This story was first published in Hello Zukeen Magazine.
A suburban makeshift garage studio is where this interview takes place. And I, nursing a hangover even a Russian would be proud of, was the interviewer. Blake Feeney, a 22 year old art school drop out was the interviewee.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know a whole lot about art. My own career in art has been pretty short-lived. One of my earliest memories is paper macheing a caterpillar at kindergarten. Fast forward 10 or so years, and for a while, I was a Banksy inspired delinquent, skating around ostentatious suburbs armed with a can of black spray paint and a few shitty stencils. That’s about it.
So when I found myself in the Blake’s studio Auckland with no prepared questions, I was, for some time, dumbfounded. His process was baffling. He attacked the canvas, painting in raw, bold strokes with wide brushes, his fingers and even sometimes, straight from the paint tubes themselves. Ethiopian jazz played in the background. An aroma of paint fumes and cigarette smoke hung in the warm garage air.
I stood sheepishly and took photos. The ridiculousness of everything eventually turned to awe and some minutes later I found myself on rambling on, firing whatever entered my mind as Blake got busy on a new piece. This is the result.
Hello Zukeen: It’s funny because whenever I think of people painting I think…
Blake Feeney: Finicky?
Yeah, a meticulous process. This just seems kinda crude.
Yeah bro I guess it's pretty crude. That’s why I never really got into painting, because it was so... fucking boring, you know? It was not my thing at all when I was young. So when I realised painting wasn't just about being meticulous, it started to really grab me.
So this is what you do now?
Yeah…Not many people get to see what goes down in the studio so I can see how people can get pretty weirded out when they see what it’s like.
So a lot of your work is just done on the fly?
Most of the time, I'll usually already have a general concept that I'll turn into a drawing and then the ones that work will find themselves on canvas. But yeah, when it's time to paint them they take their own form.
So you have the rough sketch and then you start working and it kind of just happens?
So do you make big fuck-ups because of that?
Yeah. I just work into it you know? Just keep working into it. They build their own integrity that way.
So when did you start painting?
I started… how long ago now? Shit, 2 years ago.
Were you doing anything creative in high school?
Was there ever a creative itch you felt you needed to scratch?
Yeah for sure it was always there… I’m happy I didn’t do it through school though.
Because you can see when you go to art school, the kids who did art all through school. And at first it’s kind of daunting if you’ve never done it. But once you realise the only thing making it difficult is yourself. It starts to become a really simple, organic process. So yeah, I think if I had done it through school, that discovery might not have been as profound.
I was always surrounded by art growing up though, my great Aunt and Aunt on my dad's side are both unbelievable painters.
Oh really? Who are they?
Jacqueline Fahey and Margaret Feeney. Their work has always been throughout the family's houses.
So you finished high school… and you took a gap year?
Yeah I left school halfway through the last year and saved up a bunch of money and traveled over to Europe. I ended up in Budapest and met these two amazing girls, they took me under their little Hungarian wings and just blew me away. They just inspired the shit out of me. I had never met anyone like them. So I decided to leave Europe and come back to Auckland to study fashion design in the hopes of returning back to Europe or NY to study in a couple years.
Haha yeah, basically I stopped talking to everyone I had met in Europe and I was just fucking stuck doing fashion design in Auckland.
So were you doing fashion design because of this girl?
Yeah, kind of. I just wanted to really dedicate myself to something but I didn't know what that was at the time.
So in the course you had to take a range of classes to… what’s the word… you had to do painting, photography, design, a whole bunch of different art categories. So I wasn't really turning up to my painting classes because I was like ‘nah I’m not doing this... I've never even tried this before, so why would I go?’
Why didn’t you want to go to painting?
I just thought like, ‘now? No way’. Most of these cats had been drawing all through school. And I was drawing penis's in text books and writing LAO upside down on tables.
I just didn’t ever think of it as being plausible. Then we had this end of term painting class. I had to pass it or I was going to fail. So I had to turn up and they were like “what painting do you want to do?”. So I said “aaaahhh, this one”. And some of my mates in class at the time were just like ‘are you sure you don't want to do something more simple?'
That’s The Scream?
Yeah The Scream. So I stayed up for like 20 hours and just basically did it and brought it back. I was just so shocked about the the whole thing and my painting teacher at the time, Kelly, was just like “dude, you've got to do fine arts next year”.
So you had to paint a replica of it?
Yeah. The class was replicate a painting. And then elaborate off of it in three ways. I didn't pay too much attention to that part. I was too busy stoking out on that little Scream replica.
So after that they just took you into art school?
Yeah and then I got into the cutoff for the next year, did that whole thing.
This is now in Art School?
This is last year. And then I made the second cut which is only 26 people or something… And then I dropped out.
How did you make the decision?
I was just looking around and looking at the papers and the course outline on orientation day and I was thinking to myself 'nah I just might go on my own now’.
So you realised all of that in the lecture?
Yeah. So I just left.
Did they call you out when you walked out?
I think everyone was a little confused but wasn't too fazed.
And now you’re painting?
Trying to do it full time aye. But even when I’m working, I still say I’m painting you know? So I won't be like, ‘I’m doing landscaping’ or I’m doing this, I’m doing that. I just say I’m panting.
How do people react?
They’re like ‘Oh! Are you doing well?’ And I’m like ‘Nah. I’m poor as. But I’m doing it regardless’. And luckily Mum and Dad are really supportive of it. They wouldn’t be if they didn’t really like my work you know? If they didn’t really value it they’d be like ‘I think you should do something else’. But they’re so supportive of it bro, it’s so mean.
That’s so rad. So many parents are just like ‘go to uni, get a Bcom’.... whatever. What was art school like?
There's some amazing lectures at Whitecliffe. A couple of them I looked up to as mentors. They taught me nearly everything I know about perspective and technicality. I would have preferred to have been taught directly underneath them.
So did painting The Scream guide your style?
Yeah for sure. It’s funny, you always kind of paint the same, you don’t really actually get any better because you're constantly trying to outdo the last brush stroke. You know what I mean? You’ve already got it all before you’ve done it. It’s just learning to apply it more successfully through hours and hours and hours of work.
Were there any other big inspirations?
Yeah, I mean I've always loved Picasso, even when I was little. And then Jean Michel Basquiat when I first got really into painting. I first heard of him in this list of 'top 50 coolest male celebrities' or some shit like that in the newspaper 6 or so years ago. He was underneath Benicio del Toro. So a couple years back I told my oldest brother matt, “I think I want to be a painter”, and he says “dude you gotta check the Jean Michel Basquiat movie out, it's badass”. There's this scene in it where he's in this basement, Miles Davis is playing Flamenco Sketches in the background and he just paints... it's really spiritual business.
Recently I've been getting really into Picasso’s later works, when he went all impotent and couldn’t have sex any more.
Did his work become really depressed?
Nah actually, real powerful, playful at the same time. But you know, I love Cezanne, Gauguin, Bacon, all those cats. There's historical referencing everywhere. The only thing I avoid is checking out other contemporary artists. I try not to get caught up in what kind of work other people are painting, unless they are a friend of mine in which case, I care about their art hugely.
Are you comfortable with your style where it’s got to the point where you feel it’s distinctly yours and not someone else's?
Yeah I've got my own processes now. I wouldn’t even want to know how anyone else paints.
Did you realise it one day?
I think it happens the day your mind’s visions collides with your technical capabilities. From there they just start working together.
That’s cool man. And you had an exhibition how was that?
It went real well the space was awesome, sold 3 paintings on the opening night. Celebrated with my homies. I was stoked.
How were you feeling going into it, when you were setting up the gallery?
It was pretty real all of a sudden. It was hectic as. You just think about the painting. And then when it’s over, that’s the weirdest part because all this work you’ve been doing for this one night and then all of a sudden it’s just gone. And you’re like ‘where do I go from here?’ And then I guess you just keep painting. Do another exhibition.
What was it called?
Todo El Mundo es Kitsch, which is Spanish for ‘everyone is kitsch’, like tasteless. Because I was well aware it was going to be my first exhibition and I’ll look back on it in 30 years and kind of be embarrassed about it I guess?
Just because I’ll probably think it was kitsch. I thought it was funny how It might look like I'm saying everyone else is tasteless but nah I’m going to think this is shit one day for sure. I already do.
What’s the worst thing about being a painter?
So you sometimes paint and then realise…
You realise a lot about yourself.
So you sometimes paint and realise something about yourself.
Yeah and it might be something I might not necessarily like too much.
Kind of like therapy.
Yeah. You start to… It gets to the point of the painting where it starts to reflect something. You see how you react to a fuck-up… how well you can accept the fact you’ve done something rad without losing your cool over it.
So things happen in your life, it might be benign or it might be an important event and you’ll be like ‘I’ve got to go paint’?
Yeah. They’re usually all inspired by an actual event. In a metaphorical sense a lot of the time too it depends.
And then the content of the paintings, they’re all people.
They’re all real people. Sometimes the subject matters too much. I don’t want people to know what it’s about. So I won’t say what those ones are. I wouldn’t say what it actually means you know?
So you don’t want people to read into them too hard?
I don't want people to read into them and try and decode my thoughts behind it because it doesn't work like that, that's not possible.
It’s a visual thing.
It should definitely be an emotional experience, but I love to see how people react to it. Certain people will react to my shit differently than people who aren’t, who are more laid back. They tend to like my work more.
Because they take it as a painting.
Yeah absolutely. It’s loose.
So when people ask you ‘what’s that one all about’, do you tell them?
Yeah sometimes. It depends on who they are. It depends on what the painting is, it depends on how they say it. Like I had this guy come up to me the other day, this is a good example, I was at this party. And he wanted to see some shit I’ve been up to. So I showed him a photo of this one.
And he was like ‘the cigarette represents this… and you’ve put heaps of detail around there, so that’s the focal point’. He kept going for ages so I said ‘nah man, it’s just a dude smoking a cigarette’.
So you’d never have explanations of your work in a gallery?
Nah, I've abstained from doing so so far. I don't have a problem with it. I will if I have to. You’ve just got to let them just speak for themselves though man.
It’s gotten to the point, it gets to the point where the artwork doesn’t even fucking matter and it just matters about what they’re saying. it’s just real whack. all of a sudden there’s no artwork in the world anymore and it’s just people trying to justify their non-existent artwork, you know what I mean? I'm not cool with that kind of thing. It really creeps me out.