Empathy with Everyone: Interview with Trey Abdella

20.04.2021, Art Interview
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In celebration of the announcement that one of our Culture cover artists signed with the König Galerie in Berlin today, we are reprinting Trey Abdella’s interview with Anika Meier, from our current Kreativität issue, in its entirety.

Trey Abdella lives in his studio and sleeps among his works. Not always an easy situation, especially now that the world has become as intense as the works themselves. His strangely familiar painting techniques combine painterly craftsmanship with the digital possibilities of Photoshop. The images he creates are inspired by the stereotypes flooding our digital sphere – and characters intersecting with his personal life. To get control over the medium, he approached painting like practicing the computer game Guitar Hero. A successful strategy.

The lockdown came surprisingly for all of us. Suddenly we were trapped inside and had time to sit down and think about how we live and how we would want to live in the future. Has this experience affected your art? 

I’m asthmatic. In the beginning of the lockdown, I was freaking out about COVID. Living in New York at the beginning of the outbreak was frightening and I basically just barricaded myself in my apartment. I live in my studio, so being trapped with my work while in a state of panic definitely did affect my work. Being around my paintings so much has made me a lot more critical of them. I have been slowing things down and I am taking more time with the work.

How would you describe your work to someone who hasn’t seen it yet? 

Have you ever gone to a sleepover with someone that has cats while pretending not to be allergic as you slowly die? My paintings kind of feel like that, balancing between fun and miserable.

How do you start working on a painting?

I start with thumbnail drawings, then I mine for source imagery and make mock up sketches on Photoshop. I usually have about 30 tabs open on Photoshop at all times, though most of them are never made into paintings. I have this rule for myself that I have to let them sit on my computer for at least 4 days and still like it before I paint it.

I have a group of people I’ll send my sketches to, to see what they think of them. One of those people is my little brother Justin, he is 18 years old and lives in West Virginia. It is always interesting to see how he responds to them. He picks up on a lot of things my friends and I wouldn’t have considered.

How do you define creativity? 

Well, I am no Merriam-Webster, but I find creativity synonymous with surprising. I’m always trying to surprise myself in the work.

How do you get yourself in the mood to create? 

I’m always trying to figure out what I want to create next. Sometimes it finds me when I’m out walking to pick up Chinese food or I find it sifting through movies and stock images. I watch way too much TV, go to shows, and listen to music that I want my work to sound like.

The characters in your paintings seem to be an exaggerated version of a certain personality like the desperate housewife, the angry kid or the arrogant teen. Do you have to like the people you paint?

I definitely don’t have to like them, but I really empathize with them. I feel like I am or at least know all the characters in my paintings in some way. My personal life and everyone in it kind of bleeds into the work whether I want it to or not.

I read that your parents made you draw cartoons when you were younger. Is that how you got into art? 

As a kid, I got into a lot of trouble, for stupid kid shit like blowing up sandboxes with fireworks or ding dong ditching the elderly. So to punish me, my parents wouldn’t let me go outside or watch TV. Instead, they gave me paper and pencil and told me to make my own cartoons. That’s what started it for me, rather than only doing it as a punishment. While I watched TV I was scribbling in my sketchbook, but I never really thought it would be something I would pursue as a career. 

You are a digital native, you were raised online. Many artists your age work with new technologies like VR and AR and explore the intersection of art and technology. Why did you choose painting as a medium? 

I’m actually really interested in making sculpture and installation and trying to figure out how to push my work past just painting.

That would still be analogue. You could invent worlds in VR with your cartoon characters people could interact with.

That would be cool. I don’t really see my work as something that is purely digital, though. I love the physicality of work in the real and it being something you can touch and see someone’s hand in. I use Photoshop to plan out my paintings but what’s really fun for me is incorporating different materials and textures into the work and figuring out how I can move it past a digital sketch. I don’t know how I even got so into painting in the first place. I grew up in West Virginia and the closest thing to art I saw were people’s collections of deer antlers and Bud Light. I actually used to really suck at painting. In undergrad, I would beg my girlfriend to help me with them as I debated dropping out. It really gnawed at me.

Obviously you were not good at painting. Why did you keep going against all odds?  

I was never that good at anything besides Guitar Hero 3, but I wouldn’t say all odds were against me. Painting felt like Guitar Hero, and if I played it enough, I’d eventually be an expert. I went into this hole for about 5 years where I didn’t really hang out or talk with people and just painted until I passed out while in and out of jobs. All of the work I made was shit, but I learned a lot from it.

Different terms are used to describe how digital natives push the medium of painting further, like post-digital pop and post-analogue painting. 

I’m not really interested in making work that talks about the internet or digital influences. I’m trying to push my paintings into kind of a sculptural direction by incorporating materials like wigs, chains, fabric and leashes, to really play with what’s real versus painted. 

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