A CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST SETH FOUNTAIN ON THE WORLD OF ART, COUNTERCULTURE AND SOCIAL MEDIA.
Seth Fountain is a multi disciplinary artist and designer whose work explores the concepts surrounding Social Media and commercialism. I met with him at his lofty studio (and professionally makeshift screen-printing operation) in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan blocks away from the heart of Chinatown’s culturally rich Canal street. Over tea and coffee, we discussed the modern world of art and the importance of honesty in what one creates.
INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY CALVIN OGDEN.
C: Just to start off, where are you from? How’d you get into art?
S: I guess we’ll keep it simple. I’m originally from New Orleans, I grew up there. Didn’t travel much, so I’ve just been in the South mostly. I’m a self-taught artist. I did go to school, a little bit. I went to Tulane and studied studio arts, but I liked it because [Tulane] wasn’t an art school. I thrive in a studio atmosphere, with facilities to be able to make whatever I want.
C: Did you have that sort of studio situation when you were there?
S: Yeah. Their studio program is great. There’s plenty of space.
C: How was growing up in New Orleans?
S: It’s my favorite place in the world. It’s just a little slow. Although I think if you’re a creative, you have to be in New York. I mean, not forever, but that’s part of it.
C: Do you think being from New Orleans has influenced your art?
S: Yeah, I mean, I know what [New Orleans] is like. Its mostly handmade and thrown together, like bricolage. Something that has always been interesting to me is the evidence of craft or human interaction, making something work just to get by. The other day I saw a bicycle. It was missing the pedal, but there was a wooden block screwed on — and it looked like it had been there forever, so it worked. It probably took more time to make that than buying a pedal, but I think that exists a lot [in New Orleans]. That comes from an economic standpoint of stubbornness — like I know I can make this, and I don’t want to buy it or I can’t afford it, so I have to make it.
A lot of what I’ve made is within the same realm. I don’t use fancy art materials, per se, but I love high brow. I love really nice materials. I don’t use cheap paint, but I’ll use pancake flour in my paintings. The south is a huge influence and it’s everything to me because, like I said, I do have some formal training, but I’m mostly self-taught and I follow my own interests. My interest is in things that are folk.
C: What do you think your ethos is?
S: It’s funny, because a good friend of mine, she writes for Art Net; the gossip column. She was like ‘what do you think of this?’ and sent me this draft that read, ‘prankster artist Seth Fountain.’ I was like, ‘don’t say that.’ Although humor is paramount because of the relatability, it’s a fine line — I love humor, I don’t want to be taken seriously, but I want my work to be taken seriously. I guess it all exists. What I always communicate within my work is that I want the idea and the execution of the idea to be on the same level. I want it to be open to interpretation, and I want people to have fun.
One time I was in Paris and I went to Fiac, and on a whim I just threw up a croissant on a wall with a little staple. That was years ago. And then Maurizio Cattelan puts the banana on the wall. That was Miami’s Art Basel, which is months after Fiac. And I was like, damn, am I being an egomaniac? Do I think he ripped my shit off? Perrotin gallery was right across from where I did the croissant, and he’s represented by that gallery. But he didn’t make anything for 15 years, and then he did the banana thing. Like Duchamp. I mean, that’s so much fun to me because it makes people upset, It makes people happy, and it inspires people to question all of it — or to make something themselves.
C: What got you into this art we are seeing now? The logo rips, etc?
S: Skateboarding. 100%. When I was younger I fucking hated reading. I didn’t want to read books, I wanted Mad Magazine and Thrasher because I’m visual. Later in life, of course, I found how wonderful reading can be. Fiction, nonfiction, doesn’t matter. It’s just really good for us. Our brains. It’s good. No doubt. Skateboarding and logo flipping, Supreme has a lot to do with that. Music too, like Rave Flyers.
They’re using familiar iconography as a form of…it’s kind of bait, it baits you in. Like a shirt that looks like the Tide Detergent logo, but it says ride, and then it’s a snowboard thing. It’s cool. It’s piggybacking off of millions of dollars of research for the graphic design, colors for marketing and all of that. But you can just get it for free just from re-working it. And it’s humor. Graphic design can be so beautiful and serious, or it can be junkie and handmade, thrown together, punk, all different styles.
C: How would you define a bootleg then, when you see a logo but it represents something else?
S: I think what defines a bootleg is how it’s sold. A lot of [bootlegs] right there on the street could be sold online, but it’s sitting out on a blanket on the corner of the street. I think there’s a sense of pride that they’re fake but they’re, like, really good. But in terms of bootleg, what defines it?
C: Yeah especially in art, too.
S: It’s interesting that when you talk about bootlegs in art, people kind of scrunch their nose. But I love it existing in art.
C: Do you think bootlegging is seen positively or negatively in fine art? Like, warping what’s already there to make it something new?
S: To be honest, I think people look down on it because they think it’s the pun of the graphic design world. It’s just like a quick little joke. You could ask ten people and probably get a pretty even divide. Or if you ask someone, like, what do you think about McDonald’s? People want to look down on that, but it’s a universal food. Everyone all over the world can have the same burger and fries.
C: Yeah. Especially with bootlegs — like with Chinatown, obviously that shit is looked down upon because It’s not real, but people are still buying it.
S: It’s great. I’m glad someone can offer a fake LV or Gucci wallet for someone who isn’t financially stable. Like, they’d never spend $400 on it, but they can still feel a little better. They have something special, even though it’s fake. I mean it depends, what is fake? Authenticity comes from the specific factory or specific materials. I know someone who has a ton of Balenciaga and shit, and it’s all fake. And he’s so happy to tell everyone it’s fake. He’s more excited to have a good replica, like a really good bootleg, and then kind of flex it like ‘I got it on the low, everyone thinks it’s real.’ You’re kind of tricking people in a fun way.
C: Do you think bootlegs, in their own way, are a form of art? It’s almost tricking the eye in a sense, twisting what people know into something else. Like how commercial art is kind of a separate world from fine art. Would you consider yourself in that realm, or would you ideally want your art to be in galleries?
S: There’s no trajectory or a specific path. I think you might as well go for it. Everyone’s scared of like, I’m going to ruin my career if I do this thing or this thing. Every day we’ll see a New York artist that’s kind of well known with a Tiffany’s collaboration. People don’t care. That’s not selling out; you’re making money. And if someone wants to make one type of painting or art for the rest of their lives, who’s to say it’s good or bad? I think everyone, with courage and confidence, just take your own path.
C: For people who are new to art, especially commercial art, how do you think one can stay authentic?
S: I think the best thing is to really know yourself and what you want. Younger artists, you don’t fully know yourself. You’re learning about yourself, about everything. Ideally, I think the only way to stay true is to just really spend some time with what all of it means to you. Are you making paintings to sell them, to make money? Are you making them solely to express yourself, you don’t care about the money? There’s no right or wrong, you’ve just got to be honest. I think everyone sees that honesty, that’s what I think is really beautiful. You don’t have to know everything about the subject, but you can have your own take on it.
C: How has the world of commercialism influenced your work? Like what you’ve done with the McDonald’s World War 3 shit, what led you to use logos like that?
S: Social media is so much fun. If I didn’t have Instagram, I wouldn’t be making little graphics to do what with, like post on Tumblr? Print them out? A lot of my designs always became a T-shirt; if I’m working with other brands or my friends, they become something physical, which I love. I love print making — because of social media and how you see all of my work, it’s so stimulating.
I love graphics to be digestive. So if I have an idea, boom, I can make it. I can just post it to Instagram — and you don’t make any money off of that shit, right? It’s great. It’s like sharing a meme with a big group chat. I’m not getting hyped off the like counts, but I’ve gotten a ton of work because people were seeing my Instagram as a website, a portfolio. That, to me, is so much fun. That’s better than having a very serious graphic design or very serious artist job. That’s just personal. I love it. I think it’s great. The ability to share on an unlimited platform has changed the way I approach graphic design and using it in the most rudimentary way possible, bare bones. I’m talking, like, bootleg Photoshop app on your phone.
C: I love that. Counterculture and social media.
S: Yeah, it’s definitely something I care a lot about. I’ve always seen the positive in sharing work, making fun, just shaking it up, keeping it fresh. That’s what people want.They don’t want stale or overdone, tired… or maybe they do! I’m not trying to make the most elevated artwork in the world.
I want what McDonald’s is.