In the Studio with Allison: Michael Klein and Joshua LaRock
A visit to the East Harlem shared studio of Michael Klein and Joshua LaRock revealed the current work on the artists’ easels and some of the thoughts and plans on their minds.
On a recent summer morning in mid-August, I travelled to East Harlem in New York City to visit the studio of Michael Klein and Joshua LaRock, two professional realist painters who have in recent years become close friends and colleagues. At the time of our meeting, both artists were returning to their weekly studio routine after several months of art-related travels: They both spent 10 days in Beijing this spring, with Klein going on to teach workshops at Atelier Canova in Rome and BACAA in San Francisco and LaRock spending the month of July in Maine. Although the artists were both busy working on commissions and deadlines, they graciously took time out of their schedules to share their work and show me around the studio they have shared for a little more than a year.
Klein and LaRock both studied with Jacob Collins (at different times) and eventually became acquainted through mutual artist-friends, as well as through a shared respect for each other’s work. After finishing his training at the Water Street Atelier in 2005, Klein moved to Argentina in 2006 with his wife Nelida and spent the next four years painting the people and culture of her native home. Feeling the need to reconnect to an artistic community, Klein returned to New York with his wife in 2010. LaRock finished his studies at The Grand Central Academy of Art (now The Grand Central Atelier) in 2009 and moved with his wife Laura to Harlem, where he set up a small studio in their apartment. He eventually decided he needed more space and found a larger studio in Chelsea, which he shared with another artist. When Klein returned from Argentina eager to work with other painters, he connected with LaRock, and they have been sharing a studio since. In the spring of 2014 they moved from the Chelsea studio to their current location in East Harlem.
I had first viewed the studio last fall, when Klein and LaRock held an open studio to exhibit their recent work and introduce fellow artists, friends, and collectors to their new space. I was impressed then and now by its spacious layout and design — finding a studio this size in New York City is no easy feat — as well as by its ability to simultaneously function as a creative environment and a professional exhibition space. Located in a third-floor walkup in the building that the Janus Collaborative art school formerly occupied, the 1,500-square-foot space was already outfitted with many of the features an artist needs — including a north-facing skylight, which provides the consistent stream of cool, natural light they need to work from life — but several special touches came directly from Klein and LaRock themselves. They spent months painting the walls and ceilings, installing new dry wall, sanding and refinishing the floor, and installing track lighting and a hanging system to transform the studio into an environment that not only inspired them as artists but that also offered a warm and inviting atmosphere for their guests.
I began my visit with Joshua LaRock, a 33-year-old artist originally from Texas whom I had first met briefly in 2009 at The Grand Central Academy when I was working on an article for Drawing magazine. At that time, LaRock was finishing up his final year of training, and now six years later he is fully set up in a studio and making his way as a professional artist in the international art world. He showed me the two major paintings he currently has on the easel, as well as some studies for upcoming series he is considering. The first was a portrait commission of a well-known actress from Beijing. In 2012 LaRock and Klein participated in the ACOPAL exhibition (a collaboration between the World Art Museum of Beijing and American artists), and both painters have continued to benefit from this involvement, with steady commissions coming from the directors or friends of the museum for the last three years.
As LaRock put the finishing touches on the portrait, he explained the sometimes challenging aspects of taking on commissions. “The portrait is finally at a point where the client is happy with it, but there was a lot of back and forth,” he shared. “She sat for a head study and drawing, but I still had to rely on photographs, which I am not the most comfortable doing. She sent me a photograph that she was very pleased with, but that I felt was slightly unnatural because of the Photoshop effects. We continued to go back and forth until we reached a place where we were both satisfied.” LaRock will hand-deliver the 45-x-26-inch painting to the actress when he returns to Beijing next spring. He usually makes at least one trip a year to China to accept and deliver work in person. “These commissions make up the lion’s share of my salary, so I invest a lot of time and effort in keeping the relationships alive,” he said.
The other commissioned painting currently on LaRock’s easel is a large 44-x-72-inch work for the permanent collection of the C.S. Lewis Institute, in Youngstown, Ohio. This and other works, which will first preview in a group exhibition this September at the Salmagundi Club, in New York City, center on Biblical themes. LaRock chose to depict the creation of Adam and explained how he approached the topic. “I wanted to focus on Adam being animated from the dust rather than trying to personify God with Adam as it is in the Sistine Chapel,” he said. “I thought about incorporating a strong sense of light, highlighting the Holy Spirit’s presence in that powerful moment, the way Tanner did in his Annunciation painting. I attempted this, and it didn’t work compositionally because the light was overtaking the painting. So I decided to personify the Holy Spirit as a dove descending on Adam. There are also other elements in the work — the Garden of Eden on the right, the tempestuous sky and clouds parting — that point to future events that will result from this moment.”
Next LaRock talked about several small figure studies that are exercises on a larger theme he wishes to explore. “I’m thinking about doing a series of large figure paintings around the idea of water,” he said. “There are various metaphors and symbolism I’m working out right now in the studies, and I’m piecing ideas together to see where they may lead. The human figure is such a profound and beautiful subject, but I’m trying to have a specific reason for why these figures are nude by developing a story around them.” He then shared a few studies for another series of figures in drapery and talked about an armature he built to help him accurately recreate the appearance of the fabric. LaRock borrowed the idea from the artist Daniel Adel, who dips fabric in Plaster of Paris or wall-paper glue to stiffen it and create a model from which to study. LaRock drapes his wet fabric over metal wiring until it dries, which allows him to reference the shapes, textures, and value changes in the drapery while he is painting it.
As we were reviewing these studies, a few of the plein air sketches LaRock recently brought back from his trip to Maine caught my eye. Scattered randomly around the room, with no real plans of being exhibited or sold, these little gems felt to me like some of the most revealing and naturally beautiful works in the studio. “I really enjoy painting outdoors, and I would like to be more serious about plein air, but there just isn’t enough time,” he responded when asked if he plans to do more landscape work. “In general the whole plein air scene seems pretty oversaturated right now, so in terms of a market for them, I’m not sure how I would differentiate myself. Because I have so little time left after the commissioned work, I have to be selective about what I focus on. It has to be paintings that I know will contribute to the building of my brand and be a viable stream of income.”
In many respects LaRock is an artist of maturity, both in terms of his selection of subject matter and his understanding of the art market. He talked a lot during our visit about branding, marketability, and long-term goals for his career. “Although I resisted it for many years, I’m trying to embrace and be smarter about the business side of art,” he admitted. “I enjoy many aspects of art-making and would like to experiment with different ideas, but I also have a family to support and future plans I am thinking about, so I have to find a way to make this work financially. That said, it is always my hope to create paintings that are meaningful, lasting, and beautiful. I want to feel proud of what I am putting out into the world and the projects I take on.”
When asked about his daily mindset when he comes into the studio, LaRock talked about his motivation for painting and what he would like to achieve with his work both now and in the future. “Since my aesthetic and style are classical — nude figures, traditional portraits, Biblical scenes, etc. — I want to be cognizant of trying to connect these timeless topics to a modern viewer in an emotionally evocative way,” he explained. “How do I create work that taps into the undercurrent that has been present in art and culture for centuries but that is still relevant today? How do I make a narrative about it that doesn’t become a gimmick? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I want to continue working to find it. I would also really like to start doing more multi-figure genre work, paintings that incorporate figures, landscape, and still life. This is the direction I see my work going in the future.”
After a short break for lunch — during which we discussed everything from the economics of the contemporary art world to the best Mexican food in East Harlem — I sat down with Klein to learn what is currently on his easel and mind. I have worked with the artist on various articles and events over the years and first met him in person in 2010 when he had recently returned to the States. Originally from North Dakota, the 35-year-old painter studied at Richard Lack’s atelier in Minneapolis before coming to New York City to train at The Arts Students League of New York and the Water Street Atelier. He has become known for his sensitively painted floral portraits, but he is also a powerful figure painter. One of my first questions to him was what is it about flower painting that continues to hold his interest over figurative work. “When I was living in Argentina I painted the figure and portraits a lot,” he said. “My wife has this wonderful, large family — 30 nieces and nephews alone — so there was always someone I could paint that I knew personally. Now that I’m in New York, I would have to hire models to sit for me, and in some respects it’s not as organic or enjoyable for me.
“It may seem simple to some, but I find it incredibly inspiring to just focus on one subject and try to paint it as beautifully as I possibly can,” he continued. “The idea of taking time to closely study a flower and capture all its subtleties, to work on complex color harmonies and textures, to tell the story of the light as it passes over the petals, to help people see beauty that they may have overlooked — this is satisfying to me artistically. There is also a healthy market for this type of work because there aren’t that many artists specializing in it, and flowers are desirable to many people: They are in homes, at weddings and celebrations, they symbolize love, friendship, and the human experience and remind people of specific times or seasons of their lives. I have found if you take something beautiful and paint it well you will find people who will appreciate and respect it.”
Klein did not always feel this comfortable in his choice of subject matter. We talked about some of the paintings he used to paint, compelling and mysterious works that he now calls his “depressing paintings that never sell.” For instance, the one of his father-in-law asleep in bed during a period of distress or the pile of branches and twigs painted in an overcast palette of umber and grays. “There’s a reason those paintings never sold,” he explained. “Collectors generally do not want to surround themselves with something depressing. I fought this battle within myself for many years: the idea of painting what I really wanted or whatever dark emotion I was feeling without giving much thought to who was going to view or buy it. It seems like the correct stance for an artist to take, but for me it became self-defeating. I was torturing myself by continuing to create paintings that people didn’t want. Once I started relaxing a bit and enjoying the process of painting something beautiful, more viewers started to enjoy the process with me.”
After we discussed the idea that some people assume somber or sad paintings have the potential to be more profound while paintings of simple beauty can be dismissed as “pretty,” I asked him what type of subjects he feels incorporate both the profound and the beautiful. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” he responded. “I was recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and I saw the Rodin sculpture of John the Baptist’s severed head. That’s a tough subject, and an artist can quickly take it off track. But Rodin made it beautiful. It wasn’t gory or hard to look at, it has this peaceful stillness about it. There are many examples in art history of an artist taking tragic or challenging subject matter and making it incredibly beautiful. I’ve been researching and contemplating these subjects more, and it’s something I’d like to consider in my future work.”
At that point we walked over to Klein’s section of the studio to see what he currently has in the works. First was a lovely spread of 15 floral paintings and still lifes laying on the floor, which Klein is getting ready to ship to Los Angeles for his solo exhibition at Maxwell Alexander Gallery. “The exhibition opens September 5 and is called ‘Still,’” the artist said. “It’s been great working this gallery, they have really encouraged me to exhibit the type of work I want and were eager to have me exclusively show still life and florals.” Klein next shared a figurative painting that is headed to the American Masters exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in October. The 55-x-31-inch work (there will be three paintings total: the figure in the center and a floral painting on each side measuring 12-x-15 inches each) combines both aspects of Klein’s career: the figurative genre in which he trained and his current popular floral subject matter. In the painting, a flower-shop owner is pictured in the midst of her daily routine, writing a reminder to herself while arranging a vase of flowers for a customer. It’s a beautifully painted and composed piece, done in a delicate palette with closely observed color harmonies and naturalistic detail, and is sure to be even more impressive when exhibited with its companion paintings.
Other works in the studio include several floral paintings that are reserved for collectors in China, as well as Klein’s piece for the C.S. Lewis Institute’s permanent collection. Like LaRock, Klein decided to depict the topic of creation, but he did his as an allegory with each element in the multi-subject still life representing a specific aspect of the story. At this point in the conversation Klein shared some stories about his newfound personal beliefs and how they have affected his art. “There was a time in my life when I questioned everything and wondered why I was painting at all,” he admitted. “But I’ve found meaning through my faith, and it has taken a lot of the pressure off. It’s not all about me, I don’t care as much. If something sells, if something doesn’t … if I’m asked to join a gallery, if I’m asked to leave a gallery … it doesn’t go as deep because I’m no longer defined only by my art. Of course there are still challenging moments and circumstances, but I feel I now have the tools and ability to deal with them better than I once did.”
Klein also talked about his daily studio routine and how he has made changes to his production schedule over the last nine months that have benefitted him. “I work in the studio Monday through Friday from around 10 a.m. until about 5 p.m.,” he said. “I teach two days a week so I have three full days to work on paintings. If I work hard and don’t have a lot of distractions, I could conceivably finish two paintings a week. In recent months I have gotten into a rhythm where a lot of what I paint comes off the easel and goes directly to a client, collector, or gallerist who is waiting for it. I used to do annual solo exhibitions with various galleries, but shows can be difficult because they require a lot of planning and preparation: you have to finish a certain amount of paintings on a deadline, frame them, ship them, you can’t sell them so a lot of times sitting in your studio for several months. I prefer to keep the paintings moving. It’s in my head as an idea, it’s on the easel, and then it has a home. In addition, I selectively take on work for a few special projects or group exhibitions a year. I’ve found that this way of producing and selling paintings is working better for me.”
To end the day, Klein, LaRock, and myself sat in the studio “living room” and looked through art books while discussing some final thoughts. They both mentioned that they are not sure how long they will stay in this studio, as there is a lot of turnover and gentrification in the city, and they never know when rent is going to be raised or if they will be forced out. “We at least know we’ll be here for another year,” Klein shared. “After that we are thinking of moving out of New York and finding a place close by — perhaps Pennsylvania or New Jersey — with more land and space where can set up a larger studio that people will want to visit and be a part of. We’d like to put our resources into something permanent rather than continuing to rent, and as great as New York can be, it can also be limiting.”
The fact that Klein and LaRock are planning to continue their studio partnership shows that it has been a positive and beneficial arrangement for them both. I noticed that the artists have an almost familial connection, with LaRock looking up to Klein like an older brother, eager for his input and thoughts on his work; while Klein is equally appreciative of LaRock’s feedback and often asks his opinion on ideas, observations, or particular decisions about his paintings. Although they have different styles and subject matter, they share similar values and motives for their work and genuinely want to see each other succeed. “Art making is an amazing but intense endeavor, and there’s an emotional roller coaster that goes along with it,” LaRock admitted. “We keep each other grounded.” Added Klein, “There’s this myth that the artist alone in his craziness and genius creates this wonderful work of art. I used to like being alone in the studio, but that same atmosphere I once craved eventually started to create doubt and frustration: I didn’t have someone to talk to, get valuable feedback from, bounce ideas off of. Now I do, and it has made a world of difference.”
All photographs courtesy of Allison Malafronte unless otherwise indicated.