Nir Hod and the Importance of Narcissism


Upon entering Nir Hod’s studio in the Meatpacking District, one is most likely to be greeted by his yapping French bulldog, Nella. Nella is an aesthetic masterpiece. Hod often chats with her in his seductive Israeli accent as she gazes back with manipulative puppy-dog eyes. As a voyeur, their interactions are both romantic and satirical; it’s a dualism that permeates most of Hod’s body of work. Satire often comes in the form of decadence. Take, for example, his “Genius” series: portraits of scowling children donning fussy outfits and wielding cigarettes. Or his mirrored coasters, “The Night You Left,” decorated with fake lines of cocaine—the coasters cannot be produced fast enough to offset their popularity. And then there’s Hod himself, a self-described “victim of his work,” with his glowing skin, shiny locks, and chiseled physique.

Heavily influenced by the escapism one feels when watching films and fleeting moments of romance experienced in solitude, Hod does not seem to care if the viewer takes his work seriously. What the artist is after is impact: a visceral response. Whether you think the twisted faces and over-the-top attire of the children in the portraits that litter his studio are ridiculous or fabulous is irrelevant; either way, it is genius.

Hod gave tangible life to his “Genius” portraits in the form of sculpture. Most recently, the artist created a selection of shiny Genius busts available for sale along with his narcotic-adorned coasters at the Paul Kasmin Shop in Chelsea. We sat down with the artist to discuss the meaning of genius, his evolution as an artist, and the importance of narcissism.

ALLYSON SHIFFMAN: I was reading a piece Interview ran on you in 2011 and now, hearing your voice, I love the idea of you exclaiming, “It’s genius!”

NIR HOD: For a long time I found myself calling so many things “genius.” Sometimes you mean it literally and sometimes it’s the opposite, but either way it is so heavy and has so much meaning.

SHIFFMAN: The expressions on the children’s faces in this series are so haunting. Is there a specific experience that would make this expression part of a child’s repertoire?

HOD: When you’re about three years old, you start to learn how to be manipulative. I know this from my own experience—I created this expression between sadness and dissatisfaction to get people to make me feel better, to feed me, to get me presents. It sounds ridiculous, but I created this face based on movies without even understanding it. I felt attracted to faces and body language. I remember, for example, I was always fascinated with why some people are considered beautiful and some are not. Everybody’s got two eyes and one nose, but it’s the small details. It is why we fall in love or why we want to kill somebody we haven’t even spoken to.

SHIFFMAN: Our visceral reactions to others.

HOD: Yes. I believe there is some kind of magic that comes just from looking at somebody. In the beginning, I called it “Genius” in a very cynical way. Then I started to look at real geniuses in history and all of them have the same expression, of something very bitter. It’s bitter because they have this kind of knowledge that they cannot share. They don’t have the time or energy to deal with other people. I noticed just last week Robert Hughes looks exactly like this. [Compares the images of his “Genius” paintings to a photo of Robert Hughes]

SHIFFMAN: [laughs] You’re right, the expression is nearly identical.

HOD: I think that to have this kind of expression on children is very powerful. There is a difference between being a bad child and being a wild child. Anybody can be wild, but to be bad you need some kind of knowledge.

SHIFFMAN: Bad implies a sense of self-awareness.

HOD: Exactly. Creating this expression is the part of the painting I really like. Generally paintings are about technique, but I don’t see myself as a painter. I am more of a storyteller and an image-maker. By creating this kind of expression that does not exist, all of a sudden this cute child becomes something with such an attitude—something spoiled and nasty. I feel this holy moment; I am almost afraid of it. For example, if you are a makeup artist and you have to put makeup on regular people, it can be nice, interesting, annoying… whatever. But when you work with mega-celebrities, you feel afraid. When you touch them, it feels different.

SHIFFMAN: I sometimes experience that feeling when I’m interviewing someone famous.

HOD: Of course. To me, paintings are about beauty. They are very feminine, and beauty is something very feminine. For a long time, people would talk with me about identity. I don’t have issues with identity, I just follow this kind of feminine beauty because I became a victim of my art, which I think is the best thing for an artist. So many artists use their talent, but with the best artists, their talent uses them.

SHIFFMAN: What inspires the style of the Geniuses?

HOD: As people we’ve lost something so important in terms of style. The most beautiful time—baroque, rococo, even modernism —it was almost out of control. This is what it is about in many ways.

SHIFFMAN: I recently watched Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra, and I am noticing the similarities between your Genius series and Liberace’s aesthetic. Liberace famously said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” I wanted to talk about the reoccurring theme of excess in your work. Is it satirical or genuine?

HOD: It is both. When you look at Liberace, it is ridiculous, but at the same time it is genius, and you don’t know which to choose. Is it a joke? Is it serious? Is it interesting? I really like this paradox.

SHIFFMAN: And now you’ve made sculptures that coincide with the painted Geniuses. You said you don’t like to consider yourself a painter, but would you consider yourself a sculptor?

HOD: It’s funny, I started with sculpture. My first artwork was a commission I did while I was in Israel. I’ve always been fascinated with wax museums, especially the one in Israel, because they have a lot of bad artists there.

SHIFFMAN: Bad wax museums are amazing.

HOD: The best. They’re pure artworks because they all look so fucked up, like they’re drunk or stoned. Most of it is from the ’70s, and in the ’70s everybody looks ridiculous. Even when you see images of policemen in New York they all have Afros and moustaches and everyone was smoking… it was a lot of elements I based the Geniuses on. So I had a wax figure commissioned of myself when I used to have long hair called “My Eyes Are Not the First to Cry” and the materials are described as “Casting, Model, and Fan.” So there was a fan and my hair was always blowing, and there was music playing.

SHIFFMAN: It makes me think of vintage romance novels with Fabio on the cover.

HOD: Yes, it’s based on this. So my first artwork was this wax sculpture. I sat at the museum for three and a half months.

SHIFFMAN: What was the evolution of the Genius series?

HOD: For me, through these Geniuses I understand so much about paintings. My paintings used to be so realistic and I found it a little bit boring, especially now that I’m in New York. In Israel there was not so much to see; a few Picassos, a few Van Goghs… when I came here I would go again and again to The Metropolitan. There’s so much there you don’t know what to do with yourself. Then I started to look at contemporary artists like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage. I wanted to be more free, first in my mind and then, slowly, in my work. Many artists have these jumps in their work and at some point it looks like a supermarket. For me it was important to develop. The first Geniuses were very realistic and then they became more and more loose. Then I started to look at sculptors like Rodin and Condo—it seemed very simple to lead with your mind in sculpting, so I knew the next thing I wanted to do was a sculpture. What I really like about the “Genius” sculpture is that it has a personality. The first time I did one, I felt like I had a child. Every time I saw it I wanted to say, “Hey, what’s going on?”

SHIFFMAN: [laughs]

HOD: It’s powerful in that it has presentation in a romantic but human way. My plan is to have a Genius sculpture combined with music. A lot of my work is about these moments you find, like when you’re driving alone at night by yourself, or you sit at home and smoke a cigarette and all of a sudden there is beautiful music playing—for me it is sad piano music—and think, “I’m so in love and I don’t even know with what.” You want to freeze this moment. In the “Genius” show there was an ashtray and an old phone that played music. The music was based on French films where the hero died or there was lost love and broken hearts. When you see these images in movies with music, you don’t know what to do with yourself—the combination of sound and image is so seductive. This was the exact manipulation with Titanic, when he dies with the song… everything is so beautiful in a sad way. In this moment, we feel so human. It’s about being a teenager again and trying to preserve this feeling. It’s like at one point, life became very boring.

SHIFFMAN: My parents have an old rotary phone like the one in that sculpture, and every time I use it I feel as though I’m making a very dramatic phone call.

HOD: Exactly. Every phone call feels like it’s going to change your life. And it’s not just that, when you hold it you just want to smoke a cigarette. There’s some kind of pathos.

SHIFFMAN: Tell me about your upcoming show.

HOD: My next show will be called, “Once Everything Was Much Better, Even the Future.”  It’s mostly sculptures. I like to bring the viewer into a space of extravagance, unlike a gallery.

SHIFFMAN: I saw that you participated in The Narcissists’ Ball. Have you done that portrait yet?

HOD: No, not yet.

SHIFFMAN: It was appropriate as so much of your work, your early self-portraits right up to the Geniuses, deal with the theme of narcissism. I’m curious if it played to your narcissism that among all the artists participating in The Narcissists’ Ball, your piece was estimated to auction for the highest.

HOD: Really? No, for me narcissism is not about money. For me, narcissism is something so romantic and something so human. Everybody is a narcissist. Some people admit it and some people don’t. As an artist, it’s important to be a narcissist. Look at Picasso, look at Warhol…. As an artist, you can get away with a lot of things that normal people cannot.

SHIFFMAN: [laughs] I’m in the wrong profession.

HOD: At the end, the bottom line is there are no rules and when there are no rules… everything is fine.