The cultural mashups of Mike Graves 

click to enlarge Mike Graves, atop the Murphy Arts Center. - STEPHEN SIMONETTO

I catch up with Mike Graves on a recent Friday evening as he's DJing at Pure Eatery in Fountain Square. He's massaging a trippy beat into a laid-back Latin groove. The music he's playing is the perfect complement to the ambiance of this hip, casual eatery. But the music in the air isn't the only thing Graves is contributing to the ambiance in this joint.

Graves' paintings are displayed on the walls, contributing to the overall vibe.

One of these large-scale paintings, "Travel," portrays a robed Japanese woman — the kind of stylized image you might see in a Japanese woodblock print — against a blue cloudscape painted on a collage of maps, travel brochures and newspapers. You also see, hugging the bottom of the canvas, a passing train. Graves composed the painting with his friend Justin Cooper. Cooper contributed the foreground figures. Graves built the canvas and created the collaged-up background and painted the train.

You may recall a show that Graves had with Cooper, back in December 2010, at the Harrison Center Gallery No. 2. That show featured Cooper's portraits of jazz and hip hop giants on Graves' painted collage backdrops. Graves' newest show will also feature portraits of musicians — black female soul singers from the '60s and '70s — and a new collaborator.

The upcoming show Bridge Collective Presents: Sister Soul — A Portrait Series, will feature Graves' new work in collaboration with Indy-based painter Leslie Dolin. It opens at the Madame Walker Theatre Center on July 13.

Graves says he began to collaborate with other artists because he got bored painting solo. "I got to a point after painting seven or eight years steady, that I knew what I was going to do before I did it," he says. "It bored the shit out of me. And I was hanging out with Justin Cooper a lot at the time. I build my own canvases and do all the backgrounds. I had this pile of canvases that I'd gotten ready and didn't feel like painting them. So I said, 'Hey Cooper, man, let's try something new.' And I kind of got addicted to it. It forced me to try to understand what my style was."

click to enlarge Mashing up the music and the art; Mike Graves' studio. - STEPHEN SIMONETTO

The Mike Graves stamp

Graves basically builds a canvas — and collages and paints on top of it — before leaving it for his artistic collaborators to work on.

Or, in Dolin's words, he "puts his Mike Graves stamp" on everything.

For Dolin he created collages — often made from music paper, and sometimes painted with the image of a speeding train or splashed with paint. Dolin then painted on these canvases with oils, acrylics and watercolor. Her subjects are her favorite female soul singers like Etta James, Nina Simone, Minnie Riperton. The portraits are dead-on realistic, the backgrounds are often sepia-toned and dark, like the interiors of the bars and nightclubs where these women poured their souls out on stage.

"This is all Leslie's idea," Graves says. "She listens to a lot of old soul music. She totally researches the artists. ... I feel like it's just a beginning. I think it's going to get better the more we work together and get used to working with each other. Our next thing will be working with landscapes."

"A mutual friend mentioned that I was starting to paint again," says Dolin of the collaboration. (Dolin had stopped painting seriously after her daughter was born in 2006.) "So Mike just offered up a canvas for me to work on. And I did a painting on it and he liked it. And I've been going since then. And we started collaborating on this series right away."

That Graves, who is black, is allowing a white artist to portray African-American artists on his canvases is just par for the course. He is an artist who doesn't see any point in pigeon-holing himself in terms of subject matter — or with confusing art and identity politics. He's fond of the term "cultural mash-up" to define his sensibility when it comes to his visual art and his DJing, which incorporates music from all over the world (as well as cooking , but we'll get to that later.)

"It describes the way I think," Graves says. "I instinctively seek out this stuff. Indianapolis Public Library periodically has this sale where they just get rid of all this old stuff. And I've got a box of Bollywood stuff, Ukrainian Cossack music. A lot of people respond to what I do because it echoes the time we're in, a time when there's so much information. And we as Americans know so much about the rest of the world at the drop of a dime. Anything you don't know, go click on your smart phone.

"And I think that's why a lot of people respond. ... It's a sense of something different, something larger than yourself. ... People used to ask me why I do all these things with languages I can't read. It's fun for my brain. If it's a bunch of new languages in there, my brain gets to make up a new thing every time I look at it."

click to enlarge STEPHEN SIMONETTO

Music and language get all mixed up in a Graves/Cooper painting entitled, "An Ennio Morricone Western," which riffs on the Italian composer most famous for his work on filmmaker Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s. The printed newspaper text, on which the portrait of Morricone is painted, is in Arabic.

It doesn't seem like a random placement of text, if you think about the location where many Spaghetti Westerns were filmed — the Tabernas Desert in Southern Spain, which is closer to Arabic-speaking North Africa than to the American Southwest both geographically and culturally. Indeed, Graves' M.O. as a visual artist is to have the backgrounds stay relevant to the foregrounds that his collaborators will paint on his canvases. "I try to put specific things in specific places," he says.

But there's also another reason why Graves likes to build up layers on his canvases. He's inspired by the built-up layers of posters on the walls of buildings in big cities, where, if you dig deep enough under a poster advertising an upcoming Yo-Yo Ma performance, you might find, say, an old poster for a Mötley Crüe concert circa 1989.

"You walk past different areas of New York and the walls of the buildings are just covered with posters and stuff like that," Graves says.

The unending activity of poster slapped on poster might echo the creative process that goes on in his head. "In my head I'm still painting every painting I've ever painted," he says.

Graves doesn't always collaborate on his paintings. A solo work by Graves called "Train to Seudai City '68" hangs in the Pure Eatery adjacent to his collaborations with Justin Cooper. It's an intriguing painting featuring a train, of course. Also depicted in the painting is a man in a spiffy suit and hat walking down the city street. On this street you see a line of cars, advertisements in Japanese and a man-made canyon of tall buildings leading down to the vanishing point on the constricted horizon. This vanishing point, perhaps, is the man's destination.

Graves is a fixture in the local music and arts scene, but in his mind he travels far and wide. He has also had a love affair with comic book art. His painterly wanderlust might have something to do with the way he grew up.

Home base

"My dad was in the Air Force," Graves says. "I traveled every three or four years from the age of 6 to the time I was 19. And a lot of that time was just on a plane, on a train, by myself, in a car. ... From base to base, wherever we were in the world I could always find a comic book store. It's like a really comfortable place for me."

If you check out Graves' cavernous studio on the second story of the Murphy Art Center in Fountain Square, you'll see his painting of the Silver Surfer and other comic book heroes on the wall.

click to enlarge Graves and Leslie Dolin are collaborating on a show at the Walker, starting July 13. - STEPHEN SIMONETTO
  • Graves and Leslie Dolin are collaborating on a show at the Walker, starting July 13.
  • Stephen Simonetto

Graves was born in Indy in 1973 and Indy has always been his "home base." Because of his father's career, he didn't stick around Indy long enough during his youth for anybody to remember his real name. "I went to Warren Central. Everyone thought my name was Charles. I would be there for a couple of months and then I would move to Tucson, Ariz. And that's where I graduated. It caught on and before I realized it, that's what they thought my name was. Because ... when I moved back they were like, 'Hey, Charles.' "

In 1992, Graves enrolled in the Herron School of Art and Design. His experience there was a rocky one. At the time, he was making sculptures and paintings with blatantly sexual — and often sadomasochistic — overtones that did not go over well with his professors. He claims that one professor, who gave him a failing grade for his sculpture, told him he should stick to sculpture because there weren't a lot of African-American sculptors producing work at the time.

Another professor, he recalls, accused him of having an unhealthy sexual fixation. "Before the end of the year this instructor shared with us some of his sketchbooks from when he was a student. All his characters had Barbie parts; females, drawing from a live model; he just smoothed them out. There were no dimples, no anything. He had an unhealthy aversion to sexual parts."

Graves does, however, speak highly of one Herron professor, Steve Mannheimer. "I still credit him for putting fire under my ass," Graves says. "I think I was getting by at the time and he said, 'You're technically not there yet.' "

Graves had to "get better technically" outside the bounds of Herron. This was in part because he had lost his scholarship because of failing grades. But he did get better technically — perhaps because he had something to prove — and eventually he wound up placing work at the Seattle Erotic Arts Festival and other venues. His work also impressed Phil Campbell, now the gallery director of Indy Indie, who helped Graves get a studio in the Murphy Art Center.

Erotic, yes. Porn? Not.

Graves' erotic paintings are certainly provocative and might even be arousing. But they are not out of step with his other work. Calling them porn would be a mistake. Pornography, after all, traffics in cliché and Graves' work doesn't go there. Take, for example, his painting, "The Disease that is Incurable is Bothering You." Here you see a bald woman with her hands tied behind her back. The painting, which also depicts numerous acts of fellatio in comic book frames, seems to reflect somewhat the influence of one of his artistic heroes, Roy Lichtenstein.

"I've always loved his stuff," Graves says. "There's always that argument about how real of an artist Lichtenstein is because he's painting other people's styles, recreating something. He was taking some obscure panel out of somewhere that he felt was cool. And he blew it up to 4-foot-6. And I thought, why don't I do that? I loved Lichtenstein's ideas. That's the thing about comic book art. It's not even about the characters, the heroes, and all that. ... I just love the art in there. I remember artist's names like most people remember Batman and Robin and all the characters. I normally don't pick out characters that I love. I pick out artists that I love."

Graves says that he has moved on from sexually charged work because he prefers not to get into debates with people about the nature of sadomasochism. "It's a violent situation of mutual agreement," he says. "And I couldn't get people to understand that. So I stopped doing that. I got tired of getting into philosophical debates about people's sexuality. ... Now I can get into discussions about my handling of contrast and composition."

Less Nirvana, more Count Basie

One of the things Graves did to support himself after Herron was to DJ. "It's funny," Graves says. "Comics and hip hop have been a mainstay to me. Wherever I go, I'll revert back to my music. At 15 and 16, I was trying to scratch on my dad's turntables. I was getting yelled at from the other room, 'What the hell are you doing? DJing? Seriously?' he would say.

"At age 22 was when I realized that I could make serious money DJing. And I got my chops together. I grew up with music. My grandma was on the piano. My dad played piano and guitar. My mom was a singer. It's all throughout my family. My first instrument was violin and I couldn't quite get it. And I switched to trumpet for a while. I really loved the trumpet. But I hated carrying it around and I had a friend who was a drummer which was way more cool.

"At the time there was no Branford Marsalis around. It was Dizzy Gillespie's fat cheeks, you know? I didn't want to be that dude. I wanted to be Tommy Lee, not freaking Dizzy Gillespie. I don't want to be Satchmo, I want to be the guy in Mötley Crüe."

Graves currently is applying his DJing skills at the turntable in the locally based band, The Born Again Floozies. This band might not have as much leather and spandex as Mötley Crüe, but at least they have a sense of rhythm (and a tap dancer).

"This is the most backseat I've ever taken in a band," Graves says. "I do turntables. I do tracking. ... I also do back up singing mostly just oohs and aahs. But this is the most backseat I've ever taken in a band. But it's fun. It's less Nirvana and more Count Basie."

The rig

As far as Graves' DJ rig is concerned, he might be described as a reformed traditionalist. He uses a program called Traktor Scratch Pro on his MacBook and a Pioneer DJM 500 mixer with two Technics turntables.

"I'm now starting to delve into the digital realm," Graves says. "I was a hardliner, man. I was a traditionalist. I wasn't going to go there, but then I saw some of my favorite DJs — Topspeed's one of my favorite DJs — I saw him go there and at first it was like seeing Farrakhan eat fatback. But I've seen dudes that I've respected going there. ... I was spinning myself crazy. It's really liberating to have that many songs with you digitally and not have to reach for a record. As a DJ you can walk into a room, look around and say 'I'm doing reggae today' or 'today, I'm doing strong jazz.' "

His approach as a DJ reflects his approach as a collaborative visual artist. Except, in this sphere, his collaborator is his audience.

"The thing that distinguishes one DJ from another is selection of songs that you pick," Graves says. "That's what makes a DJ. We all have access to the same music; it's what you decide to play. I think some DJs go into a crowd to impose their will and some DJs go into a crowd to feel it out, to see where the crowd's at. I'm more of a selector than a DJ. I think I shine through in the songs that I pick. People tell me I'm their favorite DJ. ... 'You're better than so and so,' they say. Well, technically, I'm not. But I'm playing the songs that you want to hear which is what they don't do. They've already decided what they think you're going to like and that's what they're going to play. I go into a room and I'm going to say 'I know that dude and I know he's into reggae and those chicks over there, they've always liked dubstep, so I'm going to do a little dubstep reggae shuffle.' "

As if all his talent isn't enough for one man, Graves is also an excellent cook. On weekdays, you can find him fixing "cultural mashups," like the Aussie Club and Dutch Pancakes at the SoBro Café.

You might want to be able to catch this triple-threat in a venue where he can show off his culinary skills, his DJ chops and his painting all at once. Unfortunately at this point this just isn't possible. But Dolin, for one, is content to catch Graves wherever she can.

"I'm just happy that Mike gave me a chance to work with him, basically," says Dolin. "Because working with him has allowed me to try new things that I probably wouldn't have allowed myself to do otherwise."

click to enlarge Graves with Shannon Wilson, of BRIDGE Collective. - STEPHEN SIMONETTO

What is BRIDGE Collective?


Mike Graves is a member of BRIDGE Collective, "an organization committed to bringing together creative individuals working collaboratively to develop our personal skills and conduct business related to art," founding member Shannon Wilson says. "We promote ourselves through the creation of visual art, music, and apparel."

Wilson believes the business side of the art world can be a challenge for working artists.

"That is where I come in: my role is that of creative spirit, co-founder and arts administrator of the BRIDGE Collective," Wilson says.

Wilson, who is also an artist, specializes in creating screen prints and up-cycled garments.

Member artists include: Mike Graves, Justin Cooper, Aaron Reynolds (a.k.a. Nexito), Matt Lawrence, Joslyn Virgin-Crowe and (newest member) Leslie Dolin.


BRIDGE Collective is helping to produce Subsurface 2012. Subsurface is an annual event that showcases graffiti/mural artists from all over the world.

"This year, we plan to install new murals around Fountain Square over Labor Day weekend," Wilson says.

Check out BridgeCollective.org for more info.

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