Artist Interviews 2023

Apollo Staar  
By Johnny Otto

When I first met you, you were DJing in Hollywood and when I heard you were painting, I was intrigued to see how music might influence your art. Does it? If so, how and what do you listen to when you're painting?

Yes, I used to DJ all over Hollywood back in the day! Those days are a bit blurry, but were incredibly fun from what I do remember. The nights never ended. Music is everything. It affects the way you feel and the way you think. This is the exact reason why film scores exist, they create a mood and stimulus that enhance the picture that you’re seeing and help the audience understand the director’s vision. This experience can also influence a number of different activities especially while creating art. For me personally, the music I listen to really depends on what step of the painting or project I’m doing at the time. There’s a handful of steps in the pieces that I do; the beginning steps include working on choosing the colors and laying out the composition of the piece. This kind of work takes a great deal of focus so I listen to a lot of instrumental music, mostly classical, any lyrics become distractions to me and totally destroy my focus. I love Bach(esp. the cello suites and the Goldberg Variations on harpsichord, Toccata and Fugue in D minor on the pipe organ totally rocks too), Erik Satie, Tomaso Albinoni(Adagio in G minor is killer on pipe organ). Plus I can’t forget the rockstars of their time, Franz Liszt, Niccolò Paganini, and Mozart. Listening to their music while working on my art is incredibly inspiring. The range of feelings and emotions that classical music creates is beyond comparison. I also listen to a lot of late 50s and 60s jazz, lounge music, and Latin jazz that really help my focus. Chet Baker, Walter Wanderly, Cal Tjader, Les Baxter, Martin Deny, and Sergio Mendes are some of my all-time favorites. When I’m doing work that doesn’t require too much thinking, like cutting out transparencies, painting backgrounds, or mixing custom colors, I listen to music that gets me going, mostly 60s psych and garage and a lot of ‘70s punk and glam rock, mostly UK(Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Hollywood Brats, Japan, Cuddly Toys, The Jam, etc.) and NYC stuff(a lot of NY Dolls, Dead Boys, Suicide, Jayne County, Cramps, Lou Reed, etc), CBGB’s & Max’s Kansas City bands, I love real gritty crunchy fuzzy guitars with a good riff and trashy lyrics about living life on the fringe. Bowie is also great for anytime, his musical style and range is so incredibly broad that I can always find a perfect Bowie song for any stage of my work that is very motivating, inspirational, and can even be moving at times.

When did you start painting and why at this point in your life? 

Probably like most young people who discover art, I thought art was cool when I was in junior high and was turned on to a lot of art from the 1950s & 60s(Fluxus and abstract expressionism), as well as graphic design in vintage magazine ads, mostly because it was fun, colorful, and easy to understand. I respected traditional modern art but always thought it was waaay too boring and didn’t speak to me directly. Times are different now, there’s an incredible amount of bold colors and stimulus that fight to grab your attention. I very much admired the talent, patience, and discipline that it takes to do realistic paintings and portraiture, but was more drawn to the avant-garde side and thought that art should be provocative, engaging, and have some kind of message. I felt that art was powerful and should be used as a tool for expression that could be understood universally without the limitations of a specific language, kind of like the early black & white silent films of Chaplin; thru his acting and body language his message was universally understood, there was no need for dialogue. I love that.

How would you describe your art and who are your major influences?

I guess some would say that I fit into the street art/abstract-pop/graphic art category. My art is a mix of different styles and genres that I love, plus some graphic design thrown in to balance it out. I love bold colors. I believe that the power and meaning of colors is very important and spend many hours deciding on pairing the right colors together for each painting. It means everything, it’s crucial to my work. The power of colors and how they affect the brain are totally underrated. As far as my art goes, it’s really a mash-up of a few different styles. I see myself as an outsider who is here on this planet as both a visitor and an observer and thus subjected to a bombardment of relentless visual stimuli that affects me and all of us in every way and influences our opinions and the way we see things and interpret life. Commercialism, consumerism, the cult of celebrity and the dark path of stardom, it all has an influence on us, whether we like it or not, and can shape our attitudes, desires, and behavior. At the same time it creates a sort of celebrity caste system between the have and the have nots, the rich & famous, and the ‘desperate to be known’ internet coterie. From this realization I approach my work in a very psychological way. From there I decide what direction and subject matter I want to pursue and use that as a starting point. Then in my sketchbook I make a miniature version of the painting I’m creating, background first. From there I shrink down the drawn graphics or photographs that are part of the piece, print them or cut them out, lay them about, and move them around until I find a strong composition. Once I feel like the miniature sample is what I’m looking for, I then start the actual full size piece. I like to see how the finished piece is going to look before I start it, so that I can make sure it is as strong as possible, visually and composition-wise. I love and at the same time hate that the word ‘art’ is a term that can be used so broadly to designate what is considered ‘art’. It’s very Duchampian. He said ‘this is art’ and thus it became art. But at the same time, I’m very traditional in the sense that I feel like art should look like art. It should have brush strokes, it should have imperfections, it should look like it was made by a creative hand for the purpose of being art. To me, anything that is too perfect and sterilized and considered ‘art’, is suspect and raises questionable ethics as well as blurs the definition of art. Things can be ‘artsy’ but that doesn’t necessarily make them ‘art’. And on the flip side, I feel strongly that art should be original and created with an intention and carefully followed steps to convey a message or feeling. I see tons of so-called ‘art’ these days that’s just slapped and slopped and thrown together and looks completely formulaic and homogenized like it was made at the mall by some corporate machine. It has zero meaning and even less significance. Warhol would’ve loved it, but that time, the early 1960s, when all those banal things were breaking new ground by being considered ‘art’, has come and gone. That was 60 years ago. The stakes are a lot higher these days, so much has been done since then. Seems like almost every avenue has already been explored. My main influences are mostly from non-visual artists. I’m very much inspired by authors, filmmakers, fashion and graphic designers from the 60s and 70s. A few of my favorites are Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Verner Panton, Ettore Sottsass, Allen Jones, Dieter Rams, Rudi Gernreich, Mary Quant, and André Courrèges. I feel like that time was a very instrumental in challenging the establishment in a number or areas, especially in the arts. The 1950s suppressed everything dangerous and exciting and promoted a safe but boring and sterile perfect family-oriented white picket fence lifestyle. Then along came LSD, hallucinogens and mind traveling, the psychedelic army, and people’s minds began to open up to what was really going on. This wave was so strong that psychedelics made their way into mainstream pop culture and influenced everything, especially visually, from commercials to marketing and beyond. People began to see things differently, had new questions and wanted more answers. They began to challenge the establishment, question politics, and advocate for civil rights. This created an explosive cultural reaction, broke boundaries, and pushed art and creativity to its limits. Which to me is an important and essential breakthrough.

Are you showing anywhere or have any shows planned for the near future?

So, the last year or so I’ve been working on new content for a new concept that I am now promoting with a collection called ‘Curate-It-Yourself’, where the client picks a number of pieces to hang next to each other, creating a cohesive larger custom work tailored to their specific tastes and the size of the space. So essentially they are custom ‘curating’ it themselves. So currently I’m not showing but I’m now at the point where I feel very confident that my new work will garnish interest from both the established and non-established art community. I’m interested in changing the way art shows generally are run and am working on the idea of doing a multi-media event with another very talented curator that I’ve worked with before, along with some very talented multi-media artists and performers. Sort of a ‘complete immersive art experience’ that will showcase both living and non-living art.

Are there any artists you'd like to collaborate with and why?

Well, anyone who I would’ve entertained the idea of collaborating with is already dead. While I highly appreciate and give much respect to other living visual artists, personally I don’t really feel that collaborations are something that work for me or my type of art. I understand the idea of collaborating in order to create something new and unique thru, but most of the collaborations that I’ve seen look un-completed, a bit dis-jointed if you will. I feel like each of us has a certain vision that we spend hours creating, working on, and bringing to fruition, and a visual collaboration would drastically change the intended message or meaning behind the work. However, I would definitely be interested in collaborating with artists who create with other mediums. I’d love to collaborate with experimental filmmakers and avant-garde musicians and create an experience that transcends just a piece of visual art on the wall and brings together a multi-sensory experience that evokes feelings, beyond just visually. It would also be great to collaborate with a writer or musician wherein they write a story or compose a song about one of my paintings, or vice versa, I paint a piece inspired by their written or musical work. This type of cross-genre collaboration would help each creative with their intended message by adding another dimension rather than competing with it on a visual level.

What else inspires you? Do you have any strange hobbies or is art now the main focus of your life?

I’m a huge fan of film and cinema. I love avant-garde and experimental film from all eras, but am mostly inspired by 1950s educational films and weirdo bizarre 60s and 70s cult and biker films. I feel like during that time cult films were the true barometers of pop culture and exploded with experimentation and creativity after being so stifled in the conservative 1950s. I’m also inspired by crazy and insane art projects around the world that go beyond the traditional genres of art, mostly weird street art and wacky environmental art. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, then all of a sudden you see something super creative and totally unexpected; something that completely destroys the boundaries of traditional visual art. I love that, it’s incredibly inspiring to me. A really great cup of black tea can also inspire me to no ends. Art is always the main focus in my life, but I do absolutely love books and film posters! One of my weaknesses is going to used book stores and finding vintage first-edition pulp paperbacks, as well as collecting European film posters from the 60s & 70s. They always have the coolest graphics! Other than that, I’m always on the quest for the best Tom Kha soup in Los Angeles, a delicious coconut Thai soup. I guess you could say that is an unofficial hobby. So far, Palms Thai on Hollywood Blvd is at the top of the list!

How important is it that your art tell a story and what kind of story does your art tell?

I’ve always believed that each creative individual has something they need to say with their art, and this is why they’ve become an artist. Sometimes the message is very obvious, sometimes not so much, sometimes art is political, and sometimes it just wants to be something cool hanging on the wall and admired. I’d say my work is a bit of all of that. But overall it’s a reflection of what I observe as someone who is a consumer, art house cinema patron, dive bar regular, and someone who’s been subjected to an assault of non-stop advertisements on the daily. I guess the story behind my art would be more of an observation about consumerism in particular as well as the trappings of celebrity and the downfall of stardom, rather than a ‘story’ in the literal sense of the word. I live in Los Angeles and whether I like it or not, a never-ending barrage of commercialism and celebrity worship is forced down my throat every day. Fortunately I see this all as source material and always try to digest it, interpret it, and incorporate it into my work, one way or another. It’s not always pretty, in fact it’s often times downright crude, and unpleasant. But unceasingly interesting and captivating. It’s what I get for living in Los Angeles. And there’s no other place like it in the world.

What is coming up for you? Any show? Are you just focused on creating new work? What's the hope or strategy? 

I’m quite content with my new body of recent work, so I’m currently in the process of doing research on galleries that show work that’s in a similar vein to what I do. Then gotta go do the whole process of going to visit these galleries, hob-nobbing with the hob nobs, getting my work seen, and wheeling and dealing to get on some reputable wall space. During this time I’m still creating a bunch of smaller affordable low to mid-priced original work in addition to custom commissions which I love doing for my friends and new clients. I have a old notebook of project and painting ideas that I’ve been writing down for years, so I have a huge list of painting subject matter and project ideas that I have yet to do. When I finish a current painting series, I go thru my idea book, look at all the pages that I’ve put tabs on, and see what might be a good next series to start. I also try to stay on top of what’s current in the art world; globally, locally, and online. They’re all totally different. But being on top of what’s going on everywhere gives me a good idea of what’s popular and of interest to the different markets and investors. For me, at this point I feel like there’s a lot of work besides just the physical act of creating the art. It’s important to know how to do it all. Research is super important so you know your market, which helps to get you on the right track to getting your work out there. Being an artist and trying to get your work seen by the right people and into the right places is an exceptionally hard uphill battle that very few artists are good at or ever even succeed at, so all this extra work is important and can help you streamline the process. In Los Angeles there are tons more avenues to get your work seen apart from just the gallery circuit, and navigating that process is also a lot of work; doing the research, cutting thru the red tape and tapping into those locations. It all takes tons of time and effort. But when you love what you do, it’s not so bad. Like Bukowski said “Find what you love and let it kill you”. I love that quote.

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