There are piles of things – everything and anything you could possibly imagine – all over the studio occupying the ground floor of a former 160 year old bakery. It’s absolute chaos, but in a strangely organized way. Many of my studio visits include an apology from the artist on the state of the mess, but not from Greg Haberny. If anything, he seems faintly annoyed, or maybe even a little amused that the place is so clean, “spotless,” as he calls it, with piles of power tools and tangles of cords, shelves overrun with hardware, stacks of books and magazines, and buckets of toys, plastic syringes, cassette tapes, empty pill bottles, wire, and sure, there’s even some paint. (Okay, maybe a lot of paint.)
In the middle of the room is a work in progress, a black amorphous blob in the vague shape of the United States with an array of colorful cubes, syringes and pencils piercing it’s heart. Haberny explains that the melting process will start soon, in which the materials will be fused to the nation. Haberny’s penchant for melting, stabbing, and shooting his work may see like an guteral act of violence, but it would be an disservice to the artist and his careful process to leave it so simply. If there is anything this Connecticut native is not, is being simple.
Exactly Who Makes The Work?
We had taken the walk to his Chelsea studio from the Lyons Weir Gallery, where the polka dot floor of his show, “Burn All Crayons,” crept up the walls and fizzled out in burnt edges just below the multi media paintings. It was difficult to see where the installation ended and the hanging began, and indeed, it was a unified space – a veritable dreamscape of childhood expression from the superhero references and over saturated colors of the kool-aid man, up to a ceiling peppered with pencils. He tells me that the pencils tap into memories of his school classrooms where Haberny and other rowdy boys would toss as many pencils into the ceiling as possible when the teacher left the room.
Walking me through his piece “Spoon,” Haberny takes on the persona of an overmedicated child in a narrative stream of consciousness, charting out the connections between chemicals found in food and household products, the mega companies who produce them, and the various mental illness and chemical remedies they spawn. Creating and playing out characters in his practice seems a comfortable method for a former actor and filmmaker like Haberny, with the narratives he writes for each piece giving them a greater depth. “I think a lot of these have to do with the juvenile terrorist inside of me,” he jokes, but the sad, sardonic humor in his work speaks the frustrations of a generation whose voice has been greatly subdued.
Among the clutter of the studio, Haberny's sketchbooks live in a huge box near the entrance and the machinations of the stories fueling his paintings don't exactly exist in a traditional sense. The pages of the book we leafed through were covered in smears of paint and excited squiggles of words. While text is front and center in many of his pieces, the violent execution and incorporation of recognizable imagery from pop culture and day-to-day life complete the story. "Where Are All My Cookies?" tells the tale of a wealthy boy who has been left alone and his parents have hidden his cookies, so he takes his rage out by trashing the family's Cy Twombly painting (one of Haberny's favorite artists). Realizing he's gone over the line, the boy makes a peace offering in the form of a glitter-encrusted teddy bear. Inside the innocence and nearly joyful display of rebellion, the issue of sugar indulgence shines through, one of the issues Haberny feels strongly about (he has personally given up foods and products with dangerous chemical effects).
Starting From Scratch & Scratching It Up
The sense that Haberny's work has existed for decades, pried off the wall of a clubhouse or summer camp cabin, is a testament to his dedication to labor and craft, instilled in him at a young age by his family of artists. He starts with virgin materials, (the backs of his decayed canvases are new and pristine), and sets in to aging them with a sense of creation-through-destruction that has both a tireless effervescent energy and the cool calculations of a scientist—the pencils in the ceiling at Lyons Wier were not the result of a playful and manic act, but represents weeks of trial and error to determine a sturdy solution that would stand the test of time.
With his highly driven work ethic, Haberny's carefree antics almost seem incongruous with the focus and concentration he approaches his pieces with, but the dichotomy of his methods run parallel to the emotions and messages the work reflects. They are effortlessly painstaking and irreverently topical, but above all, maintain an even and balanced viewpoint. With titles like "With Out My Freedom I Couldn't Make Shit Like This…," he pays homage to certain national values that he is intensely grateful for, while simultaneously providing a running commentary on its evils – a truly American display of pride coupled with a genuine hope and interest in making things better.
While Haberny has become a fixture at international art fairs, museums, and auction houses over the past ten years, his kind attitude and excitement for making work everyday is anything but jaded. He is currently in talks with a filmmaker to take a closer look at his fervent process, and says he plans to take things to a more intense place, or as he says. “full frontal,” which could conceivably involve blowing up a house.
Article by Meredith Caraher