For our second interview in the lead-up to Young & Free at 941 Geary (opening September 10th), I spoke with Anthony Lister. Outside of Australia, Lister is without a doubt the best-known Australian street artist, and he also helped curate Young & Free. On the surface, his work is pretty simple to describe (mostly loosely painted superheroes), but words can’t convey the energy and passion with which Lister makes art, and there’s a lot more to each image than what first meets the eye. He strikes a difficult balance between high and low brow. Speaking with him, it’s clear that Lister is an intelligent guy who knows his art, but his work is equally accessible to those in the know and teenagers who just want to see cool pictures of tits and superheroes. A few years ago, a friend explained Lister to me something like this, “Anthony can paint with the best of them. His hand is up there with Bacon and all the greats. He just happened to take to using spray cans more than paint brushes.” Lister has blazed a trail in the Australian street art community both with is work and his approach to spreading it. For many, he has been the ambassador of Australian street art. For Young and Free, he continues that role by opening up the floodgates and bringing his friends with him to America.
RJ: Where are you right now?
Lister: I’m in Melbourne, Australia, and I’m in a cab to the airport, to go to Sydney.
RJ: It seems like you’re always traveling. You’ve traveled all around the world and you even lived in New York at one point. What keeps you coming back to Australia?
Lister: Gosh, I don’t know. I go to places that I enjoy where I can be around people that I know, and I enjoy meeting new people, but I guess I just go where I’m invited.
RJ: You’re an extremely energetic guy, and it seems like a lot of that energy goes going creating an immense amount of work. How do you stay so prolific and at that energy level?
Lister: I’m an adventure painter, so I’m trying to break through to the other side. I’m into experiment and development, and I wanna paint for me, so I just have that much inside and I constantly have to be making changes, editing. I feel like I’m only as smart as my last decision; I’m only as good as my last production, so I’m trying to make better paintings than I did yesterday, today.
RJ: What’s an adventure painter?
Lister: There’ve been a lot of adventure painters. Francis Bacon was an adventure painter. Robert Rauchenburg was an adventure painter. Australian adventure painters… Brett Whiley was an adventure painter. This is just a thing, it’s a term to describe the energy involved with the journey which is being a visual practitioner: Conceptually, objectually, subjectually.
RJ: How would you describe Australian street art and graffiti?
Lister: It’s out in the wild over here, okay? It’s the same story, different city. When you travel and you’re involved in say skateboarding or graffiti or fine dining for that matter, these restaurants are in every city. The flavors change because of the style beef that’s there and then it becomes an atmosphere thing. It’s just that: The product of one’s efforts over here has been developed over a different atmosphere, so I’m not sure there’s a definitive difference, but I’m sure there’s definitely talent going into it. It’s a really amazing and wonderful thing that’s going on.
RJ: As you say, there’s a lot of talent in Australia, but I don’t think any Australians were included in Art in the Streets at MOCA? Am I wrong about that?
Lister: Yeah. There were no Australian artists in it. Martha Cooper shot of a photo of me, and I think that was in there, but no artists, no artwork. I feel pretty lucky to be at the forefront of all that, and also that book Beyond The Street, to be the only Australian artist in that 100-artist lineup, so I feel really fortunate.
RJ: You can look at Very Nearly Almost, and those guys are looking at Australian street art, but otherwise it seems to be something that a lot of bloggers, including myself, don’t follow closely enough, and it’s a bit of a shame. There’s a lot of talent out there.
Lister: And as an artist, you have to make an effort too. I’ve been traveling the world for nearly 10 years, and going back to places. It’s not like you just go to Rome once. I go to places and develop relationships. Everyone’s into what everyone else is doing.
RJ: How would you describe the importance, for you, of Young and Free?
Lister: It’s a nice thing to be able to put a package together. This is the Australia package, and I had some involvement in the choice of artists who are going, and I’m really happy to be involved in it. It’s not like anyone’s gone and done it. It’s not like this show would be easy just for a group of artists to put on. It’s a tricky thing, even for a gallery. You’ve got to focus all your energy. It’s reaching a new level. It kinda feels like the way that Futura described to me one day how Jeffrey Deitch flying him and a bunch of dudes over to Japan in the 80’s and doing art and shit and it just being crazy. It’s awesome.
RJ: What’s your relationship with the other artists in Young and Free?
Lister: Yeah, I do know all of them except for maybe one guy, although I don’t know how or why. Ben Frost, Kid Zoom, Sofles, Dabs and Myla, Rone… It’s these guys I’ve been developing relationships with. It’s not like I’ve even just met them once. These are people I’ve been hanging out with for the seven years. Some not so much; some are younger or came from different areas and they’ve just gotten up by the quality of their work. This is a really great, rounded, quality group of artists who are from graffiti, you know, trainpainters to fine artists like myself, and everything in between.
RJ: Definitely. When I first saw the lineup, I was excited because it was pretty much everybody I would have included, plus some guys that I didn’t know, which was great to see. But are their any Australian artists in particular that Vandalog readers should check out who aren’t in the show?
Lister: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of people who aren’t in the show. Real, quality artists. But it’s just one of those things. And what I’m interested in isn’t necessarily what is gonna be better for a particular audience. You know, as a curator you have to consider your audience, an American audience. There’s not a lot of things out there that really turn me on. I see things I like, but when I’m making work, I’m trying to make work that really turns me on. An artist who does that, to drop a name, would be Magnus McTavish. He’s an abstract fellow adventure painter, and there’s so many names here, there’s so many great artists over here. It’s really fun. It’s exciting and fun.
RJ: What have you made for this show?
Lister: I made a painting, and I plan on making a few more paintings and some mask pieces.
RJ: Great. I love the mask pieces. Are there going to be any walls or murals painted for the show?
Lister: Yeah, I believe there are. There’s definitely gonna be installation and site-specific, in-situ pieces being made. It’s getting pretty exciting getting all these people together. A lot of people made work for the show, but a lot of people haven’t, so that’s a part of this whole traveling, in-situ art game right now. It’s a beautiful thing because you really get work that vibrates strongest when you’re making work in-situ. Artists support each other, it’s great. Everyone’s been training for so long. This is really the product of what is great and going on over here right now, and everywhere in the world for that matter. I just came through Berlin. I just came through LA. I just came through London. It’s all really great. Everyone’s really positive and making quality work.
RJ: Speaking of London, you just had a print a Pictures on Walls. Can you describe what the process was like, making work for that show?
Lister: Well for that one, I worked pretty closely with the print team, and I wanted to make sure they were unique. The boss over there was into me taking my time, and we made something beautiful. And the show itself was an extension and a growth of what I’ve been working on. I was really excited. It was really great.
RJ: Thanks Anthony.