“I don’t mind being called messy, but being called sloppy would make me mad. There’s a difference.”
It’s a subtle, almost ineffable difference to Patrick Porter, but large enough to make him pause temporarily, draw the stem of a Miller High Life into his Rasputin-worthy beard and shuffle his Justin Bieber notebook on the table in front of him. Until now the words had issued forth unmediated, nearly manic with an occasional cowboy affectation, much like the flurry of chicken scratch that characterizes some of his larger canvasses, or endless segue of clattering guitar that constitutes his elliptical discography.
These would be the obvious places to go for evidence of the distinction Porter is trying to make. Is a piece like “Lincoln Park” messy or sloppy—its overhead view of the titular place flattened with black marks, some figures approximating buildings and people with text squeezed into all the remaining white, describing the flight of birds, sound of coughing and succession of the moon cycle? Is it messy or sloppy, the way the fractured guitar riff springs out of unintelligible conversation on “Clack,” the opening track of his new record Effort? And since art mirrors life—or vice versa—is the painter-musician-novelist’s dashing evening ensemble of stripes on plaids sloppy or just messy?
“Sloppiness is nihilistic, while messiness is more existential,” he says at last. “. . . if that makes any sense. Sloppy is mean-spirited while the sky is messy. Sloppiness can cover up for a lack of ideas or feeling. But being a human being is messy. I detest sloppy work, [but] I have a messy brain.”
Porter isn’t in the business of convincing anyone of anything. “I just want to tell the truth,” he’ll admit later on, “even though the truth is always changing. I don’t care about style really.” But style is the thing the audience notices first, whether in a painting or on a record, long before the truth seeps in, and Porter’s style is similarly one that will either attract or repel on first whiff. The press materials for Always Is Where It Always Is, his solo show at the Foundry for Art Design + Culture in Cohoes (open through Oct. 21), use the word “messy” one “and” away from “brilliant,” terms that might be understood as synonymous so long as this whole messy/sloppy issue remains properly parsed.
“I love mistakes sometimes because I love when something sounds obtuse at first and it hurts your brain. . . . That room is like walking into my brain,” Porter says of the gallery show, a wide-ranging collection of works on paper and canvas, punctuated on Friday (Oct. 12) by a live musical performance. “The more you listen to the song, though, the more you get used to it. An honest-to-god fuck up—I like to leave it there.”
The cover of Bachelor Pad Blue; Bent Pants and Stray Cats depicts a stick-figure wolf howling at a street lamp, rendered in Porter’s standard Sharpie and crayon. The image might as well be a self-portait: a pack animal on his own, entranced by the glow of the city.
“I grew up in some stupid cowboy town in Colorado,” Porter says, the same small town upon which South Park is based. “The name of the road was Gunsmoke Drive and the next door neighbors were militant Christians. They were totally normal except they were preparing for the rapture all the time.” If adolescence is alienating by definition, this setting was another layer of captivity for a kid with an eye for Jackson Pollock and an ear for Thelonious Monk. “I found the mountains forboding—these jagged monstrosities. Where I grew up, on one side of the house there were a billion stars. On the other was the distant glow of Denver. I remember looking out my window on that side.”
After high school, he moved to Lakewood, Col., to take philosophy classes at the community college, mostly because it was something to do, his girlfriend was going there and he liked Schopenhauer. This is the kind of decision making Porter seems to follow in both his work and life, something “which led to some ups and downs.”
He first landed in the Capital Region nearly 10 years ago after a girl wrote him saying she liked his poetry. “Writing is my closest thing, first love or whatever,” he says. “It’s what I thought I was going to be.” He’s produced three novels, a collection of stories and poems. “I want to write books again, but it’s such a lonely life. I used to be very solipsistic, probably from growing up in the middle of nowhere, but now I like the feeling of people more.”
So he bought a Greyhound ticket for Schenectady, “which was strange because I thought Schenectady was New York City. I thought it would be Charles Mingus on one side, Willem de Kooning on the other, walking down Bleeker Street. Then I got into the Greyhound Station on State Street . . .” But the move did spark a love for the East, a place he describes as having European majesty. The following years saw a number of moves, back to Colorado, to Connecticut, New Hampshire and the Bronx, but, he says, “I’m a city boy now,” seemingly a midsized city boy.
One wall of his Foundry show is devoted to work that might loosely be described as cityscapes, complex grids of architectural cubes and crude figures milling about the structures. Perhaps because he tends to paint these scenes out in public (“Fried Chicken Restaurant, 3:23 AM,” “NY Dept of Social Services”) they lack the mechanized anonymity that larger cityscapes might engender. Instead, “Lark and Madison” conveys the bustle of a busy intersection but each person in the scene retains individuality without being absorbed into the hive.
However, Porter’s first foray into visual art making came in a properly urban setting, when he was living in the Bronx with a ballet teacher. In a state of poverty he describes as scary, he started drawing scenes from the city in crayon on the backs of pizza and cracker boxes, selling them now and again in Union Square. “I was this rube, this cornpone,” he says, who didn’t even know about Jean-Michel Basquiat at the time. When he broke up with the girl and moved back to Colorado, she mailed him all his stuff, including a cardboard box full of these paintings. He took them to a Denver gallery owner, dumped them on the floor and got a show.
“Writing taught me a lot about painting and painting taught me a lot about writing,” he says, admitting he lacks formal training in both. “I could write a deadly serious story about something that happened in my past, but if I had to draw it, it would be a doodle.” Yet, much of Porter’s visual art combines the two forms, adding lengthy, narrative captions/titles to relatively simple images. “My only stake in the game is that my soul is stuck here,” one frame reads, depicting a stick figure with its navel plugged into an outlet. “We admitted we love each other,” another says of two sketchy figures in profile, “now we’re boring.”
“I think I blew a gasket [working on novels] and got very simple and dumber than I used to be. Which is good because I don’t have all the choices that I used to have. [The doodle] is already making fun of itself, and that’s the best thing to me. You can capture the seriousness of a moment in your life and you can also turn around and make fun of it. All of my art is laughing and crying at the same time.”
That initial gallery show was in 2007, and Porter has been supporting himself on the paintings he can sell ever since. “There are times when I’m real broke,” he admits, but says he’s also unemployable. “Every job I’ve had, I got fired. I can’t concentrate on anything but what’s going on . . . but I don’t need very much.” He also doesn’t hold a driver’s license, which limits his daily reality to the Center Square neighborhood in which he lives and creates his art.
“I get a lot of ideas just walking around, watching birds,” he says. A trip to Price Chopper or a ride on the bus might be the start of a new song or painting. “It always starts with feelings, then feelings turn into ideas and it turns into something tangible.” Whether that idea then becomes a song or a painting largely has to do with what creative phase he’s going through. “Sometimes I quit painting completely and I’m just making records. I just finished a record and now I hate the thought of recording. There’s always something going through me that I can’t get rid of. Sometimes I wish I could just shut it up because I feel very antsy if I’m not making something all the time.”
With Effort, Porter has now released 14 albums on small independent (many now defunct) labels. Although he describes his listening habits as “very arbitrary” to whatever his brain is doing in the course of recording his own music, you might be able to constellate an idea of his sound from the list he provides: Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Boy Williamson, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Sharrock, George Jones, Swell Maps, the Buzzcocks and Beck. This last entry may be the most revealing, though. Records like A Swan at Smiley’s, released in 2008 by Grey Day Records, features the same ramshackle lo-fi folk approach that Beck pioneered on his early records Golden Feelings and One Foot in the Grave, jammed full of detuned guitar, anthems to snack food and hilarious clips of grainy monologue. However, when you go back in Porter’s catalog, you move forward in Beck’s (in keeping with this oversimplified analogy), with the gorgeous Lisha Kill, released by the Australian Camera Obscura label in 2005, featuring patient John Fahey-style finger-picked guitar, moody vocals and electronic washes, not entirely unlike Beck’s later Mutations or Sea Change.
“Before [Lisha Kill], I was scared to let real feelings out,” he says. “Afraid people would think I was nuts. I like the idea of songs being born in one day, recorded and then forgotten.” This often becomes literal, as Porter will often forget the tunings he used to record a song when it comes time to play it live. “It’s like those old blues or country records where you can tell there was one mic in the room. You feel the life of that moment forever.”
Some might call the effect messy, or even sloppy, but the blatant mistakes that this approach preserves help convey the underlying feeling better than a bunch of polished overdubs could. “The songs come from this existential woe—or ‘whoa!’ like that Blossom guy,” Porter says. “I’m hyper meticulous when I make the song so that I don’t want to go back and screw with it when my heart might not be in the exact same place.”
In this sense, there’s a naturalism at the heart of Porter’s work, both sonic and visual, a longing to capture experience in its rawest form, despite the imperfection. “The world itself is the only thing that is insanely abstract and completely figurative at the same time,” he says. “I’m not smart enough—no one’s smart enough—to do that exactly.” Otherwise, that insatiable urge to make ever more songs and paintings would likely dry up for good. “I figured out a long time ago that I couldn’t do anything cool or hip or self-conscious. It would just destroy everything. I have to completely tell the truth, whatever my brain is telling me, unfortunately. I’m not fighting fate anymore, so long as I can draw in my Bieber notebook, make records and write books.”