Artist Interviews 2021
By Julia Siedenburg
Ralph Lazar, an artist I had found at the Other Art Fair and was immediately drawn to. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Ralph discusses the current political and social issues,
past and present that are faced in the US and beyond. He is a true creator of art that cannot be silenced or ignored, nor should it.
From the constitution written on cardboard pieces and shaken up to varies sized “Lyle” monsters and multiple books, Ralph Lazar’s art can be
enjoyed by younger as well as older fans. His pieces take you on an incredible journey through various news events that no one should miss.
So I ask you, dear readers, to go on your own journey and step into Ralph’s world of informative art.
Painting a mural of The Lives of Others
Describe the meaning of the word “artist” to you?
Someone who has no choice but to create, irrespective of their circumstances, without caring what anyone else thinks.
Please further expand on your quote “My aim as an artist is to capture these times and my response to them.”
Through my art, I record the news in real-time. So my aim is, quite literally, to capture today’s news, my response to it, and turn it into art.
Recording the news as it happens
How has art changed the way you live life and see the world?
It’s completely changed the way I live. I wake up every day and throw paint onto a blank canvas. Quite literally. It’s also turned our home onto an art studio. Lisa (glascathedrals.com) and I see our paint splattered home as an art studio that happens to have bedrooms and a kitchen attached to it.
In terms of how I see the world, art has allowed to me create a daily graphic journal and to view current affairs in a top-down sort of way. I try not to get bogged down with the minutiae, and prefer to capture the overall (big picture) feelings of the times.
Life as art
Your work has been shown at the best and greatest art shows around the US. How do you want to influence people with your work?
I’d like people to reflect on how history happens; organically, invisibly.
Relentless news headlines accumulate to form an overarching and, ex-post, seemingly logical narrative. Yet in the moment, those headlines are so fast-moving that they feel almost disposable.
In January and February last year, just before Covid hit, Lazar’s artwork appeared on 1,700 digital screens across New York City.
I remember seeing your pieces with the figures and the little black monsters and immediately being interested. I stood there for a while and just looked at your work, reading the words filling the spaces.
Please describe your process. How do you get your idea and what happens once you have it?
The monsters you refer to are called Lyle. He does nothing much –just stands there and smiles. The first few I made just for fun. 1,200+ Lyles later, and the project has taken on a life of its own. The smallest Lyles are 5 inches tall. The largest are 8 feet high. I’ve been commissioned to make herds large and small across California over the last five years.
The heart of the project is goodwill. Lyle is here as a reminder that life can be good, and decency still exists.
Process? When I have an idea I just make it. Because most of my pieces are made up of multiple small parts, I usually start off small and expand to fill the canvas.
A herd of Lyles in LA
Who is your biggest artistic influence?
Nobel prize in literature.
And also a musician.
Each and every one of the 1,097 unique words on Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks are on this piece.
How did the idea of making books come about?
I make books to record my art which records the news. The detailed chronology of the Trump presidency is here:
I also write books for kids. Along with my wife Lisa Swerling, we are currently doing a huge and very exciting adventure/mystery series with Scholastic for kids aged 7-10. More info is here: www.total-mayhem.com
Lazar with his wife Lisa Swerling launching their latest kids book series with Scholastic.
How would you sum up the meaning and message of ”OF OUR TIMES”?
This series contemporaneously documents current affairs, with a focus on the US. This relentless flow of information is captured by preparing in advance thousands of small paintings. Then, as the days unfold, I add words to them, capturing the news in real-time, building them in to final, larger-format pieces.
Capturing the news through art
“GHOSTS & BINOCULARS”
This series explores semiotics (universal symbols), ideographic writing systems, and global conventions that encode, represent and handle text. The series draws on both representational and abstract symbols,
tracing a thread from the San rock paintings of my native South Africa all the way up to contemporary finance and emoji coding conventions.
Looking for connections
“THE LIFE AND TIMES OF… “?
This is an ongoing visual journal, taking the form of stream-of-consciousness compilations, inspired by the people, words, music and stories that form the backdrop of my daily life.
Each word is on a separate piece of card. I am continually building these pieces at a rate of 10 to 20 words per day. When one is complete, I begin the next one.
An ongoing series
Tell us a little about your childhood and background?
I was born in Johannesburg.
Growing up under Apartheid in South Africa, I was confronted with a daily awareness of right and wrong, in very stark terms.
When living under such a system, one is constantly confronted with moral choices. Those choices, the ones we faced back then, are similar to those we face today.
This is what informs and drives my art.
Lisa and the girls atop Mpandangare the Brave, our faithful Landrover Defender, in my spiritual home, Botswana’s Central Kalahari.
Which of your pieces is your favorite and why?
I don’t have a favorite.
OF OUR TIMES (January 2021) is an important piece.
Four years summarized in a single piece.
The words on this are the titles of each politically-themed piece I made between Trump’s election on 08 November 2016 and Biden’s inauguration on 20 January 2021.
Another important piece is RECONSTITUTION (July 2016)
A Stanford University group getting the low-down on Reconstitution. Two 8ft high panels featuring every word of the US Constitution (4,543 words), each hand-written, cut out and randomly reconfigured.
I spent several weeks writing out the full US Constitution, each word on a 1-2 inch piece of cardboard. The 4,543 words were placed in a box, which was then shaken, and they were then laid out randomly on two large panels; a reconstitution of the Constitution.
Take the words you want and reconstitute them to suit your political agenda…
What is next? What are your plans for the future?
To keep making art.
I have the world’s best job.
Ralph Lazar & Lisa Swerling at the Barker Hangar in LA