Detailed work of Logan Hicks Richard S. Chang/redbullusa.com

Logan Hicks’s talent and skill in stencil art is immediately evident in his large, somber scenes of urban grit (he says some of his paintings have seven or eight layers). But in a new solo exhibition at Opera Gallery in New York City, Hicks pares down the detail with a series of CNC-machined etchings made on anodized aluminum panels.

I recently stopped by his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to talk to him about his new direction and what it was like growing up as an only child in the woods of southern Maryland.

When I stand in front of the big streetscapes, I’m overcome with a feeling of melancholy, of emptiness. Do you start with a feeling?

My work has always been more reflective than a commentary. In real life, I tend to be verbose, maybe aggressive. My work is the opposite of that. It’s a little more reflective and self-centered, just trying to figure out the surroundings. It’s not like I set out to go make a melancholy piece with really somber colors. But it just kind of comes out. Whatever’s inside your head comes out on the canvas.

Has it always been this way?

Growing up, I was an only child. I grew up way out in the woods. It’s not like we had tons of neighbors. So art was always this removed thing of sitting down and whatever world that was in my head kind of putting it on paper. It was my escape from where I was living. In a way you create these worlds that you kind of feel like in your head, so the urban landscape has always been the metaphor for that.

I think also, with a lot of the work, the environment kind of parallels different stages in life. There are a lot of stairs, a lot of doorways, a lot of subways -- it’s movement from point A to B. This idea of metamorphosis and self-discovery and progression through life, whatever it may be.

Do you have a philosophy about the doorways … and decisions?

If you’ve been doing buildings for six years, maybe there’s a reason you’re doing buildings. For a long time I’ve shrugged off the idea of putting any thought or meaning into my work because I never do it consciously. That’s not to say it’s not there.

For a long time I tried to ignore that and just made shit. I finally started taking inventory of my life and looking and seeing the work that I’m doing kind of mimics whatever I’m doing in my life.

When you say you come from the woods, where exactly?

Southern Maryland. My dad was military so we moved to Maryland when I was pretty young. Before I became a teenager, my parents split. To give you an idea, my driveway was a quarter-mile long. Our nearest neighbor was well over a mile away.

From there, once my parents split, we actually moved -- we weren’t farmers but we were living on a farm. Someone else was taking care of the fields. It was a really rural upbringing.

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What did you do back then?

Art, more or less. There’s not much to do. My parents owned land. And the way they afforded their house is every single day after middle school, I’d get picked up from school and we’d go cut firewood. And I’d cut firewood until the sun went down and you couldn’t see anymore and we’d put the chainsaws away and went home and did homework.

And they sold the firewood?

Yeah. That money is how we afforded the house. I busted my ass in middle school. I worked more by the time I hit high school than most people did by the time they hit college. It also instilled the work ethic I have now. I still tend to bust my ass. Show up, and this is a job every day.

When I look at these, I just think of this guy who’s focused…

I’ve struggled with the artist label. I’ve never felt comfortable with it. For lack of a better definition, I am. There are so many connotations that come with calling yourself an artist. I shied away from it. I think subconsciously to push against that, my work, the art that I make, has to have some amount of work ethic behind it.

There has to be some physical labor that goes behind it. So that even if you don’t aesthetically like what I do -- if you don’t like the content or anything else -- you can’t deny that I physically put the man-hours in to make that work. And for me the best work that I do has hours in it, has creativity, has production, and the execution, all come together at the same time.

When do you step aside?

Do you ever? One thing I’m trying to do is pull back. For a long time, I kept trying to add more and more detail. And for me it became this thing where it’s like any empty space needed something -- more detail, more hyperrealism, needed more shine on the metal, whatever it was. And I think last year I kind of hit that point, I’m done putting detail in there.

You can draw metaphors from the landscape, but ultimately nothing really beats the human interaction.

Now, it’s no longer whether or not I can make it look like this because I kind of felt like after years and years, I’ve mastered the execution of the stencil, the technical production of the art, and now I’m trying to pull back and it’s about saying more with less detail. And the only way I could get to that was doing this superfluous detail in everything that I did.

What’s the transition to the CNC?

Etching was kind of an offshoot of the thought of pulling back. How can you say the same thing with the least amount of words. Stripping down the information until you just have the essence of what it is, for me, was what was exciting. And I’m still doing that. I’m seeing how much detail I can strip away and have the same impact that I’d like for it to have.

What was the idea behind putting figures in there?

The urban landscapes kind of started off in a way as a nostalgia for the East Coast. I was living out in LA, and LA just doesn’t have the architecture that I like or I’m used to, so I think I started doing buildings that reminded me of the East Coast. You can draw metaphors from the landscape, but ultimately nothing really beats the human interaction.

In a way I see these urban landscapes being the set of a play. And I felt like I was building all these sets, and I wasn’t writing the play. The figures are a step in that direction, telling these stories of the people that live within the environments that I’m creating. I don’t know what the ending is. I just know what the beginning is. And it starts with the people.

Logan Hicks, “Pretty Ugly,” is on view at Opera Gallery located at 115 Spring St., New York, NY.

For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter: @r_s_c

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