After playing drums in the New York dance punk outfit, Liars, for the last 14+ years, multimedia artist Julian Gross decided to go solo to pursue his first loves: art and design. By his own admission, Gross was working at 20% artistic output when in Liars, but was always tinkering and playing around creatively. This led to projects like the album design on Liars' last album, Mess, which involved making multicolored string look alive in various ways.
Gross told The Creators Project that his current art tends toward something more sculptural, though he's always interested in incorporating new media into his repertoire. This is precisely what Gross did in his art installation at the Tumblr IRL event during Art Basel 2014 in Miami. The exhibition was built as the visual expression for rock band TV on the Radio's hotly-anticipated new album, Seeds, for which Gross served as creative director.
“I think I'm very controlling when I do something,” laughs Gross. “I wanted to do everything from the little tiny ad banners to the album teasers because I wanted it all to be cohesive. Type that is out of place or a bad background can drive me mad, so I've been working really hard at making things look good.”
Gross said he collaborated early on with TVOTR's vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, who helped the artist expand one idea into a YouTube album teaser featuring multi-hued streams of elephant toothpaste that erupt and float downward against a black background. The duo then turned it into album art.
While tackling the record's visual elements, Tumblr asked Gross to create a Seeds-based installation to appear at the Miami Ironside Market Space, where TVOTR were set to perform. The only problem was that Gross had a mere two weeks to pull it off. If Gross had his preference, he'd work on pieces for 10 years, but he took on the Tumblr IRL challenge anyway, bringing his interpretation of Seeds—infinity, life cycles, growth, death, and rebirth—to Miami.
The physical cover for Seeds features a seed pod growing and shrinking in animated fashion. This effect ended up influencing the rest of the album design and installation. As Gross said, the technique isn't a lenticular print, but something closer to scanimation, an animated effect achieved by moving an acetate overlay across an image. Gross once saw a Japanese artist use the technique, which dates all the way back in 1906, and its simplicity blew his mind. Gross didn't hang this print in the Tumblr IRL exhibition, but attendees were able to see the effect in Seeds' vinyl and CD packaging at TVOTR's show.
Running parallel to the animated cover's growing/shrinking seedpod, an 8' x 10' inflatable mechanically inflated and deflated at the installation. True to his multimedia ambitions, Gross made the piece, Hear your heart so sweetly beat, using a parachute, a strobe light, lasers, a time delay relay, fabric dye, and a hair dryer.
Back when Gross was creating the album's inner booklet images, he shot slow-motion videos of colorful elephant toothpaste sculptures being smashed to bits, all in order to capture the “exploding moment” where the sculpture goes from one singular thing to something that has fallen apart, expressing the cyclical idea that things always disintegrate, regardless of what we do.
While these exploded sculptures didn't make their way into the installation, Gross said he recycled a lot of the same ideas and processes from the album artwork, save for one piece, It's been a long way down, which comes directly from TVOTR's “Happy Idiot” single cover art. Gross made this amorphous and eye-popping orange, yellow, and red sculpture out of polyurethane foam, plaster, clay, plexiglass, lights, and paint.
Other installation elements came from lyrics Gross liked and which he thought fit the show's aesthetic and concept. Inspired by the lyric “There is a golden light right here, there's no bottom to this well,” from the song “Right Now,” Gross created a little well made of mirrored tiles to create an infinity mirror—a well that has no end or bottom.
“I like how the mirror pieces create reflections, infinity, and duplication,” said Gross. “Another song mentions broken bones quite often, so I created another well filled with exploding broken bones, and I like the bones in the same way as the idea of seed and this idea of life and death.”
When viewers looked into this box of mirrored sculptures, it looked as though there were hundreds of bones laid out on the ground in a grid. A line in the song “Seeds,” which goes, “This time I've got seeds on the ground,” inspired the piece. This lyric and others form a broader concept that finds Gross grappling with the inevitability of death, both for himself and his parents, which he said are now very real instead of just abstract concepts.
In the framed pieces like What's the deal, How I feel, When's it gonna go down, and Is it real, Gross again used polyurethane foam, along with wood and paint, to create colorful, molten shapes that seem to attack the life/death cycle in a more primordial way. “How I feel” looks as if it's time personified in the patterns of sand created by breaking waves or desert wind. “What's the deal” looks like lava or skin, while “Is it real” and “When's it gonna go down” look like something one might see at the center of the Earth, the inner vortex of planet's cycle of life and death.
The life/death cycle found yet another expression in the oversized snow globe piece, Nothing living lasts forever, which featured contents that looked like they'd all been smashed. Gross said he wanted the piece to be interactive, but he wasn't sure that people would actually pick it up because people are always told not to touch artwork. “I always want people to touch the artwork, to break it, or get it all smudgy with their dirty hands,” said Gross. “I like to try to play with that as much as the idea allows.”
As Gross said, everything falls apart and disintegrates. Even art.
To see more of the shows at Tumblr IRL, visit the official website.