Ted McGrath is originally from the Philadelphia area but has become a Brooklyn fixture over the last decade plus. He has exhibited works at institutions like Cinders Gallery, Calico, and Black Ball Projects and he’s performed music under the moniker The Flag in venues like Death By Audio, Silent Barn, and Shea Stadium to name a few.
You may recognize him from behind the bar at The Diamond though he now works full-time as an art director for MTV, while working nights and weekends in his studio, a small but sunny room in a factory building next to the Pulaski Bridge.
I recently stopped by for a visit to see his latest work, some of which was created for a solo exhibition at Current Space in Baltimore.
Greenpointers: You use a large mix of mediums in your work: oil, spray paint, house paint, graphite, crayon… How does your process unfold? Do you give yourself any parameters in regards to your mediums?
Ted McGrath: Parameters, no, not really. I’m primarily trying to set up as many moments of engagement or conflict as possible between myself, the materials, and the surface. Frequently changing up the materials, layering them quickly, trying to get something unexpected happening so that I’m completely focused and totally off balance at all times. A series of planned crises, I’m mopping one up while staging the next.
Some of your work is very abstract while some works are iconic and graphic, eg. representations of figures or objects like “Sphynx” or “Fantastic Black Police Car”… What inspires you? Do the more abstract works come from a different area of your imagination than the more figurative works?
It all comes from the same place, definitely, and I think the most successful pieces are those where things get kinda blurry. I work from a constantly expanding sort of lexicon or repertoire of forms and gestures, the ones that really sing are the ones that end up in combinations that are surprising even to me. I’ve lately been a little more excited by the more figurative end of that spectrum, letting more editorial or narrative suggestions in. But that said, it’s like they’re actors, this or that shape or gesture that recurs isn’t always playing the same role or delivering the same lines in every painting.
Working full-time as an art director at MTV, how do you balance your “day job” with your work as a painter? What advice would you have to a young painter trying to pay his or her bills while living in New York City?
I mean, I’m still figuring that out for sure. I try to be as disciplined as possible and hit the studio every night after work, and I definitely spend a lot of time there on the weekends. That repetition and routine is really good for me, and I’m not so easily frustrated as I used to be, like, if things aren’t immediately sparking when I get in there.
In terms of advice, I think I just barely, maybe, got that balance situation sorted out. If anything, hokey as it sounds, I think it’s true that if you take care of the work, the work will ultimately take care of you. “
You’ve lived in Greenpoint and held a studio in Greenpoint for many years… What’s your favorite thing about Greenpoint? What’s an average Saturday for you in the neighborhood?
I’ve lived in Greenpoint since late 2002, I’ve definitely seen it go thru some major changes. That said, there’s still a very classic “neighborhood” vibe to it that I seldom encounter elsewhere in the city that I’ve always loved about the place, somehow it still feels sort of remote and at least partially insulated against the levels of development and homogenization going on in Williamsburg for example.
A typical Saturday usually starts with breakfast at home, then either getting together with some folks early on at Achilles Heel for for some kind of pre-studio snack/coffee/cocktail combination and then getting to work, or scouring the amazing glut of great record shops in the area, Academy, Co-Op, Captured Tracks, and lately the incredible recent addition Come Again.
Playing under the moniker The Flag, how does performing music fit into your creative life? Do you consider making music and making art two different pursuits? Any upcoming gigs?
I find that if I’m not doing both in some capacity I get weird and cranky, although lately the painting to music ratio is more like 70/30. The fine folks at Geographic North out of Atlanta put out the most recent batch of Flag songs last summer, and I took a little bit of a break after the release show. That being said, I feel like that part of brain came back online in March or so and now I have a mountain of unfinished, half-baked chunks of music and beats lying around that I need to hammer into coherent shapes. I don’t really think about them as separate practices, and over the last year they’ve started to inform each other in healthy ways. Next show is September 16th supporting the legendary Gary Wilson at Shea Stadium, really really looking forward to that one.