Interview: Gary Taxali

Gary Taxali is a multi-talented designer, illustrator and artist. His playful style is reminiscent of the golden age of 1950’s advertising, where wholesome, larger than life characters such as the checkered suspendered, pompadoured smiling Bob’s Big Boy still reigned supreme (and were not ironic yet.) Taxali’s bold style has earned him dozens of clients, ranging from Rolling Stone, MTV, Lev’s and Converse just to name a few. Beautiful/Decay recently got the chance to interview Taxali.


SL: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process—how do you create a work, from the inception of an idea to its creation? 


GT: I draw and paint almost every day. Through the process of working daily on pictures, ideas come to me like an open floodgate. I think it’s natural that the more you do something, the better you’re connected with it. I also have brainstorms out of thin air when I’m away from my studio and will need to quickly make note of them on a napkin or a boarding pass, almost anything I can grab. I also like to jump in headfirst and make original work with no preconceived notion of where I’m going. The process of working with the unknown and letting the picture shape itself is a large facet of how I work. The surprise element is a big part of my method and the idea of a piece of art taking form on puts me in a state of divine honesty. Since I work in a variety of media, some images require greater planning despite the randomness in the way they were initially conceived. Wood panels and metal must be cut and screens must be exposed, laid to register and pulled. Even in that controlled process, I aim for spontaneity by working in a quick, guesswork way so that total control is removed. 


SL: You’ve created a broad array of iconic and playful book covers. What goes into creating a successful and compelling book cover? 


GT: The picture must be dynamic and striking as well as complement the text. I like to create the fonts myself (usually hand-rendered) as I see them as a vital element in the entire image. Every artist is a filter in how a visual problem is solved. One must strive for an honest interpretation of the subject. However, self-honesty is also required in that equation order to make a cover that works. This delicate balance is best realized when working with people who understand and value its importance. 


SL: Within your works there seems to be a repeated visual alphabet of characters that resurface—such as the “oh oh” or “oh no” characters. Do you have personal narratives or bios surrounding them? 


GT: I do, but I think it’s something that is found only in the pictures. That is, I haven’t taken the exploration beyond pictures and so any pertinent information like narratives about them can only be found in the body of my work. However, I have recently written and illustrated a children’s book (soon to be published) and so I suppose I did enter that realm. 


SL: Many of your works also seem to derive a sort of bold style from comic book, vintage texts and advertising logos—in particular a sort of updated 1950’s nostalgia. Can you talk about what some of your own inspirations are? 


GT: Inspiration is something that comes from so many sources, from concrete places and more sublime places. I am fascinated by old advertising and typography from the 30s and 40s, for sure. I like package design and corporate logos, which I make up in my work. Music inspires me too. Blind Willie McTell, Memphis Minnie and a host of other African American blues musicians have a major impact in my work. But I like a lot of punk and garage rock too. As for artists, it’s mostly my friends who impact me because we share a lot of similar ideas and inspiration artistically. Pals like the Clayton brothers, Yuko Shimizu, Thomas Fuchs, Mark Todd, Esther Pearl Watson and Gary Baseman inspire me. 


SL: Some of your personal works include actual book covers and other mixed media. Can you talk how you arrived at working in this fashion, and why? 


GT: A few years ago, I stumbled upon some old textbooks from India belonging to my parents and uncles in my parents’ basement. How and why they ended up there, I don’t know. I was absolutely intrigued by the beautiful fonts and texture. I immediately began drawing and painting on the covers and pages in a random, spontaneous way. The gorgeous paper and textures were so nice that I was forced by the good graces to work in a minimal almost reductive way. This process of perceiving the work to be already finished due to the nature of the surfaces yet adding elements for enhancement became my process. 


SL: Many of your works seem highly related to printed matter- often times your works incorporate bold text or riff off a linguistic idea as evidenced in the title. Can you talk about how text interplays with image within your work? 


GT: Text is so intertwined with the work that it is as vital as the characters. Sometimes, and in particular recently, I have abandoned all characters in favour of straight type. This appeases me to no end! In many ways, the text harkens to the initial process of random defacing of the book covers and pages. I like to create things that look like they existed but never actually did. For example, a page might have random words in various fonts coupled with a character, or several characters. The implication being that this is a thing that has passed through several hands and for all its utilitarian purpose, it has become a recording device for thoughts and ideas without any regard by the user. This notion of embracing the discarded and honouring it is certainly not new, but I do it in my own way. 


SL: You’ve also designed vinyl toys, such as the Original Toy Monkey for the Whitney, along with projects from Toy2R and Ox Op Qee. What do you like about the toy format? 


GT: Like many things, I fell into it accidentally. A few years ago, I was invited to be in a group show at Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects studio in LA. It was a group show with Shepard, The Claytons, Frank Kozik and others that consisted of original paintings on vinyl characters called Qeedrophonic. This was the brainchild of a man named Raymond Choy whose Hong Kong toy company Toy2R has a large international following. The show was curated by Tom Hazelmeyer of OXOP Gallery in Minneapolis and was supported by a catalogue which subsequently had wide distribution. After that, I started getting solicited by people to make vinyl figures of my own work. My first toy, The Toy Monkey was a huge success. So much so, that The Whitney requested their own edition to which I complied. After that, I created my own company called Chump Toys. I have made a few figures and have more slated to come out in the coming months. I have really enjoyed the translation of my work to 3D from 2D and because I work in such a graphic, geometric way, it seemed like such an obvious evolution. 


SL: How’s it going with your children’s book, “This is Silly,”—what’s the idea behind this book’s story, how did you branch out into creating it, and where are you in the process of creating it? 


GT: I was approached by Scholastic’s Creative Director and V.P. David Saylor and he asked me if I were interested in illustrating children’s books. I said no because I wanted only to illustrate my own. He invited me to send my story and sketches and upon receiving it, he told me loved it and wanted to publish it. ‘This is Silly’ is basically a book that gives young children the license to act silly. A major part of my childhood report cards consisted of teacher complaints that I acted ‘too silly’. Personally, I think they should have encouraged creative behaviour and not suppress it. Children are bombarded with ‘NO’s’ their entire lives and are constantly told what NOT to do and given banal moral fables as reading material. So patronizing to young minds which I think can handle more interesting and conceptual books. My book is in the final stages of design and is slated for a Spring 2010 release. 


SL: What other plans/projects are you working on or planning for in the near future? 


GT: I have 2 solo shows planned for 2009. One in April at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in NYC and the other in December at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles. I also have a line of cufflinks coming out through Hobbs and Kent. I also will be releasing my new toy in the Spring of 2009.

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