Ray Smith Studio in conversation with Emmett Moore
Emmett Moore: I remember Ray Smith studio being this incredible place where amazing work was being made and wild parties were being thrown. I never really understood how it all worked or how it even started.
Eamon Monaghan: Emmett, this is all you need to know, ok, Ray hired us then he’d come into the studio every day and say “what are we doing” then we’d have to go “I dunno let’s do this” and this pretty much what we did.
Emmett: Well that’s why I wanted to have this conversation. Mariana brought me there one weekend during RISD and you guys were all doing random shit and Ray was off somewhere and I was like what is going on here. It was 2008 or 2009. I remember seeing Eamon wearing overalls and ripping up some 4x4s building something. There were all these paintings being moved around. That was my introduction to the studio.
Eamon: That was probably when I first started working there because I didn’t know how to use a power tool. I wasn’t really useful in any way so I think ray had me demo-ing these old platforms in the back. Pairing 2x4s out of plywood so we could turn 'em into sculptures. I just started doing whatever was needed and Keegan was probably working on some paintings.
Keegan Monaghan: Ray, remember, I helped you had just moved into Bond street(studio). It was empty. We moved all the stuff in there and the first thing I did was stretch all those oval canvases. Ray was making all those clock paintings. I stretched all those and I was mostly doing paintings for you with a projector.
Eamon: I moved here and I was in a laboratory for a year. I left new York for the summer then moved back and Keegan was working for Ray and then he went out to California to visit Nik to make a movie and he was out of town so Ray just called me randomly and was like “Eamon, you gotta help me put some paintings together man”. I really didn’t know how to do anything but Ray just asked me to help him put some paintings together and literally I just stayed there for four years and Keegan came back and they were working on paintings and Nik moved back to NYC because he was in Los Angeles. It was all 2009-2010.
Nik Gelormino: I began working with Ray during the winter of 2009. Keegan was at the studio working there. I had just moved back to NYC after living in LA for a while. I needed some work and Ray was making these giant exquisite corpses on drop cloths. I remember being really excited with how much liberty Ray allowed us on the exquisite corpses. It was the opposite of many assistant jobs I had worked. Usually there are a lot of rules and systems set up to prevent you from making any independent moves but Ray really seems to thrive on that. I guess it feels similar to the way musicians play together and while there may be someone leading the band, there is room to improvise.
Emmett: Did the studio start as a big collaborative affair or did it develop into that?
Ray Smith: It just all developed into that. I think everybody began to invent what the fuck they were doing. Nik, for instance, came in and just started making frames for some of my paintings and it was automatic and yet the paintings he picked to make frames for and the frames he made for them distinguished the pieces. So, everyone began to collaborate in a different sense.
Nik: I began using a bunch of old lumber that was torn out of the Bond Street Studio and making frames for smaller works by Ray. It kind of evolved from there but I would say that my duties usually centered around frame making and woodworking.
Keegan: The main reason why any of it happened was truly because Ray was a facilitator and open to letting that happen and I think that it’s rare for an artist to have assistants and is open to letting them be involved in the work to the point that we all were and that’s why it was really fun.
Mariana Smith: It helped that a bunch of people were involved with moving into the studio in the first place so they were involved in creating the space itself. The studio started out with assistants but it became obsolete because it was like, “we’re all in this together guys”. Then when they boys started practicing with their band and people started coming in every day.
Emmett: In recounting the studio during this time ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is brought up a lot. How did that play into everything?
Ray: The Occupy Wall Street stuff happened right after the 2008 crash. There was this whole notion of the 1%. They control the economy and they’re controlling the planet. Who the fuck are they? These oligarchs. The art world was falling apart, and here we were moving into a brand-new studio. One of the very first projects we did was Smithumenta with the Bruces(Bruce High Quality Foundation). This gigantic disco-ball was made. … The Bruce car was done at that space. Terence Koh did a project in that space. The studio in a way started out almost kind of like a clubhouse or a theater or a stage or something.
Eamon: There’s always such an immense amount of generosity behind that space. There was Smithumenta, Keegan and James did a play in there. Nik built a set and we did a play over the summer. I started shooting movies in there. Ray always was just extremely encouraging and fueled what the work was and what the studio was and there was never any kind of…
Mariana: Ray never said no.
Eamon: Everybody wanted to be making shit there and it was such a generative place I always felt encouraged to be making shit there on my own after hours. I think that’s a very rare special thing that carried over into the work day too. We were on the clock and working on these projects but I think that energy felt really generative and that space was always there
Ray: To me it all happened because, in a sense, everyone began to guide it that way, so however much you guys thank me, I thank you too. It’s kind of like a release. The reality was that if I was interested in bathroom graffiti I wasn’t going to be directing what the fuck somebody was going to say in the bathroom.
So, the more I watched it the more it started happening and then it got a rhythm. I always got this feeling that the place this thing was taking me to is somehow both when I was making the work and when I was collaborating with you guys I had to become somebody else. So, in that work I had to transform myself because you’re being encouraged to transform yourself because everyone is transforming each other so it’s a different character than I was, and sometimes I had a really difficult time. Look, I knew that the work was really good but I had a hard time seeing it.
Emmett: I remember a lot of parties happening in the studio fueled by this creative energy. Can you elaborate on that?
Eamon: We had prosecco Friday, remember that? We lit a drawing on fire and I had just bought a cardigan sweater and I was on the phone and they poured some xylenol on some drawing and I was on the phone I turned around and Ray had taken my sweater and was whacking at the fire on this drawing.
Mariana: Those parties were always so crazy. He doesn’t just throw a little party. He’ll buy enough meat to feed an entire army and he gets everybody working setting up for the party
Eamon: Those parties were so much fun.
Keegan: I think the big part of the studio is that it is the studio itself, the scale, Ray and the Smith family’s generosity wanting to facilitate a certain kind of energy and a certain kind of enthusiasm around the work and that’s why all these people came. You’ve seen the space, it’s a crazy space. You don’t really think about people having space like that in a city.
Emmett: Not even in Miami
Keegan: That alone is going to make all kinds of crazy shit happen. People were so excited to be in that space because it felt so good. It was just surreal to walk in there. If people hadn’t been there they would walk into the smaller room and think it was amazing then go through the door and be like, “Oh my god.”
Eamon: …And the art wasn’t behind ropes or anything like that.
Mariana: People were grinding and twerking on artworks and stuff.
Eamon: it felt very much like you were entering into someone’s studio and just hanging out. It’s a super intimate space that also becomes super public and becomes a huge social venue too.
Emmett: I remember running into old friends Rays parties, people I hadn’t seen since being in Miami, and being like oh what are you doing here.
Eamon: Yeah, we wouldn’t tell that many people then all of a sudden it would be like 300 people.
Emmett: My parents came to one, do you remember that? They walked in for a couple minutes and couldn’t get past the front door because there were so many people then they left.
Ray: It became clear when we moved into the place that the place itself has kind of got it’s own magic. The rhythm of the place began to take on its own life and when the Bruces came up with the idea of Smithumenta and there was going to be this gigantic show it was the first party that was completely over the top and it was complete magic. It was like a really great moment and everybody was getting there and my idea of the show was too. If they kept writing about how the art world was collapsing because of so many galleries going under and stuff like that, that’s the conversation that’s had. What are the economics of the art world whereas the reality is there were all these artists that are doing things and do things with nothing. The talent of art isn’t the gallery it’s the fucking artists making something out of nothing. So, the point of the show was to do something where you could show what could be done by artists for artists.
Emmett: And that was right at the time of the economic collapse. Do you know what year that was?
Ray: Exactly that was right at the time of the collapse. That was 2008.
Eamon: The summer of 2009 was Smithumenta
Ray: That also set the pace of the studio to a great extent. I thought it was a lot more important that the studios themselves had identities, in other words, their entity. It was clear that this studio had its own entity - its own space. It Almost tells you what to do with it. Whatever I’ve done in there has always, in a sense, been completely about that space. Your music was recorded there right?
Keegan: That space was so crazy, the scale. It sounded so good to make music in there. The two records we made in there, we recorded the space specifically. We put microphones around the room facing the walls to get the reverb and stuff and it sounds really unique.
The studio itself what facilitated. I mean your generosity is ultimately what facilitated it, but the studio was such a no-brainer that you would have all this stuff happening in it and you would want to use it in so many ways because you could. In my studio only I can paint there and it’s crowded if more than two people are in there at a time. One of the things that’s so great is that you could have multiple projects going. You could have multiple artists in there using it. It’s nice when other people are working because you feed off of their energy. That studio was about that.
Emmett: I felt that too just visiting for a few hours at a time. I didn’t know who anybody was and some people I had just met but I felt a crazy energy only later coming to find out that we’re all connected in these bizarre ways.
Nik: I think the social aspect was a very important element. It was definitely a collaborative effort. I think there was a sense that there was no rules, no notion of "too-far". We would make fun of each other and try to push each other's buttons. Some days I would work on it myself or vice-versa. It really felt like a sort of place to meet up and communicate even if we weren't there at the same time. There was also a sense of performance with those drawings. You can't really look at them and not wonder about how they were made, and what that process looked like. That’s an important element of art but maybe more specifically painting. A work is so much more engrossing when it encapsulates some energy of its creation, whether that is chaotic or calming. We would draw when we were drunk and hanging out and we would also draw by ourselves on a Sunday afternoon.
Ray: There’s a saying in Mexico “God makes them and they get together”. Somehow this place got everybody together and the space itself made people behave in a particular way. In a way, it’s theatric. And had such a warm vibe as a building that when you walk into it dictates what you’re supposed to do. I appreciate everybody commending me for my generosity but at the same time I needed other fuckers to do shit in the space. I needed other artists to collaborate in this place because I couldn’t make the noise all by myself. The discovery of the sound and all that stuff was these guys playing the music. I used to love to paint while they were playing music. I did a whole series of drawings when Eamon started singing with the band “there’s no more freedom in the USA”. Everyone sort of played off of each other. Eamon suddenly became a performance guy. He was always on. He started doing these crazy things with Emerson. Indecipherable stuff that you didn’t know what the fuck it was, and that was so much fun, it’s incredible. When you’re in a place where you basically can’t describe in any particular linear way anything that’s really going down, but it’s going down. That’s a really nice place to be. It’s like being in a world where you don’t speak the language, nobody understands you and you don’t have a memory either.
Emmett: Did the first collaborative work come from exquisite corpses that Ray already had made based on the Picasso paintings?
Ray: When Keegan came in I was doing the clocks and the wanted to do a show in Spain because the clocks were like Dali and the Guernica was like a melting Guernica. So, I was running Dali and Picasso through the filter of the 21st century so the only way I could find another distortion for the Guernica pieces was to make an exquisite corpse. That’s the time that Keegan came in.
Emmett: How did that Segway into everybody collaborating on those other exquisite corpses? I understand in the beginning Ray had reference images to work from but then it the process devolved.
Ray: This is the first time had somebody that I was collaborating with directly. Both of us working on the same thing but on different parts and I have to say at first it was disturbing but then after a while I really liked the fact that there were these incredible distinctions of hands. I had to adapt.
Keegan; I never thought of what we did as collaborative. For most of it as being an employee, like a facilitator doing the stuff that you needed done like any artist assistant would work for any other artist but when we did the exquisite corpses it was definitely more collaborative.
Even though I was making 50% of those paintings and making decisions on them you weren’t coming by and saying “you should paint this picture, you should do this” Eventually they just starting coming from our heads, we weren’t using references for a lot of them. Even still I felt like I was making Ray Smith paintings. It was just a collaborative device for you to make those paintings in a way that you haven’t.
Ray: It’s like you said, it is by nature collaborative.
Keegan: It’s a game, it’s a surrealist game that lets you make images beyond your own…
Keegan: …And you end up with images that are completely accidental and purely dictated by chance and the overall image, as a whole, is beyond your own decision making.
Nik: I would venture to say everyone involved felt similarly, since it wasn't any one person's artwork you could kind of write it off emotionally and just do whatever you wanted.
Emmett: Keegan, at the time were you making paintings that. I know now some of your paintings are figurative and have that care free cartoonish almost surreal feeling to it. Which is kind of what ray was doing with some of his paintings and they kind of come together with the exquisite corpses. Do you think those influenced where you are now or do you think that was a merging of both you and Ray have in common?
Keegan: I don’t think that they have informed where I am now. I have always been painting. I was painting while I was working for Ray. I think that what was really nice about the exquisite corpses was that I could make paintings without any of my own baggage. I could make automatic paintings. I had these lines that Ray had drawn on the board and then I would just at a certain point, especially at the end when it was more free, I would just start painting without knowing what it was going to be. We would just take the tube and squirt paint on the board. I don’t think they have anything to do with my own painting but it was a way for me to make paintings in a way that I didn’t have to be self-aware or worried because no matter what they were going to work.
The first ones all came from Picasso images. We had a bunch of your Picasso books that we were just flipping through.
Ray: There are 29 in total and Keegan and I did 14 and there were 15 where we collaborated. Getting back to what he was saying. You just squirt the paint out of the tube. You’re doing something you wouldn’t normally do. Just exactly what Keegan said of his relationship to those paintings, kind of related and kind of not related. I feel exactly the same way. I feel like I'm related but I’m also not related to them.
I think the thing that makes them incredibly magical when I look at them is the fact that I know everybody and I know the gesture, the hand, the intention on every single one of those panels it’s the whole composite of the thing. I think we were all somebody else already.
Eamon: And there’s this anonymity inherent in that thing
Mariana: And you’re creating a character also.
Keegan: You also set that up. that’s part of the history of your practice. You’ve been making exquisite corpses in different variations since the 80s
Ray: Since the early 90s
Keegan: This is how an exquisite corpse is supposed to be made, with other people, so it makes sense that it would fluidly thrive on that when you have a certain energy of assistants and people. The main thing is we’re all friends and we became friends. Eamon is my brother, Nik is a friend from school, and Ray and I became friends through working together.
Keegan: I think the way an exquisite corpse works, at least for me, is that it takes a little bit. They always work, some are better than others, but even when they don’t work at all they’re still really good. The fact that it’s not just you and it’s not just your decisions that you can break down or start to make sense of why you did what. The kind of painting I did on those things I would never do in my own painting. I was so happy that I had this collaborative thing where are the pressure was off.
I think that is the key to those paintings. It’s not about what you would do. It’s much less precious than if you were making your own painting.
Ray: It’s really liberating. For me it was very liberating.
Eamon: I didn’t even feel like a painter, I mean I’m not a painter, I don’t make paintings and even making those it felt really fluid in a way. I remember feeling like, oh I can make these, just punch a bunch of paint on and start at it and make some shit. It didn’t feel precious whatsoever and in a way, it was just very enabling to the point where I felt totally competent to make paintings even though I don’t make paintings.
Ray: My feeling about it was that if we made a lot of them it would confuse the shit out of us even further and that then it would make this really large body, which would then have to deal with it and I gotta say when we hung them all together and everything it was there. You could see that and it was there. But again, it was like a composite exquisite corpse. It wasn’t just one exquisite corpse. It was thirty fucking exquisite corpses exquisite corpsing with each other. So, know it was like the whole thing had become an extravaganza. That’s the way that I see this work now, as an extravaganza that was beyond.
Mariana: It was everything that was at that studio at that time. It was like the sculptures in the middle with the walls plastered all the exquisite corpses then even like the band set up in the corner. It was a circus in there.
Emmett: How did this inclusive approach feed into other bodies of work, the table drawings for example?
Ray: There were several things that I wanted to do. I had thought of a series of cartoons, for instance, and then one day I came in and they kept writing on the tables and then the writing composed itself in so many different ways I thought that’s exactly the kind of drawing I want. Make it look like bathroom graffiti. They were doing that at Cooper Union throughout the whole time.
Emmett: That’s one thing that I think is interesting. Mariana told me that Keegan was actually doing graffiti in bathrooms around that time and incorporated it into a piece at Cooper.
Ray: It just sort of spontaneously fell into making the table drawings. Nik's drawings are the ones that make everybody else draw. Everybody was responding to everybody else’s drawings.
Eamon: Since the drawing is a drop cloth on a table with a sharpie you don’t feel any reservation about doing something that’s funny or sexual or political.
Ray: There were certain drawings that were really haunting on the first pieces of plywood, one of the tables. That one had this one drawing that Nik did of this girl on her knees begging for something but, you know, it was just so perverse. She’s kneeling and it think she’s saying “please daddy” or something like that”. It’s really awful, I mean it’s a really beautiful drawing but it’s also horribly awful. It’s fucked up, in other words.
Emmett: A lot of your work, sculptures, paintings, drawings have nude women in them but they’re all erotic or funny. There’s an element of humor. It’s not overtly sexual. It’s more sensual. Being surrounded by that work, all these dudes that are in college seeing that maybe you gave them permission to fantasize in this weird way.
Ray: I think that they had been doing it already. I mean, Nik is perverse. Nik is definitely perverse.
Mariana: Boys will be boys.
Ray: It did become a club even though there were a lot of women that made drawings at these things. Catherine Kerr for instance, did some really great drawings on one of them called “boyfriends”. The girls can be just as bad. The thing would get a tone. Somehow the drawing would get a tone to itself and there was some kind of goofy logic as to what it was about. There’s no gravity to it. There's not one end top or bottom or side because you’re working around a table so everything is being done from the perspective of the person who is drawing on the table, whatever angle they’re at.
Nik: In a good way I think the energy of that studio was rather untethered. There was really no "wrong" or "too far". I think after we had cycled through the more common puerile drawings and caricatures we realized we needed to dive deeper if we were to fill the space of the paper. I think the same sentiment that drove me to write polemical, political slogans was what spurred me to push the envelope on content.
Keegan: The table thing is something that, Nik myself and our friends, have always done. In our apartments, we always had tables we were drawing on. That just naturally turned into drawings on paper. That was when they became aestheticized. Before it was just about making things that looked funny. They usually end up being kind of raunchy.
Ray: Nik was the guy that guided us all to evil. He is the dirty fucker here
Eamon: But again, there is the anonymity of not knowing who did what so in a way that’s what comes out of it. You’re not taking ownership of anything. Kind of like the exquisite corpse.
Keegan: That anonymity, maybe this is contrary to the whole point of this conversation but that is actually something that I really liked about the way we were making these things. We all needed the work so were thrilled to work for a guy who was our friend who was fun to work with who was going to be open to letting weird shit happen and be completely loose. I’ve worked for plenty of artists. Most artists aren’t secure enough in what they’re doing to let that element of chance and that lack of control come into their studio or their work. That is the thing that is most noteworthy about it. It’s all rays work. I’ve always felt that way and I still feel that way.
Ray: Well, thank you but at the same time it was a way of letting go so precisely the thing that you’re talking about. If I had always wanted to be able to be surprised by these things being made then this was the perfect way of being surprised. All of those table drawings, I was always amused by going to restaurants were there were a bunch of cartoons on the wall and you had no fucking clue whose they were.
Nik: Of course, only the people involved would ever really know who drew what and so there was a sense of anonymity too. This relates back to the whole exquisite corpse. It allowed me to don a mask in a way and just let the ideas and feelings flow.
Eamon: It’s just a thing to do to pass time
Keegan: It comes out of a casualness. The nature of the drawing is conversational. It’s not somebody coming down and saying let’s make a drawing. You’re sitting down, shooting the shit and having a conversation and while you’re doing that you’re doodling. Essentially those drawings are just really maximal doodles. A huge collection of doodles.
Ray: ...and the conversations would enter the drawings.
Eamon: It becomes a document of whatever the hell is going on at the studio at the time.
Emmett: A lot of the elements in table drawings are things that are in a lot of Ray's work. Sexuality, politics, surreal imagery. That anonymity but also rays carefree attitude seemed to take it to the next level when you were all working together. It’s violently political, then hyper sexual; A bunch of dicks and women on their hands and knees.
Keegan: Those drawings were made during the Occupy Wall street time and Nik was really involved in that. And there was definitely this social climate amongst our friends, everyone was ill at ease. There were all these overt political slogans in those drawings.
Nik: I would have all these slogans and thoughts in my head from a march or a rally or just talking to people at the park. When I sat down to draw it was just natural that the energy spilled over. I think I also took a bizarre pleasure in thinking these anti-establishment ramblings would somehow render the work unsellable. It felt good to make blanket statements that people would have to agree with or vehemently disagree with.
Keegan: There are a lot of things in there I’m uncomfortable with. It’s a weird thing because those drawings are the result of a total lack of a filter. There is no filter on those drawings and that’s the point
Ray: The lack of a filter evolved into everything.
Eamon: I think you and I are friends because we share a similar sensibility of not caring about that shit and making a conscious effort to push the envelope and say “This is uncomfortable or weird but if I insist on it maybe it’s something”.
I think that’s why the studio worked the way it did. We all had different sensibilities and we’re going to indulge in different things but all of us have a similar attitude about being open to a ton of shit like that. No one is going to say “that’s off limits, don’t do that”
Emmett: So this way of working lasted for about five years. Was hurricane Sandy the thing that ended this period in the studio?
Keegan: Yeah it was Sandy. I think it pretty much was sandy. Eamon had to leave and work was slowing down and Nik left.
Mariana: You guys had just worked so hard it was like how much more could we do? It was five years! You guys were ready for a show!
Ray: And it didn’t happen because of Sandy
Nik: Rays studio looked completely trashed. It was very sad. I ended up staying in LA. Losing all my possessions in the flood definitely felt symbolic as an end of my time in NYC.
Mariana: It’s crazy to see those paintings now all of these years later too because they kind of got tucked away. I get super nostalgic seeing them
Ray: So, the thing is that the body of work was finished or pretty close to being finished except for one painting and that one did get seriously damaged. As a matter of fact, it was hanging on the walls when Sandy hit.
Mariana: It’s like also you weren’t focusing on doing shows at the time because the show was in the studio. This is the fucking show. The studio is the show.
Ray: The studio was the show but then it went down. I wanted to show those paintings but because of the fact that sandy had hit. For a while we thought it was all gone.
Keegan: Something that I think is cool about the work that’s going to be in the show is that in a sense it feels authorless in a way. It doesn’t feel like it would be right to attach one person’s name to it. Somehow, it’s about the fact that it wasn’t one person who made it. It’s not about who made it because it’s not about anybody’s specific decisions. The way I feel about those paintings is that I have any convictions on what I painted in those paintings. its more about having an open space to not worry about having those convictions. I think that’s why they’re unique and I think the table drawings are a little different because those truly are authorless. We couldn’t name all the people on there even if we tried.
Emmett: it captures the whole essence of the studio
Ray: I was extremely proud of them the moment that we did them. When they were up on the wall I just thought this a just a major exhibition. But then it got hit by sandy.
Mariana: We said “did we lose this?” and then because of those parties, because of those drawings the people that were in and out I feel like that’s how we were able to recover.
Ray: Everybody came and volunteered to help rebuild us out of the place. So, a lot of people started showing up that cleaned up the joint just because of the way that I guess the place had been. So, all of the work got saved by the energy that the studio generated. I used to always say, “this is the best time I’ve ever had in my studio”. When everybody was in there and we were fucking around all the time.
Keegan: Sometimes it’s more important to have the feeling of your studio be the main thing you’re trying to develop rather than the specific image of what the work is. It’s like one and the same. The work is about letting those things happen. The better way to put it is it’s a result of letting those things happen.
Ray: To me it’s all of it. To me it’s the fact that you guys would practice there, that everybody was doing the table drawings all these different things, the parties, hanging out in the front yard with everybody showing up for steaks or whatever. All of that was really special shit.