Amidst 2012, a year when official Phish posters seemed to dwell in the uninspired, fan-turned-professional artist, AJ Masthay, has continued to crank out some of the more visually stunning and thought provoking prints in the scene. Using time-honored techniques in a field that is becoming increasingly digital, AJ’s hand-carved, linoleum block prints have gained widespread recognition over the past few years with hallmarks of brilliant colors, thick coats of ink, and bold-eye-catching imagery. I recently caught up with AJ to discuss his transformative year and his upcoming MSG quadtych, “The Terminal.” (Click on images to enlarge.)
MM: It’s been a year since we sat down to talk. Your 2012 work has been hailed as some of your best work to date. You knocked your Phish series out of the park and picked up some official work for Further tour. How has your printmaking progressed over 2012?
AJM: 2012 was big for me, no doubt. The biggest change on my end was finally taking the plunge and pursuing my career as an artist full time, Feb 29th – Leap day – was my last day putting on the collar shirt and tie. Knock on wood, it’s been one of the best decisions of my life. I now have the luxury of devoting every waking moment to creating art and growing Masthay Studios.
2012 was also a year of refining techniques for me. I consider myself a craftsman, you know old school apprentice and master shit where you live and breathe your craft and strive for perfection. The more disciplined you become, your work will naturally become more refined. I created a new registration system for my Vandercook press this year allowing for much tighter alignment between plates. This is critical for achieving the kinds of detail you see in my recent works, specifically all the Furthur pieces from both the summer and fall. I’ve been printing for almost 20 years now and it always amazes me how much there is to still learn.
Let’s talk little bit about your second consecutive New Year’s Run quadtych! Moray eels, pigeons, a robot and Grand Central Station—what was your inspiration and vision behind this year’s prints?
Let me start out by saying I love creating the triptychs and now the quadtychs. The size of my work is limited by the size of the bed on my printing press, about 15″ x 22″. The print sets give me the freedom to stretch my legs and flesh out larger compositions while still working within those constraints. Being born and raised in Connecticut, I’ve had the luxury of going into the city pretty much whenever I felt like it, and 99% of the time that meant hopping a train and heading to Grand Central. It’s just one of icons of Manhattan and with the shear volume of people coming through that beautifully ornate terminal, most anyone living or visiting the City will have some type of emotional connection to the space.
So I had my environment chosen, now to develop the cast of characters and story that will take place in that environment. An MSG new years run has a certain amount of nostalgia for me, like that old hat that just feels right when you put it on. We’ve all been trucking into the city for so many years now, there’s a comfort and familiarity to the whole experience and I love that. This is where the robot comes from—it is a direct reference to the Harpua story from 1997 (Lost in Space robot, pentagrams, and udder ball) but it also represents nostalgia and all the amazing experiences we’ve been blessed with [in that building].
There is a definite darkness to the eels in these prints. Was there a specific message you were trying to convey through the eels?
Ahh, the eels; the eels represent so much it’s hard to know where to start. On one level the eels bring a fishiness to the prints, representing sea creatures so often associated with the band. But these eels aren’t in the ocean, they’re in Grand Central Station, and they’re emanating from a smashed disco ball—a NYE 2009 reference. If you look at the emotion being portrayed by the eels in each pane or vignette of the quad, you’ll see the emotion that I personally feel I go through during these four-night runs. In the first pane the eels are curious and inquisitive, checking out the robot and wondering how things will progress in this run. The eels are obviously comfortable in their environment. In the second pane they are fully engulfed in the RAGE. The rage continues in the third pane but the hunger becomes more and more evident—both literal hunger and the hunger for things to come. Finally, the full on face melting of New Year’s Eve and just being slayed by the greatest band on earth. Darkness—maybe emotion—absolutely.
This is the third consecutive MSG holiday run—has it become increasingly hard to think of geographically relevant imagery, or do you have ideas just waiting to come out?
That’s’ the beauty of New York City, there is so much to work with, the difficult part is tying it into MSG and the shows. Being able to do that and make it all feel natural, not forced, is where the creativity comes into play.
This quad looks a bit more detailed and refined than a lot of your previous prints. Is this a natural progression of your work?
This is partially the natural progression I spoke about earlier, implementing new techniques to allow for greater detail and better registration, but is also a direct result of choosing an environment like Grand Central Station. The place is stunningly beautiful, as ornate as any Newport mansion, but meant for all to utilize and enjoy. I also purposely did not hold myself to a certain number of colors on these, I think there’s something like eleven total colors, some of which will be, literally, mixed on the prints by layering. I Facebooked a message a few days ago saying “I’m not sure how I’m going to do this,” and the shear number of colors on these quads is what I was referring to. It’s going to be challenging, but that’s part of the fun.
I really love the 29th print with the train and the eels bursting out of the image, as well as the gas masked train conductor alluding to last year’s “MSG Rapture” quad. Do you conceive the central imagery of each print individually and then figure out how to combine them, or figure out one scene in totality and figure out how to split them up?
These print sets typically start out with the larger composition, feeling out the flow throughout all four prints and how they will work as a set. Once that is laid out, the true challenge is developing the composition within each pane so that they can each stand on their own as an individual work of art but also as a part of the whole. There’s give and take throughout the entire process and I go through A LOT of erasers. If you ever get the opportunity to check out any of my original sketches in person, you will see evidence of this process. I see the sketches as a living, breathing entity, constantly changing and growing throughout the creation process. I try one thing, feel it out, and if it works, great, if it doesn’t feel quite right, erase and try again. Many artists use thumbnail sketches or preliminary sketches to work these things out before touching the final piece. Personally, I love the rawness of doing things on the spot, my own personal version of free form jamming I guess, but in a visual context as opposed to audio.
I love how you’ve integrated the show info as tiny details to the print that fit right into the Grand Central motif. How concerned are you in allowing that info (date/locale) to be seen clearly or do you just make sure it’s on there somewhere?
How I handle the text is determined on a print by print basis. Obviously on commissioned work for bands the text needs to be front and center, so sometimes its nice to treat these unofficial pieces more like art prints, almost downplaying the date and venue information. Yes, it’s in there, but it’s not the defining factor of the image nor does it need to be understood to be appreciated.
What’s going on in the NYE print? Is the clock electrocuting the eels or vice versa? Or is that up to the eye of the beholder?
I love telling stories in my images, but what I don’t do is completely lay out the narrative. I leave that up to the viewer, allowing them to connect to the piece and develop that narrative for themselves. What one person sees could be a completely different story from the person standing next to him, I love that. Is the clock electrocuting the eel or vice versa? I’ll let you decide, but what I really wanted to capture is the energy that is December 31, 2012.
How can people get a hold of this year’s prints? Will they be for sale soon?
Prints will be available for purchase this Friday November 16 at 12 noon EST on MasthayStudios.com. In keeping with Masthay Studios New Year’s Run tradition, I will be documenting the entire process of creating the editions, but this year it’ll all be through Facebook and Twitter with separate content on each. You can look forward to lots and lots of photos of the creation process along with some commentary from yours truly. This is a unique opportunity to actually see your prints being made, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to “Like” Masthay Studios on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Jams of the Day:
Memories from MSG 2011.
“Piper” 12.30.11 II, MSG