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Interview: Biagio Black, POP Goes the Easel

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Photo courtesy of Biagio Black.

Photo courtesy of Biagio Black.
By Gareen Darakjian, Special to LAist

Biagio Black is quite possibly the luckiest son-of-a-gun in LA. He struck gold soon after earning his BS in Mechanical Engineering from The Cooper Union as the creator/designer of one of the most successful online games to date, an accomplishment which contributed to his various projects in the digital as well as fashion realm. He then started his own new media studio and marketing agency, which caters to the biggest names in entertainment. Today, his magic paintbrush is in demand by the likes of Kate, Keira and Vivienne, among the thirty some Ford models whose comp cards he was commissioned to paint in 2005. The six foot stunners, well, stunned both elite and pedestrian audiences and led to Black’s foray into the LA Pop Art scene.

Known for his high-contrast and dynamic prints, Black’s work appears illuminated from within, as highlights add a wood-whittled three-dimensional aesthetic to the subjects’ complexions whose mere personas consume the canvases on which their images are splayed. Through his work, Black celebrates popular and mass cultures and their luminaries, affirming the relevance of the era of excess and the ephemeral identities that inundate and amuse us all. So what does he have that we don’t? How does he get inside the heads of these icons and capture their essence? We caught up with Black on the heels of his new project and asked him to reveal his next venture, why he gets naked with his ideas, and how this former skater kid got the rare chance to do a portrait of his punk icon.

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LAist: How did you get involved with Ford Models at the beginning of your career?

Black: Ford loved a Japanese illustration I did of Kate Moss while making a video for her in Paris. They commissioned me to do similar portraits for the front of their models’ comp cards, which is the modeling industry’s version of an actor’s headshot. The cards became a kind of collector’s item so we decided to do art show. I then took my ten favorite portraits and went through the process of doing six-foot versions of them. The art show somehow became a big Hollywood Fashion Week event with the help of Caroline Rothwell and sponsorship by GM. Something like 800 Hollywood elite came out to the event.


Vivienne Westwood by Biagio Black.
When, in your career, did you feel like you had “made it?”It was a great moment when I looked back at Kate Moss on one wall and Vivienne Westwood on another staring at each other.

You were commissioned to paint the amazing six-foot portrait of Vivienne Westwood for her Spring ’09 Anglomania trunk show at Em&Co. How were you approached and were you intimidated by the project?

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The show came about because I had recently shown my new series of portraits of Keira Knightley, Eva Green, and Marion Cotillard at the Little Black Dress ‘08 event thanks to Emmy Cortes. Eveline Morel, the owner of the boutique venue, EM&Co., was involved with the event and thought of displaying my work at the trunk show, so she got me in touch with Cristiano Minchio who is a rep for Westwood. I was excited to do a portrait of Vivienne Westwood. Even though my pieces are very flat, she has so much depth and soul and contrast that she comes right out of the plane. She is all these contradictions. She embraces Victorian traditions but is just the opposite of the uptightness of that era. She is celebrated and controversial. She is a Dame and a punk. Come on…that is amazing. I was a skater punk when I was younger so she is a true icon to me.

Why pop art? How does it relate to your interest and experience in mixed media?

I’ve always been inspired by Warhol, Rauschenberg, Bill Sienkiewicz (comic artist), punk art, movie posters, product design, and Pop Culture. Graphic mediums are what catch my eye. The beautiful thing about pop art in our disposable culture with the world melting down is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Pop art is seductive because it directly engages the viewer and then hopefully draws them into a deeper experience.

How does your degree in Mechanical Engineering from The Cooper Union relate to your work today?

Mechanical Engineering and my art have both been attempts to find organization and order, considering my mind is so chaotic.

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How do you decide who your next subject will be?

Beside from commissions, I look for people I respect who have narratives in their faces and eyes. Marion Cotillard is one of my favorites - she has a great novel behind her eyes. Models, however, are blank canvases. The irony of working with models is that after I am finished with a model portrait, it would remain a blank canvas if I didn’t find something in the innocence of those strange creatures.

Take me through the artistic process.

You take a few potential ideas on dates. Once you find the one you like best, you take it to the next level. You get naked with it. In a sense, there is no process. After doing something long enough, you stop seeing the steps.

If you could choose anybody for your next project, who would it be?

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I’d like to do a portrait of Clint Eastwood for all the obvious reasons.

Tell me about ModStar. How did you get started and what are your main projects?

I got my start in New York by being asked to make the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire online game in 2000 for ABC. It got 30 million plays per month. This opened some doors. Modstar is how I make a living. It’s a boutique new media and creative marketing agency that I run out of LA and NY. We are fortunate to work with great clients like Warner Bros., Cirque du Soleil, Ford Models, Fox, Viacom and many more.

What are your thoughts on the LA art scene?

The LA art scene is a little insecure and it shouldn’t be. There is a great culture and tradition of theatre, film, surf and skate, graffiti and urban art. Many local artists feed off of these inspirations to create sensational work. In LA, there are some of the best art I have ever seen in lofts, at Bergamot Station, Downtown, and so on.

Who, besides yourself, do you think is an artist to look out for in LA?

In all fairness, there are many. I’ll avoid pissing off some friends by not naming anyone. I did, however, just buy a painting from a friend named Jan Dijkstra.

Where do you go to get your “art fix"?

Just open your eyes. Art in a gallery or museum is a packaged experience. I just try to keep a childlike fascination about my surroundings. Kids can spend hours staring at clouds and seeing all kinds of crazy things. They are still there. Bergamot Station is where I get my fix. I enjoy Gallery 1988 and Grey McGear. I also like Peanut Gallery run by Jacob Anthonisen who shows artists like Louis Carreon and Paul Allison.

Any new upcoming projects?

I’m having a new show on March 19th at HWood in Hollywood. The F.A.M. show (Fashion, Art & Music) is being put on by Barnett O'Hara from iModels and which is owned by Hollywood Studios. He is focusing on exposing emerging art, music, and fashion in LA. Dom Prietto, a sick local DJ, brought me to Barnett’s attention for the art portion of the happening. The art will be displayed at HWood which is a beautiful space. It’s rumored that there will be celebrities coming which is great if they buy my work. I’m also working on a new piece which is more abstract. I have two new series that I have painted over and over in my head. These will take considerable time and money. Great art is timeless so I can wait.

If you can't wait for Biago Black's next move, make sure to check out his website for past and present art series and to find out more info about upcoming shows.