Andrew Hem

Andrew Hem


Painter, Illustrator: Los Angeles

Isaac Newton’s law of inertia: A body in motion tends to stay in motion. For Newton, it was applied to a particle, or a physical object. Before him, Galileo may have applied it to the heavenly spheres. More figuratively, though, it can be applied in many ways—to a state of mind; to a desire; to a person.

     In Southern California, Andrew Hem has been moving constantly—working to the limit for more than a year. And although it had only been 48 hours since he celebrated the opening of a new collection of paintings at LeBasse Projects, the first thing on his mind was getting right back to work.

     And why not? The crowd in Culver City that night was enormous and energetic from open to close. And every painting he’s finished this year has already sold. It’s the first time that’s happened. He thought about why.

“I think it’s the fact that I’m spending more time trying to master my craft. Conceptually, technically, it’s taking me longer to do the paintings, and it’s a lot of writing and a lot of studies and trying to make the perfect image."

"When I started, it was about getting my name out there. Out of school I used to crank out maybe 15 to 20 paintings a month. So it was more of…quantity, not quality. It’s hard for you to start off and just do 10 paintings a year because nobody is going to see it. They’ll be like, ‘Who is this guy? He doesn’t do anything.’ But when you come out and you’re cranking out a lot of paintings and you’re making these people notice you, it’s like, ‘Oh, this guy is doing a lot of work’."

"Once you gain that attention, then you have to slow down. And I feel like right now, since I’ve been attracting more peoples’ attention, I’ve been throwing the quantity away and strictly focusing on quality. Yeah. That’s something that I’ve got to learn. I’m in the process.”

     View a timeline of Andrew’s work and you’ll see that process. Roots in spray paint and street art, plus an affinity for illustration and modern design, plus incredibly fine painterly skills—all blossoming into a style over the years that couldn’t exist anywhere else.

     And in his recent work, it’s about the color. The blue. Admittedly, he’s hooked on it. Compare his work from a year prior and I think it’s even more blue now—so alluring that you might begin to wonder how much you should even take in. But you’ve got to keep looking. Get right up close to the canvases. It’s a comprehensive inventory: Deep aqua. Red with blue on top. Blue-green. Frosty blue. Hot purplish blue. Heathered gray-blue. Blue with black. Your once-cautious eyes now hooked on color. Wanting to drink it up.

It Will Eventually Drift
     And in this year of 2011 much of that blue has taken a liquid form. Just note the title of his most recent collection: Cold Water.

“I like water because it feels like it never stays the same. Anything you put in the water never stays in one place. And you know…that’s just like life. You never stay in one place. Nothing ever stays close to you. Things are always gonna drift away, friends are always gonna drift away. I don’t think anything stays whole for that long—besides family and stuff. But other than that, I feel like everything always parts. ‘Cause the ocean is so huge, you know? It’s hard to stay together.”

     There was a wobble in the voice of the artist who has always come across with a certain amount of lightheartedness; peacefulness. But under that quiet surface there’d been things weighing on Andrew’s mind. Look closely at It Will Eventually Drift. His characters are in water. Around water. And remarkably, on top of water.

“I wanted to show that some people sink and some people rise to the occasion. There’s so much of a different story with every character. So, you know…some people drift away but they drift away floating, and some people drift away but they drift away…sinking. And that’s what’s been going down with me recently.”

     Just look at any of Andrew’s work. It takes time, but for a quiet and private man, painting is the perfect way to get these feelings out and to move on. Now he wonders with excitement about his next batch of work. How to keep on moving.

“I’ve been watching a lot of animes, and the thing that the animes have been saying lately is that the younger generation ninjas are gonna surpass us. No matter how good we are, the younger ninjas are always gonna surpass us. And then I thought: You know what? That applies with art, too! Well, besides the old masters. The person who started the game? I don’t think you can surpass people like Rembrandt and all those guys. It’s gonna be hard to surpass them. But I feel like contemporary, there’s always somebody else who creeps up on you and you just start to die out and then…

It’s weird because when I was coming up there was a certain group of artists who were at the impressive level. They were the contemporary group, the pack. And then I just feel like a few of them are slowly shifting down. I mean, everybody’s career—it’s hard to stay on top. I was watching that Basquiat movie [The Radiant Child], and in the movie it shows that even he wasn’t always on top, you know? It’s like a roller coaster with everybody’s career. So with time, with that certain pack, it was like, Hey whatever happened to them? And then all of a sudden, you see Tran [Nguyen] coming up.

I’m probably watching too much anime…”

     Andrew knows there’s enough room for both new talent and older generations. Ultimately, it’s as he describes water: just as objects can drift away, an artist’s popularity can drift away. But even if there is a downturn for that artist, the tides can bring things back; that artist can thrive once more.

     And really, Andrew’s been churning too creatively to think about it much. Aside from painting on canvas, you might find him painting murals in public spaces — the most recent being so tall he required the use of a mechanical lift. And all the while he’s been elevating his style.

“Back when I graduated I would work strictly with gouache, and when I paint with gouache I like my paintings flat. So it was one solid color—say it was a jacket on a character that I was painting one solid color — and I just put a highlight on it. So it’s way more fast. And now that I’m painting with acrylic and trying to up my game, everything is more volumetric. There are so many different temperatures and lighting and contrast, so everything’s turning form."

"I’ve been messing around a lot with textures. Shiny, leather, all of that. I used to just make everything so simple, like a plain white t-shirt, but now I like things with a lot of wrinkles, a lot of shine, a lot of textures. It stands out more to me.”

     For me it’s not only the textures, but it’s also the styles. I think Andrew sees the importance of creating a modern connection for the modern viewer. So he clothes his characters in a blend of what’s current and what’s imaginative.

“That’s why I go out and shoot reference. When I paint and I don’t use reference I feel like it’s gonna look similar to other characters I’ve painted. But I like to combine half reference, half imagination, so this way I feel like every character in every painting will be different. Sometimes I feel like 100 percent imagination, but for me personally, I like that mixture — 50:50."

"There are some good works that are pure imagination, and it blows me away. Maybe I’ll be good enough to do that one day, you know? Sheer imagination.”

     Andrew Hem painting from sheer imagination. The younger generation ninjas would be in awe.

{september 2011}
(images c/o LeBasse Projects/Andrew Hem)