By Ernest Barteldes
After chronicling his many travels through Brazil and paying homage to his former Lower East Side neighbors, artist and musician Michael Rimbaud has sought inspiration in 18th century historical figures for “Revolutions,” his new show at L’ Orange Bleue, the Soho restaurant that also doubles as art space, hosting art shows from local artists on a regular basis.
Rimbaud was born in Michael Grossman in New York 43 years ago, and was raised in SoHo, where he still resides. The son of famed cartoonist Robert Grossman, he began painting at an early age, and launched his first underground comic book at age 11. Today, he juggles his artistic life with a freelance career as a graphic designer an also as a musician with his band, The Subway Sun. He legally changed his surname to “Rimbaud” while he was a student in Wisconsin after deciding that he wanted a French name that would both reflect his artistic and rock tendencies. “I was looking for an artist’s name with a rock ’n’ roll sound. I felt it was provocative,” he told Aileen Torres in 2006.
For this show, Rimbaud had to research on the likenesses of 18th century historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, The Marquis de Lafayette, John Adams and others through the eyes of other artists while giving them a more contemporary spin.
Painting in oil over paper (he rarely uses canvas), Rimbaud emerged with a series of curious portraits Thomas Jefferson’s likeness is similar to what we see on the five-dollar bill, albeit painted in green, while John Adams has a stoned expression on his face. The Marquis de Lafayette has a nauseous-looking color on his face, which possibly reflects on the current political state of the country he helped set free over two hundred years ago.
In our interview, Rimbaud explained the inspiration for the show and how he researched his subjects. He also told us a little about his how his father, cartoonist Robert Grossman, influenced his work and the hardships faced by independent artists today.
How did you have the idea of doing a show on revolutionaries?
I had finished doing my second group of Lower East Side portraits for a show last year when I was looking for a new subject to paint. This past , I went to see an exhibition on Lafayette at the New York Historical Society and I was impressed by his life during and after the American Revolution. I also enjoyed watching the John Adams TV series on HBO, and I decided I’d like to paint a George Washington picture and was ultimately pleased with the result. Soon I was looking for other revolutionary figures to paint. I included periphery figures like Native American Nancy Ward and Thomas Paine. Then I broadened the subject to include figures of the French and Haitian revolutions.
Your previous shows had as subjects people you sketched from life - how was the approach this time around?
I studied the historical portraits of these people from their time - I had some history books , but I Googled and downloaded as many images as I could find to get their likeness. It was most difficult with the Haitian heroes, like Toussain and Dessalines, there was less to go on, but I had enough to create my portraits.
This is your second show at L’ Orange Bleue - how was the public reaction the first time around, and how does that compare from showing, say, at an art gallery?
I had a show of my Brazillian paintings at L’Orange Bleue two years ago and it went well, there were sales and it was extended too. The nice thing about showing work in a place like that is that more people are exposed to your art work compared to a typical art gallery. Since L’Orange serves drink and food and is open late, perhaps people who wouldn’t usually go out to a gallery have an opportunity to look at the paintings.
What influence does your father, cartoonist Robert Grossman, have on your work?
My father’s art has inspired me since I was a child. He has many ideas and he’s great with color and line. A couple of these painting may even look like caricatures, which I learned how to do from him.
What is your view of the independent art scene today and how hard is it for an artist to put out his work?
I go see a lot of shows all the time. Although it’s rare when I see something I like, I still get a kick out of seeing what’s out there no matter how bad or funny it is. There’s a lot of garbage out there pretending to be art and actually gets taken seriously, but that’s not new - it’s gotten to the point where a sculptor is better off using Fruit Loops instead of clay if he wants his work to be noticed. It’s always been difficult for an artist to put out his work. A lot of artists have websites now, but it hasn’t made being an artist any easier.
Finally, how does your musician persona interact with your artist persona? Do they get along?
Sometimes I get inspired to write and record a piece of music, then another day I might feel like painting something or someone. It all has to do with my inspiration at the moment. It’s beneficial for all artists to work in more than one medium. One art form can add insight to the other and vice versa.