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Photo: Joe Putrock

Young And Bold

The street artist RADICAL! is barely out of high school, but already his arresting images are no stranger to the gallery

By Josh Potter

The character is strapped to an electric chair, but the look on its skullish face is placid. The chair is tethered to a hot air balloon, itself wearing a skull face with hypodermic needles for teeth, and the strange vehicle drifts into a sky of scrap wood. Down below, the mourners wail and cry, hands pressed to their heads or hearts, tears spewing, doubled over, faces grimacing hideously. Wherever the hot air balloon is going, it doesn’t seem to ever be coming back.

The artist RADICAL! has a penchant for greeting viewers with work that’s bold, instantly recognizable, and more than a little unsettling. This piece, Carried Away (the last real summer ever), which hangs in the entrance to the Eco Primitive Eco Surreal show alongside Thomas D’Ambrose’s work at the Albany Center Gallery, is characteristic, yet, as compared to some of his graffiti work, or the 36-foot-tall painting of a screaming book creature that dominated the apse of St. Joseph’s Church at this summer’s HEAVY show, Carried Away is actually a bit subtle.

“I’ve had that idea for three years. I just didn’t know what feelings I wanted to have involved with it until now,” says Erik Savage, who uses the name RADICAL! to describe the entire world in which his characters operate and articulate a personal philosophy, in addition to cloaking his work’s authorship in the bombastic anonymity of a graffiti tag. During this time, Savage has shown his work all over the world—New York City, Washington, D.C., London, Tel Aviv, Moscow, and Basel, Switzerland—but three years constitutes the full breadth of Savage’s career, not to mention a good part of the 19-year-old’s adolescence.

Like his work, Savage is a compelling and affable mixture of contradictions. His title can be read as a statement of exuberance or transgression. His characters simultaneously court the viewer’s sympathy with their cartoonish features and repel it with their unnatural violence. The style is both highly systemized and seemingly dashed off. A street artist first, a painter second, Savage understands the way his work affects an audience, even while he’s just begun technical art training at Hudson Valley Community College. And as the Internet helps RADICAL! earn a global audience, he still lives in North Greenbush with his Mormon family. For this interview, his dad dropped him off on the way to church.

“I’m one of those kids that’s just been drawing since I possibly could,” Savage says. “Drawing dinosaurs and stuff. Around 10th grade, I remember I did this character, it was a whale that had this big squiggly tongue coming out and it was, like, tipping a hat with its tongue and had a mustache. It was just this goofy thing.” The squiggly tongue is still present in Savage’s work, and might best represent the way in which his images can be both cute and grotesque, not unlike, say, a Ren and Stimpy cartoon.

In Your New Dear, a decapitated deer lies in a pool of black blood, while its aggressor dons the severed head to woo a female acquaintance. A squiggly protruding tongue demonstrates her approval. “This imagery has always been progressing,” says Savage. “I started to build rules for myself and I’m just starting to refine the style and line work right now. Before, it was more surreal and abstract. If there were human elements, I had tweaked them . . . now I’m going back and rebuilding them in this new world.”

It was lowbrow art that first caught his attention and remains a primary influence. When they first moved to town, from Utah by way of Cleveland, Savage’s parents took the family to Bombers for his older brother’s birthday, and Savage became transfixed by the old mirrors, covered in hand-drawn stickers. “There was one of [local artist Mr.] Prvrt’s Nosferatu characters and a bunch of stuff,” he says, “and I thought it was college students who were bored and only had these postal labels to draw on. Then, on the Internet, I realized there was more to this street art.” Soon, inspired by the line work he found on punk and hardcore album art, he started writing graffiti and wheat pasting around Troy. He’s kept the RADICAL! tag ever since.

By the time he was 16, Savage already had a considerable body of work. His first proper show came that year at Troy’s Kismet Gallery, but it took a special degree of negotiation just to make the connection. “I remember they were doing a Dwell and One Unit show at the [Ultraviolet Café] by the Spectrum,” Savage says, “and I begged my dad for an hour to take me down there to meet them, like it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” His dad agreed, and the artists, who also co-ran Kismet, gave him a show, at once demonstrating how supportive the local art community and Savage’s family have been to RADICAL!

“I met Samson [Contompasis, of the Marketplace Gallery],” Savage remembers, and in his best imitation voice says, “He was like, ‘I’ve got this new loft space and I’ll make you canvasses you can bounce a quarter off of.’ I took him up on that.” He spent the rest of his high school years showing work at Kismet, the Fuze Box and the Marketplace Gallery, for Grand Street Community Arts’ Boarded Up project, and for a number of Contompasis’ other shows in Albany and New York City. You’ll find his work on the windows of St. Joseph’s Church and on the walls of the Wine N Diner bathroom. Despite the international attention he’s recently received, and even a Bushwick (Brooklyn) wheat-pasting project that the police put a quick end to, Savage’s immediate goals remain local. “I just want to rip a hole in this place in a positive way. In a loving way.”

Much is often made of Savage’s Mormon background, and while he admits that it’s an influence on his lifestyle, it’s been a fairly minor footnote in the scheme of his artwork. “My dad likes watching Fox News, gardening in his Boy Scout socks and listening to organ music,” Savage says, “and, you know what, I like making paintings. The more I’ve been doing it, the more [my parents] have been showing support. They tell me they’ll love me no matter what I do and I’m not going to push that. . . . I haven’t been to church in a while, but I definitely can say that the way I was raised and the teachings I was exposed to—if I didn’t have those, I’d probably be doing a lot of dumb stuff right now.”

Still, there’s a great deal of tension in Savage’s work. Large, bandaged hands descend from the sky like the instruments of god, to sedate a coffin-ridden heart with a giant needle in Sleep, or to meddle in the affairs of two honey-hungry bears in Caught Sticky-Handed. Aggressors assume the identity of others to get close to their prey, as in Down, where a chainsaw-toting character has donned a bear suit to reduce the forest to stumps, or in Sprinkle Power!, where a character carries two cops impaled on a pole, courtesy of its smiling donut suit.

Pills and needles are ubiquitous in his work, and Savage has had to be clear that they “are never used in a manner to promote drugs and other substances.” Instead, he says, they’re used to symbolize fear. Even when a character willingly dives into a pool of pills, the protruding needles cut through the image’s otherwise sedative connotations. In most instances, needles are used as direct instruments of violence. Chase depicts a pack of dogs with needles for heads, chasing a jogger in a cat suit. The plywood panel is inset in a microwave door. “Having [the needles] coming off of hands or out of a mouth, it shows a fear of interaction and socialization,” Savage says. “No matter how cute or inviting I make the characters, people would still be afraid of them. It’s taking into consideration why people feel like they can’t interact in public. I don’t really like to get political with my work, but I’ve thought about it in the sense that maybe if we did just talk more and interact more, certain problems and issues would be resolved quicker. People take kindness as something strange nowadays. It’s funny, really.”

In Dethroned, a wall-sized painting done on piecemeal cardboard, the show’s largest work, a giant fist with protruding needles slashes the face of a pig-headed cop. “That image is the because-I-can piece,” he says. “It’s clearly an image of violence, but unrealistic violence, therefore making you take into consideration whether or not it’s harmless. If people could relate more, it would touch on certain emotions.”

Despite the unsettling quality of his imagery, Savage says his work carries a simple goal: “to make people happy.” Problematic as this may be, it’s why he’s chosen to work more for the gallery and less for the street. “Doing graffiti illegally is all for self-satisfaction,” he says. “It only speaks to other writers.” He admits he still enjoys the meditative task of putting text or giant severed limbs on the sides of trains, and that it gives him a steadier hand, but “now, what I’m doing, I’m doing conceptually, not because I can’t do anything else.”

Perhaps this statement comes in response to criticism he’s long received from established artists that his precocious output puts style before technique and lacks “legitimacy.” If so, it’s something Savage is actively working to overcome, logging long hours in the HVCC studios developing his figure drawing and oil painting technique, meanwhile using his bus commute to brainstorm elaborate street-art projects he doesn’t yet have the time to execute. All the pieces for his Albany Center Gallery show were produced in one two-and-a-half-week burst after the semester ended, pulled from a notebook of backlogged ideas. “I didn’t talk to anyone or go anywhere,” he says. “I went out on New Year’s Eve but didn’t know how to function. I’d just been in my room, listening to blues, making the occasional caveman grunt. But that’s what I love doing. I feel like it’s what I’m good for.”

Eco Primitive Eco Surreal: Thomas D’Ambrose and RADICAL! continues at the Albany Center Gallery (39 Columbia St., Albany) through Feb. 12.

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