The dust is finally settling for Canadian artist Andrew Moncrief. With an array of interests from painting to printmaking, and with themes ranging from queer identity to body dysmorphia, his artistic talent and passion have seen him featured in a range of galleries and caught the attention of leading artists in his home country. With parents who nurtured his artistic prowess and interest from an early age to now having a Rubens painting on his doorstep, Moncrief has built his life around art. He talks to us about masculinity in his work, his education as an artist, and the inspiration he finds in solitude which, in a year of uncertainty, has only become more certain.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself for our readers who might be new to you and your work?
I am an artist, well, painter mostly, but I wouldn’t want to limit myself to just that title. I am deeply interested in many practices from printmaking, photography, 3D rendering, drawing, collage, and the overlap of all of these media. I currently live and work in Berlin, which still feels crazy for me to say, though I was born and raised in Canada. I grew up in the Comox Valley, which is a small town located on Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada. My practice is mainly painting, and I mostly work representatively with a focus on the figure, primarily the male body.
Briefly, I am mostly consumed with issues of identity, queer identity, masculinity, body dysmorphia, and the internal struggles in reconciling what these mean to me personally, and my struggles with accepting myself as a gay man growing up. I first started my Bachelor of Fine Arts at North Island College in my hometown, and then eventually landed in Montreal in 2009, where I was subsequently accepted into Concordia University’s Painting & Drawing program in 2010.
How much of your early life and adolescence in Canada helped shape you as an artist? Are there any memorable personal experiences or other artistic influences that inspired your approach to painting and drawing, or that motivated you to pursue a career as an artist?
As far as I can remember, I was always doing something artistic or crafty. I grew up with a mother who was extremely creative and a father who was dexterous. In order to keep me occupied as a kid, my mom used to plunk me down on the counter with crayons, pencil crayons, construction paper, scissors, and I would just make things.
I definitely owe this to my parents and I definitely think I got a solid balance of artsy creativity from my mother, and I can safely say that I owe my work ethic to my father. He was a logger who built four family homes himself; he was always building or fixing, even on the weekends. He had a love of pouring concrete and could never sit still. I definitely am the same though – less the concrete. My mom was extremely creative or crafty, as she would say, we were always doing artsy things after school from as far as I can remember – painting rocks, clay pots, pieces of wood that were laying around the many construction sites that I grew up in.
However, growing up on a remote island, I never felt like I was really exposed to 'real art' per se until I was almost 20. My only experience of art at the time was this copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which my mom painted in high school, and it was always hanging in the laundry room. I always used to look at it and hope I could make a painting that good when I was older.
I was also extremely lucky that I had parents that always supported my passions and that pushed me to go to art school. I recently gave an art talk via Zoom to a high school in Toronto; there were lots of questions along the lines of ‘how do I justify my art career?’ and it made me aware just how lucky I was to have parents who supported my career choices from such a young age because I don’t think this is the case with most people.
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You've moved to different cities, and even continents, in the last few years – from Montreal to Vancouver and finally to Berlin. What prompted all of these changes?
So much of me moving to Berlin last year feels like chance, yet at the same time, I feel like a lot of things led up to this decision and in a way funnelled me here. I’d say the seed was planted around the beginning of 2018, as I said to my best friend, who I was living with at the time, that I was feeling like it was time for a big change. I had been living in Montreal for a long time and I was working full-time in painting. I had some shows and things were going well, but I was really unhappy with my art practice. I felt my work was lacking depth, and technically I was craving to learn more about the mechanics of painting.
I started looking into Masters programs in Canada and the United States, but the thought of putting myself in 150,000 dollars of debt didn’t make sense. I had a minor breakdown before connecting with Vancouver-based artist Justin Ogilvie; he was coincidentally making a trip to Montreal at the end of that summer, so we did a studio visit and really clicked. I proposed working together more directly, and a week afterwards, I decided to give up my studio and apartment in Montreal and go to Vancouver.
At the time, I never thought I would move back west, especially to Vancouver to study painting, but it was exactly what I was looking for, so I jumped at the opportunity. It turned out to be some of the most informative technical painting instruction that I have ever had.
It goes without saying that Berlin has been something of a creative utopia for many years now, but what is it about the city that appealed to you enough to relocate there? Do you think a place like Berlin can help nurture your freedom as an artist?
While living in Vancouver was really great, it’s not at all a city that is accessible for artists, due in part to a complete lack of studios and astronomical rent prices. I knew I couldn’t stay in Vancouver and I didn’t feel like moving back to Montreal. As an artist, the only other city that made sense was Berlin. Berlin, from my limited experience so far — much like Montreal — has the right ratio of reasonable right prices and accessibility to studios. It’s this fine balance of ‘Can I afford to live there AND have a studio space?,’ and, I mean, it’s Berlin, it’s like artist Mecca, so it felt like an obvious choice.
There are so many artists here from all over the world, pretty much all my friends here are artists, and it’s the first time in my life I have ever had that. I feel like I fit in. Not to mention the exposure and sheer access to art here is crazy, from museums, galleries, openings, artists, DJs, etc. – it’s crazy. Every other week I go to the Gameldegalerie to look at old master paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Cranach – you name it. You just don’t get that in Canada, so for me, it’s a real privilege.
Much of your recent painting explores issues of masculinity, queerness, and the volatile relationship between both. In terms of attitudes surrounding what it means to be a man, do you believe there are any cultural differences between Canada and where you’re living now? How important to do think the role of the artist is in challenging masculinity as a fixed idea?
There was this quote the popped up on my feed from a queer journalist named Alexander Leon that really struck a nerve, and he said that as “queer people [we] don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation and prejudice.” While I believe this to be extremely true, I’m not really sure how to answer this question exactly because I have only lived in Berlin for a year, and I would feel strange to make any sort of sweeping generalizations about a culture I don’t belong to. Though, speaking for myself, I grew up with a very humble albeit somewhat traditional idea of what it meant to be a man – a working man.
I come from a family of journeymen. As a logger in the true Canadian sense, my father was a real working man. So growing up in a town where all the 'manliest' boys were these kinds of carpenter bros wearing Carhartt in a completely unironic kind of way, being the artsy-fartsy, closeted gay kid surrounded by this kind of — more often than not, toxic — masculinity all the time was a really big struggle for me growing up.
I fought coming out long and hard because for me at the time, in the context I grew up, it didn’t feel feasible. I never felt like I was able to live up to my family’s understanding of manhood while also being and honouring who I actually was. It was an excruciating inner conflict that ultimately was the biggest push for me to move across the country — to Montreal — at such a young age. I really needed to escape where I grew up in order to figure out who I was.
“At the beginning as artists, we don’t really have our own voice fully developed, we are still trying to close the gap between our vision and what we actually execute, and we often fall short of our expectations. It really takes years, or arguably a lifetime to close that gap, if that is even possible.”
In the past, you’ve described your approach to painting as being sometimes almost violent and intense. Is this a deliberate approach? Is it a case of immersing yourself in your work and embracing an imperfect process, or does it go a little deeper?
I recently gave a talk to the college where I started art school in Canada and had this question relating to my stylistic changes over the years. I like these questions because I don’t feel style is necessarily a conscious choice per se, rather a result of a repeated expression of a particular media in which recognizable patterns begin to form. At the beginning as artists, we don’t really have our own voice fully developed; we are still trying to close the gap between our vision and what we actually execute, and we often fall short of our expectations. It takes years, or arguably a lifetime to close that gap, if that is even possible. It’s like the mathematical function of the asymptote — perhaps the only thing from high school math I can remember — where the line approaches the X-axis, getting infinitely closer but never ever reaching X.
When I was a student, I was obsessed with Jenny Saville and was certain I would just be able to become her in a way and paint just like her. I love her work and still do – this bold, abstract expressionist kind of angst/confidence as a painting language, and it felt appropriate for this kind of personal self-deprecation I was doing to myself when I was younger in a way, hiding personally behind my work. Torturing myself in private, disguising my true self behind this overly confident brushwork and at times the arrogant scale of the works I was doing. This is something that has changed a lot in my work the last couple years, especially this year due to the pandemic.
What does your creative process look like now?
I am slowing down a lot more, being much more conscientious of the process, being kinder to myself, paying more attention to the preparation and being more intentional about composition and more sensitive of surfaces I am creating.
When painting all you have is a reaction, and you get exactly what you put into it. I think in the end these periods really reflect a mental state of the time in which they were created, me trying to prove to other people that I could paint and do something bold, and in a way, I think overcompensating for my insecurities elsewhere. Now I find myself less concerned about impressing other people and focusing on something more deeply personal and sensitive. I want to be honest in my work. In the end, it needs to feel right to me, and I just don’t feel as much a need to paint like that anymore.
Do you share a frustration at the irony that many people who might benefit from the dialogue your kind of art produces – that is, those who adhere to a strict understanding of masculinity – are less likely to seek out that sort of content? Do you feel like art can narrow that gap and create a more inclusive space?
To be honest, no; I really try to make that which matters to me. I don’t think I'm ever trying to be overly didactic with the work or the subject matter. I think that would be annoying, as I don’t like having anything forced on me. It becomes a very slippery slope when you’re making work for other people, especially so in the context of social media. I try to put as much of myself in everything I do, as much as I can, and try to work through issues that I feel like I have struggled with or wanted to figure out. Most often, they are issues to do with the queer identity vis-a-vis my struggles with coming out and around masculinity. My hope is that people are intrigued and feel something, though I have learned with much struggle over the years my attempts to please everyone are futile.
So, I am sure there are lots of people who don’t like my artwork, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I like my work, and I believe in it and feel strongly about what I do. That being said, I think it's really important to expose yourself to beliefs that aren’t yours, to perceive other perspectives, or just have empathy. So, I think, in that case, art can most certainly create a space for and be inclusive of that.
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You’ve spoken before about how personal these issues are for you and how this could even become a lifelong exploration. That could be burdensome at times, but do you find comfort in knowing the issues you’ve struggled and expressed through your art might comfort someone else? Are there any artists who you ever look to for similar reassurance?
I can’t say if I will be making the same work in five, ten or fifteen years or not. My work has changed a lot in the past couple of years because I believe that I have changed a lot. I think more and more that I am finding comfort in my art practice, and I am also developing a healthier relationship to work. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself, struggle with perfectionism and routine. But as I grow up, I am learning how to deal with that.
If someone finds comfort in my work or that narrative, then that’s cool, but it’s not something I focus on, to be honest. I look at a lot of artists’ work, but I don’t think I am looking for comfort in their work per se. I think it’s reassuring to have friends who are artists you can lean on because they are the ones that are also in the ring battling for their careers and truly understand the struggle, hardship, and the isolation that can be involved in pursuing a career in the arts.
A standout image of yours for us is your Put On A Happy Face painting from 2019, which we understand you completed as part of your grant where you worked under Justin Ogilvie. Can you tell us more about your method and intention (if there was one) behind this particular piece, as well as whether this was influenced by what you were learning during that time?
Thanks, yeah, I feel super strong about that piece. To be honest, it kind of marks a big shift in my work. Not sure I would quite say a catalyst per se, but it kind of felt like me letting go of some things that weren’t working and embracing some new directions. This piece was made during a mentorship that I was doing by the grace of the Canada Council for the Arts in Vancouver. I was working on a lot of classical drawing training with Justin, like hours and hours and hours a week of life drawing, painting, portraiture. It was great, my skill level took a quantum leap, I was able to hack out a solid portrait in like thirty minutes, which was amazing! So this piece is kind of hilarious to me because it was exactly the opposite of what I was learning, being fine-tuned drawing and anatomy skills. Though I was in a way mirroring Justin’s practice a bit, he works on these super tight drawings and is amazingly skilled in the traditional sense, and then he also makes these super wacky exciting paintings. So, I was also doing that, trying to undo some rigidity and allow myself to be weirder.
The figures in the piece were based off these two figures from a homoerotic men’s physique magazine from the ‘50s who were wrestling. Then as I started the piece, we started having these conversations about 'obsessive surfaces' as a metaphor for skin, and this kind of obsessive, over-worked, over-retouched, photoshopped, facetuned, botoxed, steroided, dysmorphic depiction of the body I see online began coming to mind. So, I started creating all these studies and using polished surfaces, mica car pigments, using a syringe to paint on tiny dots onto the surface for hours. It was really stimulating. It was definitely a gateway to what I am working on now, which is still thinking about skin in an obsessive way but appropriating an old master painting technique and thinking about a historical perspective on nudity.
It’s generally understood that figurative art has a history of depicting the body (almost always female) through the male gaze, and in that sense, we’re dealing with issues of patriarchy. It’s refreshing then when we look at your own art of mostly nude men as a kind of rebellion against this tradition. What's your opinion on this?
I spend a lot of time in Berlin visiting the Gemaldegalerie, which has a major collection of classical paintings, mostly 13th and 19th-century works. There is most certainly a lot of female nudity in classical painting, but there is also a lot of male nudity as well. One of my favourite works at the Gemaldegalerie is Saint Sebastian by Rubens, and in typical Rubenesque figure, elongated proportions and with rippling muscles, with the most beautifully soft and sensual lighting, shot by arrows with wounds that are barely bleeding. It’s clear it’s all about the body and the sensuousness of the skin, while barely covered by a tiny piece of sheer fabric. It’s all about the body and the sexuality of the figure; it’s almost pornographic.
I am not sure that I would say I am being rebellious in what I am doing, but I like the idea of making a simple change to what has already been done. I kept thinking about what it would look like, what it would feel like or even mean to place male subjects in the same vulnerable way that these artist painted women. I think that alone becomes a very subversive act because it completely undermines masculinity; it makes the male figure about vulnerability and reduces its power. This I find interesting. I think a big part of this has to do with my struggles with coming out and growing up as a gay kid who never felt like he fit the 'norm' that he was surrounded by.
“To say that I am "championing queerness" in my work sounds like a very bold statement, and to say I think I am doing that feels like it toes the line of arrogance. I choose the subject matter I work with because it feels personal and close to me.”
Would you agree that championing queerness through your work not only expands discussions around masculinity but also how we view femininity as well?
To say that I am championing queerness in my work sounds like a very bold statement, and to say I think I am doing that feels like it toes the line of arrogance. I choose the subject matter I work with because it feels personal and close to me; it’s a deeply personal exploration. I never felt that I ever really fit the mould of what is expected of traditional notions of masculinity. I have always felt like an outsider in this context, be it amongst the males in my family, those who I grew up with, and even as an adult. The only place I ever really felt confident was within my art practice, so in the context of this world, I get to be a ‘strong man.’ In this sense, I become the more powerful one. It is just this power dynamic, or illusion thereof that I want to explore in the work without being overly didactic.
As for the topic of femininity, it’s always contrasted with masculinity, and I think this binary is overly simplistic and reductive. I think it’s so much more multifaceted, and I would hope I am able to touch on this in my work, but I have a hard time seeing my own work from the lens of someone else, so I will leave this assessment up to the viewer.
We first discovered you through Instagram. Obviously, social media is almost essential for any artist trying to promote their work nowadays, so we’re interested in your own experience presenting your work online. Has it been positive in the sense that there’s a wider reach with more intimacy with your audience? Alternatively, is there a greater need to protect your work since it’s more accessible?
Social media is definitely a lifeline right now in regards to staying connected with artists, exhibitions, contemporary discourse on art friends, whatever. It is a tool and it has helped me greatly in terms of visibility, connecting with people/clients and helping support my career financially. I think intimacy is a strange word to use here, I guess in a way because I let you into my studio and see some of the mundaneness of my day to day, but I don’t feel an intimate connection. It feels more voyeur to me and can very easily slide towards self-indulgence and narcissism.
For me lately, I am realizing the need to protect my work and my practice and keep it more and more private. I think the key thing you mention here lies in the word ‘promote.' Instagram is really good for that, even if you have nothing to actually say, you can still promote and validate yourself. This I have realized is extremely detrimental to the daily practice of art. To have every moment in the studio become this Instagrammable situation, it really takes you out of the moment. The insidious nature of smartphones and especially socially media I find have really hijacked my attention span, as I find I am constantly compulsively reaching for my phone.
I recently bought a Nokia 3310, like the phones we had in middle school. I try most days to leave my smartphone at home during the week, as there is literally nothing you can do with that phone. It’s a sobering realization just how addicted I am to my phone and disconnected I can be from the moment. More and more I am learning that I need to keep my studio a sacred place.
Speaking of social media, there’s a lot of noise right now. A lot of important discussions are taking place, but it can be quite vitriolic at times as well. Do you feel that through your art you’re able to contribute in part to some of these discussions without getting too caught up in the madness?
There is a ton of noise right now, and it is always hijacking my attention. It’s challenging because you want to stay tuned in and feel relevant, but I don’t think our brains are humanly capable of dealing with this non-stop feed of information. To be completely honest, I would love to get rid of it, however, it supports my career right now, so this doesn’t feel like an option. So for now, I will settle with reducing screen time in as many ways as possible.
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You’ve shared plenty of work on your Instagram recently, ranging from collage à la gay porn to classical painting. How has your motivation to create in your studio been affected by the pandemic? Given that your approach can be quite solitary, has how you work changed or became more difficult this year?
Moving to Europe has been a big deal for me, I am not even sure where to begin. To say it has been a tumultuous year is an understatement, though, pandemic aside it has been a huge growth year for me. I moved into my new studio literally the week everything shut down in Europe – I rushed out and bought a used bike before everything shuttered and then started going to work every single day. I managed to go for almost seven weeks straight every day. I really got a lot of momentum going, working on lots of drawings and small paintings, most of which were terrible, but it helps get things flowing. I have to make a lot of work to try and figure out what I am trying to do. I feel that being locked away in the studio, knowing everyone else was in the same boat was kind of comforting and allowed me the space to get comfortable in my solitude, hide away and focus without any social distractions.
In a way, it has made it easier as I am clearer and feel more driven than ever. I mean, let's be honest, it’s widely known that Berlin has a reputation for debauchery. There is a lot going on nightlife-wise, it’s truly amazing, party culture is so normal, and I think it can be a very easy downward spiral for some. Luckily for me, I have always been pretty focused and I have always been very ambitious, and diligent, so it has in a way helped boost those qualities. Since there has been no excuse not to work, it’s much easier to get down and dirty in the studio.
Both your solo and group work has been exhibited throughout the world, including the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art most recently. You were also a finalist for Canada’s Salt Spring National Art Prize last year as well! Can you pick a career highlight so far?
“Throughout the world” – that sounds so epic! I feel like it has barely just begun to be honest. Yeah, showing in Utah was a great experience. The same goes for the SSNAP – they selected some great artists so the competition was fierce and I am super grateful I was selected as a finalist. I think by far the most exciting was being awarded a Canada Council for the Arts grant on my first attempt. I literally remember yelling “Holy fuck!” when I opened their acceptance email, freaking out my roommate and then full-on crying. It was and still is such a big deal. They can be notoriously difficult to apply for and I always heard when I was in school you almost never get them on the first try and I did so I totally freaked out.
That grant allowed me to take pretty much nine months off and focus on mentoring with Justin Ogilvie, which really was an experience I will always value. He helped push my skills to the next level and our weekly man-to-man art conversations were amazing, vulnerable and intense at times, but it really helped give me a new sense of confidence in my work that I felt I was lacking. The work that I am doing now really wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for my time in Vancouver, for Justin’s help as well as the grant.
Finally, what hopes do you have for exhibiting your work in the future? In considering how your approach to painting has evolved, which direction do you see yourself going in next?
I really hope to do a show in Europe, hopefully, Berlin, maybe Munich or Hamburg as well. I have a list of galleries in mind along with holy grail galleries, but I will keep those to myself. There is a lot of great painting coming out of Germany right now, so I hope to be able to be a part of that. But for now, it is nose to the grind during the winter lockdowns and focusing on getting new work completed. As for direction with the work, I think only time will tell. Working in this classical technique is super slow and time-consuming, so I need to be patient and not rush the work but also bust my ass, (laughs).
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