Legendary East Village gallery owner Gracie Mansion, whose real name is Joanne Mayhew Young, has a wonderful knack for gauging the current zeitgeist through art. The early 80s were characterised by a radical shift within the art world, which allowed subcultures to rise to the surface at an increasing rate. They could no longer be kept underground, and the polished facades of elegant society were about to crumble in the face of the gay movement, feminism, and the backlash that followed the radicalism of the 70s. One artist she discovered at that time was Stephen Lack, whose works she first exhibited in 1983. Stephen Lack’s large painting Mil (Mil Mascaras/The Wrestler), which is dated 1984, is one of the most eye-catching pieces in the East Village Revisited exhibition, which features the collection Anders Wall built at the time when this era peaked in New York, and he was working as chairman of the board for Volvo. Channelling the general mood of the times, this powerfully built man is depicted in a confident, defiant pose, which has been captured with large, rapid, yet precise brush strokes. 34 years later, CFHILL arranged an exclusive interview with the artist.
Who is this?
The painting is of Mil Mascaras, a hooded wrestler from the fifties and later. I have no idea why I remembered him so vividly, but he and his outfit captured my imagination. I lived for a year in Mexico and that type of masked wrestling, or 'Lucha' was very popular. If you look at my overall body of work, much of it deals with power. The idea of a wrestler wearing an executioner's mask is a good starting point in underlying the non-negotiable aspect of power and authority.
Do you remember painting it? Where and why...
The work was painted in New York. I painted it in my studio, in Chinatown on Grand Street, a 2000 sq ft loft where I lived with my wife and 2 children. We were one of the few families in the East Village then. I would buy already primed canvas in 18ft rolls and just staple it up on the 'painting wall' and slice off the size I wanted and then go to work. With acrylic, it dries in a few hours and then you can roll it up. That means storage is simple and you avoid the price of the stretched (sub frame) and the final frame until there is a client or gallery asking for the particular work., One of my 'heroes' was Neal Cassidy, the central character in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road". He lived live in a huge hurry, as Tom Wolf pointed out in "Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" he lived life one thirtieth of a second behind the movie. That's how I felt in NY. We had to hurry. Everything we were accustomed to was being challenged. I was painting about 3 or 4 large scale paintings a week! Every week or so there was another group show asking for paintings on various themes. Galleries were popping up everywhere. There was a general anger and the new attention on the art gave us a platform to communicate that shortened the gap of usual coverage. You could put a painting into a show and it might appear in Art in America six weeks later and then it was sold.... that was amazing compared to how slow the art world used to move before that.
What was it like, living as an artist in NY back then?
It was the early 80's and there was a huge disconnect between the image of America as a successful economy and culture (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; Dallas etc) and the reality of life on the Lower East Side of NYC. At night you could hear the copper flashing on rooftops of the abandoned buildings being ripped out by junkies to sell the copper for drugs, leaving the buildings to suffer from the rain and mold. In the streets there were fires of garbage in huge oil drums with the homeless gathered around for warmth. The Lower East Side had become a refugee community of the displaced from the middle class. It was cheap housing, sometimes even for free in homesteaded buildings. Events and clubs appeared in abandoned spaces. Jean Michel [Basquiat] and Keith Haring and [Richard] Hambleton and [David] Wojnarowicz were doing great work directly on the walls of the streets. Me; I was working just as fast but indoors because I had a family and could not risk being arrested. Still, my work had the same urgency and rage of my graffiti friends.