A Portrait of the Artist as a Young T-Shirt

Originally published over at Medium on 28 March 2017

Six years ago I had this arty idea. I saw this three-point eternal loop of an art project that is so tacky that it’s actually kind of funny. Which in turn makes it cool – funny is cool. But that then makes it tacky, because anything too cool is tacky. And that makes it funny – etc. Ad infinitum.

There are many places to go with this idea, but the funnest idea was to print all of these posters of my face and post them up around town, essentially advertising myself; skipping the step of doing anything of worth and going straight to local celebrity.

I talked about this idea for years. And the concept evolved; to include a photo series of places the posters were posted, to include t-shirts, to possibly star a subject/model other than myself, and to include an essay explaining the whole idea so spectators wouldn’t have to wonder if I was an extreme narcissist or if this was some really clever art project.

Really it’s both of those things. It’s a joke — look at that fun banner image again from the top of this page.

Tacky ➔ Funny ➔ Cool ➔ Tacky ➔ Funny ➔ Cool. . .

This reminds me, I’ve really been meaning to pick up Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp and I suspect that once I do I’ll find that this isn’t really all that original.

Patti Smith wearing Keith Richards
Patti Smith wearing Keith Richards

After playing with this idea for years, t-shirts simmered to the top of the pot as the perfect medium for this project because of the specific history of t-shirts with people’s faces on them. In the 1970s Lonely Ladies in San Francisco printed shirts with rockstars’ faces on them, then the New Yorker in New York produced shirts with famous authors and composers from throughout the ages, then lots of other people ripped off the idea. A face on a shirt is no longer content, it is form.

Aside from everything else that holds everyone back from doing anything, setting stopped me from bringing this project to life. The concept would work best in a small town with a relatively large modern art community, a place where the subject didn’t stand too much to lose and did stand to gain. It hit me recently that that’s exactly where I am. Sunny little Asheville, North Carolina.

So I picked a portrait (photo cred. Noah van Heukelom, 2013), converted it to halftone, and sent it over to Timm at the silkscreen shop. I went to the bulk-bins and bought plain t-shirts by the pound and piled them on my little bike trailer.

Goodwill / Bike Trailer / Silkscreen

I took the shirts home and started printing. I got pretty high off the experience of printing these shirts – humoring your own ego to such a degree is. . . interesting. It felt amazing. I imagine it’s like seeing your name on the marquee at Carnegie Hall. The smaller auditorium. Except this experience was entirely engineered by myself at home.

When some of my housemates got home it just kept going; they thought it was hilarious and in turn I felt even better. Laura even insisted on hanging one of the draft prints in the kitchen above my door – building up the experience even higher.

Shane & Laura hang poster / Liam stands next to it

I printed more shirts and distributed them at thrift stores around town with the help of some friends. Believe it or not I was too self-conscious to drop the shirts off myself, so Rochelle & Drew helped me drop them off.

The goal here was to one day spot someone on the street wearing the shirt, nod, smile, and feel complete. [UPDATE: Still not spotted any]

Rochelle helps with t-shirt drop

The next step was to start writing this essay and I got about this far. Then Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 came around and it felt like nothing would ever be funny again. The whole project suddenly felt completely pointless and kind of insulting to everyone in the world. How can you feel good about running a campaign of shameless and amusing self promotion when the rise of modern fascism emerged from that very same thing? I couldn’t answer that question so the project went on ice. The shirts just sat there.

Freshly printed Liam t-shirts just sitting there

A week went by and Pussy Riot came to town for a panel. Neighbor Emma and I covered it for the AshevilleFM Newshour. Pussy Riot spoke and went through slides of actions they and their friends had done. After they sold some t-shirts we sat down with Sasha, Masha, and Sasha in the greenroom to eat snacks and continue the conversation (you can listen to that here).

I was totally starstruck and inspired – to do anything. They painted this picture of art and activism in Russia that doesn’t exist in the same way here in the states. American “activist” art bares this stigma that it’s kitschy and that it goes stale very quickly, and “fine art” is a valueless commodity traded by the very rich.

Emma ready with the hard hitting questions / UNCA Panel / an extra sandwich from the greenroom

Pussy Riot’s work goes beyond all of that. They’re artists yet their biggest focus these days is zona.media, an outlet covering Russian politics and court proceedings that no one else in the country will cover.

Thinking this over brought me back to this here project. The rise of fascism isn’t a reason not to do funny art projects, at least if the reason behind it is to make someone happy and build a persona that can advocate good stuff later on.

There’s a privilege component to parse out, too. But as far as I can see I’m not taking anything except attention away from anyone else, so I’ve gone ahead with it. I’d appreciate feedback on this, though.

What makes me and my modest Scandinavian sensibilities* ok about this whole project is the fact that this is actually self-deprecating. Being egotistical and boastful is bad, so acting on ego intentionally is self-deprecating.

*(see Janteloven: a cultural norm that enforces modesty and humility; no one is more special than anyone else).

By putting myself up I put myself beneath you.

You, dear reader, are above me. Because you haven’t printed your face on t-shirts and cast them out in the world. And you can stay above me by wearing one of these shirts, available now for just $10.

This embed link used to point to my old website where you could purchase a t-shirt.