Steven Cerio interviewed by Jeff Mack (via email September 2001)
J.M. In another interview, you mentioned Francis Bacon, a painter who went to
great lengths to distinguish his practice from that of an illustrator. He
seemed to feel you had to distort a form in order to covey a feeling
accurately, that rendering an object too literally would be illustrating
and therefore unconvincing. Do you agree with this?
CERIO: In his time period, yes. Of course I’ve seen his work used as illustrations for anger and anxiety in the last ten years. There’s that pecking order-gallery artists look down on illustrators and illustrators look down on cartoonists. I can’t worry about that. I paint, illustrate, do animation and sculpt. It isn’t a sport no matter how they approach it; no one is going to win.
J.M. All of your forms are distorted yet there’s never an object that is
indecipherable. You seem always to return to a certain literalism. It’s an
interesting line to walk. Can you explain your desire to represent very
CERIO: I’m in love with this world but I project enough sensations and delusions of my own on it. It doesn’t need me to step on it too much. I think that when you mess with everyday items you get Magritte-esque effect. He wasn’t surreal he was ironic at best. Putting things where they don’t belong isn’t surreal, it’s ironic. Ironies, or the sharp contrast of execution, are the staple crops of rock and roll and prime time television. That’s what passes as clever with suburban housewives.
Symbolism and alphabets are used as substitutes for experience. Words and symbols are shortcuts, not living experiences or creatures. There is no such thing as “mere things.” A chair used as a symbol is far more demanding than a halo. Which is to say it demands more from the viewer, creating more “experience?”
J.M. To what extent are you interested in making a reality?
CERIO: Well, I’m not a realist so that’s my game. I didn’t choose to, but that’s what art and music are right? Coltrane said “the main thing a musician would like to do is to give the listener a picture of the things he senses in the universe.” Everyone has their own homemade universe of common sense. I adjust things to fit the way I crave them. I want them soft, sugary and occasionally squeaky like dolphin skin.. I don’t approach my art as invention, it’s more like acknowledgement because I already know every molecule. But I’m always looking for a new strand of DNA.
J.M. Animals are an ever present theme in your work.
CERIO: Yeah, they’re more interesting than people…physically and mentally. You can understand the actions of your own species but I can’t figure out my cats. Animals have Zen and we make embarrassing attempts to mimic it People learn how to build cars and bees build honeycombs instinctually. I ‘ll draw a little girl now and then…but little boys kill frogs…little girls are harmless in comparison. Animals only harm when threatened or hungry except for one mammal aside from man and guess what species…gorillas, another primate suprise, suprise!! They will mangle acres of jungle out of boredom. I don’t think hedge hogs or sugar gliders make a habit out of that.
J.M. To what extent do to call your work fantasy?
CERIO: It’s just semantics but what the word ‘fantasy’ denotes to me is people daydreaming of a better world and life for themselves where they can enjoy complete control and admiration.That life usually incorporates spaceships, green women in skimpy bathing suits or swords. I’m not an escapist, not to that degree.
J.M. Do you feel there is ever a loss of integrity in terms of what your work means to you on a personal level if you have to make sure other people get it?
CERIO: An illustrator isn’t paid to have integrity. An illustrator is paid to sell an item, an article, or an idea for someone else. I think you compromise when you have an illustrative idea and ignore it because you are a color field painter. I think you compromise when you have an idea for a color field painting and you poo-poo it because you are an illustrator.
The tighter you fit into pigeon holes the better off you are. I wish I fit an established, comfy pigeonhole sometimes and had no other interests. Look at, say, Britney Spears. I may be wrong but I wouldn’t imagine that she cries herself to sleep at night because she never followed her dream to create the world’s largest popcorn sculpture. She fits the pop star mold to a “T”. I’ll never fit a pigeonhole like that…I say that with grief ‘cause boy that must be an easy ride. I believe people like that dream of their possible market and target group and lovingly dedicate all of their actions to it. I don’t believe they dream of reinventing any wheel so integrity plays no part in it. They just make sure that everyone understands them. They’re careful that soccer moms aren’t offended and middle aged moms won’t gasp when it leaks under their children’s door. Their aesthetic is so obvious and manipulative it frightens me. I’m horribly fascinated by pop culture. I have absolutely no understanding of it so I enjoy witnessing it. Lisa Frank notebooks, Hello Kitty clocks, shit…gimme more!
J.M. Your work looks strongly informed by the Surrealists, particularly Max
Ernst’s decalcomania paintings, Tanguy, Miro, and Dali’s Paranoid Critical
Method theories. Do any of these artists’ methods apply to you?
CERIO: The ‘joy’ in Miro’s work has always inspired me. Its lack of politics or comment is also inspirational; I feel the same way about Alexander Calder. The manifestos of surrealism affected me. Of course, I was already enjoying those freedoms and luxuries. They laid all of the track down before I was born. They taught me how to love my own phenomena and “you can only become enlightened by your own phenomena”like John Giorno said.
The first painting ever presented to me as a work by an artist and not a printed image was a Dali. My dad was a fan. Seeing as how I was 5 and it was the ‘summer of love’ it appealed to me immensely. I’d been bombarded with surreal images every day in the late sixties and early seventies. It was even on tv , I watched The Monkees’ and countless Fellini-esque French films on PBS with a bowl of Captain Crunch everyday. I began to believe…or know as the matter is, that understanding isn’t necessary for effect. Having to understand degrades experience. You can leave your decoder ring in your pocket.
J.M. Philip Guston called himself a night painter because he’d wake up the next
day and be surprised by what he’d painted the night before. I like that
idea of not being fully conscious of what you’re doing. How much of your
composition is automatic or improvised?
CERIO: I improvise 90% but the remaining 10% is composition, and that 10% is the spine and brain.
J.M. I would have thought most of it until I saw a sketch for a rabbit mobile
that suggested you might work with a predicted outcome. Is this rather the case?
CERIO: That sketch was for a mobile I knew I’d probably never get around to building. That’s why it’s far more realized than the thumbnail sketches that I actually work from which are usually composed of less than ten lines. Anyway, when I get around to that sculpture it’s needs will determine a hundred or so deviations from the sketch. I would never follow a sketch line for line. I don’t boss myself around. I don’t predict outcome. I only predict compostion, the rest is just frosting. If your composition is tight it doesn’t matter if your drawing thumbtacks, it’ll be appealing to great degree. Look at Franz Kline, it’s just black paint, right? It’s nonrepresentational and it still makes most realism look like little puddles of poopy.
J.M. You’ve mentioned to me an interest in Art Brut. What aspects of it apply to
your way of working?
CERIO: I give more attention to my hallucinations, daydreams, delusions and to anyone else’s art or music that hints at theirs. Art brut insinuates that everyone filters the world through their psyche, like staring through a transparency. That idea bashes the concept of mass marketing in the face. Sometimes I get sad wondering what I would draw like now, had I not studied at it for years. Skill doesn’t make the artist. It makes a better draftsman and craftsman. I prefer my next door neighbor to Rembrant. Henry Darger demonstrated American ingenuity in a room all by himself; while Norman Rockwell pimped himself off to grandmas.
J.M. Some of DuBuffet’s work with butterfly wings comes to mind when I look at
your images, particularly the complexity and obsessive patterning, secondary
images created by combining other images. However, he had the advantage of
using various materials, collage, pastes, mortars, etc. which could be
shifted around until they suggested something else. It would seem that
working with pen and ink, flat paint, or computer coloring these options are
out of the question. Is that true?
CERIO: I believe it’s just the opposite. I think it’s become easier to get those effects using new technology.
J.M. How much do your materials influence the way you work and the ideas you
CERIO: I arrived at my materials because of the ideas I’ve had. I got a “Jungle Book” Colorform for my birthday when I was 3…then my Mom gave me a viewmaster with a “Peanuts” reel. That got me thinking with my eyes. I came across that colorform in the Village a couple years ago…that’s when I realized the impact it had on me. Same palette I use, same color field logic and even similar line . The first drawings I remember doing were a series of giant witches walking through cities being attacked by U.F.O.s then I tried to mimic the line work from the mural in our shower. It was a water plant with shells and rocks.
J.M. You mentioned that you hope to communicate a feeling of joy. Is this still
CERIO: Yes. That’s all I care about really. Misery and discontentment are easy to come by. Happiness takes work. Nothing good comes easy. Joy can only be found through action. If you sit still and never seek, you starve and die. Stagnate and you create nothing. You have to move through as much space as possible and pick up molecules to help you along the way. Work sets you free. This universe makes it difficult to live in pure bliss, why?. Sadness is always present and happiness is always fleeting. Why isn’t the state of the universe a vast milkshake of smiling creatures and positive, immortal occurrences? That’s why I dedicate myself to it. I get up inside it sometimes. Every time it lets me stay a little longer. I’ll trap it one day and feed it mallow cups and gumballs, walk it around on a leash like in that Zen narrative painting of the water buffalo and the farmer boy .The first panels the buffalo does as it wants, completely oblivious to the boy. By the end, the buffalo: which is meant to represent the id, follows him like a dog. I think adults generally equate sadness, violence, irony and misery with maturity while they equate joy and bliss with immaturity. I’m not cool enough to be bemused I guess. I’m very excitable.
J.M. If you conveyed a different emotion would it be a failure?
CERIO: I’ve tried to communicate sadness but the pieces seem to be sarcastic and mocking which is nice. I’ve been working on a series of them on and off for the last few years.
J.M. To me, there is also a menacing quality about your pictures. They suggest a
mind out of control, or a hallucinatory state. It’s something that’s often
seen as recreation today (probably more so in the 60s and 70s) but can
easily become a terrifying situation.
CERIO: Menacing? Adults find my work menacing and children think it’s silly. It’s that phenomena I just mentioned. My smiling animals are menacing, but a Giger painting is “cool.”
As far as hallucinatory art goes, I’d look at nothing else. I’ll draw nothing else. I create my images because I wish they’d happen. I honestly have no idea why someone would draw a realist still life. I’ve experienced apples and a wood bowl before. The invention of the camera should have put an end to that sort of imagery.
Terrifying situations? If you hang out with misery, frowns and that boring anxiety in your head, hallucinogenics are going to bring that out and it’s going to make you stare it all in the eye. Your brain isn’t out to get you; it’s just inviting your friends to dinner.
J.M. You have an entire alphabet book about them, so do you predict your audience
will be using them?
CERIO: People have craved alternate states of consciousness since the beginning of time and have certainly developed the tools to achieve it: cigarettes and alcohol included.Aldous Huxley called it “artificial paradise.” My drug book is about all drugs, not just hallucinogens. Most people made the mistake of thinking those were my personal feelings on those drugs. One reviewer said I acted kindly towards my favorites. That’s silly! I was using the general public’s views and stereotypes about those substances and illustrating them. Now, speed for instance invokes no heartwarming or silly stories while marijuana has no dark stigmas attached so I could approach the two very differently. Another way I metered stigmas was considering which drugs people will admit to consuming. No one will pull out their works and shoot heroin in mixed company, or admit they did a line in the bathroom, so it’s safe to say the culture holds taboos about various substances.
J.M. Have you ever spoken to someone who’s looked at your work in a
hallucinatory state? What was their reaction?
CERIO: I’ve heard from people who’ve blown up various drawings of mine for their black light rooms or collected my black light posters and told me about how well they work on them under the influence of various substances. Someone recently approached me to print my work on blotter.
J.M. One of my strong memories of childhood was how much psychedelia entered
mainstream popular culture in shows for kids like Sesame Street and Alphabet
Soup. People were stretched like rubber bands and turned into clocks and
fountains or disappeared into thin air. The physical world was impermanent
to an exaggerated degree. Why do you think children’s entertainment and
drug culture have so much in common?
CERIO: Those were liberties that you couldn’t take with entertainment till the summer of love. 50’s culture would never allow that. They were selling coiffures and germ free well being. Aside from the beats the 50’s were about ‘how do we get there, where’s the map’ the 60’s were ‘let’s go!’ It was about the ride. I think what children’s entertainment has in common with drug culture is that children want their entertainment to be elevated from every day life. I think that the pivotal point of the cross pollination of the two was Syd and Marty Krofts shows,”Lidsville”, and “H.R. Puffinstuff”. They are not hiding the drug references there eh? Seuss was another cross pollinator albeit innocently and unintentionally. Now, Seuss…Shit, what a genius in every conceivable way.
J.M. Animation seems like such a perfect medium for synthesizing alternate states
of reality. It’s too bad it’s so often used to solidify just the obvious
one. Have you ever worked with animation?
CERIO: I have “Happy Birthday” cakes, presents, candles and other stuff on Nickelodeon Jr. every morning. The characters come out and sing happy birthday to whatever children may have their birthday that particular day. It’s been running for 6 or 7 years now. I’ve also done two pieces with The Residents. I created the shooting targets for “Dixie’s Kill a Commie Shooting Gallery” for the “Bad Day at the Midway” cd-rom Jim Ludtke did such a beautiful job animating and it doesn’t hurt having a Residents tune playing along with it either. My section was just re-released on their new “Icky Flix” DVD along with a film I did with them for prime time German television called “Disfigured Night.” John Payson directed that one. The Residents projected various images via computer to backdrops behind a live performance, Payson filmed it then edited in more animations. It’ll be out on DVD in early 2003 the last I heard.
J.M. Have you seen Bruce Bickford’s work?
CERIO: What kind of Zappa fan would I be if I didn’t witness the work of “The Amazing Mister Bickford?.” I can’t even imagine the time frame on his projects. They seem mostly improvised as well which makes them even more impressive. I love that you can see finger indentations moving all over the plasticine while the action moves. His interview in the “Baby Snakes” film is as trippy as his animation.
J.M. One thing that concerns me about making a living as an artist is the need to
present some sort of consistency. You’re free to interpret the world around
you as long as it’s done in the same style with the same attitude. Does
this seem contrived to you?
CERIO: Isn’t improvement more interesting than consistency? But I believe consistency is good for business. But look at Charles Schultz, he was consistent, same pen nib, same ink, same size paper, same table for half a century. Don’t get me wrong. I love ‘peanuts’ but that terrifies me. Of course he was a millionaire. They asked Captian Beefheart why he hadn’t gone mainstream and recorded a hit record yet he said ‘I’m either too smart or too dumb”. You have to pitch yourself like a snake oil salesman. I’m a gallery artist, illustrator, animator, children’s book artist, character designer and a dumb painter. It’s all one trade the way I see it.
J.M. We talked about Guston earlier who broke out of his recognized style because
he didn’t feel like he was being true to himself. He did this to great
critical disdain. Does “art as a business” improve or hinder the quality of work we see?
CERIO: Business is a necessary evil. You have to be an unlikely fusion of both to survive.
I think it lessens the quality of the work we see immensely. Non-creative three piece suit types always find their way into the process in almost any paying job or gallery situation. Then those holes near their chins open and “I don’t get it?” and “Will that go with tan couches?” and “Dare to be boring” comes out. Even Britney hears that shit on a daily basis I bet. My choice was to play the game full time but I have friends who work nine to fives and work on their art at night. I know a painter who won’t show, he works for himself.
J.M. Without getting too political, what are your feelings about state sponsored
art? Do grants allow for more uncompromising work?
Have you ever seen the work of the judges beforehand? It seems judging these grants is their only claim to fame. And who knows what they’ve been told is acceptable.
CERIO: I live in NY State so who knows what’s gonna happen since that “piss Christ’ dude pissed off Giuliani. Katharine Gates had an opening for our ABCof drugs book in NYC. The gallery wouldn’t allow the topless wine servers she requested because Giuliani was sending out undercover Nazi agents to the clubs and alternative galleries to fine them for vulgarity. He made that amazing city into a mall. I lived there for 10 years and swore I’d never leave, and then he came along.
J.M. Can you describe your mindset when you are drumming? Is it intuitive, or
CERIO: I won’t count, I feel my way through the time signature then I let the limbs move and watch it. When it’s going right it looks pretty, the same as drawing. It’s always better when there is an animal intelligence behind it. The human intelligence worries about it’s past and its future and rarely manages to deal with it’s present. It’s hard to get up inside of it sometimes but it’s a fun ride…like not being here anymore or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s foreign to me because I am here at those moments to a greater percentage than usual.
I imagine that my spine is the mind and my limbs are nerves twitching on current. The limbs have to trust the spine. If I think I’m doomed. That’s why I can’t play repetitive rock beats anymore.Improvisitation exercises the mind, dance and rock beats are a numbing heartbeat. I believe the idea of musical structure is over rated ,a pop tune divided into fours and eights makes it predictable and boring. The Beatles wrote nursery rhymes. Musicians counting and mimicking their own parts from recordings is the fall of modern music. When you get something more complex like Beefheart, the heart of those compositions lies in improvisation and extreme variation, it makes the mind work. Like Alfred Jarry said “nonsense makes the mind work” not to say that improv’ is nonsense, but it is straight out of the id, not some rocker folding in his thumbs and counting out verses while he daydreams about secondhand gas station work shirts.
J.M. Are there any musicians/composers that influence your artwork?
CERIO: I’m more inspired by music than art. I listen to music almost the entire time I’m awake.
Captain Beefheart, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, The Residents, John Cage, Eno, Zappa, Harry Partch, Soft Machine, Pharaoh Sanders, Syd Barrett.
J.M. Your images have a manic energy despite being quite refined. I’ve heard you
work quickly. With deadlines as they are, I’m sure you have to. But I
wonder how important speed is to the energy of your work?
CERIO: It’s important to me to get the idea down on paper. I’m usually doing thumbnail sketches for new pieces on the boarder of the piece I’m working on. When the ideas come…they come If I spent a week doing one piece I’d confuse sensations, I’d be working out too many ideas at once. I believe they would muddle.
I always carry a notebook and it’s strange but sometimes I won’t recognize my own ideas.
J.M. Can you talk about some other illustrators working now who helped you figure
out what you wanted to do?
CERIO: I don’t work like any of my favorite illustrators. Gary Panter or Ben Shahn for instance.You should see some of the amazing stuff Panter has in his studio, it would make Guston blush. Alexander Calder, Arp, Roger Duvoisin and Dr. Seuss have been big inspirations too .I think their influence is a bit more visible.
J.M. Can you describe the process by which you came to figure out the look of
CERIO: I wanted optimal pleasantry and no sharp edges. I recognized how America uses the packaging on anything sweet: cereal boxes, candy wrappers, ice cream etc. to express joy and I adopted the same intention.
J.M. How do you like teaching?
Cerio: I’m not full time and it still exhausts me. Six hours of classes is like a full week at the table. I get hung over from the talking and crits but it’s amazing to get all of that energy back.
J.M. I know you aren’t into comic books, but have you read Dan Clowes’ “Art
CERIO: In absolute honesty, I’ve read very few comics. One by Gary Panter, two or three by Mark Beyer, all of Rory Hayes, The Zaps and I just read Mike Kupperman’s book which is amazing.
J.M. He has a pretty negative take on his art school days. His feeling was that
the teachers were there to pick up a paycheck and not to benefit future
CERIO: There’s no big secret or special handshake. It’s not toilet cleaning 101 and they intentionally neglected to mention toilet brushes and cleanser. But I have heard of ceramics majors getting hired over working painters as painting professors at state schools only because they had a MFA. Maybe he got stuck with one of them.
J.M. Do you think its possible to teach
art or just techniques?
CERIO: Anyone can learn technique at home alone and they do. It’s muscle memory. I think classes are a good place to hear criticisms of those techniques. You can’t teach taste. You cant teach art which is to say but you can expose students to great art and hope they become inspired by the things that make it great by discussing the elements, history and inspiration behind it. Sometimes I wonder why I went to college and I realize I never would have done all, of that work on my own. I would have drank myself into a———-
J.M. What are some of the most important “lessons” that you try to drive home?
CERIO: Work and persistence. Smell out your likes and dislikes. Then work some more. Believe in hard work, not talent.
J.M. You spent several years in New York. Now that you live Upstate, can you say
how important that was to you, not only in the contacts you made, but in
your style and your message?
CERIO: I arrived in NYC in 1988, luckily as it turned out. Rents were low. It was necessary for me to be around musicians and artists at that age. I was 21 and had just graduated from Syracuse University which was 12 miles from the house I grew up in. I slept in my car for a couple of days but I found a place in Queens. I roamed around the East Village and China town for a couple of months then I got a drawing in a group show at Psychedelic Solution Gallery. I interviewed for a job there on my way out of the door while I was dropping my piece off. I ended up getting the job and stayed there for a couple of years. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I got to hang around with Rick Griffin, Crumb, Robert Williams, Victor Moscoso…it was like a daydream. Remember, I was in a suburb of Syracuse two months before.
I remember one moment vividly, I stayed late one night because Jacaeber would let me use his paper cutter. I was trimming two hundred or so comic covers down for a ‘zine I was finishing. I remember whining to J and Randy Tuten who is an amazing psychedelic type and poster designer about my long hours. They both laughed and said “get used to it, you’re gonna have a million more all nighters if you wanna make a living at it. It’s not a nine to five job!” Shit, were they right…a sixty hour week is a vacation to me now.
My style was influenced by my need to increase my absorption rate for all of the music and imagery you’re fed in that city. I was at CB’s two nights a week, seeking out jazz shows, stealing cheese from openings in Soho, hitting every show on Greene street and then drawing until I fell asleep.
A message you asked? I see my work as a denial of chaos. Science becomes the fiction and fiction becomes the science.
J.M. How useful has it been to move?
CERIO: I don’t believe it matters where you work anymore, not with Fed Ex, fax machines, email and cheap phone service. When I graduated in eighty seven all we had were faxes and they were new to the market. Cities are dying and I hate to see it. I hate to see how New York City has become in the last five years at least. What passes as culture is entertainment. Dance, film, theatre, art and music were entertainment last I knew.
J.M. Where do you hope to go with your work?
CERIO: A comfy crater on the moon where they serve pulpy pink lemonade.