“My art is now heading in a much more contemporary direction, more serious sculpture, larger scale art projects, as well as manufacturing pieces too. That’s the way i’d like to take it now.” Harif Guzman.
Story and Interview by Michael Williams
As I walk up the dark stairwell to artist Harif Guzman’s Soho loft I hear the familiar sounds of Jane’s Addiction “Classic Girl”. I can’t help feeling like I’m in some sort of a time warp. The scene feels like something out of the early 1990’s when New York was still New York and many artists could still afford to live in Manhattan. Perhaps this is just a wave of nostalgia over taking me but I can’t help feeling a real sense of hope that, despite most artists being pushed out to Bushwick, Hudson, or even LA, maybe there’s still some art-world soul lingering in Soho.
As I enter the vast loft I see Imagista photographer Lynda Churilla perched high upon a ladder as Harif Guzman rolls around the wood floor next to one of his large paintings. There’s something about Harif’s easy-going confidence and impeccable street style that makes him a great photographic subject. Both he and his work simultaneously give me hope for Manhattan’s art scene.
To me, Harif’s paintings recall Basquiat and I can’t help feeling a wave of old New York art-world nostalgia. Of course Harif is way too young to have any first hand experience of Basquiat. I managed to get small taste of that time through an art dealer family friend I knew growing up who dealt with Jean Michel. My high school buddies and I would get high and trip out on the Basquiat’s my friend’s Dad had hanging on his living room wall. And as oblivious as I was at that age to modern art it was hard to ignore those Basquiat paintings. I have the same feeling when I look at Harif’s work although his work feels far from derivative.
I leave the photo shoot safe in the thought that, in this Brooklyn era for the arts, it’s wonderful to think that thanks to artists like Harif Guzman, Manhattan still holds its own.
An Imagista Interview
A few days later Harif and I caught up over Skype. Here’s how that went down…
Imagista: So you how did you end up becoming an artist?
Harif Guzman: I became an artist by default really. A lot of my becoming an artist had to do with my Dad being a printer. He and my Mom were always very stylish. He did a lot of off-set printing and typesetting. I had to work with him and was kinda like his little slave you know. I was young and was kind of just forced into it. I really didn’t embrace it that much. It was really just a job that I did on and off until I was about 15 years old. But I always doodled a lot. Around 1996 I started painting.
Imagista: So as a kid were you always making art?
H.G: Yes and no. As a kid I was always drawing and stuff like that but I never took any extra art classes or anything like that. I was actually more into skateboarding than anything else.
Imagista: Was it skateboarding that inspired you the most as a young artist or was it something else?
H.G: Honestly, my greatest source of inspiration was survival. I was just trying to survive really.
I never really had a childhood. I never had a stable home base. I moved from apartment to apartment and from room to room.
From a young age I watched my parents stress and especially so during their divorce when we really didn’t have any money. I felt like I was a witness of their karma. One would go up as the other would go would go down. There were always challenges in my parent’s lives. I learned to respect the hustle and the struggle.
I was always inspired by women. I’ve always loved women. I lived a lot with my sisters and my Mom, besides living with my Dad, and I really respected them.
I was also inspired by travel. I left home at an early age and moved around a lot. I met some interesting people that way.
I was also really into the movies. I lived for film. I’d live vicariously through cinema. My inspiration was that one day i’d attain some sort of normality.
Imagista: Where did you grow up?
I was born in Venezuela then moved to Columbia, to Puerto Rico, then to New York. And from New York I moved to New Jersey for a little bit, then back to New York, then to Ft. Lauderdale/Miami. I found myself in a tough situation while living in Florida. It was a really bad situation. It was just bad for me there. All my friends had gone to California to skate so i decided to take my chances and drove to California with about $200. I lived all over California for a few years including San Clemente, San Francisco, and LA. It wasn’t an easy time either.
So around age 24 I moved back to NYC to be near my Mom. But she was going through hard times herself and at age 24 I found myself homeless with about $20 in my pocket.
But out of that struggle my alter ego was born. I was good friends with Harold Hunter who inspired me a lot. His acting career was taking off
(Editor’s Note: Harold was in the Larry Clark film ‘Kids’ that was written by Harmony Korine, and co-starred Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson)
Imagista: I actually knew Harold really well. He was such a great guy. I was really sad when he passed. I went on a week’s vacation in the Caribbean with he and Jus Ske years ago on a mutual friend’s yacht. We had an amazing week. Can you tell me more about your friendship?
H.G: Wow, that’s crazy that you knew him too. Actually, one of my goals in life to one day own a boat that i’ll name the Harold Hunter and sail around the world for a year.
Harold taught me a lot. He taught me how the city worked and operated. He told me who was who as well as who had my back and who didn’t. He kinda took me under his wing. I slept on his floor sometimes. It wasn’t like he had it easy either though.
Imagista: What was your first paid art gig?
H.G: I was introduced to Stefano Rosso, the founder of Diesel’s son (now C.E.O of OTB Group), through a friend of mine who worked at 55DSL. Stefano had seen my Hacula tags around the city and suggested we do a show.
We mounted a show and I sold a few paintings and that was my real start. From there it took me to Volcom and from Volcom I also did some work with Burton. Volcom used my work for ads in Vice and took me around to do various shows including at the Claska gallery in Tokyo and other shows around the world. That all gave me a little press, a little steam you know. That was a good start for me.
Imagista: How has your art evolved since those early days?
H.G: Basically i’ve evolved into a contemporary artist. It’s important to me to evolve. I believe that without evolution there is nothing. Even great artists like Basquiat evolved. He didn’t just keep painting the same thing.
I think you can see the influence of the different materials i’ve had access to work with throughout the years. I’ve developed from being a young person, to a young adult, to a grown man. I’ve also been blessed to have mentors like Damien Hirst and Sante D’Orazio as well as friends like Jeffrey Jah and the people he’s introduced me to.
Sante was one of the first people to say to me, “Harif, you’re a great painter but you need to do your research and understand your history and your references. I try to educate myself too through books and by going to galleries and museums. I also visit important shows around the world. A lot of fashion photographers have also mentored me because i’ve done a lot of photography. You run into a lot of great people living in New York and you can’t helped not being influenced and inspired by all these amazing people who are talented in different ways. Also, not talking so much has been a big part of my development. Talking less and listening more is important and that’s something that’s changed me.
Imagista: So then, is New York City your muse?
H.G: Well my muses have always been women. But yes, New York City is also my muse. The energy of this place is like none other. New York City is a place that can beat you up whether you have no money or a lot of money. This city has killed a lot of great artists that never escaped. It’s all about having an escape too if you live here.
Imagista: Where is your art heading now?
H.G: My art is now heading in a much more contemporary direction, more serious sculpture, larger scale art projects, as well as manufacturing pieces too. That’s the way i’d like to take it now.
Artist: Harif Guzman
Photographer: Lynda Churilla
Interview: Michael Williams
Contributing Editor: Jeffrey Jah