The artists Billy Grant and Rich Porter have frequently crossed paths over the past 15 plus years, weaving in and out of an East Coast–focused art and music community—Porter with bands like Barkley’s Barnyard Critters, and Grant through his time as part of the psychedelic art collective Dearraindrop and his more recent collaborations with Brian Belott and Jamian Juliano-Villani—but their current show at Brooklyn’s Safe Gallery is the first time the two artists have shown alongside each other. One evening a few weeks ago, with the install just days away, I met up with the two of them to talk shop.
The three of us started off inside Grant’s studio, which is housed in the same building as Porter’s basement studio and right next door to Safe in East Williamsburg. Although the two had been talking about doing the show together for the past year or so (the two-person show format is a signature of Safe’s programming), it wasn’t until Safe’s founder, Pali Kashi, set an actual date for the exhibition that a real flurry of work started in earnest. “Just watching Billy work inspired me to make all new stuff, so I just started—as much as I could—making fresh stuff,” Porter said.
Grant’s new paintings, while mostly figurative and hand painted, have the feeling of one long brushstroke snaking through the canvas, not unlike a kid experimenting with Photoshop and miraculously creating a striking, intuitive image. Porter compared their visual effect to that created by an early video-processing device, while Grant told me that he first made a painting in this style five years ago on a headboard he found in the trash.
Much of Grant’s imagery comes out of what he referred to as “simple things that are invented in my head and that I’ve probably drawn a lot of times.” Things like turtles (“I’ve never done a giant turtle. Turtles aren’t that big anymore”) and domestic housing. “That’s my mom’s house,” Grant said, gesturing to a large painting. “Last time I made a picture of my mom’s house, it was out of Coca-Cola cans as a kid. It got destroyed on the school bus, I haven’t done it since.”
The artists used some seriously ingenious paint brush hacks to make works over the past few months. “There’s something you need to talk about,” Porter remarked, picking up a device that, using tape and cardboard, affixed multiple paint brushes into one lo-fi whole. Grant also showed me a long bamboo stick that incorporated a mechanical drill to control a brush at the bottom, allowing him to approach a floor-resting canvas standing up. The innovative painting techniques didn’t stop there—Grant said that at one point he used a sort of suspension apparatus so he could paint laterally. “I have a fake hip, so I don’t like to be on the ground,” he explained.
We moved down to Porter’s basement studio to take a look at some of the assemblages that he had been working on. “Everything in here is constantly tumbling around,” Porter said. “I’ll be carrying something and tip it and it will just go [makes noise] and knock everything over. I’ll come back sometimes and be like, ‘Oh god, that’s right, I tipped everything over.’” The pieces combine materials both clean and aged—futuristic bits of plastic sit next to weathered wood and rope. “A lot of this stuff has just been recombined,” he said. The artist told me that, at times, his chaotic studio practice has “spawned new ideas,” generated from “not caring about the texture that [the work] gets from tipping over, or paint tipping on things.”
One recurring element in Porter’s sculptures are those aforementioned futuristic-looking plastic bobs. The artist originally found a single piece in the ocean, but with no way to trace the object’s origin, he has subsequently used 3-D printing technology to produce variations on the form. Porter referred to this process as “kind of manufacturing my own garbage.” There is also plenty of rope, which runs through the pieces, and Porter commented that it has a similar “connecting structure” as the snaking paintings made by Grant. In certain pieces, the rope gets shredded and almost takes the form of algae or Irish moss.
Viewed as a whole, Porter’s sculptures seem to form a sort of abstract nautical science-fiction narrative. “I almost imagine that they are all from some big towering structure, or something that was blasted into outer space and blew apart, and all these parts just kind of landed,” Porter said. His job, then, he added, is to attempt to “figure out how they all fit together again, or leaving some in this chaotic state.”