Text by Sarah Hassan
Photos by Katarina Hybenova
Nate Anspaugh doesn’t like to talk about himself. Blame it on his midwestern upbringing; He was born in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up with a set of traditional values that did not lend themselves to breeding self-indulgent conversationalists. Lucky for him, his current body of work generously comprised of mixed media and found objects, speaks volumes. With a gentle manner and careful way he chooses his words, Anspaugh is an understated cabinet of curiosities, from the open spaces he knew as a child, to the fury and mania of New York City, where he now resides amidst the blossoming industrial landscape of Bushwick.
Like so many of the young and hungry artist-cum-transplants living in the city, thirty year-old Anspaugh has a lot to say on his family, influences, aspirations and fears. Yet whether waxing philosophic on consumer culture or admitting his hatred for the smell of latex, Anspaugh is just as warm and generous as you might imagine someone fresh from the Midwest to be. But don’t let the quiet reserve fool you; there is a fierce and hotly energetic quality to his work that recalls de Kooning, Twombly, Rauschenberg, and most of all, Basquiat, artists whose influences he candidly owns up to. Surrounded by his works-in-progress and finished pieces, I sat down with Anspaugh in his home studio and spoke about what drives him as an artist, how New York City has served his creative process, and of his upcoming residency in Berlin.
Though attracted to art at a young age – his great-grandmother and mother were both artists – Anspaugh claims music as an early love, rock n’ roll on par with colored pencils and pastels handed to him by teachers all-too aware of his visual talents. Staples of suburban life were The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, the latter a band which, when seen live, hit Anspaugh in the gut; “I had a profound sense of ‘this is how I want to present myself,’ to connect with people in that way,” he explained. Serving some time in a music band, the experience eventually led Anspaugh back to art. He attended college at the University of Central Florida, which he admitted was a mainly a geographic desire to distance himself from home. “I did have that yearning,” he said astride a stool in his studio, “and I still do, of not wanting to stay put, and it is so hard for me because I want to move on. I struggle with the idea that ‘this can’t be all there is.’ These anxieties were aggravated by Anspaugh’s move to New York City, a place he has never felt truly settled, but nonetheless understands its crucial nature for the life of an artist.
“Everyone in my family told me I was crazy to move to New York,” he laughed. I could imagine. “What are you really going to go, what are you going to do for your job, not just your hobby? Those voices, those negative voices, have given me my inspiration and drive. They are a real source of energy for me.” When I point out the fantastic sense of urban desperation to his pieces, whether scrawled upon, dripping with paint, slashed at, or crumpled that give the viewer an idea of what living in New York is like, Anspaugh admits to his work being consumed by the city. The many layers of ugliness, vibrancy and vitality that blanket day-to-day life oozes freshness at Anspaugh’s hand as he grapples with the experience of the ever-changing and never satisfied. What drew me to his work when I first encountered it at Centotto Gallery, was its’ familiar renderings of playful rage. The grotesque faces, the bright colors, the bold streaks and sheer enormity of some of the pieces were overwhelming to behold, yet strangely pleasing to submit to. For all of its visual violence, there is a dreamy quality to the world Anspaugh depicts; some pieces have you staring down them like the proverbial rabbit-hole, easy to get lost in the swirl of colors and geometric patterns, as nameless faces beg to be read from the sidelines.
These nameless faces abound in Anspaugh’s work, a fertile terrain of primary colors populated with masks of all shapes and sizes. When asking him about this trademark, my initial hypothesis of his obsession and love for masks was dashed when he admitted to having an actual fear of them. “It came from my childhood,” he explained, “this repulsion and fear, especially of latex Halloween masks, and it was an intense emotional experience. I still have the aversion, I can hardly eat during the month of October, but making the masks helps me to focus on it. You can’t ignore that, to find that thing that gives you a life’s work, really. I realized I had something here, and I wanted to move forward.” With this, Anspaugh gives new meaning to ‘face your fears,’ as he has taken that which confuses and repulses him and has confronted it visually to the point of domination.
Yet it is ‘moving forward’ that could be the Anspaugh motto, as his work, much like his mental state, is always striving for that which has yet to be reached. Yet his anxieties stop when taking his current body of work into account; he never feels that ‘you’re only as good as your last piece,’ as he recognizes whatever work came before has indeed led him to the present moment. That present moment is an exciting one, for soon he will embark on a three-week residency in Berlin courtesy of the Venezuelan American Endowment for the Arts which will give him the much-needed time, space and freedom to create. When I asked him if he had any expectations of the residency, Anspaugh took a moment and said, with a wide grin, “It will get me out of my routine.” I urged him to continue, and his reply betrayed a matter-of-factness courtesy of the midwest; “I’ll walk the streets, experience something new. I’m not expecting it to change my life.”
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