Something transcendent happens when you’re faced with a work of art that is part mystery and part revelation. It tears at your existence and leaves you with this uncomfortable feeling that someone else was able to see right through you. All the dark details of your existential crisis, all the insecurities that you tried to hide from, all the ways you numbed yourself to self-awareness. And the worst part is you could never make that feeling mutual. Like a doctor who keeps his empathy detached but warm, this artist is able to approach your existence with cold surgical matter-of-factness. Those are my favorite art discoveries, and when I saw Citizen Grey‘s work for the first time, that was the feeling I was left with.
It was during the Clio Art Fair, a showcase strictly dedicated to featuring independent artists, that I stumbled upon Grey’s series Amplified Division via #FakeNews. The collection of works explores how historical figures, all of whom pre-date Twitter, may have used the platform had it been available to them in their time. Designed to mimic the layout of a tweet, each work appropriates language from the writings of cultural leaders, innovators, intellectuals and tyrants, while maintaining Twitter’s 280-character format.
See below for our close encounter with the mysterious “architect of ideas”:
- A/S/L (you can answer this any way you like)
- Are you self-taught? Or did you go to school for your craft? Which school?
Well…the answer is neither. I always wanted to be an artist, but when I attended college I studied art history because I thought I was more likely to have a career in the arts. I completed a BFA in Art History at Kent State University. I soon realized that one must have at least a Master’s degree to do any serious work in the arts, so I completed a dual Master’s in Modern and Contemporary Art History and the History of the Art Market, at Christie’s Education in New York. As I worked on various curatorial projects, I met with artists in their studios and realized that I would rather create art than write about it. Having studied art history is incredibly helpful though as an artist, so I have no regrets. It is also helpful to understand the market in a way that most artists do not.
I decided to submit work to a show at Artist Space, New York in 2007 and two works were accepted into a group show. Not having a body of work or any extensive training, I began developing my technical skills to start producing. I decided that I didn’t need any more degrees, so I asked friends who were professional artists and professors teaching at Columbia University, Pratt Institute, The Cleveland Institute of Art, and Hunter College to teach me various things (printmaking, photography, drawing, video production, etc.) one-on-one in either their studio or mine, over a 7-year period. I learned the techniques, just as they taught students in their classes, only more as an apprentice. I didn’t take the traditional path to become an artist, but I think that could serve as an advantage as I emerge. So no, I am not self-taught. That would be a disaster! Ha, ha.
- What is the one advice you wish you had coming up as an artist?
I wish that I didn’t have to wait until graduate school to discover that the art world is a business. Arts curriculum has not changed since the 1960 and 70s but the art market, the world artists must function within, has change dramatically. The average MFA student coming out of today’s graduate programs is taught very little about the how to truly work as an artist. Most schools keep the students so immersed in process and theory, and then forget to teach them how the market functions. They simply send them off the cliff. There are only so many teaching jobs so most of them never get to do what they love, other than as a hobby. Graduating students don’t realize how the market is structured and that certain MFA programs have markedly higher percentages of art stars, simply by being located in one of the four top international art markets (New York, London, Beijing, or Shanghai). I wish I had learned this a little earlier.
- Why do you insist on remaining anonymous?
There are a number of reasons, but I don’t want the work to be about me. I’m an architect of ideas, who wants the work and the ideas to stand on their own. Of course I am in the work, every artist is, but my personal story is less important than the concepts are. I’d like to use my art as a platform to advance society and I believe that is far more likely to happen if I remain anonymous. People become too distracted with labels when they know the artist’s identity. I’m as much scientist, philosopher, or historian as I am an artist. Who needs labels? I also do not like the market-driven model that has evolved in the art world, much to the detriment of artists. If I can use my anonymity to disrupt that, I hope to do that as well.
When they mapped the human genome in 1995, it was discovered that all of humanity is 99.99% genetically the same. It is only a .01% genetic difference that makes up our gender, eye color, hair color, sexual orientation, race, etc. It seems rather silly to me that humanity is so divided about such things. I chose Citizen Grey because I simply want to be a citizen of humanity, advancing ideas that hopefully resonate with others and perhaps elicit change for the better of humanity. I sign my work with a singular thumbprint which offers a tremendous amount of personal information about me, yet nothing as well.
- What do you hope to accomplish through your art?
I always want to create work that stimulates critical thinking and facilitates a dialogue about important ideas of our time. I hope that through conceptual art, I can help to advance society to a more civilized and tolerant state of mind. Ultimately, I’m a humanist and I suppose that comes through in my work.
- Your recent exhibition. How would you describe that threat?
The premise of the threat is that without reliable information, civility and conciliation, societies resolve differences by resorting to coercion. We are living in an era of misinformation and amplified political polarization by means of social media. YouTube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to 36,746 fake Russian Twitter accounts. Russian misinformation ads on Facebook reached 146 million people in an attempt to influence the American elections. Misinformation is not limited to the United States. Governments around the globe are spreading untruths, partisanship, and bigotry from the Philippines, to Kenya, Germany, Russia and Spain, just to name a few. It has taken its worst form with an outcome of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. I see that as humanity at its worst. It’s not that social media is the first communication revolution to threaten freedoms or democracies. The printing press did it, as did radio, and television. Democracies cannot solve everything; however, they do allow people of different beliefs to live together with basic freedoms. If we allow that to erode over time, what will history record of human civilization?
- If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where? Why?
I would live in Florence, Italy. I lived there for a semester in college and found it so inspiring to live in a place that has Renaissance masterpieces at every corner of the city. They are on the Façades of buildings, or on some random back street, or prominently in a piazza, serving as a constant reminder of that spark of brilliance that came out of darkness. The city is symbolic of exceptional human achievement, marking the genesis of Europe evolving out of the Medieval period to the Renaissance. Florence serves as a beacon and time capsule to human advancements in science, philosophy, art, architecture, literature, exploration, and music. I also like that time seems to move at a snail’s pace there. It is as if one is transported back in time to a different mindset and pace to daily life. Those Italians really know how to live!
- How do you stay inspired?
I read about 80-100 books per year (all non-fiction) on many subjects, as well as numerous educational periodicals and journals. Although I mostly read non-fiction now, I’ve read scores of British, American, and French Literature as well. I particularly love books and films that examine the absurd or dystopian societies. I love both historical films or series that explore our past, as well as futuristic films that suggest what may lay ahead for humanity. Although my undergraduate and graduate degrees were in Art History, I minored in history and love nearly every period. Being a student of history is very helpful in teaching one how to see recurring patterns in life, which informs my work. I see many films, especially documentary films. As for directors, there are some that I believe one must watch their entire oeuvre. I love Stanley Kubrick, Hitchcock, Sophia Coppola, and Tarantino, among others. In my first series about the universal symbolic language of our dreams, the work It Can Only Be Attributable to Human Error came from a line that Hal, the computer, said in Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m very inspired by science and technology as well. My next series is going to look at Black Code. Black Code refers to the three technologies that will forever change humanity, social media, mobile computing, and cloud storage. After that, I’d like to create a collaborative work with geneticists showing through human DNA and digital lightboxes, that we are all far more alike than we think.
I’m also inspired by other artists. I would say that stylistically; it is probably evident in my first series, Our Blurry Mind’s Eye, that I admire the work of Robert Rauschenberg. However, I’m greatly influenced by the concepts of Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Jasper Johns, Warhol, Mark Rothko, Olafur Eliasson, Not Vital, Eva Hess, and Bill Viola. I also admire artists such as Banksy or John Armleder that believe as I do, that the artist should be removed from the explanation of art.
- Name three songs you could listen to on repeat.
What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
Imagine by John Lennon
Don’t Move by Phantogram
- Someone offers to buy you a work of art of your choosing – price, era doesn’t matter – what’d you ask them to buy?
That is a tough one. I have so many artists that I would select for so many different reasons. I’ll say Guernica by Pablo Picasso because it is one of his most important works and such a strong anti-war symbol in resistance to the Nazi regime. He is also the most influential artist of the first half of the twentieth century so, who wouldn’t want a Picasso in their collection?
Learn more about Citizen Grey here.