Artists Devin Liston & Gosha Levochkin - devNgosha collectively - collaborate to create vibrant and surreal paintings out of their Los Angeles-based studio. We visited them recently to discuss their upcoming show, Thirst, opening Saturday, March 14 at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery. They explained the inspiration behind their collection, which quite literally hits very close to home, the trials and tribulations of working together on one canvas, and their opinion of the current art world.
Labeling Men: So give us some of your background.
Gosha Levochkin: I’m originally from Russia. I was born in Moscow and came here in 1996 and I’ve lived in LA ever since.
Devin Liston: I’m from Seattle. I’ve lived in Cali for 12 years, LA for 8. I met Gosha while he was working at an art supply store.
G.L: The store that you came from right now?
D.L: Yeah, haha, and I was working with another collective called Circle that I started back in 2010. Me and Gosha did some collaborations and I eventually left Circle and me and Gosha started working together a little bit. It started as fun but we were kind of like, well coming out really unique, you know, different because it’s like we approach collaboration by doing our own thing, together, you know? It’s almost like, I think collaboration in this contemporary art world is really good because it’s going to come out different, you know? We have two totally different styles and it makes something original because it’s hard to do as an individual, you know? Now a days because it’s like everything has been done. I think collaboration these days is such an interesting thing to do in the contemporary art world, so we’ve kept it going two years now.
L.M: I’m sure it’s hard to put a percentage on it, but how much time do you spend on personal work compared to collaborative?
G.L: You know, it depends, the season, or the time, or whatever. Like if one of us gets approached to a separate show from devNgosha, then I feel like it’s a little bit rushed, you know? Because in our heads we both want to get back to working on the devNgosha shit. Last year, for example, I had two shows, Devin had one show, but it was ultimately like, “Fuck, when are we gonna get back to devNgosha shit?” It’s like almost, I don’t know, let’s say if I was going to do a personal show it’d only take a month or two to make maybe, or sometimes less, because it’s watercolor, so I just bust them out. Devin has a more old, master style approach so he, you know, takes a minute. He’s very conceptual; I have a little more freedom, because I’ve been doing watercolors for a long fucking time.
L.M: What is the process for both of you working on a canvas together?
G.L: It depends who starts first. We both go into it with an idea, for sure, we both kind of discuss what should be on the canvas, and it just depends. Do we need illustration first? So I’ll come in. Or do we need someone to have more of a paint, you know, realistic approach, or an abstract approach, and Devin will go and do that.
D.L: We talk about the process the whole time. Sometimes I’ll make Gosha step back or he’ll make me step back and we’ll just look at it, sit on it for a while. It’s like the artist thing to do - smoke cigarettes and look at it for two hours and then hate and then look at it for another two hours. When we were doing a show we just like start making a bunch of work and then start conceptualizing. “What is this about?” “What does this mean to us?” Because it’s all coming, whatever it means to us, it’s already on the canvas, you just have to figure it out, you know?
G.L: It’s not like we’ll sit around. A lot of artists will conceptualize the whole piece before they even start something and design it. We’ll do that sometimes, but we’re mostly like direct approach. We want to see what happens and it’s really hands on, you know?
D.L: It’s like, take our time with it, but not be too calculated as far as what we want the exact end result to be. You can get a little too inside your skull when you do that.
L.M: And it’s a challenge…
D.L: Yeah, it’s like problem solving. You create a problem on the canvas and then you solve it, and then you create another problem and then solve it, until it seems like a solved kind of equation.
L.M: So moving on to your upcoming show, Thirst. It deals with water rights and the drought, essentially?
D.L: Yeah, I mean it definitely has many meanings because talking about what it is is less than what it should make someone feel when they are looking at it. But, definitely the overall concept of the show is the drought in LA, which falls into all of the thirsty people that live in LA as well. Sexually, and you know, how they want their careers to be and all of that. But it’s funny because right outside of LA there are hundreds and thousands of acres of land that can’t be used right now because all of the ravines or whatever just go to the major cities, it just goes right past the farm. They aren’t even allowed to use the water at all.
G.L: Which is very scary.
D.L: California has the biggest agriculture in all of America, so it’s an interesting situation. Not a lot of people are even, I mean a lot of people are talking about it, but I don’t think a lot of people know exactly what is happening.
L.M: Beyond the warning? There are whole ghost towns that have literally dried up, right?
D.L: They said Tucson is going to be dried up in 10 years, so there are whole major cities that are about to go under.
G.L: No water. It’s fucking scary — those people are going to want to start moving over here and then once you get way over populated everyone is going to start using the same water and they’re not going to have water for everyone. It is not only going to be in LA either, and we’ll all be fucked and where are we going to go next? North, because there is water there, and then we’ll take all of the fucking water there and if we don’t solve it now it’s not going to be solved.
D.L: The concept is kind of Wild, Wild West, kind of contemporary setting.
G.L: Yeah, watch Chinatown, that’s all about the drought.
L.M: Is there a general message then?
D.L: No, I mean, there is no direct message. I just think our job is just to paint, and give the feeling how we feel about it, and then hopefully it opens people’s minds a little bit as to what’s going on. But at the same time I just want the feeling of what it is to be in LA. It’s not just the drought, it’s like yeah, people are talking about the drought, but it’s about what it feels like to be in LA right now. The drought just kind of ties everyone together.
L.M: The thirst is real.
L.M: …As they say. Are the pieces tied together as far as invoking the emotional, or to get people to think about the water or the drought? Pieces that play off of each other?
D.L: Yeah, I mean, hopefully the whole show plays off of each other. That’s the goal. When it’s all in the same room you want to have a really solid body of work and [have] it make sense.
L.M: As far as the people feel, when you are laying it in the room do you want them to go through it, do you want them to start somewhere, does that even matter?
D.L: Yeah, there is a bigger wall in there and we’re doing sort of an installation piece made out of a lot of smaller pieces. I really want that to be the map, I think maybe the first thing that you see.
G.L: The main place to take a selfie.
D.L: But yeah, we have some bigger pieces I want to be the kind of center of attention, but it’s like when you look at a painting it’s like, what your art teachers teach you is that you want the painting, you want your eyes, to be able to move in a way that keeps your eyes on the painting, so it’s like geometry. It’s the same thing with a body of work. You want it to be like, man, you can walk around a few times, you know, and still be into it and shit and not wanting to wander off.
G.L: I’ve been to shows where literally you walk in the gallery and you can’t get sucked into one painting. So you do this quick loop and you don’t even pay attention to the pieces; sometimes it’s a very difficult. But what he’s saying, when you have a proper layout, when you put a certain piece here, and a certain piece there, it kind of makes you say, “Okay, I want to look at this small one first and then I’ll get to the big one.” I’ve been to shows where every piece looks the same, kind of like coffee shops or whatever, kind of have the same size frame, it kind of throws me off because it’s one solid piece as opposed to just one individual piece I want to look at. It’s a very difficult kind of challenge for a lot of artists; they don’t go into thinking about that.
D.L: When I go to a show, it’s just like, I don’t see the fun in the art. It’s just like yeah, there is like a line of pieces, all of the same size, that will probably help you sell work, you know, but like I’ll go in and just walk right by, I’ll look and be like “alright,” but if I see the fun…
G.L: So many different sizes, it’s like you are in the world now, you can hang out there now.
L.M: When you talk about your pieces representing what it feels like to live in LA, do you feel like those different pieces with different emotions like, you know, if you are trying to be in the LA grind there are good times, there are bad times. Do you guys have different pieces for happy, emotions, sad? You get this kind of high in LA, you know, you feel like a good level and then all of a sudden you are back down and then back up.
G.L: Yeah, I feel like where we are at right now, with the body of work we’ve completed, it is starting to describe certain pieces. Twenty pieces lying around then we can be like, “This is what this one means, this is what that means.” Right now, the only thing we’re thinking about is the concept in the back of our heads, the desert, water, you’re thinking this, and you’re just painting it.
D.L: You tell the story subconsciously. Our first show in LA had a lot of that emotional…I think this is a little more neutral, it’s a little less like, it’s definitely like emotional, it’s just the nature of creating art. I think like our first show was very emotional, it was called Pressure and it was very psychological, and this show is, little bit psychological but I think it’s only because you are looking at psychological art, you know. I think it’s more like, just trying to portray without saying anything directly; it’s just trying to portray LA in a physically, like in a artistic manner, I guess.
L.M: Since you guys have two different styles on canvas, are you intertwining those styles in the same piece? Is one attacking one more than the other?
G.L: It depends. Sometimes Devin will dominate a piece or vice-versa.
D.L: Sometimes I’ll do an entire piece and sometimes he’ll do an entire piece. Most of the time we’ll work on the same piece, but once we kind of conceptualize something, sometimes a piece will only need his touch so it’s like just let him do it, you know? We’re still a team, we’re still conceptualizing the same body of work, you know?
L.M: There’s trust.
D.L: Yeah, and it’s taken a lot of time to get to that point.
L.M: how long have you been working together now?
G.L: Two and a half years now. At first things weren’t like that. Our first collaborative pieces were really free like that, me and him working together,
L.M: Trying to feel each other out?
G.L: Yeah, you look at someone creatively and you like what they are doing, but coming together is another thing, and honestly we’re still doing that I think. It’s going to take a while.
D.L: I think in maybe another couple of years we’ll know exactly what we’re doing, but right now it’s like - a lot of artists won’t admit shit like that - but it’s totally fine. We’re figuring it out and I think so far it’s going really well and it can only go farther.
G.L: Especially with this show. It’s like there is no arguments almost, between pieces, like usually we’ll argue and bicker like, “Fuck you,” “No fuck you, why did you cover my shit?” And now it’s so fun to just work together like, “Alright I’m going to do this piece,” “Ah dope, that’s sick, you finished that piece, that’s awesome, now I’m going to do this.”
D.L: It’s trust. It’s been two years now and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, when to tell each other “don’t do that, do this.”
G.L: Yeah, sometimes I’ll get lazy and he’ll catch me off guard, and he’s like “I think, ugh, this is not your full potential, this is not your best, you’re just lazy now, you’re just doing this for fun.” And then I’ll catch him off guard, you know. Like last night he was painting this portrait and he was like, “Done, huh?” and I was like, “No dude, no way that’s done [laughs]. Gotta keep going.” It’s kind of like having a…
D.L: It makes you a better artist.
G.L: You’re a coach, and vice-versa. “We can do it, come on, give it your best.” Just because, if you are working individually, the great thing about working collaborative is, you get so lazy because there is no one to push you. When the work is done you may have the critic, buyers, that’s going to give you some thought of their own.
L.M: And it’s good because you each are aware of each other’s body of work, so you know what your capabilities are so you can be that outside perspective looking at a few things.
L.M: So you guys have a very intense relationship?
D.L: Yeah, totally.
G.L: Brothers, man.
D.L: Yeah, brothers.
G.L: It’s like even our girlfriends are in the same thing, it’s really weird.
D.L: Like secondary.
D.L: Not really, haha.
G.L: We share one girl.
D.L: We’re like the ATL Twins.
L.M: I was just going to say…very ATL Twins.
G.L: Not really, but I do need to watch Spring Breakers. We did a job in NY for that production company and they gave me a Blu-ray and I still haven’t fucking watched it.
D.L: I can’t believe that, I love Harmony. He’s one of my favorite artists.
L.M: Is there ever - and I find this to be true in film - a moment where you have to just trust the other person’s opinion and even though there is something that you might want to change you don’t and then you sleep on it and you trust it?
D.L: Yeah, definitely.
G.L: It depends on the relationship between you and that person, you know. Sometimes it depends on them and their background. Like if that person went to fucking school and did this and this and that and I’m just kind of like in between or a prodigy or genius or whatever of my own, but you just have to respect the person’s past, to give you their opinion because at the end of the day you are still the director of your own life.
L.M: But you are co-directors, right?
D.L: That’s the thing, you kind of just get used to it over time. Art is like, one of the main things art is about is control.
L.M: And you guys have two voices coming into that.
D.L: Yeah, and when you are like imagining a show that you are creating or something you have all of these things in mind and it’s like when you are working with someone else that’s how it has to go. Which is why I had to leave my previous collective, because me and the main designer were constantly battling each other for control, and he was the main designer so it was like, “What is my place?” If everyone in the situation is OCD about everything it just doesn’t work out over time.
L.M: It’s hard because you are still putting your creative output out there and even if someone has that fire, but this is also my name and my creative energies that I’m expelling.
G.L: That just comes down to like, if you’re really a controlled person I just feel like you need to stick to that personal work.
D.L: And he was just more of a designer and I am more of a fine artist, you know, concerned with strokes and how much paint can be put on a canvas and he’s more like, “I want only black and white,” very, very, structured, even manufactured. I’m like, to me, I respect that work and like, there’s, I just want to touch it, you know, I want to see the artist you know?
G.L: You want to smoke a pack of cigarettes and stress yourself out and not take showers for days.
D.L: Yeah, I’m into artists that barricade themselves with their work, like Rothko and people that just did weird shit because it will always be them. You’ll see that artist forever. Picasso, Matisse, Hockney, and all of those motherfuckers.
L.M: Are you guys being influenced by any film or music right now? I mean, the city and the political aside, are there any things that are really inspiring you right now?
G.L: Personally, I don’t think so; it’s just because what happened in the past with myself. I guess it’s OCD or like I don’t know, but if I watch a Miyazaki movie or something then my work has a very Japanese inspired look to it because I’m so inspired by him or something. I think it’s a really bad — like right now I’m trying not to watch like anything desert, or maybe Aliens I’ll watch - but I’m trying not to in order to keep all in this process. I don’t want to be inspired by something because all of a sudden you really start taking too much.
D.L: We definitely have music we specifically listen to while we are creating and I do think I like that movie Frank.
G.L: Yeah, like, that’s your brain [laughs].
D.L: Everything inspires me. Mostly, like, what’s going on in the world type stuff when I’m working, or I’ll watch art documentaries, not inspired like the look of things, but just the way certain artists lived their lives.
L.M: Their creative process.
D.L: Also I try to look for the more genuine artists when I’m watching documentaries because I feel like the art world right now is super pretentious and I want to do stuff that’s a little more fun and like, not be worried about what somebody’s going to think about it.
G.L: Basically right now in the art world and in art, there is no rules. Literally you are not supposed to have rules, that’s what art is. But right now, it’s like he’s saying, it’s super pretentious, I feel like there are so many rules because every gallery or every collector, not even every collector, but the viewers just want a specific thing. But I think that’s when the best work comes out, talking about the challenge, is when you do the opposite of that, you bring back the 1920s or some shit, then people will be like, “Whoa…”
D.L: That’s the thing, the other reason why I feel like we fully haven’t found exactly what we’re doing, is because I’m so anti that like, I’m not, in a pretentious way, but I always want to go in the opposite direction of what’s happening, like, in the flow of people that are doing things. So just naturally when I see something in my work that looks like it, it’s part of the LA scene that’s been going on for a long time — which is a lot of things, like street art or low brow and contemporary, my first initial reaction is “Fuck that, go the other way.”
G.L: Yeah, yeah.
L.M: It also challenges the viewer.
D.L: I don’t have a problem with like still not having an exact look or exact concept, because a lot of really successful artists in this scene know what they want exactly, they are still doing the same thing over and over again. And of course it sells a lot of work and it sells really well, but I just for me, I don’t, that’s just not how I feel about art, I feel like I’ll always be searching.
L.M: What’s next in your search?
G.L: Potential…I don’t know, this is probably one of our biggest shows yet just because the gallery, where it’s going to put us on the map who knows what’s going to happen after this. Who knows what gallery is going to approach us next, or who knows.
D.L: This is a huge step for us.
G.L: Yeah, for the years I’ve been working I’ve had no idea how we’ve been getting by, everything has been flashing and I’m like, “Holy fuck.” I don’t have a day job; my job is to paint. But it’s because we create something and then next month we’re like fucking hungry and dead broke and a month after something happens and we don’t know. We really don’t know. But we’re going after it and it’s been paying off.
You can see Thirst starting this Saturday, March 14 at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles.
Follow devNgosha collectively @devngosha or on their website at www.devngosha.com, and individually @streetgosha and @devinliston.
Interview by Eric Fulcher