General 12-22-2002

Being 22: Justin Schaefer

Justin Shaefer is a young artist living in south Minneapolis, working in a coffee shop and making art out of whatever he can.

Justin Schaefer, 22, notes that being optimistic is a very healthy tool. Schaefer
is a brilliant maker of visuality–paintings, fabric sculptures, installations,
environment, graffitti, drawings, and more–and is also a talented creator of
partnerships, a curator of shows in Minneapolis and New York. All this sounds
high-flying, and in terms of its aesthetics, it is, but it’s also all done on
no money, at coffeehouses and music venues and empty buildings.

The little rough documentary you can see if you click on the caption to the
right of this feature shows Schaefer in his apartment in the heart of South
Minneapolis. It was a cold, clear day, with warm sun streaming in the southwest
windows onto wooden floors–that and the art being the only concession to luxury.
The porch door opens and closes to let smoke out, air in; the fan that keeps
the sculpture up buzzes and hums. Justin Schaefer is talking about what it’s
like for him to live a life that’s all about making art.

The walls of the room are covered with a graffitti-inflected painting, as is
the inflatable sculpture, the marks slipping off its cute Doughboyish, Caspery
surfaces. This art is luxurious but it’s also necessity, like speech is a necessity.
These marks are significant, they signify, but it’s nothing explicit, except
the grace of the gesture. Austere latex paint keeps it all in the realm of speech
and not song.

The table is piled deep with photos of Schaefer’s recent shows. He often works
in collaboration with other artists, finding the work of friends congenial.
He shares his work, his energy, his enjoyment of the range of the idea, moving
from his own work into that of others and back again. The drawings from the
last show–thick black baroque line, grotesques that are oddly sunny–are

Justin Schaefer grew up in Stillwater, attended arts-oriented high schools
in the Twin Cities, went to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, moved to New York where
he did a lot of street-based art, graffitti, working with letterforms and line–not
just tags, but relying on the strength of the letterforms. He doesn’t like to
list influences but Barry McGee, Gabe Combs, Matthew Barney, and Arturo Herrera
were all names that arose in conversation.

When Schaefer returned to Minnesota he was still interested in making art that
could affect a mass public audience. He organized shows at Urban Being, Babylon,
and Sursumcorda, using their relatively raw space to good advantage. He also
did a show of small fabric pieces for Soo VAC’s front space: they’re silver
clouds evocative of Warhol, with bright-colored Duchampian penetrators, little
pink and green rods poked through that have a mix of playfulness and power that
seems typical of Schaefer’s work.

He uses his outsiderhood well, regarding it as in some ways an advantage. He
speaks of using “informal space” to broaden the ways in which people experience
visual work; they bring things to the work that they wouldn’t if they saw it
in a gallery. People own their experience of the work more fully in that kind
of space. But he would like to do the work in his head, too, which he can’t
afford to do now. He would like to have the resources to do big paintings with
lavish materials: oil paint, a big-enough studio, time.

Schaefer, and other artists like him, makes you believe that the whole ridiculous
heartbreaking enterprise of making art in a pragmatic culture is actually worth
it. His attitude, his ability to use any circumstance, the force and maturity
of his work, its grace and wit, are evidence of thoughfulness, courage, and
freedom, with a good shot of unlikely discipline thrown in. Despite his well-earned
skills, however, Schaefer also has, as he says, “a lot of respect for the clueless.”
He enjoys being 22 and having fun making art in the world.