He’s only been living in New York for a year, but Backman’s exhibition history here is already off the charts: his CV lists 2013 shows at Mixed Greens, Stadium, and NURTUREart. He’ll also have a show at the respected Baltimore gallery Nudashank this month. That’s an active exhibition schedule for anybody, much less a 25-year-old.
Backman is photorealist painter and sculptor with a wry sense of humor. He’s made a drawing of half of a $50 check he received for one of his pieces, and has recreated a pile of grape-soda cans mixed with other real soda cans. In each case, he added labor and value to objects that aren’t meant to be kept or retain their worth once used.
What neighborhood do you live in?
I moved to New York in September of last year. I live on the outskirts of Bushwick. It’s an affordable neighborhood, and quiet most of the time.
You were a founding member of Reference Gallery in Richmond Virginia. I sometimes got the impression that it was better known in New York than it was locally. Can you talk about how (or if) the gallery affected your work.
I started Reference Gallery while in school in 2009 with three fellow students. We felt that the work we were making and interested in wasn’t being represented in Richmond galleries. We were interested in exhibiting work from local artists and also bringing work to Virginia from New York and abroad. There is a strong but small art community in Richmond, and we realized very early on that the majority of our viewership was going to happen online. We organized several shows that engaged the problem of documentation and the dematerialized art object directly.
I thought of Reference as another aspect of my work, not something detached from it, although my work with the gallery happened in a much different head space than my studio practice. The project informed how I consider viewership, display, commodification of art objects, and the exhibition space as a theater. Much of the work I was making while running the space investigated issues of the physical display of work in a gallery setting, specifically when a piece begins, and when it is ready for exhibition.
You may be the only artist we’d describe as a conceptual photorealist. What interests you about representation?
I’m interested in photorealism partly because of its connection to conceptual art. Photorealism and the longer running tradition of trompe l’oeil painting have always been conceptual by nature whether or not issues of representation were initially foregrounded by the artists working in these modes. Problems of representation are becoming ever more complex with the ubiquity of Photoshop and the dematerialization of information storage. While I’m curious about these issues, as well as more fundamental ideas about perception and understanding, I’m also deeply fascinated with the tradition of painting.
Is there an artist or exhibition that’s had an especially significant impact on your development recently?
I recently saw a major retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He was one of the first artists I knew about as a kid and someone I’ve always been interested in, but there was a lot of work in the show that I was unfamiliar with. His paintings of mirrors, studio environments, and reproductions of other artists’ works were amazing to see in person and to think about less as pop problems but as problems of image, reproduction, quotation, and a strangely sincere parody.
I’m looking at “A Home Gallery Doesn’t Need to Be Big, Just Somart* Installation” at Reference Art Gallery on your website as we speak. Can you talk about the concept of the home gallery?
My involvement with the Reference Gallery began by organizing a set of group shows in my apartment. It was through those shows that I met the other co-owners, and where it became apparent that there was potential for a gallery project in Richmond. We decided at the start of the project that we wouldn’t show our own work. The closest we came was a show of our parents’ art. We had exhibited at other spaces as a collective, and felt it was fitting for our final show. My contribution was a set of rooms in the back of the space built to resemble an IKEA showroom with work hung to match the interior design scheme. Much of my work deals with issues of reproduction, so I was interested in the connection with these products as reproduction designer furniture. The DIY ethos of the gallery also seemed to have a nice connection with the process of assembling the store’s items yourself.
Making a home in the gallery brought the project full circle from starting a gallery at home. The four of us had also lived in the apartment above the gallery during our time there, and my studio was upstairs. Because of this, much of my work was made with a domestic scale in mind, and was often informed by domestic subject matter and materials. Another aspect of the installation was to create a meta-critique of the sale of artwork. I wanted to embrace the selling of my work but felt uneasy about the prospect of selling in my own gallery. Although the gallery was technically a for-profit business, much of our programming was in the spirit of a non-profit. Part of this was our inability to sell work, and part was our interest in showing challenging work that wasn’t easily commodified.
Is there another medium or style of work that you’d like to explore or have started to experiment with?
I’ve worked with installation in two recent exhibitions, and it’s a format that I’d like to continue to experiment with. In the last show at Reference I was lucky enough to have continual access to the space and know it in and out. Lately I’ve been working primarily in painting but am also very interested in sculptural problems. Installation seems like a great way to merge the two.
How do you describe your work to your parents?
If my parents ask about my work, I usually describe it to them by texting them photos.