TAKE A TRIP with Anthony “weird*eye*one” DeBenedictis at the Butcher this week.
The New Jersey artist’s exhibition, “A Trip Though Sunset Garden,” is his first outside the tri-state area and will remain up through Sept. 17. The psychedelic paintings of animals are a departure from DeBenedictis’ typical street-art style.
We talked with DeBenedictis about the importance of public art, being straight-edge, and that Vogue article.
So, what’s with the weird*eye*one?
It’s funny because some people do forget it’s there. It’s just that I used to paint giant eyes in abandoned buildings and on trains and stuff, and then it became a character with the same eyes. I did some graffiti writing and lettering, and I wanted to be anonymous, but when I started doing the eyes back in the early 2000s, it started catching on that there’s some artist who paints weird eyes. They were distinct eyes; they were evil-looking, like they’re watching you. So people asked me, “Why don’t you just call yourself that?” I was like, “Yeah, I guess.” [laughs] I was part of that whole scene but I wanted to be kind of separate from it.
I can still do lettering in my style but it doesn’t do anything for me. I do still go to abandoned buildings and paint geometric murals. People will think I’ve completely disappeared, and then I’ll go paint a big character in a building somewhere and they’re like, “Oh, this guy’s still around.” A lot of people haven’t connected it.
Does your gallery work follow the style of your street art?
I’ve always been an illustrator and I’ve stuck with that. With my old art, I did some gallery work with watercolor and ink. I kind of sat down maybe four, six years ago and I just wanted to go in a different direction. I moved away from watercolor and started using acrylic and wood. I was like, let me start doing stuff that I can build a body of work around.
Since your art is psychedelic in nature, are you referencing a drug trip in the title of the show?
Everyone from the beginning when I did the characters thought that! I don't do drugs, I don't drink, I'm straight-edge. That's just how I see it; that's how it's always been. Last year with my work, the colors were kind of out there, and people were like, "Are you sure?" [laughs] But even in the title of the painting I'll put a drug reference because my work falls into that. It's not on purpose; it's just how I see color theory. I have friends who've looked at my work and I've asked them, "Just do what you do and look at my work," and they're like, "Definitely, yeah." [laughs]
I also called it “sunset” because most of the color palettes are those in the sunset sky, but it’s also gonna be the last real body of work that I solely focus on animals. I’m always gonna do animals and nature, but this is the end because of the amount of work I put into this. I think there were 18 portraits, but at the end I did eight of them over, completely sanded off the painting and erased 60 hours of work. I kept saying, I’m not gonna be happy with this. Most of the ones I did over were the ones that have sold so far, so I’m glad I redid them because I wouldn’t have been happy with it hanging on the wall. There might have been people who liked it the way it was before but I don’t know, I don’t care, it’s about me. I’ve also never showed down there [in Savannah], so I’ve never felt the pressure I feel now.
What’s the impact of public art?
I live on the Jersey Shore, and we got hammered by Hurricane Sandy [in 2012]. My town is finally starting to rebuild. A couple years ago they were like, “Oh, we have a well-known artist in our town; let’s get him to do stuff.” I think little things like that make people happy. Another town was starting to do a public mural there. I haven’t done anything there yet but I’d tape up art, and people seeing sketches or half-finished walls in their town, it really helps people. It makes them happier and makes them want to walk around their town that is half-abandoned.
I think in small towns, public art has more impact than in the city. Brooklyn is so oversaturated with murals, and some of them are really bad. I’m not knocking it, but everyone’s a muralist now. What’s cool in Savannah is that there’s nothing there yet. If they do it right, they could have really good people come in and do some good walls. Fifteen years ago in Brooklyn it was cool, but now it’s oversaturated. In Savannah it’ll probably happen slowly.
Funny you mention Brooklyn, because there’s this article that says Savannah is the new Brooklyn—
[groans] Everywhere is the new Brooklyn! They said that about Asbury Park [N.J.] and I'm like, no, it's Asbury Park. I think it's bad when they say that because some of my friends moved to Austin seven or eight years ago when they were saying Austin is the new Brooklyn, and now they're moving out. They said it's overpriced, overcrowded, the city sold out. When cities get expensive the artists get priced out.