Armando Veve is an artist living and working in the Brewerytown neighborhood of Philadelphia. We originally met on residency at the Vermont Studio Center where I was lucky to witness the action of his introspective collage-heavy process, which culminates in madcap and impeccable graphite drawings. In addition to his ongoing studio projects, Armando also works as an illustrator. His drawings have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The New Republic, and VICE, among others. I met with Armando again in his Philadelphia studio and talked about a long-term drawing project, graphite, ant farms, and much more.
T: What are you working on?
A: This piece! It began as a drawing of a building on Etting Street, a few blocks away. A big part of my process with it has been going on walks and taking photographs of my surroundings – places and things that feel odd or strike me in a strange way, which there are plenty of in Philadelphia.
T: Another piece of yours, Crown Vic & the Atlantic Flyway, also uses Philadelphia as a backdrop. Is there a specific way that architecture functions in these pieces?
A: In Etting Street, it doesn’t really matter that the building is there – it’s not really about the building, but more about the building as a structure and catalyst for my decision-making. It houses concentrated events or rooms for play and functions on an abstract level, even though it’s entirely representational. At least that’s how I’m thinking about it. In Crown Vic, I think I was more engaged with the mechanics of representing a dramatic and theatrical scene, like a history painting. The building there functions more as a backdrop as opposed to a structure for decisions.
The windows in the Etting Street piece are also important because they provide opportunities for smaller compositions. I’m really interested in windows as frames into other worlds, the way against-the-wall artwork was traditionally interpreted.
T: Interesting that you use the building as a structure for decisions, each window an opportunity for play and new design. I’ve noticed that in all of your work there’s often a number of stylistic voices present, even if it’s not so explicit as a window-by-window schema. Yet it still feels distinctly your own.
A: I think a lot of my work is a process of finding myself in a culture of image making. I’m constantly collecting reference materials that I’m drawn to, which come from an eclectic range of sources – they could be cartoons, Northern mannerist engravings, contemporary furniture design. I stretch and warp them through drawing and collage, and in the process they become connective tissue for new work.
T: Obviously there’s a lot of technical fluency involved in that.
Yeah, I began at a young age copying all kinds of stuff in tandem with making my own work. I’d draw after master drawings, wildlife photography, Disney backgrounds. Then at RISD, I refined that process. It really gives me the freedom to cross stylistic genres in a way that feels natural, like something I’ve always been doing. When I’m arranging these pieces in a new drawing, I feel like a composer remixing samples of abstracted sound.
T: Can you talk about your collage process?
A: Structures like the building facade in Etting Street ask for different kinds of image building than other works. It’s something new for me, a different kind of space. Its flatness presents new spatial opportunities. I’m thinking about it like a puzzle. I feel bound to a certain kind of logic that comes with a more defined and grounded setting, as opposed to the voids that objects in other pieces seem to inhabit. And I wanted it to be representative of my surroundings in Brewerytown.
Currently, I’m placing these photographs and cut paper shapes onto the surface of the drawing, like this white Eyvind Earle-inspired flower in the foreground. It’s a way for me to arrange diverse stylistic voices and quickly build odd juxtapositions. They primarily function as placeholders since they’re temporarily adhered to the drawing surface. But, the longer I see these white shapes hang from the piece, the more I feel like they themselves belong in the artificial ecosystem of the drawing. Sometimes people tell me to keep them physically attached to the work as literal collage, but in that sense I find them problematic in a bad way – in a distracting way. Or at least I haven’t yet figured out a way to resolve that. So I’m interested in bringing the cut-outs back in as trompe l’oeil representations of themselves. I love how a drawing of a paper cutout can reference the physical construction of the piece. They’re artificial and natural at the same time. When they’re translated in graphite they join and coexist with the other elements in the piece. I hope the resulting image is both beautiful and uncomfortable. It’s uncanny in its contradictions.
T: The pencil seems very important here. In a way it lends the pieces a uniform surface quality, such that there’s a kind of play with the language of the screen. Can you talk about working with graphite?
A: Digital tools definitely influence the ways that I collect, digest, and manipulate visual culture, and they dictate how I perform the pieces. Along with collage, I use Photoshop as a means of planning my images, and I think it’s true that the graphite, being such a “flat” medium, does in some ways mimic the screen. There’s a given uniformity. With my graphite drawings, as on a screen, you can have a whole slew of odd juxtapositions, and yet it will nearly always find cohesion. I suppose graphite for me works as a unifier.
That said, I love that through graphite drawing I can make something like this pizza table that’s metallic and gooey and glistening, that I can cause someone to feel all those separate, very real sensations which are all provoked by one object. So, yes, there is uniformity in one sense, in that the graphite demands a default flatness of the surface, but beyond that there’s a plethora of tactile experiences I can simulate for the viewer.
There’s something about the slowness of the drawing process with pencil that feels important to me. The hours taken to create these pieces give them a dimensionality through time. A whole cadre of ideas across years can enter into them, be erased from them – another advantage of graphite – and replaced. They’re precious and not precious at the same time.
T: How are you going forward with Etting Street?
Finding ways I can work against expectations is always a fun process for me. A next step will involve more trash and insects. For one, the surface of the building is going to be partially carved through by ants, like an ant farm. I love how ant farms become unintentional drawings of their own. There’s a slippage there of what’s macro and what’s micro that I find really exciting. In this particular piece I’ve been having trouble pushing past the flatness of the facade, so having this kind of microcosmic depth in the midst of this foundational architecture is my solution. I’ve also been pulling in cast shadows from light poles outside the plane of vision, perhaps behind the space of the viewer, which creates a very intense perspectival movement. The unexpected expansion of space is becoming very important to this piece in particular.
T: It seems like you present yourself with a certain formal paradigm and then you play yourself out of it. For instance, the harmony, so to speak, of a traditional landscape presents a kind of problem in its predictability and cliché, so you introduce odd systems to disrupt that. I especially like the use of the ants, which themselves are a sort of spontaneous drawing system playing out on their own, without any aesthetic concern. You drawing them “drawing” presents an interesting self-reference – through them, you, too, can forget aesthetics and allow for something spontaneous. The problems you’re solving become what the piece is all about.
A: Yeah, for instance the windows are a kind of problem to solve in that sense. What goes inside of them? Who would live inside this building?
I’m also figuring out how to work myself out of this very architectural, man-made environment, into something more unpredictable. How varied can I make it? It’s so geometric, architectural, and flat at the moment. I want to bring in opposites. Specifically here I’m introducing organic language like the insects and trash bags, and I’d also been sketching a rotting log, which may find its way into the final composition. It’s something that makes sense within the environment here in Brewerytown when you walk around. That log, a self-contained ecosystem, adds microcosmic depth to the larger piece. It’s a point of focus. Recently, though, I’m drafting that as a larger piece, in which that microcosm can really become immense like a mountain landscape. I’ve become fascinated with engraver beetles which carve wood in rotting log ecosystems. They create drawings in similar ways that ants do.
T: Did the ants or the beetles come first?
A: Haha. I suppose the ants. I was looking at the tone of that window in Etting Street and realized it was the same tone as sand, and so in some strange subconscious sense I thought of ant farms.
The lines of ant farms and engraver beetles also seem to be in play with the lines of the mortar between stones of the building facade. This kind of self-referentiality really interests me, how the creation of the image follows a very specific, internal logic – an ecosystem that describes and produces itself.
T: Do you consider yourself a Surrealist?
A: I’m really trying to understand my relationship to Surrealism because it comes up a lot. Honestly I’m not actively thinking about Surrealist politics. It just so happens that my work likes to engage odd juxtapositions in a way that calls forth Dadaesque appropriation or Surrealist compositions, but maybe the work is more rooted in the fragmentation and Surrealist impulse of 60s pop, which was much removed from the original intentions of Surrealism. The agenda of the work is not to consciously root out and express the subconscious, because I think the subconscious works its way into decision-making no matter what. My work is more concerned with physical experience as opposed to escapist notions of image making.
All that said, I do often use Surrealist methods of image construction. If I’m stuck, I’ll pull from an image bank I keep and begin playing until something clicks. Sometimes I’ll plan to integrate that product into another piece. There’s a seed of the automatic there, but it quickly finds its way into a more comprehensive plan. It’s something I’ve gained from my illustration work, where I’ll need a plan to meet deadlines. Ironically, I find that this planning actually leads to more surprising results. (However I’m finding ways to integrate more improvisation and chance in that line of work, too.)
T: Speaking of deadlines. Any New Years resolutions?
A: Well, I’m hoping to finish Etting Street! It’s definitely been a longer-term project, and I’m OK with that. In its production I’m completing smaller projects that eventually find their home in it or take off on their own – it’s the larger project that’s generative.