Sean Alday talks to Nathaniel Lieb in his studio.
56B: Tell me about yourself.
NL: I’m an artist.
I started off studying biology in school and moved on to art. I’ve been a working artist since I moved to New York in ’84 or ’85.
I started off in the Bronx and moved a few times between the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and SoHo and then to Greenpoint where I am now.
My studio in Long Island City was there for a while. It didn’t have an address; it was right off the Newtown Creek. One day I saw people taking soil samples and next thing I knew, the building was sold. So that sent me searching for a new space again.
I looked at this building in 2004 or ’05. At that time the landlord was offering half of the floor for lease. But I couln’t get anyone to go in with me, so it wasn’t something that I could swing then. When I had to move from LIC, I came back here and this studio is what I got. Things had changed, prices had changed; Bushwick became interesting for artists to come to because it was the easiest place to get to with affordable rents.
When I did move in, around ’07 I rented two spaces and sublet one out, after the crash I had to let it go. I think that the landlord had rented the third floor to the guys who run Brooklyn Fireproof, and saw that it worked so he decided to do the same thing himself. This was of course between when I first looked and when I finally moved in. He saw the writing on the wall and went from hat makers to art studios.
56B: What were your initial thoughts when galleries started popping up?
NL: Well, I was one of the first people who put on a gallery show in this building. It’s not well known, but the story behind it was a grad-thesis show.
I went to grad school later in my life, so for my thesis show I turned one of the spaces downstairs into a pop up gallery. It showed the landlord that the possibility was there to have an art gallery in the building.
Subsequently, other people rented it for the same purpose. Never for more than a month at a time but it was a nice space.
NURTUREart was looking at the building at the same time that I was looking, they went elsewhere obviously, but ended up downstairs eventually.
I like the feel of the galleries around here… but now that there are so many in this building I find it irritating.
56B: What’s irritating about it?
NL: I feel like I’m posing in my own studio. I’m in an art building now. It feels less like a working building and more like a display.
Granted, they’re on the ground floor and I’m on the fourth floor. I do like NURTUREart, Momenta Art, and Interstate. I think those are good galleries and I like the work that they show.
I think that Interstate is doing the most exciting stuff.
56B: What about the neighborhood art scene outside the building?
NL: What’s most interesting about the Bushwick Renaissance is that multiple generations run the galleries. Younger people are opening spaces and older people are opening spaces. We get a mix of people looking at the work.
For example, the Lower East Side always felt like a young hip scene. I don’t know that I want to be a part of a young hip scene. But out here, the lines are crossing. The energy is good.
56B: Tell me about your work.
NL: A breakthrough piece is hanging on the wall over my editing station. I was doing a hand-eye coordination piece, where I tried to make a perfect cube in six cuts. And at one point I was working with a handsaw, the piece on the wall is made up of a lot of scraps that I just left on the floor for a while. I tripped over them until I moved them.
As I moved them I looked at it and realized that I could put them back together like a jigsaw. I pulled all the pieces that I could find, and put it back together with glue and a clamp.
Afterwards, I found myself running down the hall to tell my neighbors. I kind of realized that I don’t really do that with my work. I realized that that was important, that excitement. It wasn’t about refining it to a beautiful little piece; it was more about completing a feat. For me the feat became important, because that’s what I was making when I conceived it, not a refined and polished piece.
The work has become more about what it’s like being a human with my particular traits. We all have pride, we keep track of things, we share experiences, and we perceive time differently. In the midst of all this I’m doodling, playing games like children would.
I like to make things.
Hold on for a moment, [he picks up a large glassy stone]. This is obsidian. It’s part of my new work in progress. I want to develop different skill sets and document the process. I’m going to start by making stone tools because that’s when man became man. And I’m a little intimidated to make the first strike [laughs].
I’ll probably tape it.
56B: Will you use the tools that you make, to create more work?
NL: It’s not so much that I want to employ the tools. Obsidian is really too soft anyway, also I’m not a survivalist but the further you go, the more you learn.
56B: If there’s anything that you could teach or impart to the art world, what would that be?
NL: Stop thinking and just make… I teach art school so I’m part of the problem [laughs].
Listen to yourself running down the hallway excited to share something you made that may be kind of stupid or naive. It’s not that you’re proud of it because it’s artwork, you’re proud of yourself and want to share it. That’s a good place to be.