Lizzi Bougatsos is a pervasive figure in New York culture. As a musician, she is a member of Gang Gang Dance and I.U.D., two groundbreaking musical groups in which she passionately drums and sings with a primal, wailing sort of joy. Like her bandmate, Brian DeGraw, she is also an artist exhibiting at James Fuentes gallery, in lower Manhattan. She’s known for her idiosyncratic approach to appropriation, and her use of found materials—advertisements, mostly—to construct absurd collisions of commercial images. The works seem, on the surface, like subversive jokes, but they never point to any kind of direct interpretation or commentary, which is what keeps them open-ended and potent and able to undermine a viewer’s daily, rote consumption of visual culture.
THE BELIEVER: Do you think of your visual art as connected to your music?
LIZZI BOUGATSOS: I do, I do now more than ever. I think it was a personal struggle for me for a long time because I was putting so much energy into Gang Gang Dance, and managing them, and doing all the busywork that it took me away from my art making, so I could never love them as one thing. But gradually, I’m starting to think of them in the same way. It’s just about me opening my mind more. I think I had a lot of resentment toward the band for a while, because I never got to make any art. Everything took so much time—the rehearsing and the writing and just the whole thing.
BLVR: It’s a long, slow process, making music with a band.
LB: Yeah, and then also your band members have to be really open to you making art.
BLVR: Do you usually have a studio?
LB: [Shaking her head] Mm-mm.
BLVR: Do you make art all the time or, if you’re more of a project-based artist, when the opportunity comes up?
LB: I don’t make art when I’m on tour; I’m just too tired.
BLVR: Does the art come out of the same well as the music?
LB: No, my music comes from a deep inside place. It’s not about… It’s more within, like, inner—yeah.
BLVR: Your art seems to be more about culture and found material. For instance, the gyro poster you bought from a Greek restaurant—
LB: A gyro truck.
BLVR: How much do they sell them for?
LB: I got that one for twenty, but it takes a lot of nerve to, like, build up all this energy to go up to somebody and ask to buy a poster they have on their truck. Like, I’m pretty shy about it. I usually walk by three or four times a month to see if it’s still there. Eventually, I just get up and do it. One time I had my gallery do it. I just get too shy.
BLVR: So you often buy things you see on the street? Things that aren’t necessarily for sale?
BLVR: What about the Tracy Morgan poster?
LB: That one I ripped off a telephone booth. It was on Canal and Orchard. Luckily it was plastered on top of the glass. I’ve done pieces where I’ve ripped them from actual sidewalks where they wheat-paste them and stuff.
BLVR: You can pull those off?
LB: It’s really hard.
LB: There was one time, this guy in this movie [James Marsden] had this really amazing smile and I wanted to put braces on his teeth. So my gallerist drove me to the Bronx and we went to the place where they were making the posters before they were wheat-pasted. We got one that was really clean. I mean, it was offset, but it was really clean.
BLVR: What was the first poster you stole?
LB: A Mary J. Blige poster that said “No More Drama.” I love that piece. My friend [the artist] Daniel McDonald was like, “You should go take that down and sign your name on it,” and I was like, “OK.” And it turned out being, like, my thing. Like, whenever I would see posters, I would go when the sun went down and I’d try to rip them down. Like, I did it with a Shakira poster and then I stabbed a knife in it. And then, I don’t know, the Tracy Morgan one was just a little bit—I was dealing with an actual face, you know? I wasn’t dealing with a singer, or somebody else’s album. I wasn’t dealing with the Warhol signature thing. I was using this guy’s face as my own.
BLVR: You think of them as autobiographical?
LB: Yeah. It’s all like a type of self-portraiture for me. I feel like all my works are. I find a lot of posters on tour. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to deal with ripping them down or talking to the people, especially when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language. In Istanbul there were these photographs of these two women. They were in this photo shop, and the photos were actually of the nieces of the woman who owned the shop—they were, like, their high-school portrait, and I really liked them. So in that case, I’ll get the posters and have them shipped, and then something will happen in the shipping, and that will become part of the piece. Everything’s just really process-oriented, even the process of me working up the nerve to ask for posters.
BLVR: You use mostly found objects?
LB: Yeah. I hate printing, and I hate buying things. And I hate… you know, like, Kinko’s and all that. I mean, one time I printed this one image out really big there and I got really excited about it. But it’s just so boring. [Laughs]
BLVR: Right. It’s nice, too, when the object’s already in the world for another reason.
LB: Yeah. I’m a firm believer in taking things out of their context and making them something of your own. I hate when people just rip something off. But some things just have to be made and some things should be painted, I feel.
BLVR: Did you start as a painter?
LB: No, I mean, I always wanted to be a painter. That’s what I always wanted to do. I studied ceramics for years. Like maybe eight or nine years. Devoted to the craft. [Laughs] To the medium.
BLVR: To pure ceramics.
LB: I was making figures out of molds. I went to China and I brought back all these molds and I made body parts. I made car parts—I was kind of obsessed with engines. I made paintings on plates that were really, like, Italian pottery style.
BLVR: And did you abandon that?
LB: I haven’t abandoned it. I learned a lot of original painting techniques through it. And I started painting maybe four years ago. I made an oil painting and it was pretty good. [Laughter] I was pretty impressed. So maybe my dream of becoming a painter—
BLVR: Is coming true!
LB: Is coming true.
BLVR: That’s bold, to just jump into painting. I love when artists just try something totally new.
LB: What else can you do?