Fun fact: Washington Square Park is home to the remains of over 20,000 dead bodies. This thought lingers as I search through the bustling park on a summer evening to find and chat with Joe Sorren, a New York City based artist known for his near-impressionistic paintings of oddball characters. The air is creepy yet benign and even charming—a lot like his figures. As we chat, I find that despite the monumental cemetery underneath the park’s grass and concrete, Washington Square Park is very much alive with its plethora of musicians, street performers, and artists—a lot like Joe Sorren, who seems to be bursting with vitality.
Artparasites: What’s your process for painting?
Joe Sorren: You gotta follow the piece. I’m not clever enough to come up with a good painting. There’s a book that Stephen King wrote called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In the book, he talks about throwing plot away and writing from character. He doesn’t ever have a plot. He’s got these people and they got a situation—they’re maybe in a bar and one guy’s worried about his dead dog. What would happen? And then he records it. He says all the time he’s surprising himself by what would happen, what he wouldn’t think of if he had a plot to follow. I took that concept and I used it for sketching. To me, sketching is the plot. When I’m painting, it’s really an adventure. It’s not just horrible and I’m in the dregs. I’m laughing out loud. An hour later, I’m like AHH! It’s really, really, really fun. It keeps me engaged.
I just start putting paint on and seeing stuff evolve that’s just there. You bring some of that out and then you see something else. Oh wait if that’s a…and this is a…oh… You just start finding these ideas. If I was trying to be clever, the ideas would be contrived. There’s a great quote: “Throw away your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.”
APs: How do you know when to stop then, if your piece keeps evolving?
JS: Well, that’s the danger. Sometimes, you blow right through a piece and it starts becoming another piece. It’s when the character that I’m working on – the form that I’m bringing to life – feels like it’s supposed to be here. That’s when I start to respect it.
My friend Lyle Motley and I were talking (he’s awesome and an amazing painter). If you strip away everything that we know about art and actually look at what painting is, it’s a visual recording of time created through movement. Brushstrokes actually contain energy—brushstrokes are really the quiet narrators behind paintings. One of the things I try to do when I’m painting is less have a concept and communicate that to people in painting and more create a space in the painting for people to have room to have concepts of their own.
APs: If your paintings were not paintings, what would they be? Windows, mirrors, hammers, love letters, etc.?
JS: When I get going, it feels less like creating and more finding. In light of that, if they weren’t paintings, they would be another planet or another dimension somewhere that’s really similar but quite wrong and clumsy—so, another existing form of life. It wouldn’t be a window, it feels like a recording of another dimension, like photographs, but they don’t have photography there.
APs: Tell me about Because of Toast. How did the whole trading card thing start? Why make your art available in the form of trading cards?
JS: There was a painting that was originally part of a really large canvas. It was a band playing music into a toaster, like the microphone went into a toaster. And the monster was waiting for the toast. It was one of those things where I was like, I hate this. I’m just going to throw this canvas away. It’s annoying me. It just… it felt so clever. So I ended up throwing it out, but I took an X-ACTO knife and I just cut the monster out with the toaster ‘cause I was like I like him. He’s kind of cool.”
I always meet people who connect to the work, but don’t have the finances to even afford prints. And it’s such a bummer that you can’t live with the stuff in your life unless you have X, Y, and Z. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to bring back the concept of trading cards?” When I was a kid, I played this game called Masterpiece with my brother a lot. It was an epic ’70s art game. He made up all new rules, so I don’t even know how to play the game for real. We just played some odd kid version of it. It was a trading concept. I loved getting the Rembrandts and I spent all my money on those. One of my first real loves of art was this game. I started playing around with the idea and I remember when I was raising my kids, they were really into Pokémon. We got really into the cartoon and we didn’t really play the game as much as we made up our own version of the game.
APs: Ha—no one knows how to play the game.
JS: Haha, I know! We had an actual wrestling match. We would put the cards out and whatever card you put out, Okay, now I’m Charmander, and we would get on the wrestling mat and do the whole battle. It was really fun. I love the format of those cards. I didn’t want to go the baseball route; I liked the Pokémon formula. Trading cards is a pretty interesting avenue because I want other artists to do it. I like geekin’ out on that kind of stuff. I’d like to collect what other people are doing.
APs: It seems like you like to put your art on some unconventional mediums (like the trading cards). If money and feasibility were not factors, where would you want your art to be printed?
JS: If I could get any sort of thing, I would like to build a carousel of the characters from the paintings. Say, for example, there was a love seat. And the love seat had these two winding vines—I’ve been thinking about this for years actually—and there’s just two monsters beating the hell out of each other. Everything on the carousel should have something interactive. If you sit on a flower one, maybe you could get some native seeds. Or if you sit in the love one, maybe you could get some love advice, like a fortune. I have a love affair with carousels. I don’t know why. They don’t do anything, but they’re beautiful pieces of art.
Joe Sorren is represented by AFA NYC [Price range of originals: $16,000 and up. Limited edition prints range from $275 – $950]
Article by Maggie Wong