Never Say Never: The Ersatz Fan Art Of Eli Orzessek

Dozens of images of Justin Bieber - on tour, asleep, at play - and a whole lot more of things both famous and banal alike. We take a trip inside Auckland-based Eli Orzessek's weird, wonderful micro-world of celebrity tribute.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone with a better knowledge of pop culture than Eli Orzessek. His command of celebrity history - when they rose, how they feland why - is almost scholarly. La Toya and the rest of the Jackson’s (including MJ’s kids); Mariah; Winehouse; Britney and - of course - Bieber, in my experience, all make great topics for conversation with Eli. This appreciation of pop carries over into his art; and anyone who knows Eli’s work already will be aware of the unparalleled centrality Bieber has held within the Orzessek oeuvre since his ascension to global superstardom.

While redolent with pop culture references, it would be a mistake, I think, to place Eli’s work in the Pop Art tradition. Instead, I suggest, his work exists in conversation with “naive” art. Indeed, Eli’s Bieber-inspired works could be classed as special cases of “fan art,” a genre that represents one of contemporary Western culture’s few frameworks for spontaneous creative expression answering to neither academic or to art-market interests. Since the formation of the Romantic Movement, reacting to the onset of industrialization and the rise of capitalism, artists have sought to locate authentic human experiences in the face of modern alienation. Likewise, Eli explores experiences of genuine devotion and desire. Yet these aren’t found in nature, where the Romantics expected to find them, but instead inhere today in the phenomenon of fame – the totalising, overpowering, immensely moving experience of the true fan.

There is more to Eli’s work than Bieber though. As with all good art, I never feel I have been able to completely pin down how Eli’s pieces work. For what it’s worth, Eli professes not to know the answer himself either, saying, “I actually don’t know shit about art, including my own, so I don’t even know what to say about it. But it’s all to do with pop music, obsessions and going through a second puberty as an adult.”

Can you tell us a little about your childhood and adolescence?

I was an only child with older parents, grew up in Ponsonby and enjoyed 13 years of quality Catholicism. I had a pretty good childhood though and I went to Germany a lot because my parents are German.

As an adolescent I spent most of my time on primitive dial-up internet, making websites, playing MUDS and chatting to strangers. My most traumatic teen moment was when my parents learnt how to check the browsing history and found the butt stretch image and thought I was into it or something.

If you could be a “fly-on-the-wall” of any living celebrity’s life for a day, who would choose to spy on, and why?

Obviously, Mariah Carey. Some people might expect me to say Justin Bieber as he has been somewhat of a muse for me over the last 3 years, but I don't need to spy on a 19 year old smoking weed and having tantrums - it's too close to my actual life. Most celebrities would actually be pretty boring, but Mariah could make anything interesting. I love her whole Mary Poppins and dolphins deal.

I credit Mariah Carey with getting me into pop culture in the first place – before I heard her on the radio, I only listened to classical music and the soundtracks to The Sound of Music and Jesus Christ Superstar and was very popular at school. I used to have this fantasy about being sent to her summer camp, the one in the “Always Be My Baby” video.

What is the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of making the artworks you want to make?

My own brain, most of the time.

How did it feel the first time you showed work in public? Does it feel different now that you’ve done it more, or does it still feel the same?

The first time I showed work in public, I wasn’t really involved in the art world and hadn’t gone to art school. It was for Miranda July’s website Learning to Love You More, I made this “encouraging banner” and it got chosen for a show they put on in the Netherlands and New York and was also in the book version of the website. It felt pretty weird because I didn’t get to see it myself, but tracked it fed-exing around the place. Of course I instantly felt like an Accomplished Artist and applied for Art School straight away.

I haven’t actually been in that many shows, I’m too shy. It’s been a cool buzz every time I have though. My favourite show was with Gina Granwal at Window in 2011.

Who is the living artist you would most like to meet in person (and haven’t done so yet) and why?

Lisa Carver because I love her books and paintings and everything she posts on Facebook and she sent me a highly personal letter from Bill Callahan (Smog), so I think she’d be pretty fun to hang out with IRL.

What’s been the highlight of your art career?

Probably the Snake Pit “Gordon’s Walters Prize” show in 2012 when a local eccentric library patron became obsessed with me after buying a painting off me at Zinefest and made her way to the show. She sat holding my painting for 45 minutes, infusing it with her energy and in the process wrote a three page note detailing all the aspects of the work she liked, which she taped to back. The scary thing was, it was the most accurate reading of my work that I’d ever received. She eventually found me in the basement and gave me a palm reading and said I was really old and wise and started trying to get my address. This dude told her I lived in a boarding hostel and I don’t know who he was, but I’m very grateful.

Who is the most famous artist you’ve met in person, what happened, and how did you feel?

All the artists I’ve met have been not that famous, or maybe just famous in NZ, i.e. just your Elam tutor. However, my mum goes to the same gym as Billy Apple and has bragged about my work to him several times. Supposedly he was “taken aback” when she described my work as being “about the trials and tribulations of a boy teen idol.” That felt good.

What projects and/or shows are you working on over the next 12 months?

I have a new studio, so I have been spending a lot of time in there doing whatever I feel like doing. At the moment I am working on some portraits of high level Scientologists receiving ostentatious awards, a picture of Sonny Bill Williams as a kid and one of that dude who plotted to throw horse manure at Prince Charles and also sells glued together shells with cheery messages written on them.

More of Eli's work can be seen at Eli's ebook can be viewed here:

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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