and the post-Anthropocene moment.

“I’ll say a piece is finished when I think it’s doing what I want it to do. When I feel the continuity between the process of creating it and the act of viewing it.”

It could be an abstract story but my imagination connects and enjoys exploring what’s there… it’s evocative. Also, it needs to be elegant and well-crafted, subtle, effervescent, or alternatively raw and dynamic and painterly.

If it has the “wow” factor I know it’s done, which is one reason I love exhibiting: It’s great to get direct feedback from people.

What happens before you share a new collection or open a new gallery? Is it something you enjoy?

I do enjoy it — it’s partly social immersion, part performance art and part trade show (in addition to all the artistry and business functionality behind the scenes).

Artist Daniel Stuelpnagel pictured at Superfine NYC gallery opening

I’ve done shows where we have plenty of lead time before the opening and many others where we’re always installing a day before or the day of the opening, so every experience is different. Before it opens there’s an exploration of the work in juxtaposition with the space and that’s an artistic process in itself.

Before any show opens I generally collaborate with a number of people, clarify the concept, and run down lots of checklists to make it happen. But it’s usually pretty improvisational and that keeps it exciting.

I love showing work in Washington, DC where there’s lots of wonderful architecture. Baltimore is famous for having tons of vacant warehouses and lots of room for alternative venues which tend to be really spacious with high ceilings. I install my work for corporate buyers in office spaces as well.

The title of this piece “Most Good Scientists Are Romantics, “ plays into some very deep subcontext. The point at which science and romanticism meet is fascinating, and to some, conflicting. What does it mean to you?

Most Good Scientists are Romantics Daniel Stuelpnagel (2018)

That title was a phrase I saw in a great book by Alanna Mitchell called The Spinning Magnet, it’s about possible shifts in the Earth’s magnetic poles.

It stayed with me, maybe it’s a deep dualism that is part of my world view; I think the age of supercomputing has forced many different scientific disciplines to work together and collaborate as never before and the results have been amazing.

So I think the romanticism is partly this moment of expansion for so many in the sciences that may have invested decades pursuing a particular narrow specialty, so in a sense, I think their optimism has been rewarded and I find that romantic.

This painting is pretty upbeat but still reflects a lot of consideration and discernment.

Navigating the art world can be baffling for artists, how has your time as a TedXJHU artist changed your career?

Daniel Stuelpnagel’s banner installation at TedXJHU

That particular experience two years ago was me getting to team up with a dozen students at Johns Hopkins University. They had so many great ideas, we did a collab for about two months where I came up with a large banner for the stage, a sculptural display installation for the atrium of the building, another dozen paintings and a wall collage, and four separate installations all for a one-day event. They had to provide, like, three dozen students to help install and load out everything!

I met so many international students, so I think it acquainted me in a fresh and direct way with the kind of energy level that makes a world-class artist.

Daniel Stuelpnagel pictured with students and installation of his works at TedXJHU

Almost the greater challenge with navigating the art world is that we actually have to create it ourselves. So if it’s baffling, it takes us back to the studio and back to the process of self-examination, which brings us to create work that is so distinctive that the sentiments behind it are felt as universal.

It helps to discover a unique connection and find out who can really appreciate your work the more distinctive it is.

I find architects, designers, and corporate clients especially appreciate my paintings for the lengths I go to in order to create an aesthetic durability, and a piece that will continue to intrigue the eye for a lifetime, yet also rewards a quick glance with a clear feeling and unified aesthetic.

A painting in progress by Daniel Stuelpnagel

What advice would you give an aspiring artist who’s just getting started?

I’d say how important it is to find ways to contribute to the community. I’ve been doing philanthropy by choosing to donate some of my best work for charity benefit auctions since day one.

It’s been about fifty or more pieces so far, and it’s connected me to a global community of artists and philanthropists that made me realize I could have an immediate and continuous positive impact in the world.

You’re using D Emptyspace to curate galleries now. What do you think of it?

It’s like an ideal multi-million dollar museum space built in Minecraft. It’s so specific and useful yet so versatile and adaptable as a visualization tool.

It really has great implications and I believe this app could even inspire a whole new generation of curators.

Download D Emptyspace on iOS:

Android version coming soon!

Follow D Emptyspace for more company updates and art-curated content!

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One Californian Curator’s Quest to Represent Diversity

One Californian Curator’s Quest to Represent Diversity

Linemen Series on D Emptyspace

Joseph Abbati is an artist and curator who’s committed to representing the diverse artists of his San Francisco base. He currently curates themed exhibitions at the State of California building for the senator in office. His exhibits bring together a diverse group of artists on subjects such as housing, nightlife, artists over 50, the Bay Area Asian diaspora, LGBTQ Pride, the Global Climate Action Summit, and Latinx culture.

But Abbati isn’t limited to the skill of curation. He creates artwork that explores controversial topics like “Artspeak”, LGBTQ fetish postings, and the striking stand-out poses that populate the feeds of Instagram influencers. While his art leans towards a bright pop aesthetic, the topics Abbati explores indicate his wry sense of humor.

So, read on to find out how he became a high-profile curator, what he wants when looking for artists to feature, and his ironic musings on an art world that takes itself just a little too seriously.

Explore Joseph Abbati’s Art Galleries.

If you want to get a sense of how Abbati curates his galleries, you can now experience them virtually on D Emptyspace:

Body + / Linemen Series / Art Speak

Want to create your own galleries? Click here to download D Emptyspace for IOS from the app store.

What were your early years as an artist like? How did you discover that you wanted to be a painter?

I consider myself more of an artist than a painter. At the present, I’ve been using paint as a medium along with digital vectors. And I use photography to produce tapestries and prints on metal. I’m more multi-disciplinary when it comes to materials.

I started painting when I was a teenager. I had an older cousin that was a painter and she saw that I was artistically inclined and began teaching me to paint. That ultimately started my path to becoming an artist.

Graphic Studies Series by Joseph Abbati

You both create and curate artworks. How did you get involved in curation (especially at such a high level) and do you prefer one activity over the other?

I enjoy both artwork and curating. It all started thanks to an atmosphere of collaboration. Someone at our local Senator’s office saw my work at an exhibition and invited me to put on a display of my art in their building. They liked the work I brought to the office and I suggested curating another exhibit for them with San Francisco Bay Area artists.

The State of California Building has about 10,000 square feet and large open walls, perfect for displaying work. It was a great way for the Senator to reach out to his constituency while filling the offices with Bay Area art. We’ve continued this partnership for over two years with two new exhibits each year.

Artwork is my personal discipline. Curation keeps me in touch with the local art scene and developing new relationships within it.

Tell us a little bit more about your curation work in the senator’s office. Do you find it challenging? How do you balance diversity? And have you ever had pushback on a piece you thought was perfect?

Body + Gallery in D Emptyspace

There is always a challenge when organizing an exhibit. When I put out a call for submissions I want to reach as many people as possible so I can gather the most diverse segments in our community.

A visitor to one of our exhibits asked me why there were no female Latin artists in the exhibit. I had put out the call mistakenly thinking I reached out to enough of the community. But sometimes a particular segment doesn’t respond. So I needed to change the way I reached out. Now I target specific groups within the community. And in October I am curating a Latinx-based exhibit.

I’ve been fortunate to work for a Senator that does not pushback or override my choices. When we had artwork that was nude or sexual in nature I grouped them together strategically in a separate room but there was never a question about whether or not we’d hang the artwork. He and his staff have been very supportive of my efforts to represent the diverse community of artists we have in the San Francisco Bay area.

Among other things, your “Artspeak” Series reveals how difficult it is to describe the visual language of art with a written one. Where did your inspiration for this series come from? And have any brave art critics attempted to describe this series?

Artspeak on D Emptyspace

“Artspeak” comes from a collection of sentences I’ve been saving while reading art reviews, press releases and artist bios. I noticed there was a language used that seemed very obtuse at times. I found these tropes very amusing and saved them, not quite knowing what I would do with them at first.

Then I thought many of these sentences could be applied to almost any artwork so I started to create paintings that served as backdrops to them. I haven’t shown the entire series yet in an exhibit. I just started this series earlier this year and now have one in a group exhibit titled “Language and Letters.”

I noticed when people viewed the painting they seemed to miss the humor I was trying express until I explained the premise. When artwork references a question asking “Is it still possible to forge social autonomy from capitalist dominance in the psycho-economic framework of semiocapitalism?,” it can be intimidating.

By moving these descriptions into another context by questioning what is being said in the art world, it shows us how difficult it is to actually have words to describe a visual language. It’s also amusing to read with an absurdist point of view.

Can you talk us through your recent Linemen series? I’m curious, do you choose famous “influencers” as your models? Or rather unknown men without social media presence?

From the Linemen Series by Joseph Abbati

Some of the influencers I have used for the “Linemen” series are famous amongst the Instagram community. Others are models or “wannabe” influencers.

Their body language is what I found interesting … the way they pose and the attitude they exude.

I started doing these loopy lined figures by drawing them on my iPhone in Sketch for a study. Once I saw what they could represent I then started working on them in Illustrator where my vector drawings could be scaled to my work. The figures are about contour. Without seeing specific facial features or clothing we are already programmed to understand what they mean.

You’re involved in the LGBTQ art scene in San Fransico. How has the artist community grown and changed over the years in your eyes?

“Abonimatrix,” photography on aluminum by Joseph Abbati

Living in San Francisco is difficult for many artists. The LGBTQ community is still very strong here but artists within that community are finding it increasingly difficult to find housing and studios.

When I first moved here it was a relatively inexpensive city to live in. That brought a lot of creative types to the city for decades because it was cheap and had a very open attitude towards different lifestyles. Now that the city is a tech dominated with a lot of money coming into it, artists are being priced out of living here. That’s been the biggest change I’ve seen in the last decade.

As a curator, I imagine you have lots of artists approaching you to display their work. Do you have any do’s and don’ts for artists trying to get curated?

When I put out a call for submissions, I ask for artists to submit up to three pieces. What I prefer to see from artists is a cohesive grouping because I like to give each artist their own section of wall space.

When I get submissions that do not relate well to one another either in technique, subject, or point of view it’s difficult for me to understand what the artist is trying to say. I like to hang pieces that are immediately recognizable for that individual artist. Those work the best for what I am curating.

How do you choose the topics for your curated galleries? Is it based on your own interest or do you have a process?

Joseph Abbati being recognized for his work at the California Capitol Senate floor in Sacramento

We theme our exhibitions to speak sometimes to the congressional work the Senator is doing, and sometimes to subjects I’m interested in exploring. Our first exhibit was on “housing.” The Senator was working on a bill to make housing more accessible because — as I mentioned above — it’s a big issue in the Bay Area… especially for artists. I put out a call for submissions to artists here to see what they were thinking about when it came to the subject.

Since then, we have also done exhibits exploring “Nite Life”, “Queerky” and “QueerEyes” for LGBTQ artists, “eARTh” for the Global Climate Action Summit, “Advanced” for artists over 50 years, “East on West” for artists of the Asian diaspora, and “We Belong- Pertenecemos” for Latinx based artists opening in October.

From the Artspeak Series by Joseph Abbati

Do you have any career plans for the future in art or curation? What’s next?

I have submitted a proposal for a new body of work exploring queer bodies for 2020. This work uses the 50,000+ photographs I collected on Tumblr for a site I curated for eight years. The site has since been taken down when they stopped allowing “adult material” on their platform. By using some of these photographs as my subject material, I can now show them online because they are Illustrations or paintings.

It seems odd to me that a painting of the same subject is acceptable but a photograph is not. They speak about the same thing but our social norms have determined how we can look at it. As for curating, I am beginning to work with other venues in 2020, but with planning three to four exhibits a year and working on my own artwork, I have enough on my plate at the moment

We love what you’ve been doing with D Emptyspace. What’s your process been like using it to curate virtually?

When I downloaded the D Emptyspace app I saw it as a way to do some curating online. I have photographed the spaces I use for my exhibits and Photoshop the artwork into them to help me plan for my curation. I see a great opportunity for D Emptyspace to allow curators to customize the wall spaces they use on the app to help with planning and to also make their exhibits mobile. I also see it as a good opportunity for myself as an artist to visualize my work hanging since I have limited wall space. It would also help me create mobile exhibits I could share for proposals and promotion.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions where we can see your work in person?

“Multiverse”, 2019, acrylic on board and canvas, 34″ X 30″ by Joseph Abbati

I’ll be working with Art Attack SF to bring a queer based art program to their gallery for the Pride festivities in June 2020. The gallery is located in the Castro district, the “gayborhood” of San Francisco. We’ll be kicking off the month with an exhibit of queer artists and be programing different activities throughout the month to help celebrate. It’s a way to engage the LGBTQ community with the art scene. It’s open to everybody, so come down and show your support!

I just received an invitation to do a one-man exhibit in 2020. The date has not been set yet but it will run for a month some time in the spring. I’ll be posting more information on my Instagram account.

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