In Conversation With: Scott Abrams

Scott Abrams is a Florida-based artist who incorporates nonsense and randomness into abstract mixed-media paintings in order to explore our relationships with iconography, language, and the ways we associate humor with conflict. The result is an idiosyncratic world where pseudo-animals, phrases, and raw materials exchange in conversations that are equal parts strange, playful, and sometimes offensively childish. 

His current and ongoing series of works, Ain’t No Sense in Sense, painted on unstretched rolls of linen with oil, spray paint, and various other materials, is his latest exploration of these elements. 

Emerald Arguelles: Can you discuss your first introduction to the arts?

Scott Abrams: Depending on how we classify the arts, this would have to be as far back as I can recall. The arts to me have always been about creating. I had a lot of friends as a child and we always made stuff, every possible thing: drawings, building things, making games, it went on and on. 

We had a running joke in kindergarten about making “masterpieces,” which were basically scribbles. No idea where we learned this word, “masterpiece.” Though the mother of one of my friends, as it turned out, did teach painting a few years later (though I chose to play soccer) on Saturday mornings. So honestly I don’t think there was any real introduction, the arts were always just a part of things.

EA: Who has inspired you?

SA: So many people have inspired me, but I’ll focus on one thread, which I know was impactful. My grandmother Lilly—my mother’s mother—had a big influence on my early life. In her roundabout way, her most hopeful dream was that I might become a writer. There was a relative on her side who was successful in advertising in Manhattan but on the side had written a fiction book which he signed and gave her and she kept on a shelf in her apartment. She talked about him a decent bit and somehow planted the seed that a person could become a writer and that maybe that person could be me. After bludgeoning myself with alcohol for a few years as a teenager, at 19 I picked up this thread and ran with it. I began to read and kept notebooks with the purpose of becoming a writer. 

EA: Where does your background in writing and your paintings intersect?

SA: I’m not quite sure, to be honest. From age 19 to 28, my intent was certainly to be a writer. But at 28 I did spend a summer teaching myself how to paint. I enjoyed it a lot, but there was enormous pressure on me to make a living, and neither writing nor painting was going to provide that. 

Two decades passed. At that point in my late forties, after selling some land, I had the notion to become a writer again. I finally had a little time and a little less pressure. But it wasn’t taking. Then some idea I gleaned from a book on conceptual art compelled me to rent a studio. For the first year, I pretty much wrote on canvas with a black marker. Then, about a year ago, I made a conscious effort to turn my back on words, to make image-driven work instead. Nonetheless, it would be surprising to think I would ever lose that foundation in writing and literature that I started with. So the answer is at some level they must intersect all the time.

EA: Is there freedom in the childlike space that you create in your work?

SA: I hope so. I mean, yes, there certainly is for me. There is something about that space, prior to the teen years, that does seem immensely free. It was a time for me to become aware of the world. Every time I get myself into the mood to think about that space, to daydream my way into it, it becomes as alive and fascinating as it must have originally been. It’s not that the later worlds we enter are bad, it just feels as though they have very strong pressures built into them.

As a teen, I became interested in girls, and the biological urge behind that was probably unstoppable. I still thought about childhood things, but the stream around me had changed, and I had to keep my feet in that stream, or I would become alienated. I did become alienated, but that wasn’t till age 19 when I consciously stepped out of the stream and could handle doing so. The next world was adulthood, which came with the enormous pressure to make a living, to make money. You can’t really escape biology or the pressure to make a living, so the only freedom I know is that childhood space prior to about the teen years. 

EA: Can you discuss your process of making work?

SA: It has changed a lot from when I started. I actually began trying to build things, one or two of these works actually survive, but I abandoned this quickly. Then I began writing in black marker, mostly phrases that I felt evoked conflict. It was pointed out to me that maybe art should have some color and so I gave that a shot. I began trying to get stenciled animals to talk and have dialogue. I also glued stuff onto canvas. It felt like I kept moving laterally. 

Eventually, I nurtured the courage to draw my own stuff. Then to work, standing up, on a proper canvas. This is my process now. A ton of sketches which I layout on my desk. Some of them come out whole. I nail them to the wall and paint them. I have to interpret and collate many of them together to make them say something. Every time I paint I try to add something to my work. At the moment I am trying to fill the backgrounds of my paintings with some energy. 

EA: Can you discuss the beginning stages of Aint No Sense in Sense?

SA: This was a breakthrough moment for me. It was the first batch of work where I left my desk and began working with canvases nailed to the wall and something clicked: I didn’t need to make sense, which really meant (to me) that I didn’t need to be clever. Writers generally need to be clever, or at least smart in some way. Painters don’t. Painters can be clever and incredibly smart, but I don’t think they need to be. True or not, this idea freed me up a lot. 

The early stages of Aint No Sense in Sense spring from one of my first drawings, a moose-like creature in the picture. I was experimenting, using images and words together. It evolved from the lateral movement of trying to keep working.

EA: Where do you find the inspiration for the text you use?

SA: Sometimes the conflict in certain words drives the piece, sometimes the opposite: an image arrives and words follow from a feeling they should be a part of the work. Lately, I have moved away from the use of words and images together, mostly for the purpose of trying to achieve more clarity. The worlds of words and images obviously co-exist, but they feel like putting two magnets next to each other: they don’t really want to be next to each other.

EA: What would you like readers/viewers to take away from your work?

SA: I enjoy other people’s art a great deal. It gives me joy every day. In fact, art and literature have given me joy every day for the past three-plus decades. I want to be a part of that. If any reader/viewer gets the smallest bit of joy from my work, then that seems like the best accomplishment and a kind of reimbursement to all the artists who have fed me and continue to do so.

To view more of Scott Abrams’ work please visit their website.