“In Profile” is a series where ArtsNow invites artists in the Triangle to write about a fellow artist. Julia Rice is a visual artist and illustrator writing about visual/sound artist and comedian Drew Robertson. You can follow Julia and Drew on Twitter. Click here for the “In Profile” series archive.
I met Drew Robertson while studying at the College of Design at NC State University. I admired his audacity and gentle spirit, and the way he was constantly coming up with strange things that most folks had to catch up to be ready for. Drew is one of those breath-of-fresh-air people who is authentic and smart, funny and pragmatic. In his art and his comedy, he asks for forgiveness rather than permission, pushing boundaries and buttons to deactivate comfort zones, all with the wish to help us all feel better about the stuff that makes us go “eew,” “ick” or “ugh.” The following is an abridged transcript of a conversation we had at his studio in Chapel Hill on a recent Saturday afternoon. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Julia: In your artist statement you talk about experimentation, human themes, accidents and life. Can you talk more about what drives you to make art and what you get out of it on the other side?
Drew: Since I make art in a few different ways, I tend to find a process I want to play with, inevitably not knowing how to use it at first. I’ll make, for lack of a better term, “errors” or “accidents” that end up formally looking kind of cool. Then I’ll try and reproduce those errors. Sometimes people refer to them as glitches, but glitches are more about finding errors in software. Mine might deal with that, but just as often it deals with me using something incorrectly. If Photoshop is a tool like a hammer, it’s like trying to hammer a nail with a backwards hammer but liking what you see when you do it.
Julia: It’s your fault, not the software’s fault.
Drew: It’s a little bit of both. Using things incorrectly on purpose.
Julia: I like that statement a lot. You have an art and design degree, and you’re pursuing your Master’s, and in between you’ve done all kinds of really interesting things. Talk to me about the creative path you’ve taken.
Drew: One of the things that was really cool about the art and design program was that I had a concentration, [starting as a painter but with an emphasis on conceptualism; by the time he was done with the program he was mainly working in sound and video] but was able to take studio courses in different areas: painting, sculpture, illustration. I was in the woodshop a lot. Now if I have a project, I can approach it from a bunch of different ways. Also, from working at [North Carolina Museum of Art] for so many years, I saw a LOT of art and different approaches to art making. If I saw a process that I thought looked really cool, it inspired me to kind of make my own version of that process. The other luxury I’ve had is being involved with the lump collective and being able to work on shows and be in shows that I wouldn’t have otherwise, all over the place. Putting all of those together has helped me come up with different ways to attack different visual problems. When you tack on the other passion that I have, the comedy passion, it becomes this kind stew of disparate elements that I’m trying to tie together.
Working in bands, I had a knowledge of how to record and make sounds with synthesizers and things like that, aspects of experimental music, and the more I kept researching other artists that were using sounds and how sound could make spaces or how sound could make or break the context of a visual element, that became fascinating to me. Some of the earlier explorations I would do with sound would be trying to find translations between visual and audio aspects. For example, if I had a video with four different soundtracks, I would see how much the video would change — that sort of thing. In the beginning a lot of it had to do with sound, not just by itself, accompanying something visual and the context created from those two combining. And then playing with that context.
Julia: So looking at context is a really big part of your work. Interestingly enough, as a design educator, that’s the first thing that we talk with students about, that you have to understand the context for the design problem.
Drew: Context can definitely make or break. Basically what I’m doing is not unlike someone learning how to draw or render things “properly” but then coming up with their own style after learning fundamentals. Whether it’s doing comedy in art spaces, or making videos where I change backgrounds — after having a grasp of proper context and studying context and how it makes or breaks things, only then do I feel like I can now mess with it. I can alter context in a way where I know what the outcome if going to be. So that play on context to me is very important.
Julia: Wow. So context itself is kind of like a skill set.
Drew: Yeah, context is like a skill set and also like a medium that I use.
Julia: You’ve always struck me as a really organized person with multiple ways to stand behind the decisions you make. I can imagine that this series of artists writing about other artists, that’s going to continue to be something that non-artists can understand — being an artist is a job as well.
Drew: It’s funny, because people think of [being an artist] as a binary – the stereotypical starving artist that is compelled to make art but makes no money and lives in a tenement somewhere. Or the famous artist who is either no longer living or is so rich that they can do whatever they want. People don’t think about the in-betweens. People don’t think about the fact that there are a lot of state employees that are artists. Or lots of people that work corporate jobs that are artists.
Julia: Or parents…
Drew: Yeah, or parents or educators or people that you run into everywhere. Their art is still something they’re very passionate about. It’s more than a hobby; it doesn’t occupy the same space as a hobby, but they have to do these other jobs, whether they enjoy them or not, but really, they have to work 40 hours a week before they can then make their art.
Julia: David [Eichenberger] and I got invited to one of your first comedy shows ever. At that point you were keeping your comedy a secret. We decided that we were going to be your number one biggest fans. Even if we don’t make it out to every show.
Drew: Yeah, I still feel like you’re my number one biggest fans.
Julia: We’re waving your flag. For sure. On the way over here, David was saying, I know what you should ask Drew: “Why comedy?” So that’s the next question, why comedy, and what was it like to come out of the closet as an artist/comedian?
Drew: The why: I’ve always wanted to do it. I don’t know what my hang-up was specifically. June will be three years ago that I decided to take my first stand-up comedy class at DSI.
A lot of [my comedy] has to do with things that I deal with in my day-to-day life. I always lament when people take themselves way too seriously. I feel like the people and practice of art take things way too seriously. Laughter is a very physical thing — a universal commonality among people. It’s a physiological thing. People laugh; why would you deny something that’s one of the most accessible things on the planet, humor? I also don’t get nervous very often, but comedy is one thing that still feels very challenging to me. There’s no feeling like being up on stage and it going well and people listening to what you have to say. Then, conversely, if it goes terribly, there is no feeling like being up on stage and bombing. With those two extremes, it can be It’s addictive. It doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve done, in terms of the way it makes me feel like I’ve achieved a good show after I’ve been challenged. I’ve always had a lot of interests, and I’ve never felt like I should separate my interests. If my art is supposed to reflect who I am, it’s important to me to have all those influences be in that art. I started making more humorous, more absurd art, and I started getting into comedy more.
Julia: You were talking about challenge and nervousness, and that’s huge. If you’re doing an art show in a gallery, you can predict to some degree what kind of person might be rolling through. But with comedy, you never really know. It reminds me of what you were saying about technology – that you’re using something incorrectly on purpose. It seems like in comedy, there’s opportunity to try something out and see what happens.
Drew: It’s funny because the way a lot of joke structure is designed, you take two elements that don’t relate to each other and put them together in kind of a misdirection. In a lot of ways that is similar to using something incorrectly. You’re setting up a premise that people are supposed to be able to follow. You throw a wrench and change where they thought you were going. You’re using language in the sly way that makes it seem like you’re using it incorrectly.
It also ties back into CONTEXT. The breakaway from the initial context is what creates that incongruity that allows this kind of weird a-ha moment that people laugh at.
Julia: Kind of a ha-ha moment. So you’re manipulating the context in order to get a laugh.
Drew: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Julia: I think that’s one of the things that struck me about your comedy is that you’re very relatable — the way that you start out jokes is a lovable kind of thing. It’s off the wall in a really unpredictable way, simultaneously really authentic but also really unexpected.
Drew: Because I’ve spent so much of my life dealing with art, I think of it almost in painterly terms. I think of my jokes in a lot of ways in being like chiaroscuro. I’ll start off with a presentation that’s kind of upbeat, like, “HEY, everybody!,” [and] kind of cute. But then I’ll dump something dark in there. Just like chiaroscuro, the lightness gives contrast to the darkness, and that’s what makes the joke.
As a comic and as an artist, there are things that people feel like we shouldn’t talk about. But I don’t think there are things we shouldn’t talk about. There’s a lot of really nasty things out there. If laughter and looking at art are two ways to help us understand culture or deal with life on a day to day basis, then we have to tackle those heavy themes, too. We can’t just talk about family jokes or things that are easily relatable to everyone.
Julia : I think a lot of times in our culture, things get buried as taboo, or defined like, “Oh, that’s a no-no.” I think that’s the job of the artist and comedian: to make people less afraid of the kind of things that they already do.
Drew: Oh yeah, basically anything the body does is hilarious. It’s a wonderful machine, but we’re all a little self-conscious of and it’s a little icky and weird. The body is a perfect thing to mine these uncomfortable yet universal themes from. Everybody uses the bathroom. It’s so easy to laugh at so many things that the body does. While some of that material makes people uncomfortable, but a lot of people, whether they will admit it or not, think it’s hilarious.
One of the things that’s funny, with art and with comedy, both share audience in common. The reaction of that audience is important to the themes. You’re creating these things in hopes that people will relate to it in the way we’re talking about. They’ll bring themselves to it, and that completes the circuit. That’s the thing that’s so important. If you have these themes, and people say, “Oh yeah!” or “I’m glad he’s talking about these things because that’s something I was dealing with earlier,” then I think that’s a pretty wonderful thing.