Artist of The Week: Liam Little
To define art would be not only ambitious, but nearly impossible. To define an artist—complicated. 21-year-old painter, musician, and model, Liam Little, exemplifies just this in his quasi-surrealist corner of Bushwick, where paintings of all sizes are hung up across the walls and instruments of various orchestral families lay lifeless in anticipation on his mustard sofa. Among these things and throughout his apartment are small trinkets and tchotchkes from which Little sources inspiration for his portals of escapism, painted masterfully with oils onto stretched canvas.
At 14, Little turned to art after breaking his arm, handicapped from practicing his other two hobbies: music and skateboarding. With that said, it wasn’t until two years ago that he began fostering his passion for painting—first, with acrylics handed down by his aunt and then with oil paints, for which Little expresses a great affinity in using. Since then, he has acquired not only an impressive breadth of work, but also a distinct and dedicated style—one that he hesitates to describe for himself, but invites for others to comment on.
Little welcomed us into his home studio, where we picked his brain on the “sarcastic” character of his work, the conceptions of his distinguishable compositions and the complex challenges of being an artist. Check out the full interview below with images of Little and his work in the gallery above.
So you got started painting two years ago, but you were drawing a lot before that, yeah?
Yeah! Well, my first few paintings I actually did in New Mexico with my aunt and her paints. I did it right after I broke my arm. I broke it really fucking bad when I was like 16—my bone came out and everything—so I had to deal with that for a long ass time.
How’d you break your arm?
Skateboarding… So I couldn’t skate, I couldn’t even play music and I’m always fucking around with music. I got really into drawing with these tiny pens, just because I thought detailed pen drawings were really sick. They were like etchings, almost, and so I went and visited my aunt, still had my cast on, she goes “Here’s all this paint.” Then I just fucked around with all of that, but I didn’t really buy any of my own until I moved here. All of my super old stuff is at the top of my closet. There’s probably 30 pieces up there, but they’re all acrylic and I’m not super psyched about them, but they were the first. Acrylic is easier to get into, but pasty and I don’t know… It’s not my favorite. Oil, for me, is truly crafting an image. You can thin it out as much as you want, or pile it on. You can see every hair.
So in addition to your aunt who paints, I know your mom and stepdad do as well. It kind of runs in the family? Have they informed your style of painting at all?
Oh, yeah! Well, my stepdad is a professional painter. That’s his career. He’s from Maine and he’s way into Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth, and Monet. He’s super, super impressionist. He wins awards all the time. I’ve had a few lessons from him and have painted with him a couple of times.
He has definitely informed my work on color choice and being particular with colors—not just approximating, but kind of calculating what the color is that you’re looking at. For example, it’s not just purple you’re looking at, there are other hints of all kinds of colors in there, so it’s really specific.
Do you find that art for you was an inherent passion or more so a skill that you had to foster?
I guess I’ve always had the desire to make art. It really comes from ideas of images. You create one image at a time, so I get these ideas and it’s like how else can I recreate this image that lives in my mind if I don’t have a nice camera, and all these props? But now, it’s funny because I kind of do recreate these images with props that I find, but then I’ll paint the picture that I take of the still life. For example, the big red painting with the mask, I had the whole idea when I saw the mask at the store. I was like, “I know what to do with this mask to make a crazy image,” and so I had the concept for the composition and color. I knew I wanted to incorporate red, pink and orange for a pretty chilled out color palette, then a bit of blue to balance the whole thing.
So you always have the idea of what you want to create before you start painting. Where would you say that you source the ideas from?
Um, I discovered painting reflections from a surrealist book, kind of like Man Ray and stuff. They took really trippy photos through warped mirrors and I was like, “That’s really sick,” but other than that, the other paintings that I kind of just do are like characters in a way. I started out with this obsession with faces, and so a general portrait sense is what repeats in most of my paintings. Even the eye balls and dentures piece, it’s like a version of a portrait in a way—deconstructed—put on a weird plane.
Yeah, I totally get that from your work. If I had to describe it in a short phrase I’d say ‘quasi-surrealist portraiture.’
Yeah! But it’s meant to be funny in a way—not to be taken too seriously.
You’ve actually called your work sarcastic before, in an interview with Office Magazine. Can you elaborate on that?
For sure. Painting, for me, is where I go to kind of cheer myself up sometimes—a space to express myself. I typically always have some sort of sense of humor, and maybe a stupid monologue in my head that I think is funny that I want to convey. I’m always trying to make jokes myself, so I think of weird images or I characterize a portrait in a way that’s funny and kind of impactful. It’s as if the painting was talking to you and had a sense of humor.
You’ve mentioned Man Ray, but what other artists have informed your work?
Yeah, there’s a bunch. When I started out, I was always really blown away by Van Gogh and would obviously go into the museums, like “What the fuck?” It’s just ridiculous! James Ensor is one of my favorites. Francis Picabia is another favorite and I saw his thing at the MoMA, it was wild. You think about it, and these guys were masters when they were 14. The reason they’re so good is because they kind of abandon or push the limits of composition, and their subject matter especially is always personalized in some way. It’s different from traditional art, but they still used the things they knew.
So you’re a model, and are obviously exposed to fashion a lot. Does that impact anything within art for you?
Not really, but I get a lot of fashion and art magazines. I mean, people in the fashion world are able to appreciate, but it’s not really super connected for me. Art is kind of my own thing, and then with fashion, I just model for money—which is cool. If I can make money, I can make paintings. I haven’t even sold any of my pieces. I probably could, but I don’t want to, because then they’re just not around.
Yeah, so obviously it didn’t start out as one, but do you consider art as a viable career?
Um, maybe it could lead to something, yeah. Or maybe I could actually start selling the canvases themselves, but I’m thinking if I’m going to sell my art, I’ll sell the image. So, if someone wants to print it on a skateboard or something, that’s cool. That way, I could sell the image and keep the piece itself. For now, I want to keep these canvases forever. If they outlive me, they’re all in one place. Wherever I go next, I’m going to bring them all with me.
Was there a moment for you when painting transcended hobby and really became a pursuit?
Yeah, totally. When I had a lot of things bugging me, I ended up basically doing a painting a day, and it’d be like 6-8 hours of working. I do it to avoid things that make me unhappy. I don’t know, it’s a good way to escape the things that you’re tired of, because it’s a new image every time.
Sure, and most art is really used as escapism, whether film, music, etc. What do you find to be the hardest or most challenging thing about being an artist?
Forgetting that you have an audience, sometimes. But at the same time, it’s not like I have to share them, so really, the pressure doesn’t even exist. It’s just my own shit that I’m picking up. I really do have my own vibe that I’m trying to keep going, so I can’t just start doing abstract paintings. I mean I could, like fuck it, but I don’t want to.
How would you describe that vibe, then?
That’s hard. That’s so hard. I just let other people describe it. It’s hard when it’s my own work. I really do just let other people react to pieces for themselves. It’s entertaining to me. I like hearing what people say, because usually I’d never say it, but I almost always agree with what they think. I like to keep it really open.
What is it like for you to have other people see your work? The way you describe the purpose behind your art is super personal, so not usually intended for other people’s eyes.
I try not to pay so much attention to that. I’m just showing people the ideas within my imagination. If they like it, they’ll be pretty supportive, which is awesome. If not, they probably won’t say anything, and you start to think “Oh, is it not good enough?” But in the end, it doesn’t even matter because it’s not for them. When you start out, though, nobody gives a shit. Then, when you’re Picasso, it’s like ‘Oh, this is sick!’
Yeah, but on both ends, art is still so personal and so sharing it will never not be scary.
Sure, that goes for any form of art or expression, you know? It’s an idea, and people are going to have opinions, whether they think it’s good or bad. I’m just satisfied with knowing that I’ll never run out of ideas. I don’t get too worried when I stop painting, because I know that when I start thinking, “I’ve got to start a new painting,” the gears will start turning and I’ll start developing ideas. I get really obsessive. I can’t sleep sometimes. When I’m working on a painting and I’m almost done, I’ll take a photo right before I go to bed and then just be in bed looking at the photo thinking about what I can change before the layer dries tomorrow, and I’ll get back up.
When do you decide that a piece is done? I’d imagine that to be one of the hardest parts.
Yeah, when I’m super exhausted, but when I feel like it’s closest to what I imagined before I even started. Also, I just exhaust myself, because I try to get them done as fast as I can for some reason. Painting to me is like cooking while you’re starving. You know? You just want to eat it, so you’re rushing.
Painting to me is like cooking while you’re starving.
That’s really well said. You’re a musician too, do you sing?
Yeah, I also play the drums, bass, the keyboard and the guitar. I record on Ableton, but I’d love to go record somewhere. It’d be sick, but also pretty expensive.
Do you find that your music and painting influence one another?
Maybe, but not really. They’re pretty different, but I think they definitely complement each other. If I ever put out an album, I’d definitely put one of my paintings as the cover.
Stay tuned to Milk for more on emerging artists on our radar.