InterviewÂ and Photography by Jon Gordon
You’ve been dying to know: Exactly what the hell is Vandal Expressionism? Joseph Meloy, a fixture in New York’s underground art scene, was pulled into the commercial art world at a young age, quickly becoming an in-demand designer and art director for advertising agencies. It was around that time he returned to his early love of painting and founded Vandal Expressionism, Inc., a creative outlet for his primal, post-graffiti aesthetic. We spoke with him one on one in his home studio in New York’s premier art district, Chelsea. The always candid Meloy talks influences, his take on the New York scene, and how he’s changed his process throughout the years.
Your work seems to always be in a state of transition. What have you been working on lately?
This year I feel like I’ve really hit my stride artistically and [feel] that I’ve really honed in on a unique and consistent visual language that almost feels like breathing at this point. In the past three months I’ve created more than 85 works on paper that all really look like they belong together and I can’t wait to get them all framed and up on the wall at a nice gallery.
I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made doing spray paint murals. I was commissioned to paint a 70 foot silo at the Tuthilltown distillery, I painted the entire interior of [rock club] Arlene’s Grocery, and I was invited to paint a mural at Five Points, the Graffiti mecca. I consider what I do to be a part of post-graffiti art, and to be welcomed by the graffiti community in at a place like that really felt great.
You’re pretty prolific; does the work come naturally or do you find you have to force yourself?
It just flows. If I don’t work for a day or two I feel jammed up. I feel like it’s my primary creative outlet. So much of what I’m doing is letting loose; getting in touch with some kind of impulse and channeling it into a language.Â If I’m not drawing I feel anxious and fidgety, like “what am I doing?!” Drawing is a conduit for something beyond myself so making [art] is definitely not a chore; especially when I’m in my most expressive states.
When I’m drawing loose and quick, that feels really fulfilling. The only time I would say things become tedious is when the idea has already been created and I know what I want and it’s no longer a creative task to get there.
Do you usually find yourself chasing something when you’re working?
I’m alway looking for balance; I’m trying to capture energy in a controlled chaos.Â I like the idea that it somehow just makes sense; it’s very much an improv thing.
I think it’s nice to go into some things with a plan, but ultimately the nature of what I do–so much of it is about intuition, being able to find that thing that feels right inside the chaos. I usually don’t sit there and envision a specific thing, it’s more about capturing feelings by way of making marks.
How do you feel about the gallery experience in New York? Do you go to a lot of other artists’ shows?
Yeah!Â Right now I live in Chelsea so I’m enjoying walking around and checking out the scene. There’s different tiers to it, so at the same time I go to up and-comer’s shows in smaller, alternative spaces downtown or in Bushwick. It’s nice to become involved in those scenes; you start to see familiar people.
Do you feel like you’re part of a scene?
Not formally. What’s most important to me is making my work. But it’s nice to go out and meet other artists.Â You learn from other people along the way; bring it into what you do. As someone doing street art I find that there is definitely a sense of community, almost like we’re co-workers. And just like in real life, sometimes co-workers don’t like each other – I’ll leave it at that…
The art world is like any other scene–there’s a ladder to climb and you work your way from one thing to another. That being said I believe in the value of making your own scene and taking advantage of any opportunity you can get to share your work with the public. I see myself as an emerging artist, I’ve only been in [the fine art] game for a short period of time but I’ve worked my ass off to stand out and associate myself with people who are similarly driven. I’m not hanging out with lazy people!
Who do you like in the art world right now?
Michael Alan’s work really strikes a chord with me. [Also] Brandon Friend, Greg Haberny…Borbay, Paul Zepeda, Ari Lankin, Julian Rapp, Cassius Fouler, Kiki Valdez…They’re so many cool artists out there; those are just a few that come to mind immediately.
Who are your main inspirations?
Pollack and Basquiat come to mind first, and certainly played a role in my decision to become a full time artist.Â The drawings of Yves Tanguy had a huge influence on me, as did MirÃ³. Steven Gammell, who illustrated the Scary Stories series! Those images were ingrained into my mind. Also, Ralph Steadman, David Smith, and Andy Warhol.
With regard to my street art and graffiti, I’m from the Lower East Side, where there’s always been a healthy amount of graffiti. It’s not like I followed specific writers in that sense, but the fact that it was always around, these graffiti murals–My earliest memories of the graffiti murals was this one by Lee on Madison Street, the Lion’s Den, and it’s practically my earliest memory of an art image, or certainly being scared by art. Scared in a good way! I liked the mystery of the art I saw on the street growing up. I was mystified by COST and REVS.Â I first learned about wheat paste when I stayed up to watch their public access show at two in the morning back in the day.
About the Primate…
Bringing the primate to life has been a fun process. I think of my abstract work as something more cerebral and kinetic, like jazz, where the primate is more punk rock–I make it in a photocopy machine and stick it on a wall to make people smile. It’s cute, it’s fun, and the more people ask me if it’s supposed to be me I wonder if they’re right…
It’s really become the mascot or poster child of Vandal Expressionism. I think in part, I felt like a I needed an intentional counterpoint to all the abstract work that I do. There’s no denying that people connect with faces; it’s quicker to digest.
It all began with the most random sketch back in April 2012, which at the time didn’t even fit the bill of my notion of what Vandal Expressionism was, but there was something in that silly face that I knew was special, and over that summer I began experimenting with it. Photocopying it, coloring it in, printing and cutting it up, rephotographing, and watching as it diverged into all these different characters. That series of 40 something works was known as the “Idol” series, which was sort of an absurdist nod to religious panel paintings. Each of the characters took on its own feel–some more funny, some more scary, but it was Idol #39 that emerged from the pack and went to become the poster child. The first thing it reminded me of was Bela Lugosi, a 1930’s movie monster. Then when my friend, Michael Kronenberg, saw it he called it punk rock gorilla, so for several months he had the ridiculous name “Bela Lugosi Punk Rock Gorilla” which was a bit hard to swallow. I started putting him out on the street, curious to see what people would make of it, and as it would pop up on Instagram, people would tag it as #monkey, #gorilla #monster, but the one that really hit the nail on the head for me was #primate…I wish I could remember who it was that said that. From that day on, I decided that would be his name.
So it’s like a crowd-sourced, street art phenomenon
That’s an interesting way of putting it. Somebody just sent me a photo from Bilbao Spain, where they printed out a Primate from god knows where and colored it in and stuck up on a wall, as a tribute to Vandal Expressionism.Â I couldn’t believe it.
Where did you get the name Vandal Expressionism?
I had been taking notes–I still have them actually–of things I wanted to touch upon. I kept coming back to ideas of value and damage, finding beauty within stress. Not all things that are damaged are beautiful, but I’ve always liked to see things that are broken in. Coming from the advertising and art directing world where everything’s digital, things can become stiff and sterile. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of amazing work out there, but I wanted something with texture. Also from that world I learned about branding, which is a big part of my work.
One of the things I like about [Vandal Expressionism] is that even if it’s a completely new term, it’s very clear what it means and it translates into almost every Western Language. I’ve been getting messages in French, Italian, even the Turkish Version looks similar!