Zane Fix and Stella Michaels’ High Line Balancing Act

By
Photography Ventiko

Published July 22, 2014

ABOVE: STRAY KAT GALLERY’S ZANE FIX AND STELLA MICHAELS. PHOTOS BY VENTIKO

On Tuesday, July 22, the Delphian “Jap Pop” artist Zane Fix and his partner in crime, the self-possessed and highly expressive painter Stella Michaels, will be holding a nocturnal celebration at the always-evolving Stray Kat Gallery, now located in a cavernous warehouse space in the shadow of the High Line on 14th Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

On display is a dual retrospective of sorts, titled “The House of Pop and Soul,” as both artists have been working side by side in their chosen mediums for well over a decade. Fix’s graphic prints combine elements of celebrity deification through artistic re-appropriation. Warhol is an obvious influence, and Fix’s other presumed idols—Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and even Audrey Hepburn—are showcased within a classic rock-‘n’-roll concert poster aesthetic, but fine-tailored with the eastern sensibilities of traditional Japanese kabuki.

Michaels, who met Fix while he was selling works in Union Square, seems to borrow heavily from the abstract expressionists, but gone here is their masculine fury and psychological chaos. In its place is the serene and confident hand of a human being who is finely in tune with the rhythms of our planet and its neighboring heavenly bodies, subjects which often manifest themselves in subtle circular imitations throughout her work.

Fix and Michaels, the self-professed “Lewis and Clark” of the art world, form a bridge between two seemingly disparate (and bygone) artistic movements, made fresh thanks to their own unique brand of downtown punk-rock gravitas. The artists are ostentatious without pretention and are quick to acknowledge that their dynamic personas are as important to their legacy as the work itself. They look upon their time selling art out of a van as an adventurous act of rebellion, efficiency, and ingenuity. To this day, Fix and Michaels’ daily interactions with complete strangers and longtime fans alike shine with the same openness and contemplation with which they continue to analyze each other’s works.

For the folks who continue to scrutinize the “white box” format or lament for the New York of old—or sadly still, the death of rock-‘n’-roll—the duo behind Stray Kat is on hand to provide a healthy dose of all that you’ve been missing.

KURT MCVEY: Zane, I hear you just had a birthday.

ZANE FIX: I turned 57 two days ago.

MCVEY: You look great.

FIX: I could use a little Joan Rivers, if you know what I mean.

MCVEY: [laughs]

STELLA MICHAELS: Did you have a good birthday?

FIX: I had a great birthday with all my friends… all three of them.

MICHAELS: [laughs] Give me a break.

FIX: It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality. I have many acquaintances, but only a few friends.

MICHAELS: Are we friends?

FIX: We’re the best of friends, like the cat and the fox from Pinocchio. How old are you, Kurt? You look like you’re 18.

MCVEY: I’m 30, but I just shaved.

FIX: Nothing like a clean shave to make a man look younger. So I guess you’re old enough to be a real fan of ours.

MCVEY: I remember when you had the van out in front of Gagosian.

FIX: You know, back then, it took us a while to figure out where we were.

MCVEY: [laughs]

MICHAELS: When we were doing those mobile pop-up shops, we were really just looking for good parking spaces.

FIX: We would rent a vehicle and create a mobile art gallery. For a while we were doing it in front of The Standard. One day I said to Stella, “Let’s check out the Upper East Side.”

MICHAELS: So we drove up, found a good spot, set everything up; and after about an hour or two we looked up and said…

FIX: “Holy shit, that’s the Gagosian Gallery!”

MCVEY: [laughs]

FIX: That became our spot for several months.

MICHAELS: The parking spot was totally legal, but man, did they do everything they could to get rid of us. There’s a “No Parking” sign there now. That’s our sign.

MCVEY: That’s kind of ironic, because Gagosian started off doing something very similar. Did he ever come down personally?

MICHAELS: A few times, actually. He was always very nice.

FIX: His people, on the other hand, were very unhappy with us, but we were very professional. The police protected us. We wouldn’t be beat.

MICHAELS: The Mark Hotel right up the road asked us to come show with them, and that’s when Charlie Finch from Artnet found us and wrote an interesting little piece on us.

MCVEY: What was his angle?

MICHAELS: He felt that we were the antithesis of what was happening in galleries—spaces that were filled with what he called “dead paintings,” I believe. He also said us parking in front of Gagosian might have just been a clever and convenient way for me to use their restroom, but I never did, I swear! [laughs]

MCVEY: So what happened after his article came out?

FIX: Let me tell you something, article or not, you gotta be tenacious, you gotta believe in yourself, you gotta be good and you gotta work hard. That’s it. Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I promise you, the American dream is still very much alive. We embody that dream.

MCVEY: Zane, you started by selling work in Union Square. Do you remember when you sold your first piece?

FIX: It was the winter of 2003, I think, and it was freezing. I was right in front of Gandhi with all my stuff. I wasn’t out there for more than 20 minutes when a lady came over and asked, “How much is that?” I didn’t even really think about it, to be honest. I threw a number out there, she ran to the bank, I wrapped the work up and thought to myself, “Hot damn, I’m in business.”

MICHAELS: I think that’s what people like about us; we’re from the streets, and even now, we’re just as accessible.

FIX: We’re “people people.” We’re like vaudeville in the 21st century, and we do it all with out hearts on our sleeves.

MCVEY: Tell me about the space you had in the Chelsea Market a couple years ago. How did that come about?

MICHAELS: We started out doing a pop-up thing for three weeks. We just rolled the dice and said, “What do we have to lose?” But the Chelsea Market liked what we were doing and invited us into a more permanent space for a year.

FIX: The people at Jamestown Management and all the folks at the Chelsea Market have always been unbelievable to us. They really support their local artists.

MCVEY: Zane, I saw that a crêpe bar [Bar Suzette] moved into that same gallery space, and your art is still everywhere.

FIX: Oh, Troi [Lughod] and Pete [Tondreau]! Come on, I know those guys from Union Square before they even had a tiny little crêpe stand. They still owe me for those, and you can publish that. [McVey and Michaels laugh]

MCVEY: You also very recently had your work installed throughout the whole Chelsea Market hallway.

FIX: It just came down. It was up for two months. It was only supposed to be up for one. Listen, I’ve been selling some of this work for over 10 years. The other day this guy almost ran me over on the street with his bicycle. Turns out he bought a piece from me in Union Square seven years ago. I made him buy some new stuff for almost killing me.

MCVEY: You two have really leaned on each other over the years. Have you ever come close to killing each other?

FIX: Are you kidding me? We hate each other! We’re like Barnum and Bailey; as long as the proceeds are coming in, everything’s hunky dory.

MICHAELS: That’s not true.

FIX: In all seriousness, we’ve gone through periods where we’ve only sold my work or we’ve only sold her work. There was a three-year period of great success where we focused primarily on presenting Stella’s work properly and getting it out there. It was really then that we were able to get a foothold and move into our first gallery space. I like to say, “I buy the coffee, but Stella pays the rent.”

MICHAELS: He’s so full of it.

MCVEY: Zane, looking at your work, I have to drop Warhol’s name.

FIX: I remember seeing Andy when I was about 20 years old, hanging out at the farmers market near The Factory and I remember saying to myself, “That’s fucking Andy Warhol!” I grew up on Andy, Peter Max, Roy Lichtenstein, and even old Japanese woodblock prints. I consciously and subconsciously combine all these things to create what I create.

MCVEY: Stella, you were saying to me how quick people jump to comparisons with Pollock and other abstract expressionists when looking at your work, but it’s so interesting to me that it was really Warhol who turned that whole movement on its head. Is that what makes you both such a great team, that people can get a taste of both of those major movements when they come to your gallery?

FIX: We’ve cornered the market. We have all bases covered. It’s classic stuff with a classic presentation.

MCVEY: I want to talk about this space. It’s huge. You’ve got a lot of work up, you’ve got tourists spilling off the High Line mixing in with savvy New York art people—what’s that been like?

FIX: You gotta remember, we started in the streets, so we’ve always been hands-on with all kinds of people. For instance, this old lady came in last night—a famous writer from Greece—she must have been a thousand years old. She looked like one of those troll dolls. She said to me, “You know what this place is, it’s a vacuum. You’ve opened up the backstage doors and let everybody in.” I thought that was beautiful.

MICHAELS: Things haven’t always been so glamorous. It’s not easy to live, breathe, and eat what you do, but it’s worth it, and people respond to our authenticity. I think it’s a gift to be able to express yourself and reach people all over the world. We’ve always had our finger on the pulse.

FIX: I always say, “I’m not part of the one percent, I just sell to them.” We’ve heard the same thing from the biggest collectors in the world to random people on the street, after they buy our work, they come back and tell us, “Every time we look at this work, we see you.” That, my friend, is the greatest compliment.

“THE HOUSE OF POP AND SOUL” IS ON VIEW STARTING TODAY AT STRAY KAT GALLERY, WEST 14TH STREET.