“Great show, who’s the artist?” Marc Horowitz quips as we enter his Los Angeles studio to preview works that will soon be heading to Mannerheim Gallery in Paris, where his solo exhibition THE HALL. STUDIO runs through November 26. This is Horowitz’s fourth exhibition of paintings, a medium he previously hadn’t touched in 14 years. Instead, he developed an incredibly ambitious art practice that bridged online and IRL performance in such a perceptive way that he’s often credited with a list of firsts: first self-made internet celebrity, first viral artist, first visual artist to be represented by an entertainment agency.
He made a name for himself with National Dinner Tour in 2004 when he snuck the words “dinner w/ marc” and his phone number onto a dry erase board in a Crate & Barrel advertisement, then spent the next year traveling across the country to eat dinner with a handful of the tens of thousands of people who called him. The project was covered by every major news outlet and led to a series of performances exploring the curiosity and anxiety around trying to appeal to vast, anonymous audiences. It also caught the attention of William Morris Agency, which signed him to their entertainment roster and helped place him in commercials and branded partnerships.
His next personal project, Talkshow 24/7, in 2008–09, was a livestreaming performance that incorporated scripted entertainment and scenes from ordinary moments in his everyday life. Viewers were encouraged to leave comments and participate in the accompanying chatroom, but it wasn’t until Creative Time commissioned him to do The Advice of Strangers in 2010 that he completely opened himself up to the whims and critical feedback of his online audience.
For that project, Horowitz spent a month using an online polling system to allow the internet to make decisions on various aspects of his life, which led him to attend an audition dressed like a pirate, rob a bank, make amends with his deceased father at his grave, and track down his best friend from grade school. The Advice of Strangers was Horowitz’s way of dissecting decision-making as an artist, and it continued his trajectory of blending art and entertainment — plus a healthy dose of masochism. The results were traumatic. Horowitz had just entered graduate school at the University of Southern California at the time of the project; his professors were pressuring him to abandon the entertainment business and focus on art-making, while his friends and family resented their unwilling inclusion in the project. The Advice of Strangers was Horowitz’s last major online performance. He’s since taken down the project’s website, and he identifies that experience as the beginning of his retreat from the internet.
In the last few years, Horowitz has reemerged as a thoughtful, considered artist. His past life as a comedian, an entertainer, and a troll who got trolled weighs heavily on his mind, but he’s not letting it hold him back. He’s finding his momentum and turning his chaotic youth into a sophisticated body of work. I spent an afternoon with Horowitz to find out firsthand why the internet’s greatest prankster is now making paintings, and what that could potentially mean for the rest of us.
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Lindsay Howard: How would you describe this new body of work?
Marc Horowitz: It’s a collision of worlds and an in-between space.
LH: What worlds are colliding?
MH: The past and the present.
LH: There are a lot of images of death.
MH: There are. I’m using old masters’ paintings as a jumping-off point. The old masters play the straight man in the background while the paint on top adds humor or creates a joke. I also take characters out of the paintings and turn them into three-dimensional sculptures. But, yes, some of the images are terrifying.
LH: What are you adding on top of the paintings, conceptually?
MH: Chaos. I’m thinking about the way energy moves through the composition and creating portals in the same way that Wile E. Coyote throws a black hole and diverts someone to another dimension. I see movement in all of my paintings. I see the blue paint getting up from its position, walking off “the set” of the canvas, drinking whiskey, smoking a cigar, and then coming back. The painting itself is a character, and then there are different actors inside of it.
I’m always trying to find the best way to express my sense of humor, whether through photography, film, performances, or painting. My approach is the same no matter the medium. Like with these bird paintings, there are rubbings, scrapings, and dumb wings on top of the nicely painted wings, which I think of as edits. Painting is a lot like making a film: shooting, stepping back, revealing, hiding, moving things around, changing the light source. I like playing with all of that and adding subtle jokes. My former professor, Charlie White, once told me: “Kill the clown, but keep the comedian.” I hear that in the back of my mind when I’m in the studio. My practice is much more relaxed now, but I can still feel the clown in these paintings.
LH: There’s humor, but it’s not as confrontational or aggressive as your previous work.
MH: I’m getting more mature, and my work has changed in response to changing conditions. I used the internet as my medium for more than a decade, but now I think artists are having a hard time finding new ways of working with it because it’s been heavily colonized by companies and corporations. We’ve shared so much material that it’s turned in on itself. When everything becomes co-opted so quickly, you can’t really create “aha” moments. Maybe that’s why there are so many images of death in my paintings.
LH: There’s a death happening, and a dawn of something new.
MH: We’ve lost a sense of craftsmanship and ownership online to the extent that artists barely even update their personal websites anymore. I wonder about that. Do you think that having a personal website is the equivalent of marking your territory or having a plot of land?
LH: Yes, but there’s a difference between owning land in the middle of nowhere versus in the middle of a city; if people don’t live there, the investment isn’t as valuable. It’s a similar idea in terms of an artist having a personal website. We’ve all been funneled into social media, so there’s less of a reason to invest time in maintaining a standalone site.
MH: It’s true. We’re living in the metropolis that is Facebook, and our experience is dictated by algorithms and privatized social spaces that sell ourselves back to us. As an artist, I can make a website — have my plot of land — but it feels so much smaller in comparison to these enormous companies, and most people won’t take the time to look at it. It’s easier to consume work through communal social-media channels and absorb whatever’s in our periphery.
LH: One thing that strikes me about this body of work is that by painting on top of the old masters’ works, you’re taking advantage of the fact that the past, and the canvas, can’t speak. They’re flat and can’t react to you, which is the opposite of performing on the internet. When you did The Advice of Strangers, for example, your audience was borderline sadistic at times, trying to hurt you emotionally, endanger you, and compromise your relationships. Painting, on the other hand, is a safe space where you can fuck with the canvas as much as you want and it’s not going to do anything back to you. It’s interesting to see the small faces, like little trolls, hidden throughout the compositions. It feels like you’re still working through and trying to understand that traumatic experience, except now the trolls are powerless.
MH: Do you see references to the past in the bare canvases, too?
LH: No, because in those ones your paint isn’t stepping on, or covering up, anyone but yourself. Performance is so much about the relationship between the performer and the viewer. In these paintings, I don’t feel like I’m part of the exchange, I feel more like a witness to the dialogue you’ve set up between the past and the present through the old masters’ paintings and your additions to them. There’s a lot of tension happening on the canvas. These are intense works.
MH: When I look back at my performances, I realize that I don’t feel the same impulse toward self-sabotage anymore. Or if I do, it’s much less obvious now. The prankster hides in subtleties, like the red noses in my paintings. I’m siphoning the big, intense feelings into gestures, instead of feeling like I need to be so overt about them. I went from being an entertainer to a painter.
LH: You were the first visual artist to sign with a talent agency in 2004, and now we’re seeing a resurgence, with United Talent Agency recently announcing that they’re going to be managing visual artists in the same way they do actors or other performers. What was your experience like?
MH: I felt very strong emotions when I saw the announcement come out about UTA because of my past experiences, but I’m cautiously optimistic. It could be that UTA’s new gallery is a productive way for a talent agency to take a full step into the art world without brands interfering with the creative process. When I worked with an agency, I found that they didn’t have the tools, the aesthetics, the taste, the knowledge, the patience, the contacts, or the finesse to guide a visual artist’s career over the course of their lifetime. It didn’t work on a fundamental level.
LH: Why not?
MH: Art and entertainment are oil and water, which I know because I went through it. The brands required too many concessions and tried to push me into whatever fit their message at the moment. I had hoped that I could use the opportunities to fund and bring visibility to my social-practice works, so I walked right into the lion’s mouth, but it was a bad idea. I lost control of my work, myself, and my audience. It was muddy. It’s like mixing paint until it’s brown: It looks like shit. There were too many forces at work and, no matter how I rationalized it as an artist, I couldn’t maintain the integrity of my practice. Don’t get me wrong; I think entertainment is awesome and actually wouldn’t mind watching Simpsons episodes in the Louvre, but The Advice of Strangers changed everything for me on a person level. That’s when I turned and went inward.
LH: It seems like your retreat from entertainment and the internet also coincided with you going to graduate school and having a chance to slow down and clarify what you wanted to say with your practice.
MH: It allowed me time to step back and look for other ways to express myself that didn’t necessarily involve me as the performer. The paintings can perform on their own as characters wherever they are — in a gallery, a museum, or someone’s house — and they can change depending on their context. They’re an energetic force. They’re unique. A painting is an entity; it’s a living, breathing thing.