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Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally

Zebadiah Keneally

Zebadiah Keneally is the fifth artist to take on the task of creating the visuals for the annual Apartamento cookbook, now, as you may be guessing, in its fifth year. The book is dedicated to herbs and spices, the magic, medicinal stuff of legend, or as David Zilber—previously head of the Noma Fermentation Lab and just one of the 16 chefs to have contributed a recipe—says, the thing that wars have been waged over and empires built or toppled on the back of. Why? All because ‘we go to the ends of the earth for flavour, to experience the natural world’.

Refreshingly, I first came across Zebadiah’s work through the post, not Instagram. It was a few years back when a copy of his fanzine In My End Is My Beginning (Nieves, 2017) arrived at the studio here in Barcelona. In it, a star line-up of iconographic characters (a clock, a heart, the world, all with eyes, sometimes with arms and/or legs) explore decidedly profound themes like God, religion, and time (past, present, future) in a narrative comic style with the page usually divided into no more than two vignettes.

So of course I immediately Googled Zebadiah, and a quick trip through his Indexhibit website, down his Instagram feed, and (better still) across his YouTube channel cemented the increasingly urgent feeling of needing to work with him on something. If you, too, Google him, you’ll find that he is a prolific performance artist inhabiting personas such as Hamburger Vampire, an evil entrepreneur based on Donald Trump, and God himself. Zebadiah del Fuego seems to be Zebadiah’s alter ego when he travels. It’s bizarre, but at the very least it will surely provoke a smile. In my case, it left me thinking that more often than not we are the ones who place limits on our own creativity rather than anyone else.

Fast-forward a few years and some failed collaboration attempts, finally, mid-pandemic, it clicked: Zebadiah would be perfect for the cookbook. And, as is the case with most Apartamento stories, something that doesn’t cease to amaze me, a single email from one side of the world to the other puts the project in motion.

About a week ago now I spoke to Zebadiah, who although being born in Connecticut (1984) is now based in New York City. He picked up the Zoom call in his studio, which is a room in his house, and over the course of an hour or so we talked about his interest in time and astrology, shared addictions to dopamine, and his incredible yet-to-be-published semi-autobiographical graphic novel, which is tentatively titled All the Things I Know, and which apparently he started while hiding in the janitor’s closet while working as a mail boy for Goldman Sachs.

Robbie, how’s it going?

Good to see you!

Nice to see you too.

We were happy to receive the cookbook yesterday.

Oh man, it looks so great.

Super beautiful.

I love the endpapers, that’s a really great colour. It’s like my green screen.

Is that your green screen for videos and stuff?

Yeah, yeah.

Let’s get into it. What’s your relationship with time and the future?

Let’s go deep! Why am I obsessed with clocks and crystal balls and the past and the future? Those three things are definitely themes that run through my work; it jumps around and there have been a bunch of different projects, but those themes are kind of consistent. There’s this line, it’s from a William Faulkner book. It’s something like, ‘The past isn’t dead. In fact, it isn’t even really past’. It’s this idea that what has happened before in our lives or our ancestors’ lives is constantly informing what we are, who we are now. I’m kind of fascinated by that and, fuck, how do I say it? I’m thinking about what’s going on in the United States now. In a lot of ways, it’s sort of the sins of the forefathers, the founding fathers are coming home to roost, and we’re experiencing a collective karma with, for example, the George Floyd protests or the crazy right-wing stuff. There’s that thing where the past comes back to haunt you as a collective, as a nation, or as an individual.

For me, personally, it’s important to do my best to reconcile myself with the past and anything that may haunt me, so that I might be in this moment and make the best use of it and be aware. There’s something really spiritual about having a clean relationship with what’s come before me. That’s ongoing; I don’t think that’s ever complete.

And then also, I’m a millennial. I was born in 1984, barely; I’m on the edge. But it’s a really interesting, unusual generation to be a part of. Maybe every generation says that, but my parents were boomers, they were hippie idealists. And then they got jobs and bought a house and lived very conventional lives. I was always curious because there was this idealism and this real hope for change. Some things definitely changed when they were coming of age, but then they became the institution. So, I almost feel there are opposing pressures in me. One, to ‘succeed’, and another to innovate socially and right some of the systematic wrongs that were part of the idealism of my parents’ generation. I experience this as pressure, constantly thinking there’s not enough time. Often, time can feel like a bully, just pushing onward, onward, onward. And that’s sort of where, for millennials, this anxiety about the future comes from; the American dream that we were spoon-fed growing up is totally a lie. It’s blatantly obvious to everyone my age with the way things are. I’m not sure how much I’m doing this with the work yet, but if there’s some way to find more space in the present to relieve some of that pressure of time and imagine something new, I guess that’s what I’d be interested in.

Sorry, I totally put you in the deep end with that one. It’s a hard thing to talk about. I didn’t grow up in the States, but I definitely feel that a lot of what they fed us in Australia was kind of a lie, or at least not 100 percent true.

Yeah. What is the truth? Who do I trust?

And now with the pandemic! Everything feels straight out of 1984. It’s all come to pass. But anyway, going back to the concept of time, we featured this Italian physicist in the current issue of Apartamento, Carlo Rovelli. He’s quite a well-known author, he wrote The Order of Time. He studies time and space-time and the fact that time goes faster the higher up you are and slower the lower down you are, and all this cool stuff. Essentially how time doesn’t exist, at least in the way that we as humans perceive it. I was reading the book and thinking the whole time, ‘Well, this guy obviously gets it’. He knows that all this stuff essentially isn’t real, but at the same time, he’s still completely controlled by its power. I mean, he’s still got to wake up tomorrow morning and go to work.

I understand what you’re saying. I feel it’s one of the frustrating things about being human. I’m kind of into astrology and there’s this astrologer that I watch; he’s always talking about how we’re multidimensional beings having a three-dimensional experience. I understand that that sounds pretty far out, but I feel there’s a parallel with the idea that time’s much more complicated or fluid than we can sense. I can know that I know that in theory, but I’m still stuck in this body having a real, concrete experience of time. But then, whatever, if we have a soul or a spirit there’s this eternal part that knows and has experienced.

Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally

Next question is a bit easier. I saw you have a pull-up bar.

Oh, yeah.

What’s your routine?

I’m a runner and I run pretty much every day. After the run, I usually do two sets of pull-ups, two sets of chin-ups, and a bunch of sit-ups.

Cool. Is that something recent or has it been that way for a while?

No, that’s a long-standing habit. I ran cross-country and track and field in high school. When I was in college, I took a little bit of time off from that. And then I started back up again when I was 20 or 21. It’s just been a really important, centring, grounding ritual for me. I think of it like meditation and staying in shape. And time does funny things when you’re on a run.

Before the pandemic, me and my friends were doing a lot of rock climbing, like two or three times a week. And it’s a shame, but one of the side-effects for me has been to lose that momentum. I have a pull-up bar as well, and last year I was doing them all the time, I guess I was after the dopamine. I’m not much younger than you, but as you get older you start to realise your own patterns, how you deal with stresses and strains. And for me one of them is sudden bursts of activity. Like swimming or pull-ups or climbing. Or drawing or painting.

I’m all about that dopamine hit, for sure. It’s like some Buddhist quote about the voice of a thousand monkeys, this idea of ego mind, just yapping all the time. I have that and it gets really annoying, but doing something—whether it’s pull-ups or a jog or drawing or painting—focuses my attention, and all those yapping monkeys quiet down or they go away for a little while. And then I feel very much like, ‘OK, here I am’.

Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally

Have you always painted as well as drawn? Or is that something you’re getting into more?

I’ve gone back and forth with it. I studied printmaking in college, and I did that for a long time. Throughout my life I’ve also painted a little bit. I made a bunch of paintings in 2012, 2013, and I just had all these paintings that I had to worry about storing. I had a studio at that point and then I lost that studio. So it wasn’t practical to keep making paintings; it was easier to just work on paper. I focused on that and also got into performance and video work, which was great because it didn’t take up a lot of space permanently. But, when the lockdown happened, I realised that I’d been wanting to play with colour again. I started dabbling and I’m pretty excited with what’s been coming out. I think about visual art as a song. There’s maybe a bassline and a guitar track and maybe some piano, and then the colour is like dropping a cello in there. It’s this other rhythm, this other through line that has a life of its own. I’ll be thinking about imagery and sometimes the colour of a building inspires another character or another feature of the work that wasn’t part of the original idea.

It’s interesting what you say about ‘letting’ yourself experiment. It may sound cheesy, but a lot of the time it seems like we are the ones putting limits on what we do.

Totally. There’s an older artist I’m close with, and he really loves mentoring other artists. He has a whole bunch of people that he talks to and sort of coaches. One of the things he’s always said is that most of the time people just want you to give them permission to do what they want to do anyway. I think there’s some truth in that.

Is the room you’re in now your studio?

Yeah. The front room of my apartment is the studio where I’ve got the best light in the place. I’ve been here for a little over two years. Before I was here, I had a studio separate from my house, but I liked this place and I liked the space, so it made sense to combine the two. It took some getting used to.

Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally

How do you find working from home now?

The first year I was here, it was a little bit difficult to make it work and to keep focused. But I was super busy just with life stuff up until March when the lockdown happened. And then I was kind of relieved not to have anywhere to go. I was just able to spend days in the studio and I found a really good rhythm and a really good discipline or flow for working at home.

That must feel amazing. I was very unproductive in the first lockdown, even though I worked quite a lot. I mean, on the magazine and the books and stuff, but then the stuff that I’d usually do more as a kind of meditation, that just went out the window. Which was weird because all of a sudden you had time to do it. My life just became this blur of emails and phone calls.

You paint and draw too?

I draw mostly, although I don’t let myself do anything with colour. Too terrifying.

I know.

Going on from drawing and painting, I was going to ask about your performance and Hamburger Vampire. Is he your alter ego?

Alright. How do I start this? When I moved to New York City 11 years ago, I had a job as a mail boy at Goldman Sachs in their office tower. It was a weird job, but I used to hide out in a janitor’s closet on the 26th floor and draw. I was in there one day, just kind of drawing, meditating, whatever was floating across my mind, putting it down on paper. And then all of a sudden, there’s this hamburger with the lettuce moustache and vampire fangs. And I’m like, ‘It’s Hamburger Vampire’. Almost simultaneously, this narrative came flooding into me, and immediately Hamburger Vampire was this kind of evil entrepreneur, a self-aggrandising narcissist bent on world domination and mind control. And I started drawing out this story. From the get-go, a decade ago, the model for the character was Donald Trump.

I started working on this graphic novel with Hamburger Vampire, and a few other characters have come into it. It’s still in progress in a different way. A few years later, I was on a residency and had made the Hamburger Vampire mask and my girlfriend said, ‘Hey, we’re having this event where you do a performance’. I had never done a performance before in my life. It had never even really crossed my mind, but it sounded exciting. So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do a performance’. I hosted an interactive event called Hamburger Vampire’s Sandwich-Making for World Domination. It was basically a faux sales pitch for an imaginary sandwich franchise during which I gave everyone in attendance mind control chips, which meant that I was in control of their minds. And from there, I got a lot of opportunities to perform. That same year I made my own set of tarot cards and stumbled into giving readings with that, and it really took off. Some friends who started a publishing wing called Endless Additions put out the cards and they were hosting a lot of events in the following years. So, I was doing a ton of performative tarot readings. That kind of gave me permission to make costumes and bring to life some of the other characters in the book and from the drawings. And I found that I really liked setting up a camera and putting on a costume and pretending to be somebody else.

You’re also God, aren’t you?

Yeah. God’s the character in the graphic novel Hamburger Vampire Kidnaps God.

"The Kidnapping!"

I saw that in the video too!

I didn’t grow up in a religious family. I did go to a Jesuit high school, which was an experience. I was just wondering about conflicting images of God, because God can be seen as this benevolent, all-loving being, but then life is hard and terrible shit happens. So what’s up with that? God’s kind of a dick too. I was playing with that and making God an asshole as a way to make light or take the edge off whatever disappointment or disillusionment I’ve come into from life and God.

Alright! We’re unpacking all the big issues! While I was looking at some of your videos, I was looking at the project All the Things I Know. The amount of detail in those drawings is just amazing. It must have taken forever. Is there a particular inspiration for that body of work?

Sure. When I mention the graphic novel, that’s it, that’s the graphic novel. I think between 2011, when I started it, and early 2014, I was really plugging away at that. It’s over 400 pages of drawings for that first version. It’s interesting because my drawing hand grew a lot over those couple of years, so there was this big disconnect between some of the early drawings and the later drawings, and that bothered me. I took a few years off, and then in 2016 I started a second version, which is probably the drawings you saw on my website. I think I’m 200 pages into that version.

Wow.

I call it a mythic autobiography. There are three main protagonists. There’s Hamburger Vampire, a character called Pittsburgh Cat, and then there’s Detective Lovebeard. Hamburger Vampire is like gluttony materialism: me, mine, more. Pittsburgh Cat is a down-and-out drug addict who begins a spiritual quest. He’s being pursued by Detective Lovebeard, who worships reasoning and logic. These characters are interacting with God and then Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno, Greco Roman gods and goddesses, and the narratives kind of spin through time and realities. In a lot of ways, I’m just trying to reconcile these different parts of myself. The desire for the material, the desire for the spiritual, the desire for the rational or knowledge. And by telling these characters’ stories and putting them in relation to one another, I can start to get the outlines of what these seemingly disparate drives do to inform each other.

Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
"Unpresidented: God Punches President Live on the BBC"

I really, really love those drawings. If you look at them through the corner of your eye you could see a Robert Crumb influence. Do you have references in the comic world?

Certainly I’m aware of Crumb and I’ve looked at his drawings. When I was younger, I really thought of myself as a more minimal or conceptual artist. And then, that work, All the Things I Know, started coming up and really nagging me, and I kind of had to surrender to that. I didn’t think I was that kind of artist and I didn’t have a deep history with comics. Although, thinking back to when I was very young, I was fascinated by The Far Side with Gary Larson’s work, and I loved watching Looney Tunes as a kid. Those cartoons are deep, deep, deep in my psyche. Philip Guston has also been an artist who’s always deeply resonated with me. Or Keith Haring and his simplicity and, how do you want to call it, universality? Those things were always really important. So, I feel that the comic style chose me; I didn’t really choose it. I try to backtrack a little bit and learn stuff now that I wasn’t aware of. A good friend of mine lent me, what’s-his-face? Jimbo in Purgatory by Gary Panter.

We featured Gary Panter in an issue about five years ago.

Did you get to talk with him?

I didn’t myself, one of our contributing editors, Leah Singer, interviewed him for us. We got some really nice photos by Jason Nocito.

Did he do Pee-wee’s Playhouse? They’re my tripping.

Yeah! With the talking chairs and stuff like that.

That definitely is something from my childhood that is in me. The underground comics scene is really cool. Like the Hairy Who people, the Chicago Imagists. One of my favourite galleries here in the city represents Karl Wirsum. I haven’t been going to galleries this year really, but I’ve seen some really nice work of his, some stuff over the last couple of years that they’ve shown.

To finish up, I was going to bring it back a bit to our cookbook. What was the process like? 

I was so stoked that you asked me to do the cookbook. When I was just starting out as an artist, I came across Apartamento in a bookstore here, and I think there were some Andy Rementer cartoons in it. I had never seen his work before and I was just stoked. For the cookbook, I was a little bit overwhelmed too, because I’ve never illustrated one before. I really wasn’t sure initially what the vision was. You clearly had some needs and wants for representing the chefs and getting the ingredients in there. I think it took me a few drawings of playing around and then maybe starting out in a much more tight or conservative way. I think you provided some feedback at one point, you where like, ‘Make it weird, bring yourself to it’. And that was really helpful. It opened me up and I started to create this world of anthropomorphic ingredients. There were plenty of—I’d never drawn fennel before, I’d never drawn green cardamom. Most of my drawings have some kind of little narrative going on, and it was really exciting to develop a new cast of characters, to see what would happen when they were all hanging out together. I think a turning point, when the vision really started to click, was a Maria Solivellas drawing with the herb snail soup without the snails. That turned into a soup pool party with a snail getting cooked. I just had so much fun with that and it continued on. I particularly enjoyed drawing for Lowena Hearn as well. Her Instagram is so rich and wild and so unique. I was like, ‘Where am I?’ She took me into the Middle Ages in a totally debauched way. So, creating a little kingdom of ingredients for her was fun. And then, when I was younger, I was really obsessed with drawing from life—figure drawing or drawing people on trains. I had let a lot of those skills go, but this year I’d been thinking about ways to incorporate that skillset back into what I do and played around with that in the spring. This was such a great opportunity to combine the observational drawing of the chefs with the cartoon drawing of the ingredients.

Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
Apartamento Magazine - Zebadiah Keneally
illustration, interview
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