Of Chumps & Smilers: Gary Taxali

You would’ve thought having been approached by the evergreen musician Aimee Mann to do the art for her latest album, @#%&*! Smilers, would’ve given Gary Taxali a big head. On the contrary, the modest artist contends that you should go on and buy the album, “Not only because I did the artwork, but because it’s a great album.” Taxali also had a little time to present BlackBook with a revelatory glimpse behind the serendipitous synthesis of his inimitable vision with Mann’s exacting sound, what it means to be a Chump, and how he came to create a limited range of toys for the Whitney Museum.

How did you decide that you wanted to make art your life’s work? And more specifically, illustration? It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve been drawing my whole life. It’s all I know how to do. Once I found an old report card from when I was in kindergarten, and my teacher wrote of how I would enjoy it when he read us stories. After, I would run to a desk in the corner and “illustrate” what the story was about. I guess I have been illustrating since I was four. Like most working artists, I went to art school. I then moved to NYC and started hitting the pavement with a portfolio of work. That lead to assignments from various magazines like Newsweek, Penthouse, and Esquire. That snowballed into doing assignment work for ad agencies, book publishers, greeting card companies, record companies, and product labels. Eventually, I started doing gallery shows.

Do you typically listen to music when you create your work? If so, what other artists do you find yourself listening to? I always listen to music while I work. I listen to all kinds of music and talk radio. Everything from NPR to MC5, Thin Lizzy, and Charles Mingus.

How did you end up getting involved with the artwork for @#%&*! Smilers? I was contacted by Gail Marowitz, who does art direction for Aimee Mann’s albums. She said that Aimee was a big fan of my work and asked if I’d be interested in doing an album cover. I agreed immediately, as I knew and liked Aimee’s music.

Did Aimee have a specific vision in mind when she approached you? Neither of us did. Aimee threw out a few names that were potential album titles, but nothing was set in stone in the very beginning. We had conversations about the songs and some of their meanings. More importantly, I got a chance to know Aimee, and that helped a lot when conceiving the ideas for the illustrations.

Did you guys ever square off with opposing ideas — or did she leave the details entirely in your hands? No squaring off — we got along great. Not only did she leave the details in my hands, but I gently tossed ideas back into her hands. For example, I asked her to create some doodles and sketches, then screen-printed those drawings into some of the artwork in various places. So you could say it was a true collaboration.

Did she hand you a copy of this album so you could listen to it while conceptualizing the artwork? Of course. There is no other way to work with a musician.

What kind of art inspired what you did for the record? Who were your influences? I was fully influenced by Aimee’s music. Nothing else. It was the music that gave me the insights that I had to make the pictures. She sent me the songs along with the lyrics, which really helped me because I use a lot of text in my work. There are so many great and poignant lyrics that working with such a smart songwriter made my illustrations better.

Aside from your visual artwork, what led you become involved with the manufacturing of toy figures? I originally created a design for a QEE figure, (brainchild of toymaker Raymond Choy), for a show at Shepard Fairey’s studio in Los Angeles. There were about 30 of us in that show — everyone from the Clayton Brothers to Frank Kozik. (It was actually Frank who wanted me in the show). From there I received numerous requests to customize toys, and from there, Chump Toys was born. I created a special edition toy vinyl figure of one of my monkey characters as the request of the Whitney Museum of American Art. My current toys, OH NO and OH OH, are also available for sale at the Whitney store.

You’re going to be selling your next figure through your company Chump Toys. What makes a chump? Who are some chumps, in your opinion? Everything I draw is a Chump. I am a Chump, everyone who likes my work is a Chump. And the people who don’t like my work are the Anti-Chump. Beware of them, they’re mean and they bite.

When you’re not constructing your toys or creating your pieces, how do you pass the time? I’m an audiophile. I’m obsessed with music and buy records all of the time. I like to DJ. I also enjoy traveling. It usually has business pretense, but I take every chance I get to travel. Lately, I have been making a lot of trips to Europe as I am beginning to do more shows there.

You’ve shown your work at galleries across the world, including the Whitney. Do you have any upcoming gallery shows planned? Yes, my next solo show is will be at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York in 2009. I can’t wait for that show. There will be lots of surprises.

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