While the majority of the art world tends to suffer from having a major stick up its own butt, some artists clearly stand out by twisting and turning the boundaries and codes of fine arts any way they can. Über-creative Minneapolis based Michael Gaughan clearly falls into the latter category, as he isn’t limiting his skill-set to highly-technical watercolor paintings, but works in the fields of sculpture, photography, scavenger hunts and music - he has a rapping alter ego by the name of Ice Rod - which he loads with art world in-jokes, biting social commentary and the occasional fart joke.
“I prefer to challenge myself and create opportunities to grow as an artist. Sometimes that is achieved by switching it up, multi-tasking, and dabbling in many different pursuits... other times that is achieved by really focusing on one singular activity and striving to improve and have personal breakthroughs. There is no wrong way to do it; as long as I am mindful, alert, and use these experiences as learning opportunities, then any creative pursuit is worth the time spent doing it.“
Since your work heavily varies in medium... would you say that everything starts with an idea or impulse which then determines the execution?
Yeah, that’s fair to say. I guess, I am more of an "idea first, execution second" type of artist, rather than an "experimenting with materials to explore and see what meaning can surface" type of artist. I definitely value both ways of working, and I value other artists who can do the latter... some of my best friends at school were very intuitive and experimental. But for me, for better or worse, over the years, I have become more systematic and predictable with my creativity. That is something I am trying very hard to change this year. I want to reintroduce a level of spontaneity and unpredictability back into my work.
As far as different mediums, a lot of my ideas cannot be materialized because I don't have the access or resources to manifest them, so what ends up happening is most of my work is done on paper with watercolors, because watercolor is practical and possible. Whenever I can get an artist grant, or get an opportunity to work with others, that’s when my projects can afford to get more grandiose and involve sculpture, performance, video, etc. Know anyone who wants to give me a grant?
One of the things that certainly holds everything together is your beautifully twisted sense of humor...
I absolutely do think the art world takes itself very seriously, but I don't have a problem with that. I am thrilled that art exists and I am relieved that as a society we value art enough to dedicate schools, museums, theaters, galleries, mall kiosks, television shows, websites, books, and discussions to it. We are very lucky to live in a world where we acknowledge the importance of art and art education; a world where we celebrate the role art plays in culture, communities, ways of life, etcetera. I think what you may be trying to hint at with your question, is do I think other artists take themselves too seriously? And again, I don't have a problem with other artists who take their work seriously, in fact I am very inspired by people who work very hard... I would much rather see someone taking their work super seriously, working really hard and failing, rather than what I see more frequently, which is someone being ironic and smug before even trying. That apathy is attempting to protect one’s self from the emotional damage of failure, and is collectively ruining innovation in the arts. When someone fails at something in their life, that failure gives them strength to attempt improvement again and again. So to me, a serious artist's commitment is pretty exciting, because the commitment is risky. But there is also the other kind of seriousness which we all know is nauseating. I won't name names, but it's out there, in every art school I've been to there are always a few humorless horrible people ruining the experience for others.
Another artist that has a rather similar approach to art - even though he obviously has a very different style to yours - is Philly’s Andrew Jeffrey Wright... I was wondering if you guys have ever met?
No, I've never met him, but I have been to Space 1026 in Philly a few times, and I'm sure we have mutual friends, and more importantly, if you rearrange the letters in "Andrew Jeffrey Wright" it spells "Grew Harder Went Jiffy" which I am sure many of your readers can really relate to.
When you do cover artwork for bands and solo artists, how important is it for you that you actually like the music?
In the words of Fred Willard as Lt. Hookstratten in the 1984 film "This is Spinal Tap“: We are such fans of your music, and all your records... I am not speaking of yours personally, but the whole genre of rock 'n' roll.
Please tell me about these infamous scavenger hunts you initiate... where do they take place and what are they all about?
The Brother and Sister scavenger hunts were something my sister Katie and I organized and presented while we were doing our two-piece rock band “Brother And Sister“ around 2004-2008. Basically they were inspired by wanting to create something for the audience to do instead of stand in a bar and watch a band on stage have all the fun. I don't drink and I was always so bored having to go to bars to watch live music. At most shows the audience would be bored, and the band would be having a euphoric blast. It sucked. So we decided to create activities and adventures for the audience, usually on bicycles and taking place at multiple locations around a city. We used the word scavenger hunt to describe them, but technically they were treasure searches rather than scavenger hunts, meaning that the sequencing was chronologically linear, rather than a pure scavenger hunt where you search for things in any order. Since these events were performance-based, there was a time sequence to them. But they did involve clues for the groups of audience participants to solve. The clues really became the works of art. We made videos, sculptures, haircuts, donuts, paintings, drawings, we had actors, we had the audience get actual tattoos, we built rafts, put ads in newspapers, made radio ads, we had at least 20 clues per event. And the locations where the bands played were always interesting: we played in an abandoned jail, the oldest church in Minneapolis, the Mall of America, indoor pools, outdoor waterparks, on a hockey ice rink, roller rinks, art galleries, on roofs, under highway overpasses, inside high school cafeterias, in forests, etc. We would have our friends' bands play the events, too. Best time of my life hands down, I really miss those days.
In the past you did some fantastic artwork for Nike SB and generally seem to be quite the skate rat... do you still skate on a regular basis? I can imagine that Minneapolis with its notorious harsh winters isn’t necessarily a perfect playground for skateboarding?
I like skate culture and skaters a lot. I stopped skateboarding about two or three years ago. I've broken my knee twice, broken my arm twice, experienced three concussions, and have sprained both ankles. At this point, I'm 34, and I'm trying to just get through my day without getting hurt. There are tons of skaters in Minneapolis. I think I know more people in Minneapolis that skate than don't. I think physical activity in general is so positive. I would recommend it to any artist (or anyone) reading this to take time to enjoy going outside and doing some sort of physical activity. It's the best!
So what’s next for you?
I just finished grad school a couple weeks ago, I got an MFA in painting from San Francisco Art Institute, and now I am teaching some summer school classes at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and doing some artwork. This coming August I am moving to Buffalo, NY because I got a DJ night there the third Thursday of every month. I'll pretty much just float around for a while and then maybe blow up and get super famous in about six or seven months?