Artist Nic Rad On His Media Portraits, "PeopleMatter"

Nell Alk

Williamsburg-based artist Nic Rad's new exhibition "PeopleMatter," at Rare Gallery in Chelsea, includes a collection of portraits that capture media's Grand-Canyon-sized spectrum. Featuring portraits of media personalities who disseminate everything from groundbreaking global news, like Anderson Cooper, to bubblegum gossip, like Perez Hilton, (Joseph Pulitzer and P. Diddy also occupy seemingly equal real estate in the show), it's clear Rad believes that one group is no more laudable than the other.

The first thing you see upon walking into Rad's show is a "pay wall," which represents content that comes with a price tag (i.e., subscription-based periodicals) and examines what types of media are "worth" forking over for. There's also a give-away wall -- a portion of the room dedicated to 99 works that, come April 29th, will be up for grabs to the public.

Rad recently set aside some time to discuss media cliques, being "unbelievably biased," and what will happen when two people try to snag the same painting.

Tell me about "PeopleMatter."
'PeopleMatter' is 99 portraits of bloggers, journalists, media personalities and "info-lebrities." On April 29th, I'll be giving them [all] away. To people who reserve them, people who come to the show, people who hear about it and lobby to get one. Throughout the month, I'll allow people to debate who should be in the grouping and take other people out. 

How did this idea come about?
The last 18 months I've been thinking of an industry and trying to make a portrait of a period in time. That's journalism. The structure is kind of inverted at the moment and what "free" means is fascinating, between who writes for blogs and gives away their content to generate traffic and who's behind the pay wall. And what that means.

Though "PeopleMatter" opened on April 3rd, the exhibit will morph over the course of the month.
Up until April 29th, [portraits] will be swapped in and out. It takes me about a day to a day-and-a-half to make a portrait. So, as often as I can, and as long as it's exciting and relevant, I plan to make changes. On one particular day, one of these writers or public figures or "media whores," or whatever you want to call certain people, may influence me more than somebody who's dedicated their life to serious journalism. And that's as much a reflection on me as it is on them as a content provider.

Some of these portraits were pitched to you by subjects -- "I should be included in the exhibit because XYZ." Have you rejected pitches?
Very rarely directly. I'm interested in the psychology of making connections with people. The social strata. When you're outside the industry and you only loosely and tangentially know these people, based on their digital presence, you don't necessarily have a sense of how truly raw these connections can be, and how human. Or why someone gets hired or works for somebody else. To me, it's about human interaction, personal psychology. And that's what I want my criteria to be for why I paint people. It's unbelievably biased.

You paint based off of photos from the Internet, correct? You don't have anyone sit for you?
Yeah. A lot of times, I've painted a person before I've met them. It's very interesting to then see a person in reality and decide, 'Have I captured any likeness?' What I'm interested in is the psychology. What I think about this person. It's very narcissistic. I think a good portrait does honor to the subject. That doesn't mean flattering necessarily.

How many of your subjects do you know personally?
Around 20 percent I've met, but increasingly growing based on [the project.] I went to a Gawker party, for example, and I probably met ten people associated with this project. So, all of a sudden, folks that I'd never met, I did. Rex [Sorgatz of Wired] said the other night that the media circle is cliquey, but it's the easiest clique to access, because they want you there. If you want to come, you can. The parties are always going on. It's cliquey in that it always meets together, but they're not trying to keep anyone out.

What prompted including 99 portraits and not 100?
It feels like there's one more to drop. You need one more. Sort of a prompt number, a number they use in retail to try to convince you. It compels me. What's the next thing that's coming?

What happens if someone reserves one of the portraits and then theirs (particularly if it's of themselves) is bumped to the pay wall?
That's what I'm interested in. The pay wall is not the worst thing. The idea that your portrait is worth something. When you're giving something away, what are the costs? It's something writers and bloggers think about all the time. Should I do this to get recognition? Or do I need to get paid? I don't know and am nervous about those decisions. But that's the goal -- to put myself in the same spot a lot of these individuals are in. I create objects that require high income to acquire. Why do I do what I do? Is it because I think I'm going to sell it? Why am I doing this versus other possible careers? If you weren't rewarded for what you're doing, would you do it? What's the value of my time and effort if it has nothing to do with money?

On the topic of money, people who might not otherwise be able to afford your work can potentially take something home. Are you worried about disputes over the same painting?
If somebody reserves a painting of a person who wants it, and it's of them, I'd love to see that debate. 'Shouldn't I get my own image?!' [Laughs.]

Give me a rundown of close-of-show details. How will this wrap?
April 29th the work will be given away. Anyone who's reserved a portrait has to show up April 29th, otherwise, the next week, I give it to anybody.

Kind of cheeky!
I'm excited to see what happens. I'm constantly questioning. I think artists always have to ask themselves if there's a value to what they're doing. And, if there isn't, if it doesn't generate conversation, if nobody cares, then, 'What's my next step?' I may fail this entirely. I find that very exciting, but so far so good.

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