Inch by Inch—the Pop Art of Randal Huiskens

While the layperson might get excited about the retro-glam subject matter of Randal Huiskens’ paintings—movie stars, sports heroes, musicians and politicians—the art expert is likely to focus on the paint work. Randal Huiskens is a Chicago area Pop artist whose principal medium is acrylic paint on canvas. His latest works are a series of paintings in a style called neo-divisionism. By applying paint in a way that is unrelated to the actual subject of the painting, in this case, 1” x 1” squares, the painting goes beyond representation—and into the realm of energetic interpretation.

Huiskens says he’s been drawing since he learned to write, and began to study art seriously while in high school. He was chosen for the first Michigan Summer Institute for Gifted Students on the campus of Michigan State University in 1982 and enrolled in the MSU Art program shortly thereafter. In 1987 one of his paintings won the first place award in the Undergraduate Art Exhibition. The following year, he was awarded a Teachers Scholarship in the Field Of Painting. He obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1988 with an emphasis in painting.

Finding his work accessible and appealing, and neo-divisionism fascinating, I was happy to be able to connect with Huiskens this week for a USR Q&A. As I gained insight into his process I also learned quite a bit about Pop Art in the 21st century.

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Knauf: Forgive me for starting with this slightly gauche question, but as artists, it’s usually our number one concern and I wanted to get it over with—are you able to create art full time or is there a “day job”? 

Huiskens: I am a full time artist with no other “day job.” After graduating from art school, I bounced around for quite a while, working many different jobs and playing in punk rock bands. I eventually settled down and became a website designer, but I continued painting throughout. In the last decade I have been able to transition out of having another occupation.

Knauf: Okay, the punk rock bands stopped me. I don’t want to stray from the subject too far, but what were the names of the bands? I’m curious! And what instrument did you play? 

Huiskens: I played drums. The band names were bands you’ve probably never heard of . . . The Blunt Objects, Just Say No, and names I can’t mention in civilized company. . . . There were a ton of DYI punk bands around the country when I finished school, and I was in some of them. Some people backpack through Europe when they finish school, I traveled around in punk bands.

Knauf: Drums? Cool. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity. Okay, back to painting. Was there a definite transition point in being a full-time artist or did it just happen gradually?

Huiskens: It seemed somewhat gradual, but there was a definite transition point. I was still doing the sort of painting I had done in Art school—I had studied so much art history about Impressionism, Post Impressionism and the beginning of Modern Art that I was still stuck in that time period, as far as my painting was concerned. And I was doing that sort of painting, but not really selling anything, so I had to keep my day job. Then, I decided to break away from what I thought I was supposed to be doing, and just paint what I really wanted to paint. And after a short time of doing this, I had an epiphany. I had become a Pop artist. It wasn’t a conscious decision to be a Pop Artist; I still feel I am a painter first, Pop artist second. I hadn’t done any of the Pop Art Portraits yet. But I looked at my most recent work and realized that it was Pop Art, and rather than resist that, I should embrace being a Pop Artist. It was then my work began to sell on a regular basis, and I became a full time artist.

Knauf: What is your process with your Pop Art paintings? 

Huiskens: As far as actually creating the paintings, the process is quite time consuming. The paintings are created “inch by inch . . .” that is, I isolate squares on the canvas and paint each one as if it is its own individual painting, and once I have covered the entire canvas, the image emerges. I wish I could say I invented this technique, but it is actually based on the recent paintings of Chuck Close. Of course my work looks very little like his work; it was basically just a starting point upon which to expand.

Knauf: Where do you gather your inspiration, how do you decide on a subject, and when do you do your work?

Huiskens: One of my favorite quotes, coincidentally, is from the afore-mentioned Mr. Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s not to say that I don’t feel inspired and that drives me to complete my work, but I wake every day and just get to it. I have a catalog of future paintings in my head at all times, and it comes down to the choice of which one to do next. I basically work every day, from about 5 A. M. to about 5 P. M., and it is just a process of continually moving things along.

The decision of the subject is usually based on something I have seen or thought about, and can be quite random from day to day. It is a balance of what painting problems I want to address next, what subject has caught my attention, and how fulfilled I feel I will be by the finished piece. On some days, I feel like I want to tackle something very difficult, with lots of interesting problems to deal with, at other times I just want to create a painting that is free from too many problems and will just be a striking image.

Knauf: Why does most of your work focus on the eras 1950s-early ’70s? Do these paintings show your personal favorites in pop culture, music, science, sports from that time? 

Huiskens: It is not really a conscious choice. I think that era has a lot of style and lends itself to my style of Pop Art. There is a combination retro hip and nostalgia that makes the work more striking as well. A magazine cover from today doesn’t have as much personality as a magazine cover from 1953. In 1953, the photo image was the most prominent feature. Today, a magazine cover is a confusing mass of text with a photo peeking through. And a lot of the images were originally in black and white—I like the idea of taking images that have only been seen in black and white and presenting them in full color.

Knauf: I love that you brought up magazine covers. So true; we are bombarded with text on the covers today—the images are usually secondary.

Huiskens: Another attraction to that era is that the celebrities were more distinctive. There are some distinctive celebrities today, but I find more and more that I can’t tell one leading man or leading lady from another. In that earlier era, there were some pretty interesting faces. Everybody had some sort of distinctive quality. And yes, I am sure that it has to do with a reflection of the culture I grew up in. I’m not quite that old, but that lagging 20-year nostalgia cycle put this era in the forefront of my formative years.

Knauf: Another wonderful observation on actors. Many look so similar; I think Chris Helmsworth and Charlie Hunnam look very similar; others have said that Renee Zellweger’s plastic surgery turned her into a Robin Wright/Kelly Lynch type—and she had such an amazing, lovely face. I was a bit heartbroken. Speaking of lovely faces, it seems like Marilyn Monroe is a favorite subject—can you tell us about that? You’ve also done more Clint Eastwood paintings than any other actor—would you care to comment on that?

Huiskens: Well, Cezanne had his apple, and Pop Artists have Marilyn Monroe. Andy Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe helped to cement her as a central figure in Pop Art, and since then, Pop artists have used her image as a central figure in many subsequent works. Whenever I want to try a new technique, such as when I first started experimenting with iridescent paint, I usually experiment with an image of Marilyn Monroe. She is my apple, my bowl of fruit, or whatever image an artist wishes to hang his experimentation on. Beyond that, she is one of the most recognizable figures of the twentieth century, she is beautiful, and she always yields a beautiful work of art.

As far as Clint Eastwood is concerned, I find his face always yields interesting results. When painting square by square, the “Clint squint” suggests unique little areas that are as interesting in themselves as the entire painting ends up being.

Knauf: What do you feel is the artist’s role in society?

Huiskens: The hand of the artist is all around us in many ways, so I think the artist’s role differs from artist to artist. There are those who feel that artists should be a force for social change, but then are you an artist or a propagandist? I’m not that interested in fine art that promotes social causes . . . that’s why we have political cartoonists.

Others believe that art should uplift and inspire. . . . . I’m a bit closer to that idea, but it still doesn’t describe how I feel. I think artists should do the best they can to take the raw materials they work with and transform them into something more valuable. The value is imparted by how much someone else is attracted to, inspired, or otherwise affected by the art. In this way, they contribute to the growth of the wealth of society. Anybody who constructs something does the same, a machinist, a factory worker, or a baker. But where they make something that has a tangible physical benefit, art inherently does not. So it has to reach people in some other way. A baker who bakes bread must make sure his bread tastes good, or he has wasted his materials. In the same sense, the art that I create also has to “taste” good. Someone has to want it. It has to nourish something in them.

Knauf: How did art begin for you in life?

Huiskens: I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. . . . I was learning to draw as I was learning to write. It was pretty clear from the time I started school that I was going to be some kind of artist. I remember when I was in third grade, I made a book of drawings that I copied from other artist’s works . . . cartoon drawings, whatever I thought someone might be interested in. I took the book to school and took orders for drawings for 3 cents apiece. Then I would go home that night, recopy each drawing that was ordered and deliver them the next day. I was getting orders for 5 or 6 drawings a day at one point. Later, in sixth grade, I was allowed to post a daily comic book that I drew every day on the bulletin board that the students could read once they completed their school work.

Knauf: What a wonderful, nurturing school! I love that. Do you still draw frequently or have an interest in comics?

Huiskens: As an artist, I draw all the time, but I don’t really draw comics anymore. I was publishing some comic work online, but I removed it from the Web and decided to focus entirely on painting. At one point when I was a youth, my main artistic goal was to be a comic book artist. I was really into Marvel Silver Age comics . . . early Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and others. Anything drawn by Jack Kirby, John Buscema, or Gene Colan. These comics, like the magazine covers mention earlier, were released before my time, but I had amassed quite a collection of these older comics. That was back in the days when older people would find an old stack of comics in their basement from their youth and give them to kids like me. I also had comics from the 1950s, including a number of original EC Comics. They would be worth a fortune now, but I wasn’t a collector. My brother and I read them until they fell apart.

But Marvel Silver Age was my main interest. This was the original era of Pop Art, the 1960s, when Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were the rage, and this was reflected back into the comics. There was a period when Marvel Comics even called themselves “Marvel Pop Art Productions.” And they had an artist named Jim Steranko who incorporated Pop Art techniques into the comics, so it was sort of a back-and-forth relationship between comics and Pop Art at the time. Lichtenstein was painting large comic panels and showing them in galleries, and comic artists were borrowing from what they saw in galleries and putting that into the comics.

But today’s comic books are nothing like that comics of the 1960s, and I really don’t have any interest in them. The artwork is great, but I find the dialogue and story-telling to be a bit pedantic. I moved on to Underground comics, especially work by Robert Crumb. His comics are about the only comics I read these days.

Knauf: I can see why I’m so attracted to your work, Randal. I’m a comic book fan from childhood too, and I love Robert Crumb’s work. What’s your favorite fine art work?

Huiskens: It’s hard to pinpoint an actual piece, but I have always loved the Matisse painting “Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground (1926).” It has a lot of energy and a flourish of color, but at the same time everything is rigidly locked in place. The lines of the painting form a large X across the entire painting, and the placement of the figure and the cushion create a secondary set of crossing lines, one parallel to the right side of the canvas and one parallel to the bottom edge of the canvas. The figure occupies and entirely fills the triangle that is created by these intersecting lines. A very clever work.

Knauf: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

Huiskens: I sold a painting to a patron in Florida who told me an interesting story about it. The painting was of Chuck Close, the afore-mentioned artist, and this fellow worked in the service industry and had, on several occasions, had the opportunity to serve and receive tips from Chuck Close. And he said Mr. Close was a generous tipper. He used that money to buy the painting, so the money he received from Chuck Close paid for his painting of Chuck Close.

Another memorable response was from Dana Perino, the former White House Press secretary. I did a painting of her dog, Jasper, and she held it up on national TV and stated how much she loved it.

Knauf: Those are great stories. And now I know who Jasper is—I wondered, when I saw that painting, if it was your dog. Do you have any interesting hobbies that relate to your art?

Huiskens: I don’t really have any current hobbies. When I consider time for a hobby, I feel I might as well be painting. I’d rather be doing that than anything else.

I do like to cook, and for a while had pursued gourmet cooking as a hobby. I have cooked for gourmet clubs and some large events of about 200 people. Cooking is an art, and I liked the challenge of trying to master many cooking techniques.

And there is music as well. After many years of touring in bands, I still work on musical projects. Of course, the days of traveling around the country in a van are over for me. I have a home studio where I occasionally write and record music. In addition to drums, I also play keyboards. With the voices on today’s keyboards you can mimic almost any instrument. This pursuit, however, like the gourmet cooking, has been entirely relegated to minor hobby status these days . . . I am now focused entirely on my art career, so I don’t do it very often anymore. I still do the cooking, but just for myself and family members, because one does have to eat.

Knauf: Name three artists you’d like to be compared to, Randal.

Huiskens: The obvious comparison is, once again, Chuck Close. Where Picasso’s work would not have existed without the influence of Cezanne, my current work would not exist without the influence of Chuck Close. And that comparison has been made, but with the qualifier that I have pursued my own direction based on his work.

Another comparison I’d like to see would be to compared in some way to any of the Zen Master Calligraphers such as Kasumi Bunsho or [Nakahara] Nantenbo. Of course, my work looks nothing like their work, but there is no question that there is a prominent Zen-like quality to the brush work in my paintings.

And finally, I would have to say Andy Warhol. Unlike many of today’s Pop Artists, Andy Warhol did not add in any messaging or personal statements within the artwork, he merely presented us with the image. When presenting us with Marilyn Monroe or with a tomato soup can, he did not editorialize on them; he just said “here they are.” His art was more like a mirror than a personal statement. My art is similar in that respect. I present the subject in a similar way, making no further editorial statement about it.

Knauf: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given as an artist?

Huiskens: To stop focusing on still life paintings. I had been focusing on still life paintings for many years, as I liked the fact that I could set up whatever painting problems and lighting issues I wanted to address. And one of my favorite artists, Cezanne, was known for his still life paintings, so I thought it was a good area for me to explore. But I didn’t really understand that most people weren’t interested in what I thought was an interesting painting problem realized in a still life painting. It was shortly after this that I discarded this approach and freed myself up to paint whatever I wanted. It naturally evolved very quickly into Pop Art from that point.

Knauf: Professionally, what’s your goal?

Huiskens: To be the most widely recognized Pop artist of the 21st century. No, seriously, if you’re going to aim for something, why not aim high? Of course, I have some incredible competition—Pop artist Ron English has set quite a high bar, and he does incredible work. And Shepard Fairey is known the world over, so I have a lot of catching up to do to even come close to that. Of course, a more realistic and practical goal is just to be able to continue making a living through my art. I would like to achieve some gallery representation and achieve a pricing structure that would allow me to not have to work over 50 hours a week. Of course, I probably would still work that much, but I could then focus on more ambitious projects.

Knauf: What sorts of projects?

Huiskens: I have some art pieces and/or series of art projects in mind that are on a bit grander scale than the Pop Art Portraits I have been doing. But they will require massive amounts of time. I would like to have the time to work on them without having to continually be focused on the sales portion of my business.

Knauf: How does your work differ from the other Pop artists you’ve mentioned? What sets you apart?

Huiskens: Except for Andy Warhol, my work is a world apart from theirs. Most Pop artists are concerned with the messaging in the work. Ron English, for example, is a superb painter, but his work is not about painting, it is almost entirely focused on what is being painted, and the “reflection of society,” or whatever, that he wishes to communicate. The fact that he can paint well is just a given, and his work is not “about” that. My work is almost entirely “about” painting. The subject is secondary to the exploration of paint on a canvas. My art is really more of a modern expressionist type of art that happens to use Pop images as the subject. Fine Art and Pop Art have long been at odds with each other; Pop Art being the ugly step-child of fine art. But Pop Art is the most accessible, and I believe, most important art, at this point early in the 21st century. If you look at our culture, we are entirely Pop-obsessed. . . . The average person has little time to decipher abstract explorations of brush-strokes on a canvas if they don’t immediately mean something to him. And few people want art that has to be explained to them. The Fine Art world is currently in a state where the average person looks at a copy of Art News and thinks, “why is this important? I don’t get it.” In this sense I am trying to create a type of Pop Art that merges these abstract qualities of Fine Art painting and exploration with the accessible subject matter of Pop Art. Most Pop Art is about society. My Pop Art is about Art.

Knauf: Thank you for going into that, Randal. That is what speaks to me in your work. I like accessibility and strong, stirring images, and I’m also fascinated by the brush work. As far as the criticisms of Pop Art, well, in my book, that’s another type of snobbery. Not that we are going down that road, but I felt like making that statement. How do you manage balancing work/life?

Huiskens: Unfortunately, not very well. I am a workaholic and work nearly constantly. I rise at about 4 A. M. every morning and work until evening. I relax for a couple hours at the end of the day and go to bed early. But a lot of that is because when I’m done working for the day, I can’t wait to get back to work. I do take a day off once in a while, and a vacation every year or so, but I get really uncomfortable when a day or two goes by and I haven’t done any work.

Knauf: And our final question—what do you like most about your career?

Huiskens: That I am doing what I always planned to be doing, from when I was a child. And that I never have to worry about retiring, because artists never retire. Many people take up painting when they retire . . . I’m already doing it.

Knauf: Thank you so much, Randal. 


Randal Huiskens