Artist Profile: Gregory Siff
Visual artist and dreamer—Gregory Siff is a prolific generator of material. Pollock, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol immediately come to mind but Siff has his own distinctive universe of symbolic language. His signature storyboards of images and texts, sketched with emotion and infused with color, are like flashes of memories that collectively create a journey through his internal world. On paper to subway walls to billboards, bathrooms, post-its, clothing, sunglasses, Vans to vans—both the footwear and Mercedes-Benz—to books and bodies even a yacht. There is not a surface that isn’t a canvas for cerulean-eyed Gregory Siff.
And his resumé is as impressive as the breadth of his work. His art has appeared in the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Moscow Museum of Art, MoMa PS1, Soho House New York, Google GQ, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and W Magazine. He has collaborated on multimedia projects with Mercedes Benz, Helmut Lang, Marc Jacobs, Rolling Stone. The list goes on and on. Most recently Gregory’s imagery has found cloth with Saint Laurent for their Winter 2017 Women’s and Men’s Ready to Wear Line. Now with a gallery installed at the The Dream Hotel in Hollywood, Rogue Mag sits down with Gregory Siff to discuss his journey as an artist.
Staring up at the Dream Hotel in Hollywood, where the gallery of Gregory Siff is nestled, it feels rather metaphoric and romantic as an idea. A hotel gives an artist a home? Sounds like a dream. “I believe hotels are the best studios because you go and you're just ...whoever you wanna be.” And in the spirit of the location—that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams—sky’s the limit for Gregory Siff. If the Dream Hotel and Gregory Siff collaboration proves anything, it’s that being creative and imaginative in how one envisions their life and career opens the possibility for expansion and growth in surprising directions. “It is romantic in that, do what you love, and then the people that get, understand it, will help you along your way.”
At the end of an adjacent brick alleyway, tucked under the arm of the hotel, is the intimate gallery for the blossoming Siff to inject his creative and cultural flair into the Dream’s atmosphere. From behind the paned glass, Siff opens the door like a gentleman with a smile that sparkles with the innocence of youth. On a rug he designed for the opening of the gallery, we plop down like a couple of kids in the middle of his gallery as if in a sandbox.
“I did this big show last year called Portrait of An American Ice Cream Man in a warehouse. The Tao Group behind the Dream Hotel came to the show and said, 'Hey, we love your work. We wanna get a piece.’ Then Lisa, my manager who runs 4 AM Gallery, said ‘…why don't you have a space there?’ So then we started brainstorming what it would be. I have this little spot by the Chateau Marmont that I call the Tree House. That’s where I paint these things. So this is more of a gallery, a meeting space, a clubhouse, a hotel, night club; you know—it's fun in here.”
An experiment in happiness, Portrait Of An American Ice Cream Man was a site-specific ode to childhood. “Gus was my first Ice Cream Man. He was the original happiness dealer. A chocolate milkshake could heal anything, just like a good painting. These days the more paintings I make the more I feel like Gus.” A joint venture between 4AM gallery and Mercedes Benz, the show featured a range of media that evoked the sensorial experience of youth—the color, taste, smell, feeling of running after the ice-cream truck and the memories that float in between. Even a white Mercedes Benz sprinter became a canvas covered in his whimsical sketches, pockets of words and images that carry emotional meaning for the artist. As a kind of coming of age story, it was an invitation to return to a state of innocence, to a time of creativity without constraints.
“If someone were like, ‘what was cool about your life? What happened to you?’ I can't tell you every little thing so I'm just going to tell you like this. But you have your own too. That's why a lot of people are drawn to it.”
But before the paintbrush and the Dream Hotel, there was the stage. Growing up in the Rockaways, a Brooklyn suburb on the coast, his entrance into art began with Opera; facets of which still resonate from his canvases; a human drama that gives his compositions a vibrancy, electricity and immediacy.
"I was singing in the opera as a little kid. I was in Carmen, Tosca Lucia, and Turandot at Lincoln Center in the boys' chorus. That was my first paycheck. Growing up, I wasn't good in math but when it came to English or came to, like you said, the idea of romance…I was always drawn to that kind of world. I loved drawing and comic books, and I just loved making stuff. I made costumes when I was a kid. The stuff that I wanted, you couldn't buy.
At first pursuing a career as an actor, he decided to attend New York University for college. It would be some years before his childhood desire to make things would find an outlet on canvas and cloth but the seeds were planted when his professor gave him a catalogue of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“So I got that book, and I saw these pieces, and I was feeling real emotion. It made me want to read more about it. Made me want go and see these pieces. First you see art, and you’re thinking— well, I could do that. Then you try it, and you're like, ‘whoa!’ You have your own story. When things weren’t going my way, that’s when I really decided that creating art has its transformative power.”
“Well that's why I'm trying to combine the abstract, which is the emotion—the ferocious or whatever is inside you—and then putting something literal on top of it. It is not Basquiat. I’m not painting crowns and kings and I'm not an African American male growing up in 1980's white art New York City. I couldn't imagine waiting for a cab and not been picked up for the color of my skin, but I can imagine pouring my heart into being an actor and people telling me: 'no, you're too’—whatever—‘Italian, Jewish New York…’ or ‘…you are not it, you are not the thing.’ And losing my dad. And… what’s the point of all of this?” Siff opens his arms to the world around us.
“Finding a real struggle in life is where, for me, the painting comes from. As an artist bad things happen to you but everything is good. If it’s bad, you go and paint. If it’s good, you go and paint. Whatever you're going through. I want my paintings to release the grip on everything that you are holding on to, to feel like how I feel when I walk into my studio—at home and at ease. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, like you're floating.”
The emotion driving his work however circuits the floating atmosphere with an electric charge that he himself emits—Siff is electric. And given the speed and vigor with which he works, it’s no surprise that his face lights up with delight. “Yeah! Electric floating.” But for a while, the bright and buoyant Siff found himself literally floating between Los Angeles and New York like opposing dreams, struggling to be an actor in Los Angeles yet finding inspiration in it, missing his hometown of New York yet finding himself creatively stuck.
“What was happening was, all the acting that I'd gotten into in New York,when I came out to Los Angeles, it wasn't like that. I found myself going down, money-wise, self-worth wise. ‘Why am I not getting the work?’ You pour your heart into something, it's not working. And I was missing my family. But when I went back to New York, I was like "do I wanna be working at a restaurant for the rest of my life?” It was a struggle. I was going back and forth a lot. And then in 2007 my dad passed away. The more I paint, the more good things happen and the more connected I feel to him. So it made me a man, in terms of finding my calling, and doing it every day. It wasn’t a job, it was something I needed to do. But L.A. was this place where I got to play. I could stay up until seven in the morning, not give a crap about waking up, and I felt I was able to discover myself. And I fell in love with Sunset.”
Riffing off his visual style—we conjured words that evoke the character of Sunset Boulevard, his muse:
“Dreamy—that’s a great one. I was working the worst job in my life being the barback at Skybar, throwing out the morning garbage. Then, four years later, I was at the premiere of The Sunset Strip and I painted the backdrop for their red carpet event: Sunset Boulevard at sunset. Which is funny. Just when you think that nothing's gonna go right, and the next thing you know…”
He decided to place acting aside—which he would pick up again later—and began experimenting with painting, first on the streets of New York City.
“It was 2009. I was working at the Soho Grand in New York. I’d be wearing a suit and carrying tubes of acrylic paint— blue, red and yellow—in a plastic bag. I’d walk by blank subway ads and smear them with paint on the way work at six in the morning. Then I'd get out at 3:30 wondering if anyone else wrote on it, if it was still there. So that was my first thing. Then I started writing "Gregory," and painting these faces. Then when I came back to L.A., there was this big wave of street art in 2010. There was Banksy, and the Exit Through The Gift Shop film, and everybody in L.A. was doing this. I just wanted to pay my rent at that point so that way I could do what I wanted to do. So I was making prints, selling them online, on Tumblr, or whatever. Or just sent out email blasts to anyone that I met that said ‘I love your art!’ It was really, it is still, a hand-grown process.”
Even his inclusion in the 2016 P.S.1 Rockway! festival that celebrated the ongoing recovery of the Rockaway Peninsula following the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, was a direct result of his drive to put up work wherever there was a surface available. Being featured in an exhibition alongside artists such as Marina Abramovic, Tom Sachs, James Franco and Micheal Stipe was not his original intent but in a serendipitous turn of events, his bathroom murals were integrated into the show.
“I was painting the bathrooms at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club during Hurricane Sandy and Klaus Biesenbach (head curator for P.S. 1) asked who painted them. That’s how I got down into the show. I feel like real artist institutions understand that, don’t glaze over that. You know like ‘this guy, his murals are in the bathroom. There are paintings up here, he deserves to be in the show.’ There can be quite a lot of snooty in art but you know at the end of the day what chops all that down is coming from a pure place.”
His work ethic has not softened with his success and he speaks transparently about his journey to encourage other artists to keep at it. “To pull from a great artist, Chuck Close, who had many setbacks in his life that made him even greater. He said something like, ‘most people try and wait for inspiration to strike. But the best way to do it is just to go and get it.’ I don’t sit and say, ‘well these are all done,’ ‘that's not sold,’ so I'm just going to wait. Make work everyday, share it with everyone, whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. You just have to be obsessed with it, where you don’t care about bugging anybody.”
In light of the transformative power of art, Siff does not shy away from using his art as a tool to support matters of serious consequence like the Pyer Moss Runway show that brought Black Lives Matter to the runway. Selected by Vans Custom Culture to be one of their “Art Ambassadors,” inspiring students to embrace their creativity, painting with children in hospitals with Art of Elysium, he engages with numerous charitable organizations and programs.
“I've worked with over 16 charities and It just feels so right when that happens, donating a painting or working with charities like Art of Elysium. Being human, the point of the whole thing, is to do good things for other people. If a painting can raise money for that or if you could just effectively go there by yourself and help, that's a good thing.”
He nods, enthused and enlivened by the gallery space, using the work on the walls of his dream gallery to extrapolate on his creative process. From sitting on the rug, to hopping to our feet, we peruse the collection on display like memories. As we end our conversation, SIff is heading out himself—back the Treehouse, his studio, to paint. He is “going and going and going,” in his words, and never tires of dreaming up what he wants to do next. But it always comes back to painting.
“I went from a 450 square foot space to a 5000 square foot space; I can make a studio out of a hotel room or wherever I'm going to be. What else is this going to be?” Siff takes a gander at the space. “I still haven't even done huge gallery shows, I still haven't done my album cover…I want to make a crazy park for kids out of old sculptures of mine… I want to keep doing different mediums. At the end of the day, I always have to be making paintings. In my tree house, I shut the door. I don't know what timeline I'm in. I can forget everything. I just start painting and that spot—is my favorite place to be.”
Written by: Maria Mocerino
Photography: Brandon Showers,
Bad Boi and Gregory Siff