A lone white wooden door, wet with sleet, is all that separates Harif Guzman’s studio from the big swinging glass doors of the boutiques and shops that line the SoHo street he calls home. We have been trying to coordinate this interview for the better part of a week through rain- storms, snowstorms and now sleet and slush covering Manhattan, and a phone call summons the tall Venezuelan-born artist downstairs to let me in. Guzman lived in New York growing up before splitting his time between California, Miami and London, but this has always been his base.
And he’s at home here. Inside, the massive studio loft he occupies is alive with the work that covers nearly every wall, from hints of his time spent as a street artist to his paintings, pho- tography, design work and the Texas-centric, light-fitted oil rig installations that will appear in his Houston show. He’s a couple of days away from shipping those at this point, and he’s been up all night painting, maybe all week. Regardless of the success he’s seen as an artist, Guzman has been working on a series of techniques for the past two decades that he feels are only recently taking the form he envisioned: “I’m only just now beginning to get to paint.” We sit down in his living room in the balcony overlooking the studio and he lights a cigarette while we listen to The Cure and his five-year-old bulldog, Flip, fall asleep next to me. Imag- ine him snoring throughout the interview for maximum effect.
You've had a different hustle because you didn't come up through the traditional channels, right? You didn't go to art school.
No, barely went to school; skateboarding, just doing warehouse work. You name it.
You look at everything differently when you don't do up through that system.
Well, it's like I've had everything and lost it so many times. So many fucking times, you know what I mean? And you're just not scared. I don't give a fuck. When you start to learn how - I mean, there are certain people that are very inspirational to me, like Damien Hirst, meeting him and to see the kind of level that he's doing shit on and then to see other businesspeople operate, it's just like the art world's has taken such a dramatic change in the last six years, I think, just due to the fact that the social media aspect of it. And I feel like there's a lot of artists out there, but they're not painters. Their just fabricators. And they've got great ideas to produce cool shit, but then there's painters and then there's artists. There's two different things, and I feel like everything's more...you have to be more business, business-wise...you don't want to have to deal with business in art, but the art world's changing.
Well, I think the thing is that traditionally, if you don't come up through those channels, it's a lot harder for you, but do you think that's changing? Over the past few years?
I think it's definitely changing. You gotta go back to the aspects...I know you have people...you have an influx of contemporary artists and all these contemporary artists now have their stuff on the internet, so I feel like the collectors, or if you have someone who helps build collections of art or someone that you work with, they can look through 40, 50 websites a week and then they have to visit the studios, and it takes kind of the intimacy of actually going to see the work in itself...and in a way I think it's all changing, because I think the contemporary market's just grown so much, kind of taking a lot from the masters and the classics, because who can actually collect those things? I feel like they are dying out. People who were in masters and classics now have switched over and they have to pay attention to the contemporary market. And business wise, now you have a kid who's not a painter, who's just doing graphics in photoshop or who's just doing posters and has a website up and he's tweeting, he's stroking all the galleries, emailing 10 times a day - he's gonna be in those shows. As to where like old school painter's in the studio, painting, and there's no limelight in him, because all these people have just filled in the gap that he normally would have taken. All of that stuff is changing with technology. But the one beautiful thing about being a painter is that I didn't get into painting to follow any rules. I didn't become a painter to follow anyone's rules. And I think it's a trade that some people and families still hold in high regard, like a doctor or a scientist, and I think it's an important trade because it's something that's so old school that it has to remain alive. It should remain alive forever. Just painting. Not just fabrication or things like that, but actually being a painter. There's still some people out there that still respect it, I hope. Painting's something I do. Not the success or the money. I mean, it's something I've been doing for a long time, just not living the success of what I do because by default almost, being mentally ill or something, it's like the only treatment I have for my problem, I guess, but...When it's good, it's good. But when it's bad it's even better, because that's what fuels your work. All the bullshit that you have to deal with, and all the struggles that you have help fuel you as an artist.
By Lance Scott Walker