Sculptor Derek Weisberg, Takes Manhattan, And All Surrounding Boroughs
written by Amy Dufault
Moving from one place to another you take certain bits of comfort with you. For sculptor Derek Weisberg, the move from Oakland, California to Brooklyn, New York was all about retaining the thread of street culture from one city to the next — some underlying pulse to connect his cities and help bridge the gap of newness.
In a place as vast and confrontational as New York City, the artist says he’s wedging his way in and channeling street artists like Barry McGee, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Os Gemeos, role models who have made cities their own as well.
Author and journalist Tom Wolfe once said of New York City: “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
You feel this with Weisberg. Tracking him for any one night through Manhattan, you’d see an aggressive collector of images — his phone grabbing artistic snapshots from the sides of buildings, apartment lobbies, curiousity shops and in front of stages at rap concerts.
Social mobility? Internet accessibility? Do we ever leave home with how connected we can always be? Weisberg tells me “accessibility is the overarching theme and zeitgeist of our time, comparable to nothing else the art world has ever seen or been witness to on such a linked level.”
And here we are.
The WILD caught up with Weisberg recently to talk about all the things artists hate to talk about including inspiration and success. We like what he had to say.
You moved to New York City a year ago from Oakland, California, how has the city affected your work?
I grew up in the Bay Area, and although I have traveled a fair amount, I never really called anywhere outside the Bay home. When you live somewhere new, everything changes. The differences in lifestyle between Oakland and New York are vast. New York constantly forces one to problem solve; the city and existence is more physical, you constantly have to push yourself. I feel like this has crossed over into my work, to continually challenge myself and create new problems to solve. I feel as an artist this is something I try to do regardless of where I am, but I feel it more strongly in New York.
Tell me about how hip hop and rap culture from both coasts influence your work.
Hip hop and the hip hop culture has been in my life for almost as long as I’ve been making things in clay. I remember listening to songs like ”Nuthin but a G thang” and “It Was a Good Day” when I was 9. I have been listening to rap music and participating in the culture ever since. When I was younger, when the east coast/west coast feud was happening, one had to kind of pick a side, but that’s long over and now I listen to hip hop from all coasts, every niche and anywhere, as long as its good.
In college my work was about commenting on hip hop; I would make figures that were characterizations of MC’s or graffiti writers or DJ’s. I was 18 then. Shortly after that my work changed, I was experiencing life in new ways, it was becoming more complicated; I realized I needed to make work to try and make sense of my life. My work became self-reflections, and an activity to better understand my feelings and the world around me. However, in this switch, I maintained that style and energy of hip hop, that was the aesthetic, while the content became about trying to understand life.
A recurring, powerful theme in your work is hands. You use them to show meditation and prayer but also as call signs. Tell me why you pull them in so much to speak to the viewer.
Hands are a very important element of my work. Since most of my work is about conveying human emotion and psychology, hands and faces often convey these ideas best or most clearly. You can completely change the emotion of a figure by the gesture of the hand. It is true I am also trying to express a kind of spirituality through figuration and the use of hands has many connections to images and ideas of Jesus giving blessings, Buddhist Mudras, the Hamsa (Arabic) or Hamesh (Hebrew) hand as a magical protectorate.
Hands not only have religious and spiritual relevance but also a long standing tradition in art history, going all the way back to the silhouetted hand groupings of the cave paintings, Michaelangelo’s Creation of Man in the Sistine chapel, to the totally expressive hands of Egon Scheile. And of course hands are used in their own form of language; sign language and gang hand signs and stacking are examples.
When I use hands in my work I am thinking about and referencing all of these things. And of course one of my favorite lines in a movie: Great Expectations, where De Niro says: “People always tell you that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Bullshit it’s your hands.”
What books are you reading right now that are influencing you?
I’m reading a lot of Herman Hesse right now, currently Narcissus and Goldmund. I am also working, slowly, through the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and the cataloge for the Ferdinand Hodler exhibit, Views to Infinity, which just ended at the Neue Gallerie. I also just finished The Exodus, by Leon Uris.
What does being a “successful” artist mean to you?
Making the best work possible, continually pushing myself and staying interested and curious in the studio. Making work that has a profound and lasting dialogue and relationship with the viewer, creating a deeply moving experience.
A few sales don’t hurt either.