[April 26 2019]
“Pee Party” at Jeffrey Stark gallery in New York, is a joint presentation by artists — and lovers — KUNLE MARTINS and JACK PIERSON, their first together. It’s comprised of playful, mixed-medium portraits that each crafted in the likeness of the other while the two were vacationing on an almost-deserted island off the coast of Florida.
MARTINS, who is known most prominently for his graffiti work and for founding the iconic ’90s graffiti crew IRAK (the late Dash Snow was a member), has just this year begun presenting illustrated works. For his part, PIERSON also tried something new, attaching a stream of soda cans pouring forth from a photograph he took of MARTINS.
On one of the first balmy afternoons in New York, we went to the pair’s apartment and discussed the show over some coffee.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How has your day been so far?
KUNLE MARTINS — Great. Beautiful spring day.
PAIGE SILVERIA — I was going through other interviews of yours and came across the one in Let’s Panic with Dan Colen. You describe that you knew who you were at a young age. How did you know?
KUNLE MARTINS — When you’re really young, you don’t really have any of the necessary motivation to curate yourself or try to accommodate other people with your personality. You know, like kids that are four and five, they’re just like themselves.
PAIGE SILVERIA — They’re not trying to fit in yet?
KUNLE MARTINS — Right, exactly. I somehow always kept that side of me. I knew I was gay and that I liked older men. I knew I was different than other little kids in terms of what they liked to do. I started looking for people for whom I wouldn’t have to accommodate with a fake version of myself. Kids and adults wanted me to be a different kind of person in order for them to be more comfortable. We all deal with that in some way or another. I felt like there was another version of myself that I owed it to myself to find. And I needed others around me to help that flourish. I was the eldest kid in the house; I was always cooking and cleaning and doing errands. I was into art and playing the flute, but that all took a backseat to my chores. So by the time I was 16, I really wanted to get up the courage to see what was out there. I’d been thinking about it for years. I didn’t need to leave New York — I was already here — but I needed to explore it. I started cutting school and skateboarding around. I stole a board from Woolworth. By the time I got up the courage to run away, I was already writing graffiti and exploring these different parts of New York City culture that were enticing. I knew I’d barely scratched the surface, so I needed to find out more. I was also going through puberty and a lot of emotions. I needed to not be stifled anymore. Being in New York and getting so much stimulus from other people, I was so drawn to it.
PAIGE SILVERIA — It’s interesting that instead of wanting to fit in, like most people, you were the opposite. You chose what would influence you.
KUNLE MARTINS — Yeah, I was kind of disappointed with the regular kids at school. They were just into sneakers and sports and clothes.
PAIGE SILVERIA — [Laughs, motioning towards Kunle’s attire, which includes a brand-new pair of limited-edition sneakers, a fresh Supreme shirt and Yankees cap.] Hmm …
KUNLE MARTINS — Yeah, well this is all heavily curated. I was thinking about it the other day. It’s like a costume. I have different looks that I can do. There was a time when I was totally into repping New York City sports teams. Because there are two teams for every sport. In my late teens, early 20’s, I realized there was a way to weed people out based on what teams they liked. There was a certain type of person who liked the Mets, Jets, Islanders and Nets. The people who like the Yankees usually like the Giants and Rangers.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How would you describe the two groups of people? Which are you?
KUNLE MARTINS — No one’s ever tried to inquire further about what I think about the two. At the time it was more working-class non-minorities who liked the Islanders and Rangers. Hockey in general was basically the same kind of person — the bridge-and-tunnel people who liked the Islanders whereas it was more of the city, working-class white people who liked the Rangers. The reason that I became a Rangers fan is because I realized that those who wore their clothes, I noticed them more. They were older, attractive men. It’s like the kind of older woman who wears a Chanel suit. You notice it. So I wanted to be a part of it. I began following the Rangers and getting really into it. There were a lot of hockey fights back then. Not so much anymore.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Fights on the ice?
KUNLE MARTINS — Yes.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Oh, that’s disappointing. I thought those fights were an important part of the culture.
KUNLE MARTINS — Yeah it’s like less than half of what it used to be. Before, there was a guy on the ice that was the enforcer. The enforcer would protect the good-looking, fast, skilled star. If any of the other team members checked the star, the enforcer would go crazy. That’s what I liked about it. Because I was kind of an enforcer back then for IRAK. And that made me different, because no one that was writing graffiti or hanging out in the downtown arts scene liked hockey. There were some baseball fans and basketball fans, but hockey might as well have been like a sport from Australia. It was unique, but still very New York. Madison Square Garden, the Knicks, the Rangers, it was all this romantic sort of story when you really get into it. So, people who are Knicks fans are used to losing, but they stick around. Mets fans are very different from Yankees fans. Yankees have a lot of people from the Bronx, the Upper East Side, which is an interesting mix to have in Yankee Stadium. The Mets have a lot of Jews and Irish-Italian, working-class light people. And they have some hispanics too now. The style of person is kind of different. Football fans are generally sanitation workers, janitors, blue-collared people. It’s so funny how emotionally involved with these teams people get. If you like one, you really don’t like the other.
PAIGE SILVERIA — My mum is obsessed with the Patriots. She can’t miss a single game.
KUNLE MARTINS — I know a lot of Patriots and Bruins fans. Most of that came from me being this guy who had to show how much I hated Boston. Because I was a bit part of the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox in the late-’90s especially. I would make all of these bootleg Yankees t-shirts that went over the top. They said things on the back like, “Fuck Damon,” or “Fuck Pedro” — you know, all the major stars. It seemed like a really interesting way for me to associate myself with the city. But it wasn’t something I could explore with my contemporaries. Everyone was really just into other things. It was an untapped area.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You created a bridge between the two communities.
KUNLE MARTINS — Yeah. But then it got kind of out of hand. I was in the street knocking Red Sox hats off of people. Like, “Fuck Boston!” It became this whole thing. New Yorkers liked it. My friends liked it. But then I was trapped in this role. So I started to go to Massachusetts more and got to know those people more.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Good!
KUNLE MARTINS — In the beginning it was just to prove that they were indeed assholes, but then I realized it wasn’t really the case. They were just like New Yorkers.
PAIGE SILVERIA — [To Jack] What’s your take on all of this?
JACK PIERSON — Ummm … I was one of those people that none of that stuff ever really registered for me.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Sports?
JACK PIERSON — Yeah. [Laughs] I mean as a kid in Massachusetts, we went to, not all, but a lot of Red Sox and Bruins games.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How far were you from the stadium?
JACK PIERSON — Like 55 minutes. It used to seem so much further. I used to visit my mom and pick up Kunle, who goes to visit a friend in Glouster, and I’d go to South Station from my town … Boston used to seem like it took so long. But now it’s fine. My mother used to talk about people who commuted, “Can you believe she has to drive an hour to work?!” Like, “Yeah I know! Why can’t she find a job around here?” But now it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. My mom was pretty loose and let me go to Boston all of the time as a teenager. But I’d usually take the bus. Seems like a thing in the past year that it’s not that far.
PAIGE SILVERIA — [To Kunle] What were you doing before the Shoot the Lobster show?
KUNLE MARTINS — I was just working and making art on the weekends. I was happy and grateful to have a job for a while. The year leading up to the STL show, I was lucky to be included in a couple of group shows where I was showing some tag-based, graffiti work. By the summer I was already pretty over it. I knew I had all of these other ideas but I didn’t really have enough time to develop them. Then I met Ebony [L. Haynes] early on in the summer and she offered the STL show. My intention was to show the graffiti work. It was a safe bet; people like that stuff and they expect it. But I wasn’t really being challenged. I wasn’t really into it. I wasn’t being all that true to myself creatively. After consulting many of my more seasoned art friends and Jack, I came to the conclusion that I should start to do drawings again. It was scary because I hadn’t done them in a long time and they’re difficult to make.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Why hadn’t you made them in a while?
KUNLE MARTINS — I was really into doing them for a while. And I got really good at them. I surprised myself with them. But I think I was expecting or hoping for a bigger response from people. People like them, but they were so hard to do and I had such bad discipline. Once I’d finished one, I wouldn’t do another for a month or two. I’d work on lots of other creative things. They were one of many things.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What was the difficulty in creating them?
KUNLE MARTINS — A lot of time has to be invested. I always come up with a better idea when I’m finished with a drawing — that comes with the territory. But just the process of getting the likeness of someone across, the process from beginning to end of a drawing is a roller coaster. There are ups and downs. I like it; I don’t like it. I want to destroy it and then it turned out to be good. And then I think it’s okay. I’m done. I’m not going to work on it anymore. “None of the drawings that I’ve made are finished,” I’d say. I could work on all of them more. Part of the process is just taking it away, stopping the work.
PAIGE SILVERIA — [To Jack] Similarly, your work has been referred to as “fleeting.” There’s an energy like it’s not quite finished.
JACK PIERSON — There’s a fancy word they use. It’s more a gesture, an idea. I like to make it look easy.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Is it easy?
JACK PIERSON — Not necessarily. No. It’s not really, but it has the appearance of looking sort of tossed off.
KUNLE MARTINS — Which I like also. I work on found objects. I’m a big fan of photo-realism drawings. But I don’t necessarily want my drawings to have that exact feel. I don’t know if it’s because I’m used to writing graffiti or whatever, but I’m happier with them with just the idea of the person there. Once I’ve captured their, for lack of a better word, soul. Then it’s just a little fluffering and that’s it. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Because for me, that wouldn’t make me happy. There’s no level of perfection that I could achieve where I’d be like, “Oh this is great!” It’s like I’m back 10 years ago when I’d finish a drawing and I’d be too scared to start another one because it takes so much out of me for it to be perfect or good. Now there’s a different goal: to capture a vulnerability and an emotion and a spirit. That is more fulfilling than it being this identical drawing of an image.
JACK PIERSON — I always think there’s two things that people do with art. Like, “How did they do that?!” And the other is, “Well anyone could do that.” And I like the idea that you think anyone can do it. It’s like Jackson Pollock. The people that don’t get it think they could do it. But there’s a thousand people who thought, Hey, yeah I’m going to do that. I started doing the word pieces and it’s become a thing. They’re sort of all around and people can make their own. You know what I mean? Because with mine, I feel like the difference is clear.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What is the difference?
JACK PIERSON — I don’t know. The difference is me. I’m doing it. Somehow.
PAIGE SILVERIA — And why are you special?
JACK PIERSON — [Laughs] Because I’m willing to go far and then not go far, I guess.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What do you mean by not go far?
JACK PIERSON — Well sometimes the letters are intensely worked out and the way I’ve challenged myself and the people that would — you know, not to say people don’t do it as art — but in stores and stuff. It’s a done thing. If you go to Paris now, practically every cool little boutique or cafe makes their sign out of mismatched letters. I can show you examples of people doing what I did in the ’70s. But I’ve just upped my game. When I first started doing it, I had 35 letters and I had to make it work. I’d work with whatever there was. They had a rougher, sorta punk-rock quality. Because if I didn’t have the right “E,” I’d have to use the one I had. Now I’ve got every “E” in every color and style. So they’ve really gotten better. And the reason they look better is because I’ve put a lot of work into collecting these letters and having them and having the space to work with them. Collage is a medium that the more material you have the better it’s going to be. You try to make a collage out of five things, it’s not going to be as good as if you have 500 to choose from.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Or maybe somewhere in the middle? Too many choices can render one paralyzed?
JACK PIERSON — Sometimes. The kind of new thing these days is that of all the letters I’ve got in my studio, I’m always missing the exact right one that I feel that I need. For a couple of years, I thought, Oh forget it. We’ll wait. Now I’m more like, Oh this is fine. Then that does something to the piece that I think makes it interesting. It seems half-assed when I describe it. Some of them come out so perfectly. They’ve got so much going on and then the new challenge is to make it work anyway. Although I’ve got one that I’m struggling with now. I just don’t have the right “S.” I feel like I have to wait.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Where do you search?
JACK PIERSON — I have people looking and I make a yearly trip to Paris where I go picking. And they have lots of good letters there.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You go to Brimfield in Massachusetts at all?
JACK PIERSON — I don’t. I should.
PAIGE SILVERIA — It’s so much fun.
JACK PIERSON — I guess.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Those Pilgrim sandwiches or whatever they’re called; they’re like a Thanksgiving meal in a sandwich. It’s worth it just to get one of those.
JACK PIERSON — I’ve been a couple of times, but I don’t know. I have dealers that go there and if they see something they’ll let me know. But I probably should go. I could be a lot more proactive about it than I am. But I also struggle with it. Like, What am I going to do with all of these letters that I don’t need anymore? I have to make it work. Cause there are flea markets all over the world and if you’re in the antiques business, there are so many places to go. I was going to Texas for a while. There are huge flea markets there.
PAIGE SILVERIA — I love that stuff.
JACK PIERSON — Me too. When I was a kid, I didn’t really think in terms of having a high-class career as a New York artist. I was more thinking, Okay, I’ll find something I can make and take it on the road to these fairs. I could be a flea-market dealer. Because I just wanted to stay free. My biggest goal in life was to not have a real job.
PAIGE SILVERIA — But you went to school for graphic design right?
JACK PIERSON — I started with graphic design because I thought I had to have a real job. Like, Let’s get serious. I need something to fall back on. That’s the difference between age 16 and age 18. I thought I’d either be making like ceramics or leather belts or something. It was the tail-end of hippiedom and the Whole Earth Catalog. I was thinking that I’d be living off of the land and making spoon rings and going to craft fairs and smoking pot.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Do you ever think of trying that on at some point?
JACK PIERSON — Well what I do now is a glorified version of that. And I just did this little set-up flea market before Christmas where I sold lots of my old test strips from photography from when I used to print myself. I’d make a million test strips. So I set up in the Gordon Robichaux Gallery and sold them all for a hundred bucks or so. It was like being at a flea market and I really liked it. It was so much more gratifying. You know, like taking money and putting it in the envelope. It satisfied me so much. I got more kick out of that money that I made there than a year’s worth of art-fair receipts. Because I did it myself. I got to do the whole, “Well I like these three, but I can only afford two.” So I’m like, “Oh okay well if you buy these two, you can have that one free.” [Laughs]
PAIGE SILVERIA — The bartering is very fun.
KUNLE MARTINS — I felt a little differently when I was young. When I ran away at 16, I thought I was going to just live on rooftops in NYC and shoplift everything I needed. And it’d be like this cool adventure. And then when I actually ran away, I realized that you can’t live on rooftops of any buildings. [Laughs] That’s not possible.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What did that setup look like in your mind? Did you have a sleeping bag?
KUNLE MARTINS — Oh no. I had nothing. I literally was like this sheltered kid. I was basically coming in from another town off of a bus at Port Authority. But I was already here. Like I had no idea what was going on. I was super eager and wide-eyed and green. I was really excited just to be a part of the adventure. But within a year, I was like, Okay I’ve got to get a social security, I have to get my ID and get a job. I was shoplifting for money for a while because that’s what graffiti writers did and I was really good at it. After a few years of that, it felt like I was betraying myself. I’m smart and I have way more to offer. I can make money in a legit way. The threat of going to jail seemed like the short end of the stick. I don’t need to have to deal with that factor. I’m better than that. So I had a couple of jobs, but it became apparent that I wasn’t really cut out for working in a bank mailroom.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How was that?
KUNLE MARTINS — That’s a story for another day! It wasn’t until I fell into some downtown gallery store ALife that I realized you could have a job that was cool and laid back. It was like working in a record store, you know? I sold t-shirts and made my own t-shirts.
PAIGE SILVERIA — It was creatively fulfilling.
KUNLE MARTINS — Right, I was a part of a community and meeting artists all of the time. It was very social. I was able to smoke pot all day. Everything was very copasetic. But I felt like I needed a job. I had friends that didn’t really have jobs — they were full-time artists — but I didn’t feel like that was necessarily attainable for me.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Where was that need for a job coming from?
KUNLE MARTINS — I don’t know. I guess just growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, maybe it was a sense of security, wanting that regular paycheck. Maybe it was the way I grew up, but I needed to have a paycheck every week as opposed to freelancing or whatever — which I did do after a while later. After ALife, I was a freelance graphic designer. I was doing murals and design work, whenever it came along — which was not that often. I think that’s pretty common with creative people in New York. You go between working freelance and working some job that you hate.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Yeah definitely.
KUNLE MARTINS — So when I had the last just job, which I just quit, I was kind of fulfilling some sort of far-gone dream of having a good job with health benefits. But then at that point, I really wanted to make art, you know? I was very lucky that I was able to have a clear vision of my inspirations and I guess it came with age and timing. When I was younger, I had a lot of time, but not really a focus of what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it. So I was really all over the place with the art I was making. Now it seems like everything is in its right place and my mind is very focused.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Feeling good.
KUNLE MARTINS — Yeah, feeling good. Waking up happy and going after it every day, which in its own way is very fulfilling. Just to be able to make art every day is all I really ever wanted. I have offers for shows, which is amazing. Most people make art without any idea of where it’s going to go, where it’s going to end up, if anyone’s ever going to see it. So interest in what I’m doing is just the cherry on top of everything else.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Are they mostly interested in the drawings or in the graffiti?
KUNLE MARTINS — People are always interested in the graffiti stuff. I have a really big career with graffiti and doing projects with the graffiti motif, but the drawings are new and they’re getting better all of the time. And I’m going to be branching out into painting soon. So I feel that if people aren’t interested right now, they will be. It’s so interesting to me. It’s a new part of myself that I’m showing. So you know, people have seen the graffiti stuff. It’s kind of old hat. I think people are always interested in something new. I mean, hopefully they’ll be interested. I have no idea, but it feels like I’ve gotten a lot of support from people. And there is interest so I’m really into it.
PAIGE SILVERIA — I’m really excited to see what you do next!
KUNLE MARTINS — There you go, see?
PAIGE SILVERIA — I could sit here and talk to you two for hours … How did the show come about? I read that the idea to do it was suggested by a mutual friend, Blair Hansen?
KUNLE MARTINS — Yes. She was so happy to hear that we were together. She was over the moon for us, which made us feel very very happy. I love her. She’s great and has been a good friend for a while. She’s known Jack for a while too. She suggested that we have a show together. And at the time I think I was still doing graffiti stuff. This was a very recent switchover to committing the drawings — over the past holiday season. Since, that’s all I’ve been doing all day every day. So we were talking about ideas over the past six months and I had some other shows I was working on. So after those were finished, I had time to commit to an idea and we had several in mind. Doing portraits of each other was the first idea and it made sense. So we ended up going with that. We were in Florida for three weeks laying on the beach.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Where in Florida?
JACK PIERSON — This island called Captiva. It’s on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I’ve been renting a house there for the past few years. It’s very remote. There’s no cars on the island. There’s not a lot of people. There’s no stores, no distractions. I went down there a few years ago where I made a big body of work. I worked daily for three months. This time I was happy to not have anything to do. Kunle was the worker at that point. I just read books and laid on the beach.
KUNLE MARTINS — I read a book. And I worked on a portrait of Jack from a photo of him at the 1994 Whitney Biennial.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Who took the picture?
KUNLE MARTINS — It came up on the Internet. He was with someone else that I cropped out. I had it on my phone and I was looking through images to do. And that one was one that I just needed to do. I have several of Jack that I plan to do, but that one I guess I just wanted to get out of me. Then, once it was close to done, I realized I had space to do another. I liked the idea of a portrait collage. I chose a photo from one of our first dates out at Bar Pitti over the summer, where the lighting was just perfect and he looked so sweet and handsome. And, you know, we were staring into each other’s eyes like new lovers do. So when I looked at the picture, I was overcome with all of these emotions and feelings, which is sort of necessary for any drawing that I do. It needs to be a unique experience that I have with the person in the image. Which is why I like to do people I know or know of. The image itself has to emotionally register with me in some way. It’s usually in a complicated way — both negatively and positively — but this was sort of a love letter, a love-story sort of situation. It took me forever to do. Maybe it was the sea air or the paradise scenario, but I took my time with it. It was very rewarding. Made me very happy to complete.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Was it the first time you’d done a collage with the portraits?
KUNLE MARTINS — Yes, two images in one space.
JACK PIERSON — And it was definitely the first time I ever attached something to a picture. Somehow I was just intent — because it’s not really a space you just enter and go up to the thing, so I had to give you something that attracted you to look at the picture. And Kunle loves Sprite. And he loves to pee. And so somehow I thought, well this would be kooky and fun. And the splash in the one picture seemed like a Sprite commercial, refreshing. And the arch got it up and out into the middle of the room in a way that I felt activated the space. So who knows? I might start doing it all of the time. It’s hard; it’s another one of those things. It looks like it’s just tin cans coming out of a picture. [Laughs] But it took a little doing to get it to work. I brought all of the actual cans back from Florida that he’d drank there.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How’d that go? Where did you put them?
JACK PIERSON — I just bought a duffle bag on the way to the airport. It was nuts. Like we could have just gotten more in the city. I was afraid that when they went through the X-ray, they’d be like, “What’s this! You can’t bring this!” [Laughs]KM: “I need to redeem my cans in New York!” [Laughing]
JACK PIERSON — It was wild, but it worked out.
KUNLE MARTINS — It was very sweet and personal — both pieces. A vision of the other person through each other.
JACK PIERSON — And then the shells on his are ones that he collected from there that we brought home. It was a way to make it more than two simple portraits.
KUNLE MARTINS — And the little constellation piece with the two oranges on the floor, we’d just seen this Japanese movie called “Shoplifters.” It was a nice story about this rag-tag family of misfits who weren’t really a family. They had all these crazy back stories, but they were together.
JACK PIERSON — Have you seen the movie?
PAIGE SILVERIA — Not yet!
JACK PIERSON — It’s really sweet. When we went, he wanted to see it because it’s called “Shoplifters” and he has a history of shoplifting. And I know I thought and I think Kunle did too, that we were going to go see some Japanese shoplifters! You know? Like skateboarding and shoplifting! And let’s have fun! And it’s so not that. [Laughs] Two minutes in I was like, Hmmm … This seems pretty grim. This doesn’t seem fun … I thought for sure it would be like the bright lights of Tokyo! And, “We’re on the go! Shoplifting!” [Laughing]
KUNLE MARTINS — And people running from police! Darting through the street! But there was a scene where one of the main characters, in order to save his little sister — who’s not really his sister — he steals some oranges and jumps over an overpass. He breaks his leg and it changes the whole trajectory of the film. And Jack and I love eating oranges and clementines in our time together. So it found its way into the show somehow.
JACK PIERSON — It’s just a gesture. Kunle had that piece of green signage somehow and we thought, We might need this for a bit of color. I’m essentially a set decorator. It was a pop of color that we needed. I also thought it’d look good in that context of the Chinese mall. Oranges are for sale upstairs … It’s also an offering …
KUNLE MARTINS — The opening was on a great day — it was very warm and sunny — but it was the worst night. By the time the evening came around, it was snowing and raining and cold. And somehow we had this great, happy, group of people filling that little downtown, men’s bathroom-adjacent space with love and support. It was amazing. I cried. I couldn’t believe it. It was just the best.
JACK PIERSON — I think the Pee Party title came late. They were like, “What’s the title!” And we were down there installing during the day and it was two doors down from the men’s room. There was a constant stream of people using this men’s room. So he was like, “What do you want to call it?” I was like, “Pee Party.” I thought it made a bigger deal of the cans. It wasn’t really because of them, but it worked out well. I just thought it was funny: “Kunle and Jack, recent work, Pee Party.” [Laughs]
Photo and Interview Paige Silveria