New Orleans artist Dave Greber creates mesmerizing, eye-boggling video works. The two works presented in State of the Art illustrate the very different styles his practice encompasses, yet the two works—Sinew-en-ciel, an installation on the gallery wall, the other, Stilllives II: Vignette, projected on the floor—complement one another with their use of color and movement to create images that are at once abstract and familiar. Greber started his career in commercial video, but found the work to be “psychically violent,” and abandoned it, choosing instead to make a living as a “pedicabber,” a bicycle-based taxi service. His roundabout route to becoming an artist speaks of the life-changing power of art. I spoke with Dave when he was at Crystal Bridges installing his work.
How many layers are in Stilllives II: Vignette? It’s probably, like, 200 layers, but the last one goes on top of the first one… I like to make a loop that you have a hard time telling how long it was. I do little repetitions, so it throws off your sense of time.
Is that your cat in the work? Yes, and my dog. My dog is Seta, and my cat is Keith.
Talk about how you came to the idea for this work. I had the idea at a Thornton Dial show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It was a specific piece of art, I think it was called Setting the Table. It was like a dinner table set and it was somebody running across the table, sort of. It was very abstract, but using real shoes glued on to it. I was thinking of that perspective, looking straight down at a dinner table, and going from there. It’s like abstract expressionist assemblage, the way he’s using objects to paint with. I’m kind of doing the same thing.
I understand that you’ve been making art for only about five years, what drew you to art? I went to film school. I do think that the film world is different than the art world. I wasn’t attracted to the film world. I was trying to do experimental films for film festivals, while I was doing commercial stuff, and it was never received well … and I didn’t even want it to be received well. (laughs) The formula of that world I found just really didn’t jibe with me. Then I got into a residency in New Orleans that was all with art people, fine art makers: painters, sculptors, some more experimental video stuff too, and I was like “Wow, this is what art is? If this is what art can be, then I want in.” So I just started making art right there and I never stopped. It was just so rewarding emotionally and spiritually that I just wanted to keep doing it.
Must be quite a change in your life, what’s that done to your world? I used to be really embarrassed to tell people what I did, because I hated it too much. I felt like I wanted to use my talents, but I didn’t know there were other ways to use them. It’s like: you do what you’re good at and you get a job doing what you’re good at; and the only jobs that exist in the media world are generally, I think, psychically violent, bad things, and I didn’t understand how to get around it. There were two options, I could just not engage in that at all and work in a kitchen, which is what I did. Or I could make more money and do what I’m good at. But it was terrible, I just hated it. I found I would just be happier staying true and expressing what I want to express, making money how I have to, as a pedicab man or whatever. I’m in a residency with the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans that’s been amazing. They give me a studio and a stipend for six months. I’ve been spending a lot of time working. I did this piece there at their studios.
So when did you end up going to grad school in art? In 2011 I found out that the Tulane art program was free if you get in. I was like: “What??” I was six blocks away from Tulane! I never thought I’d go to grad school. So I went and graduated last year.
How did that affect your work? I don’t know how to say it. It’s challenging, in the way that it’s supposed to break you down, isn’t that the point of grad school to make you tougher or something like that? I didn’t think it would do that to me, I just had such a different take. I was open to receive what Grad school had, I didn’t have expectations. I wanted to learn things and be challenged, I was up for the challenge of it.
It’s a tough business. I know it’s difficult for everybody. A few of the other people I went to school with are pedicabbers too, we’re like: “Hey we have master’s degrees!” I tell kids that sometimes too: “Stay in school and you can be a pedicabber.”
You have spoken of your work in a spiritual way. What does that mean to you? By making art, that’s how I reconcile my deepest beliefs and my way of dealing with the given reality and frustrations that I think everyone shares to a certain extent: injustice, violence, a huge mass of people fighting for resources and killing each other and hoarding everything. It seems very barbaric, our world, you know? In my deepest heart of hearts I feel like we’re all the same energy, like this is an illusion to an extent. We’re all made of stardust. So, I don’t feel like I can judge any situation. It’s not up to me to judge. It’s my job to understand how to live in harmony….and I can do that through the creation of art. It’s kind of like the only thing.