Niagara was born to be an artist, a prolific one at that, with both her music and visual art spanning several decades since the ‘70s to present day. In 1974 she formed proto-punk band, Destroy All Monsters, with fellow artist Mike Kelley; the band featuring members of The Stooges and the MC5. She later fronted supergroup, Dark Carnival, with The Stooges’ Asheton brothers—Ronnie a close, lifelong friend. Niagara would create the art and zines for her bands, combining collage and pop iconography. Her art as we know it today with it’s femme-fatales and lush imagery, really began to develop in the early ‘90s as she began to exhibit her work around her hometown, Detroit. Niagara has also collaborated with Vans and has a fashion line with cult Japanese brand, Hysteric Glamour.
I’ve loved Niagara’s work since my friend and the editor/publisher of Australian art magazine, No Cure, first turned me on to it. To chat with Niagara about all she does was a dream come true! This is the first part of our chat, the rest will appear in the next print issue of No Cure!
I love that there’s a real wit and humour in your art.
NIAGARA: I guess I didn’t really just do it for girls though, it’s 50/50 [male/female fans] with my art. Guys seem to have a better sense of humour; I hate to make such a broad statement like that though. Girls seem more intense, guys are more laid back, in general terms.
That’s why I’ve had more male friends my whole life than female.
N: Me too! You get it. Should we put that down on paper though for everyone to get upset about? Everyone’s so touchy and you don’t wanna make any broad statements… I used to say that I hate girls. I used to think girls were so lame and I’d hate women singers, the whole deal, but you can’t say that anymore. It’s not totally true either!
I find that when I interview creative men they’re more open and will pretty much tell you anything, whereas I find woman tend to often be more guarded and more cautious of what they say.
N: I think a lot of it has to do with, if you’re interviewing guys and they’re an artist or musician, their egos are usually pretty huge anyway, they’re not going to speak the same. Whereas girls are more careful. Usually guys have this big egos, it’s like, “Oh my career! My career!” It’s like, fuck your career!
You recently moved from Detroit to the forest in Hell, Michigan.
N: I did, in fact I’m watching a blizzard out my window right now. We’re going to get eight inches. I remember when Rob Younger [Radio Birdman] came to Detroit and he was so happy because there was lots of snow. He’d never seen it before, it was like showing a baby, he was so delighted.
I think it’s a great thing to be able to still be able to look at the world as an adult with the wonder of a child, with that same excitement kids have when they experience stuff for the first time.
N: Yeah, it’s very sad to lose that or get the apathy. When people are depressed I don’t always think that it’s because they’re bummed out about something, a lot of times it’s just that they’re apathetic. It’s the non-caring more than the caring badly, that’s what really kills you. There’s always drugs! There’s always something to spark.
What kinds of things do you enjoy creating the most?
N: It depends, because I can do everything so lovely. When we moved here I had to do the whole house, it had to be decorated from scratch. I had it down, it took a couple of years. It wiped me out. I could have been an interior decorator but that’s just too much trouble. I like doing collages. I’ve tried a lot of things. I like painting. I work for [Japanese cult designer label] Hysteric Glamour—they use my art. They’ve been using my stuff for ten years, their t-shirts are like cashmere. I love designing for them. I do collages. Pen and ink, I’ve done for years; it gives me a chance to use it besides writing letters. It’s good to try different things or being thrown into a different problem once in a while because you want to find the solution.
Hysteric Glamour love our stuff they reached back into all the magazines that we made. The first time they sent me all these samples, I opened these big boxes from Japan, my mind was blown! My whole life was printed on these clothes. They love the magazines, the crappy collage style. It was a real rush.
I read a comment from Robert from Juxtapoz magazine and he said that he feels like you generate your energy from the rock n roll world rather than the art world; what are your thoughts on this?
N: It’s probably hard to strain out one inspiration from the other one, it’s all in there now. I used to do art before the rock n roll world. I used to actually do more of a storyline, like what I do now but not with words. It always had to be a story, someone had a weapon or there was an open window, something going on that you didn’t know. They looked more like early more colourful gothic stuff, Mike Kelley [Destroy All Monsters] was saying that he thought I’d bought back gothic. I had all those mournful girls with long hair, holding some kind of weapon. I started thinking to change up the style more when I started doing murals on walls in places. I always liked more of a pop thing, because I always felt like people had a certain amount of time to look at something and if it was all there and not really overly complicated with little things they could get the point right away, instant gratification when they looked at it. I just go nuts looking at a really crazy detailed painting, I have to be on opium to do that. I understand it and I see it but I feel bad for the artist because I’m not spending time on every square inch of a very detail painting. I used to when I was looking at Pre-Raphaelite stuff… when you’re younger and you have time and you’re looking at things for the first time, that’s different.
What are your favourite colours to work with?
N: I do work with a lot of blues. Every colour, even if you don’t like a colour, you should never say that because that colour… it just depends what colour is next to it, it changes everything. Every colour is useable and necessary. How you mix them up changes their personality completely. I can’t just say, oh I hate that colour, unless it was just standing alone, like bright yellow, that’d be something. There’s always a good use for every colour.
In your studio you have a vintage easel that you paint on?
N: Yes, I do. Colonel got me that, someone was trying to sell it to him and I was like, I don’t need that thing it’s so big. We couldn’t afford it and the guy couldn’t sell it so he just put it on the street and Colonel took it. I was so glad because the easel also turns into a table, where I used to live I didn’t have much space so it was perfect. It’s so heavy, it never tips over.
You have vintage Masonic Temple lamps too?
N: I found those. I’m always sourcing stuff. I know an antique dealer in Detroit that once in a while I can trade stuff, paintings. He turned us on to them, there they are right there. It seems like such a whirlwind putting this house together, it’s taken two years. There’s so much to do, it absolutely wiped me out. I’m still admiring things now, we did everything at once, so you don’t have a chance to appreciate each thing like you would in real life, where you buy one thing and you appreciate it. We had to hustle! I had to have this art room built and finished. It took me a couple of years to even feel good again, I didn’t know I would ever feel good, so I’m so happy! It may sound pathetic but you never know when is going to be the end. I’m painting again. I just did show that finished last night.
That was the House Of Vans exhibition?
N: Yes. How do you know that? It just finished last night and you’re so far away, is there an internet or something?
[Laughter] I know because I care about what you do!
N: Awww… well that’s an example of something that comes up that’s pretty hard to turn down, a new thing to do, a new way to look at something or paint something weird—that’s always fun. They wanted me to do a whole room, it was a hideous white school room. I say ‘no’ a lot, but the real reason why I did it – Vans have always been good to me – they said I could be as little involved or as much. I thought that’s fantastic to hear, just in case. You saw the room?
Yes I did, there was that sweet mirrored Miami Vice style table!
N: That table turned out to be the most important part of the show! I got obsessed with this table. At first I was like, this is very ‘80s, kinda corny, then I’m going, I love this table! Its gold metal, rose coloured glass mirror. I was like, how can I get Vans to buy this table? I got a good deal and they were like, no problem, which was really nice. I shouldn’t be talking about the furniture though, I should be talking about the art and video.
I saw that you converted an antique piece of tiger oak furniture into an art sink for your studio.
N: I discovered it a couple of years ago at an antique furniture place that has lots of furniture, it was the most wrecked piece. Most of the furniture I get is old, it’s like I drag it out of someone’s basement. It took forever gluing the veneer back on, sanding it, staining it, doing the clear coat, then someone put a sink in it, which I think is so brilliant. It’s very nice to have, I feel so spoiled now.
When you started performing musically, where you ever scared or nervous?
N: I was a very shy girl. I grew up very shy and when the doorbell would ring I hid, like now. It’s like you can get afraid to do something because you think it might be embarrassing when you’re young so you don’t say anything but then I began realising at a point, that it was becoming embarrassing not to say anything. Performing on stage is just a whole other dimension, it just takes booze.
During our correspondence you were telling me you love words; is lyric writing hard for you?
N: I wrote diaries since the fifth grade. I wrote weird dark poems, like you’re gonna die, here’s a poem. It’s a simple poem, do you like it? Then you’d just put it to music. That stuff wasn’t hard to write because I was always playing with words. I used to read a lot too, that helps it come together, you can never read too much. November 22nd… I kept asking this guy… someone else had written the lyrics and then they were out of the band, we wanted to do the songs because Ronnie [Ron Asheton] had written the music… I kept saying, what are the lyrics? He was so out of it he couldn’t tell me, that’s when it was like, oooh, I’ve gotta write the lyrics. I had Ronnie read the story of the president’s assassination and I just jotted some things down. After that, that was my job.
Ronnie was a really important person in your life, is there anything that he taught you that has stayed with you?
N: It’s ten years since Ronnie died. I knew him since the mid-70s until he died. We were together an awful lot, there’s no way that his image has ever faded. I think about stuff that he says all the time, he was hysterical. Colonel would hang out with him a lot too especially in his last years, they’d go camping… we partied for years. He didn’t have a lot of other friends, so we were like his best friends, I always was. He was amazing! He was not a complainer no matter what happened, there were times that were bad but he just had a lot of strength of character to see the funny side. You learn that in a band, everything goes wrong, that’s a given, and then you see the humour in it. I was thinking today, even if you feel physically lousy, if you can feel mentally happy you don’t care. It’s mentally unhappy that ruins everything.
How does the Colonel inspire you?
N: He does everything I don’t wanna do. He does all the normal things that I can’t bear to do. I have so many art shows and have been selling paintings online. A gallery takes 50% right off!
Do you see much of yourself in your work?
N: Yes of course. People in the beginning were always like, you’re painting yourself. I’d be like, I’m not painting myself! Then I realised a couple of decades later that, oh wait, I am painting myself! Nobody can get around who they are no matter what they’re painting.
I noticed that someone had commented online to you asking when you’ll paint yourself.
N: Oh yeah, I chose not to answer that. As we were talking about, they kind of are self-portraits. I just don’t want to paint myself… to really get all my features down, I’m really just not in the mood.
Is there anything that you’d love to paint but you find challenging?
N: I don’t mind a challenge but there’s some things that people paint that I would just go beresk painting, like a brick wall or something! … spending time on 100 bricks! These people are nuts, I don’t get it. I don’t like to sweat the small stuff, I just want to get to the meat of the subject. I want it simple and I want everything to count, and that it’s something someone will see and get it right away. I used to do many more details, I just keep things simple now. I don’t have the time. I used to paint in the style I was brought up to paint, with oils… when you first learn to paint you have to learn to paint reality, exactly as you see things, with shadows and light, perspective. Now doing what I do, I don’t think I want to go back. Everyone has to find their own style, it’s probably the hardest thing, they all should start drawing and painting reality, that’s how you start, from there it’s up to you. If people just keep painting exactly what they see, that doesn’t mean as much in the art world, you have to bring a change, something new.
In 2014 supermodel Kate Moss guest edited Vogue magazine and you were her inspiration for a 8-page fashion spread, I know you used to collect 1960s Vogue and make collages out of them; that must have been a full circle moment for you to be in Vogue?
N: It was a surprise! People call from magazines here and there and they want artwork, we knew it was Vogue so we just sent them what they wanted. We didn’t think much of it or if we would ever see it, a few months later it came out. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it, it was the first and only time Kate was the guest editor and she based the whole thing around me! She got the big model at the time to dress up as me and recreate photos of me. It was really a rush! I did want to be in Vogue, I’d see women artists that they’d portray and think, this sucks… it’s just ‘cause this woman went to Harvard and creates the worst collages I’ve ever seen she’s in Vogue. I’d be all snotty about it. I grew up with Vogue when I was real little, in the 60s Diana Vreeland was the editor. Seeing her stuff was such a rush, it was all fantasy, totally impractical, out of the world photo shoots. It was nice to grow up with that total unreality of her vision, it’s never been quite the same since, she was the best. I thank Kate Moss for having such good taste!
Do you have any plans for the rest of the year as far as your art goes?
N: Yes. Someone has suggested an art show in Detroit later this year in the spring or summer.
Regardless though, you’ll just keep painting, right?
N: Exactly! If I can. I don’t know what I would do otherwise, I think I’d probably just shrivel up—that’ll come true one day. I never stop having inspiration to paint the next painting, it’s infinite. I could paint forever and get ideas forever. I’m doing a big painting now with copper leaf, I’ve never used it on a painting. I always try to do something different, something I haven’t use, a technique or an angle, a colour way… or you get bored.
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