Nicholas Buffon & Photios Giovanis in Conversation

This conversation took place during the recent exhibition “Vehicles” by Nicholas Buffon on view through March 24th at Callicoon Fine Arts.
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Nicholas Buffon, “New York Dogs,” 2018, Acrylic and carbon transfer on Bristol paper, 8 5/8 x 12 1/18 inches

Photios Giovanis: We’ve known each other for over 10 years, and when I first discovered your work you were painting and drawing obsessively, toying with abstraction, and crafting performances. How did you transition into more representational subject-matter?

Nicholas Buffon: We met when I was 21—it has been a long time! I was making pseudo-representational/abstract paintings based around jokey titles and cartoons of myself performing dance moves from all sorts of references. After that, I remember becoming gradually more dissatisfied with abstract painting: the glut in the wider world; the large sizes and space requirements; the machismo. My abstract paintings were becoming more and more pseudo-representational, even figurative, if cartoonishly so.

I’ve always had a secret soft spot for weird representational art: Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Andy Wyeth. And, even though I went to art schools, I never learned the technical or traditional techniques of drawing and painting. At a certain point I realized that didn’t matter and I could just do it in my own way. I could “come out” as liking representational art even though it felt taboo and uncool.

PG: What led you to start memorializing LGBTQ haunts and organizations in your paintings? How do you choose which locations to represent?

NB: I started the gay bar project about three years ago, almost as a response to the elections. I was grossed out by what was happening and wanted to portray sites and scenes from my community. I remember working on the Stonewall Inn miniature while watching the inauguration of the current president.

After I made that model I wanted to make every gay bar, but most of them are stuffed in to big, ugly, boring buildings—that was before I started allowing myself to just make the storefront and ignore the building at large, which saves a lot of space. I realized I could just paint the storefronts. So I started with gay bars closest to me geographically and the ones I was most familiar with.

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Nicholas Buffon, “B&H Dairy,” 2018, Foam core, Bristol paper, acrylic paint, Sobo glue, superglue, sculpey, and pins, 22 x 20 x 10 inches

PG: I think of these images of the gay bars really as landmarks. How do you feel about these works being historic, or even archival?

NB: After looking at gay bars nearby my apartment, I expanded to the oldest and most well-known gay bars in the city, most of which are in the West Village and have rich historical connections to the gay liberation movement. I became reticent about only including bars, caricaturing gays as only partying. I was missing an opportunity to capture performance and meeting spaces.

The city is constantly changing: bars especially come and go all the time. Businesses close and buildings change around them or are torn down, neighborhoods shift. Several locations have closed since I started this project, and others have moved.

PG: How do you feel about self-portraiture, and the role it has played in your work?

NB: The figures in the paintings are a mix of “original” narratives and a random sampling of strangers that happen to be walking by in source photographs. Some are friends inserted, others are archetypal fictions. Sometimes choosing the outfits takes longer than making the entire layout, and some layouts are banal in their lack of figures. Narratively speaking, the bars could be closed in the middle of the day or night, or the figures could be inside or just outside of the picture’s frame. At first I used a cartoon-me, because the locations were places I went to or walked by. Then, I started using the cartoon-me as a justification for places I wasn’t familiar with but wanted to paint. Sometimes the figure is a self-deprecating gesture, when the building alone seemed too self-serious. The cartoon-me also functions as a fill-in for “person” when I wanted a figure but wasn’t sure I wanted to paint strangers. My cartoon self also implies an ownership of association or even assumed affiliation with the building.

PG: In your current solo exhibition at Callicoon Fine Arts, your fifth with the gallery since 2010, you’ve integrated vehicles of all shapes and sizes into the mix of building facades. These new works often lack people. What brought you to these vehicles?

NB: I can’t believe we’re already at five shows! There were the lily pads upstate, the abstract paintings of weed nuggets, the first show of miniatures comprised of the gallery’s locations (old and new), the show of miniatures in Callicoon’s current location, and finally this vehicle show.

My father restored antique vehicles—trucks, sports cars, hot rods, muscle cars—before he passed away. I would help him a little but I hated it: working on cars is greasy and boring work, but driving them is fun. I was dragged to hundreds of dull car shows, where all these car nerds would bring their restored cars, sitting around and chatting. I became used to looking at cars as these pampered bodies, admiring their curves and seeing them treated as princesses.

PG: Many of the storefronts and vehicles are captured in the East Village in Manhattan, NYC, where you live. Have you always been so interested in portrayal of your immediate surroundings?

NB: Maybe not always portraying my immediate surroundings but physical location always has an impact—the shape and size of the studio I’m working in, for example. I definitely get fixated on things and images I encounter repeatedly. I have been taking a lot of source photographs and then looking at them when I have down time, plotting what could be next and problem solving the challenges that work will throw my way.

PG: Do these new works feel more about innuendo or characterization to you?

NB: Innuendo and humor are often my way into being interested in an image. They are both entry points that compel me to make images, and a way to lighten things up that seem too serious or heavy-handed. But I don’t want the humor to be the only content. If I treat the painting tenderly and give it my full attention, then it can surpass its one-liner entry point and stand up for itself. I really see vehicles in the city as lumbering, squeaking beasts regardless of what unfortunate text they have on them, sometimes, I assume, knowingly a little dirty.

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Nicholas Buffon, “The Stonewall Inn,” 2017, foam, glue, paper, and paint, 24 ½ x 22 x 7 inches

PG: You’ve really made a significant jump since our last show in 2016, which was almost entirely foam and paper building facades and domestic objects such as a bathtub, mantle, and a local Rite-Aid.

NB: The miniature buildings take so long to make and drain all my energy. The paintings are time intensive but I can get through a broader range of ideas and locations quickly and explore things that are too hard in three dimensions. The buildings are a real commitment that can’t be half done; the smallest detail has to be addressed. In a painting you can hide an annoying detail behind a figure or approach it from a different angle. My practice has always had a cyclical element to it where I overwork a certain branch, burn out and switch modes, then burn out and switch back, tricking myself to not get bored.

PG: Some of your new paintings integrate other artworks—such as George Segal’s Gay Liberation monument near the Stonewall Inn, and Zoe Leonard’s poem, I want a dyke for President—into the frame. How do you feel about these works being labeled as “political?”

NB: The less controversial Bethesda Fountain, too! I was suspicious of “political" art until, shall we say, recently, but I can couch those feelings behind pseudo-documentation. I’d also been thinking of subtle ways to portray resistance when I started this project—strength and resilience are where community exists. Painting gay bars en masse is sort of a political statement. After a while, I got tired of just painting bars so I moved to performance spaces like the Pyramid Club and Judson Church. I got tired of those and kept expanding my criteria. It seems the more I paint, the longer the list gets. I’ve got my eye on St. Vincent’s Hospital with Jenny Holzer’s AIDS memorial for the near future, and I still haven’t even painted all the bars just in Manhattan.

PG: How does the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots have you feeling?

NB: A couple months ago, I was lucky enough to be invited on an LGBT history walking tour of Greenwich Village with members of the Stonewall 50 Consortium. It was hosted by Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader, and Jay Shockley, who have run the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project since 2015. The oral histories they’ve been able to document are fascinating. It was so interesting to look at a CVS and hear how it used to be an automat where the LGBT community congregated in the 1940s and 50s. The NYC Historic Sites Project has been a massive help with my research. Their website is beautifully designed and has captured the history behind so many locations.

The members of the consortium I met are all doing amazing, important work. The Trevor Project, for example, is a non-profit suicide prevention and support organization that focuses on at-risk LGBTQ youth. They’re practically heroes. I think since that tour the consortium has ballooned to over 200 members—it’s wild.

PG: What are you most surprised by, seeing these new works installed in the gallery?

NB: When we first planned Vehicles, I thought it would contain only LGBTQ locations but I had made such a comprehensive show of them for the Akron Art Museum last summer that I was itching for something different. Vehicles were already appearing alongside the gay bars because they live adjacent to and in service of buildings, but I never thought I would have so many. It’s surprising to see the ones I’ve depicted out and about. Right before we started install I saw a brand spanking new NYC Corrections bus driving up Bowery.

PG: We’re super excited about your solo exhibition at Poets House in June 2019! Any sneak-peaks or insights that you can give us about what you’re planning?

NB: Poets House is a very special place. Paulo Javier, the program director, brought Poets House into the Stonewall 50 Consortium. He’s been killing it with his programming, and not just because he asked me to do a show. The show will comprehensively collect my LGBTQ sites and will be more institutional than anything I’ve done up to this point. I’ve never filled vitrines before! I’m going to make a large painting with the staff’s faces peaking out of the windows, too.

Around the time I took that tour with the Consortium, Paulo and I met with Karen Karbiener, a Walt Whitman scholar. She took us to the basement of Han’s Deli on Broadway and Great Jones, which turned out to be the location of Pfaff’s, a basement bar in the 1840s where Whitman hung out. Pfaff’s was a proto-gay bar where bohemians, artists, and LGBTQ people congregated before those words were in common usage. I think I’m going to make some paintings of the ancient stonework there, with all the banal deli stuff stacked against it like any old storeroom. I squished a cockroach down there.

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Nicholas Buffon, “Bath Time!,” 2019, Acryylic and carbon transfer on Bristol paper, 22 3/16 x 11 ¾ inches

Nicholas Buffon is a painter and sculptor who lives and works in New York.

Photios Giovannis is the owner and director of Callicoon Fine Arts.