How can you not love serious artists that don’t take themselves too seriously, and that admit to Mad Magazine, UFOs, Stephen King and 60s & 70s TV as their influences?
“Cartoons involve violence, misogyny, insensitivity to marginal people of all sorts. And it is sort of culturally okay in the cartoon arena. I think our work pushed back against the dogma of political correctness and took a snarky free speech stance sometimes. All my favorite jokes are sexually transgressive, aren’t yours?” – Tag Team
Tag Team is the collaborative effort of sculptor, Walter Robinson, and painter, Tim Sharman, both well-respected gallery artists in their own right. The duo met 15 years ago and discovered a mutual affinity for each other’s work and sense of humor and decided to embark on an exploratory body of work together, different from their solo pursuits. One of them would start a piece of art and mail it to the other, who would respond then mail it back. Many of the drawings were passed back and forth several times, and over the course of ten years Tag Team produced over 300 drawings.
The process allowed them the anonymity and freedom to play with deviant topics and cartoonishly disturbing imagery. Though both men are in at least their fifth decade, the night I met them at the opening of their current show at Madrone Art Bar in the trendy NOPA neighborhood of San Francisco, they were cracking each other up with crass inside jokes like two geeky teenagers. Happily pointing out the pornographic section of the show with huge grins on their faces, they said the only off-limit subjects were Jesus and blow-jobs.
The show inspires multiple viewings. Madrone is plastered with 100s of unframed drawings, pinned salon-style to the gallery wall. Each of the pieces are dense with color, layers of imagery and inside jokes, and with so much to take in, even the bartenders and gallery owner say they still see something new every time they look. Both Walter and Tim were entertained when I dubbed my favorite drawing Big Balled Bats. From a distance, childlike V-shaped birds in a yellow-green sky look like flies, or bats with huge breasts, until upon closer inspection one sees that the breasts are actually huge hairy balls.
To honor the spirit of Tag Team, I interviewed Walter and Tim separately, but assigned only the names TT1 and TT2 to their answers, to give the reader a sense of the individual artists while mirroring their mashup as one collaborative response. They did not see each other’s answers.
Their current exhibition, The Art of Tag Team, is on display at Madrone Art Bar (500 Divisadero St., San Francisco), through November, and includes over 200 mixed-media drawings. Most are available at the very buyer-friendly “we are the 99%” price of $99 so that you can get one for yourself and one for your brother or your best friend.
Rumpus: Tell me about the night you two first met and hatched the idea of Tag Team. Explain how the process works.
TT1: I met Walter at an opening of mine in San Francisco in 1996. I was showing a series of cartoonish nudes and portraits along with the artwork of a mutual friend of Walter’s and I. Walter bought two watercolors out of the show and as we talked we discovered we were liking a lot of the same art stuff. After the exhibition, Walter invited me to his house. He was getting rid of some materials that he thought I would be interested in and I got to see his artwork for the first time and I was looking at an artist that almost resembled me. Afterwards we decided to start sending drawings to one another.
TT2: I was introduced to Tim when he had a show of paintings with a mutual friend. I bought 4 of his drawings, so I appreciated his work. I got in touch with him and offered him some panels to paint on and we began to talk. We found we had a lot in common and hatched the idea of a drawing collaboration through the mail. In the beginning we each started works on 8×12 paper and sent them back and forth.
Rumpus: After starting the collaborative process, did you ever have buyer’s remorse, thinking, Shit, what did I just commit to?
TT2: Not at all. It was exciting to see what came back. And I felt compelled to create a great response.
Rumpus: Were there any rules you started out with, or that have developed while working on pieces? And if rules is too harsh a word, maybe what are some of the guidelines you use in Tag Team?
TT1: The only rules we had with the drawings done for the mail was these: No oil paints and that the drawings would all be 9 x 12”, to fit into a manila envelope.
TT2: The only restrictions were materials that didn’t dry fast, so no oil paint. The subject matter developed organically as we learned visually what our cultural references were.
Rumpus: What’s the minimal amount of work one turn would take? A squiggle, an entire scene, a background? Were there any pieces you decided not to add to?
TT1: It all depended on the drawing at hand. Every one took on a life of it’s own and we would tend it to the best of our abilities. Sometimes the drawing had too very little effort to guide it to maturity; some of the drawings wilted and became static. When we first started, we would decide that if a drawing became impossible to finish we would tear it up. Later we did a more humane thing and gessoed over it, making the image a layer for another image.
TT2: We added whatever it took to push the narrative. Sometimes we added characters, a background, a formal abstract pattern. In the beginning we set each other up more consciously, eliciting a response or laying down a challenge to outdo our addition. Not in a competitive way, but to push each other further. It wasn’t until we got to know each other that we felt like we could leave a first effort alone. This didn’t happen too often.
Rumpus: How many times would one work go back and forth between you?
TT1: We gave each other the right to deem a drawing done without the consent of the other, so a drawing would be mailed back and forth until one of us would put it in our done file. If the drawing got mailed back and forth for a while and no one said it was finished, we would gesso over it.
TT2: Each piece was different – sometimes we would each do one round, sometimes up to 3 or 4.
Rumpus: Do you feel possessive about what aspects/drawings/parts are yours in each artwork? Are you willing to say what parts of a drawing you are responsible for, or is keeping some sort of anonymity part of the fun?
TT1: Why spoil the fun. We made the drawings as a combined entity. In this collaboration, there is no this is my contribution, that is his contribution. We feel we can claim each other’s contribution as our own.
TT2: I am not concerned with anonymity. We can usually pick out our contributions. Each of us has strong points which we came to recognize, so a default pattern developed to some extent. For example: backgrounds/environments and transgressive characters/situations were two big departments. There are things I am proud of doing myself, but the real reward is in the mélange.
Rumpus: How different was the experience for you of either starting a piece, or responding off of a drawing that came to you? Did a drawing ever stump you? What’s the longest time you sat on a drawing, or are there still some sitting in your studio waiting for your turn?
TT1: I myself, would get excited when I saw the package of drawings would arrive in the mail. First I wanted to see how Walter reacted to the previously sent drawings and the new drawings that he started. His contributions would always inspire me to know what to add or subtract. Of course there is always the dud drawing, that starts out bad and just gets stinky, that’s when we would decide on a gesso rejuvenation bath to start afresh. Both Walter and I have drawings that were left unfinished when finally our life schedules became increasingly busy and time for Tag Team faded away.
TT2: Starting a drawing was pretty open-ended and was a chance to use ideas or materials that were currently of interest to me. Responding was more of a challenge sometimes. There were conceptual as well as formal problems to solve. Occasionally we discussed these problems and that directed solutions. Either way, it seemed to be easy to go at it with wide-open intuition. Sometimes a drawing was less inspiring, and took longer to respond to, and sometimes we maybe decided to accept it as an undernourished whole, or we cannibalized passages from it to collage into new pieces. We just moved on to the more inspiring ones, of which there were plenty. There are still unfinished parts around.
Rumpus: Did you ever ask for one back because later on you decided it wasn’t finished?
TT1: It’s possible that happened, but I don’t recall ever asking to do more on a drawing once one of us declared it finished.
TT2: I don’t think so. But we never regarded them as so precious that they could not be altered at a later point.
Rumpus: Did you ever feel like you ruined what the other person made?
TT1: All the time. Sometimes a drawing would come to me so perfect that I was afraid to add anything, thinking I couldn’t match it artistically. That was when we decided that even one of us could do a drawing and by one of us declaring it done, it became a Tag Team Drawing.
TT2: Not really. I hope he feels the same. I guess if you don’t want to mess up, you should work alone.
Rumpus: Tell me how these collaborative pieces differ from the other work you do, and the other work you are known for?
TT1: It doesn’t differ too much from the way I make my own work. Working with someone else just expands the artistic playing field for me.
TT2: I am known as a sculptor. This work is detail oriented and involves careful planning and big investments of time for each piece. A piece might start intuitively, but there is a lot of conscious consideration in actualizing something in three dimensions. Tag Team was a chance to just throw it out there without fear of failure. There were so many points of entry, that it wasn’t a big effort to plug into something.
Rumpus: How does your relationship with the collaborations differ from your seriousness or expectations of your other solo work? What does working on this project do for you?
TT1: I view doing the collaborations as an extension of my artistic output, so I put serious artistic thinking into it as I would any of my projects. And just like all my projects I also place a high priority on having fun.
TT2: My solo work also takes into account what the body of work is about in a bigger sense – how the objects may inter-relate conceptually in the context of an installation, and what kind of physical presence they embody. It is more philosophical. It is also about making shit with my hands – this is sort of a sacred relationship that I have with the world. Drawing allows for another kind of relationship with the world. For me personally, Tag Team was not a place to self-edit and try and control things. So in a way, Tag Team was more like going on a journey and not caring where you are going. My sculptural work has a map.
Rumpus: What did you learn about the other person while making these drawings together?
TT1: I learned to trust another artist to save a drawing from the horrible disfigurement that I inflicted on it.
TT2: Lots of things. Personality, values, work ethic. How his brain worked and how he perceived the world. It allowed me to see someone else’s “gift” up close and personal. We both grew up in the bay area and it was interesting to find similar experiences and influences.
Rumpus: Did you allow yourself to experiment with media or tools that you normally don’t use often, or might not consider yourself proficient with? What is the range of media you used in this collaborative series?
TT1: Aside from the drawings, which uses the usual suspects of art media, we have tried our hand at giant paper origami, cut paper flowers and creating puppets and sculpture out of paper and tape. We had almost mastered the twenty-minute double portrait and we tried our hand at a time-lapse video. I’d say we pushed ourselves a little.
TT2: For me, not really being a painter, I learned a lot of new things: gouache, mixing colors, brushes. We used watercolor, inks, acrylic paint, spray paint, gouache, pencil, collage. Later we made some more sculptural pieces that involved hand made frames and assemblage, as well as puppets and big origami.
Rumpus: There is some real playfulness, and in some ways, coming-of-age themes in the imagery. What is your history with cartoons & comics, and who do you see as influence in the work?
TT1: I read and drew comics (all forms) as a kid and I still do. Superheroes, Bugs Bunny, Big Foot, UFOs, ghosts, Monsters, puppets, models, and hours and hours of TV sitcoms, Twilight Zone and reading Stephen King. (I will admit that). As for artistic influences, everybody!
TT2: We both grew up with Mad Magazine and comic books and early TV. Most of the Mad artists were influences – Basil Wolverton for sure. My parents limited my access to low culture more. Tim has an encyclopedic memory of 60’s and 70’s TV and comics. I absorbed the stuff less directly: sarcastic humor and irony were just in the air. It was a posture that made living under a nuclear cloud a little bit sunnier.
Rumpus: Was there any topic/subject/image taboo?
TT1: If there were, we placed them on ourselves, not collectively.
TT2: When 2 guys meet, humor, power, slang, sexuality become convenient tools to break the ice with. You figure out what the other person’s limits are. I think it was hard setting the bar too low. But on the other hand, I think we are both compassionate and thoughtful guys and didn’t want to discomfort viewers too much. Honestly, I remember discussing this a couple of times and drawing the line at blowjobs and Jesus.
Rumpus: Were you ever shocked by the drawing you received, or were there times that you intentionally upped the ante to see what the other person would respond with?
TT1: All the time.
TT2: I may have been shocked by the beauty of it or strangeness. Morally, I think I may have shocked him more. I think we both upped the ante to push the other person a lot.
Rumpus: In the show there is an area you called the “pornographic” section, but I saw plenty of drawings dispersed throughout the entire spread that could probably fall into that category. Can you talk about some of the other recurring themes in the work and what they meant to you. For example: creepy elves, pig-people, Disney characters, big-butted Crumb girls, bare tits and you could say, women in repose, or maybe juxtaposed into compromising positions? I’d also be happy to hear about other recurring elements of textures and patterns and materials.
TT1: As for the stuff we draw, we both are able through certain mental exercises, to think like 13-year-old boys.
TT2: We did a series for a show we called Neurotica that were deliberately sexually titillating or transgressive. This was always a theme, but this show focused on it consciously. Cartoons involve violence, misogyny, insensitivity to marginal people of all sorts. And it is sort of culturally okay in the cartoon arena. I think our work pushed back against the dogma of political correctness and took a snarky free speech stance sometimes. All my favorite jokes are sexually transgressive, aren’t yours? As far as formal elements, we sometimes borrowed styles from other painters or street art that had currently interested us.
Rumpus: There definitely seems to be a dialog in the drawings, sometimes almost a call-and-response. Are there inside jokes in the art? Or a hidden language in the imagery?
TT1: Laced with them. I couldn’t tell you what they are now, but I remember putting a lot of that stuff in. The way we composed our drawings was always an invitation to respond to what we placed there, imagery-wise and also text-wise. We had a game going where a word would appear on the drawing and another word would appear next to it, creating a phrase some times.
TT2: I don’t think anything is secret or hidden in a coded way. This is everyone’s culture.
Rumpus: My husband is an artist and he talks about how a drawing can bring back detailed memories of the day he made it, as if everything that was going on at that time is caught in the work, that the drawing serves as a visual memory trigger for that moment in time. Are phases of your lives encapsulated in the images or recurring themes?
TT1: Phases of our lives encapsulated in the drawings? Maybe, if there are they were placed there by my subconscious.
TT2: I get that phenomena more when I really get into a zone on one piece which involves deeper concentration and longer periods of time. So this happens with my solo work a lot. When Tag Team worked on drawings together at the same location, I have memories of those occasions and things we talked about or did. There was usually a lot of banter and joking about what we were working on. We made so many drawings that in retrospect I can’t recall specific moments so much, but I can roughly identify which phase of the project something came from. I can remember things I was going through personally at certain periods, and in retrospect some of the imagery could be symptomatic of those parts of my life.
Rumpus: If so, could you read, almost as a second secret language, what was going on in the life of the other team member by what was coming through in the imagery?
TT1: Interesting Questions. I only knew when Walter had a lot of free time on his hands because the drawing package would be loaded with drawings. When he was busy, there was just a few. Sometimes you get an inkling by certain images, but what the heck, we are always working out our problems in our art right? Right?
TT2: I feel like this work was not as deeply cathartic as my solo work. It was sort of an explosion of everything that had been absorbed into my subconscious. Maybe you could look at each piece of shrapnel and try and analyze it, but there is just too many pieces. Just like there is too much visual information in our lives now to bother looking deeper into the meaning of each piece. I can’t really read in the work what Tim was going through at the time either. I think Tag Team was a place to escape what was going on in our lives. Maybe this is something guys do.
Rumpus: How did you feel about collaboration before you started working on this together? How do you feel about it now?
TT1: I have been involved with different forms of artistic collaboration many times dating back to grade school. With Walter, I found the perfect partner in crime. We had a blast.
TT2: I had never collaborated with anyone else, but was aware of a few other collaborations. I had never imagined doing it, but the right person appeared at the right time. In the beginning it was exhilarating. To work with someone else that shared my outlook and delivered at a level that was challenging and proficient was exciting. Later on when we started doing portrait-painting performances, it became more like work and less “fun”. But in retrospect, we cranked out a lot of entertaining work and created something unique. It takes a certain kind of ego/personality to do this. A lot of collaborations don’t last as long as ours. People’s lives change, and the amount of time available to put into it changes. It is sort of like being in a band – and most of them run their course. I would recommend it to anyone.