Lyricist, Poet and Artist Richard Humann Talks about the Many Different Hats He Wears and Why Art Can (and Should) Change the World

Don’t let the man’s impressive locks or the very, very cool way he wears a pair of sunglasses deceive you, dear readers: Beneath Richard Humann’s rugged exterior of beatnik cool lurks the heart and soul of a true artist. Upon receiving his biography I was immediately struck by just how busy and multi-faceted the man truly is: Humann is internationally recognized as one of the premiere neo-conceptual artists of his time (more on that later) along with being a noted lyricist for the mucho lauded The American Nomads Band and, as if that’s not enough to make us mere mortals feel like complete pikers, a published and celebrated poet.

 I recently had the great pleasure to sit down and speak with Richard for VENTS Magazine.

VENTS: You’ve been noted as being one of the leading neo-conceptual artists on the scene today, putting you in the same category as such legendary figures as Barbara Kruger and Haim Steinbach.

Richard Humann: That’s very, very nice of you to say.

VENTS: Hey, these are facts. And just for the uninitiated, what exactly does the term neo-conceptual mean?

Richard Humann: I actually don’t know (laughs). No, I’m just joking…So it’s hard to say what a definitive definition is, honestly. You have the historical conceptual movement that took place with Joseph Kosuth and Robert Barry and that’s labelled as conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A lot of that was focused on language and a lot of my work in turn is focused on language. I don’t call what I do neo-conceptualism; whoever wrote my Wikipedia page put that there and I have no idea who because you can’t tell who wrote what on Wikipedia. Basically for me, my ideas are ‘What is important?’ So the concept behind the work is the important thing. I don’t use any particular type of material. There are people that work in stone, there are people that work in wood or in paint. My idea is the prevalent driving force and then the material is secondary to that. So that for me is the idea of conceptualism which is the idea of the concept of the work is the driving force behind the work. Whatever material makes its use is what I end up using. So I’ve worked in film, I’ve worked in augmented reality, I’ve worked in wood, I’ve worked in steel. So material is always secondary for me; it’s a support system to the actual concept.

VENTS: I had a chuckle at your bafflement as to where the term neo-conceptualism in relation to you and your work.

RH: (laughter) I have a friend who is known as a neo-conceptualist so maybe they looked at her page and transposed it to mine, I don’t know.

VENTS: I feel as if half the people who read the term neo-classical are instantly going to associate it with the “Matrix” films (laughter).

RH: Exactly! And it gets confining in a way…

VENTS: Do you sometimes bristle at having a label assigned to you? Do you feel that this sort of puts you in a box and limits you?

RH: I guess if it was a more distilled label I probably would, but neo-conceptualism is so broad ranging I guess that it would be equal to just saying you were an artist as well. I have a studio here in Brooklyn and I remember that one of my assistants who was a painter and he said to me, ‘Yeah, so you know I told my friends about being an assistant to a minimalist artist.’ I had never thought of myself that way. He went on to explain to me that a lot of my work was black or white, its minimalist. And Donald Judd is truly one of my heroes, but I was like, ‘No, don’t label me as that, man. It’s not what it is.’ It depends on what the label is. Neo-conceptualism is broad ranging and it allows me to fit comfortably under that huge umbrella. I’m lucky that the label used for me is not a more defined one, a more distilled one.

VENTS: I must admit that I’m quite taken with your “The Same River Twice” sculpture. First of all, I just want to tell you that the concept alone is brilliant.

RH: Thank you so much.

VENTS: No, thank you. Beyond the concept itself, a lot of people have keen observations on life, but so many of them don’t get the ball rolling and try to implement a physicalization of what is in their mind and you totally knocked it out of the park with “The Same River Twice.” I know that you had a tremendous love of literature growing up in upstate New York. Can you walk me through what exactly brought about “The Same River Twice”?

RH: Absolutely. Of course The Same River Twice is a quote by Heraclitus: ‘No man can step in the same river twice because it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ I love reading quotes because they can be so inspirational… I was growing up in upstate New York in a very small town; now it’s like a bedroom community for New York, but back then it was a really small town. If you ever saw Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show, that’s what it was like. We’d ride our bicycles as kids and go get a Coke after playing baseball. But when you get to be seventeen or eighteen, that town gets really, really small. I had first come to New York City when I was about seven years old, maybe even earlier. I honestly knew that the first time I came down here with my parents that I had to live here. It was like that call from the Gods Above, you know? But also, when you’re from a small town it’s hard to break away from that. It took every ounce of courage that I literally had and I don’t even know how I did it. There’s a gravitational pull that that small town has. It’s scary to think about moving into the city, especially in those days; it could be dangerous. I would go down there at sixteen or seventeen or especially in my college days. I would stare at the river. I would go down to the river, my parent’s house overlooked the river in Stony Point, New York and I would go down to the river and I would stare at it and think, ‘This river goes directly into New York City.’ I wanted the river to take me away, to float me down on the current down there, metaphorically speaking. So with The Same River Twice it was like I was inspired early to read. I was reading Dostoevsky and Vonnegut and all of these different books, but you didn’t tell anybody because in those days if you told anybody that you read you’d get beat up. I played sports my whole life and I did all the things you do in a small town; you drive around aimlessly, you go to keg parties. But I never talked about Dostoevsky at a keg party, you know what I mean? But I read all of these great works and I thought from a metaphorical idea that those words from those authors that I so enjoyed were the words that ultimately brought me to New York; all of those words that I read and all of the inspiration from all of that great literature. And of course I even have art books in there. My parents brought me to painting when I eight years old; I studied under a local painter named George White, so they exposed me to a lot of his stuff and it’s those ideas that brought me down to New York; that’s when my life began, my lie literally began the moment I moved into Brooklyn after college. It was a rebirth and The Same River Twice baptized me.

VENTS: You strike me as almost a character out of a William Styron novel; Stingo the Southern expat in New York City.

RH: Thank you. Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is such a powerful piece, my god. To this day when I take the G Train…I always think of Sophie’s Choice.

VENTS: You wear a lot of different hats: Artist, lyricist, you write poetry. Where do you find the time, first of all, and is there one that you lean more towards than another? Do you consider yourself more inclined musically, or is poetry more your bag?

RH: It’s hard to say, right? The love, the driving force in my life is art, there’s no question about it. Look, as an artist I live a life that goes up and down in every way, right? That’s just the way it is. You latch on and you buckle up for the rollercoaster and you’re in it from the scary moments to the boring climbs. Art is my driving force, though. That is the thing that truly drives my life. I’m not really a musician; I write the lyrics for American Nomads, I’m a lyricist for the group. I live in an old firehouse in Brooklyn and the owner of the firehouse is one of the lead singers in American Nomads and everybody gathers here. It’s sort of like the Grateful Dead house; every Monday night the whole band and three members live in the house. My wife Susan is one of the members and she’s one of the lead singers; Susan Darmiento. My brother is also in the band and so is my nephew as well. It’s a big band…So how do I find time? I don’t know…The thing is, it doesn’t feel like work, right? It is truly something that I love to do. I’ve never once said, ‘Oh my god, I have five hours to go!’ It’s actually more like, ‘Oh, I only have five hours left to go!’ I’m lucky because I get to travel a lot. I represented the United States last year in the Karachi Biennale in Pakistan; I lectured up in Islamabad which was an incredible experience.

  There’s a documentary film called The Tiger Horse – there’s two quite honestly – one is actually The Same River Twice which is a documentary being filmed about that piece and how it ties into a larger point of view about art, about myself. But The Tiger Horse is coming out in six months. I filmed a piece between North and South Korea up at the DMZ. We were up there filming. I’ve lived in South Korea, I had an art residency and I’ve been there like five times. So we filmed a piece last summer. We were there for a month filming up at the DMZ. We climbed through the tunnels, the Tunnel of Aggression between North and South Korea. It’s like a mile into the ground, so if you’re super-claustrophobic it’s not the place to go. So I get to do that and I’ve lived in Venice, Italy, I’ve lived in Finland. I was in Finland three times this year. I was up in Helsinki and the Arctic Circle. I’ve been very lucky in that respect, I’ve done a lot of travelling…

VENTS: Do your travels inform the work that you do or vice-versa?

RH: Not always in a direct one to one correlation, but it is in there. I remember when I did a museum show in Gaoshan, Taiwan and I came across what’s known as Hell money. It’s money that the Buddhists there will burn to give money to the people in the afterlife. I was like, ‘Oh my god, how conceptual is that?’ I wrote a story about that and that finds its way into your psyche somehow. I can’t say that it’s a direct one to one correlation, but somehow it’s there. So things inform you and they will come out eventually, whether it’s in story or in a song lyric that I write.

VENTS: You mentioned The American Nomads Band and that’s a great segue for this next question, I hope. To use comic book parlance, what is the secret origin of American Nomads? How did this group come to be?

RH: I was in Budapest in Hungary and Susan and I flew in from Budapest to Croatia. Walter Kenul who is one of the lead singers of American Nomads and who has been a musician for many, many years, he has a place in Croatia and he owns the firehouse here in Brooklyn and he was like, ‘Come out and visit.’ So we did and one day we were on this beach and he said, ‘Hey, I’m really thinking about getting into music again.’ My wife was in his band years and years ago and he asked me if I could write some lyrics. By then I’d released a book of poetry so I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot.’ I was on this plane ride from Zograf back to Budapest to head back to New York and I literally wrote these lyrics and then that turned into a song and for a couple of years it was like Walter, Dante DeLemos and myself just writing lyrics and recording particular songs. I wrote the lyrics called A Revelation’s Gonna Come and our brilliant producer on that said, ‘Hey, you guys really have to come together and push this thing. Let’s get a band together that can really push this.’ So that became American Nomads and they went out and started playing that and it made it all the way to number six on Billboard Adult Contemporary and it passed the first round of Grammy’s Best American Root Music of 2016. From there it kind of took off…They’re flying along really, really well. It’s a tight family, too. American Nomads is more than just a band, it’s a tight family situation.

VENTS: I’m a huge music geek and the title A Revelation’s Gonna Come recalls for me Sam Cooke’s magnum opus, A Change Is Gonna Come. Was Cooke at all an influence on this song and its title?

RH: Actually no, not at all to be honest with you, although Sam Cooke is incredible, right? For me my musical thing is…My mom was only eighteen years older than me, so when I was like two years old the Beatles came to America. I have no memory of this but she told me that she had put me in front of the television set for their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, telling me that this was one of the important moments of our time. The Beatles were always the guys that changed everything. But A Revelation’s Gonna Come is really not that far from The Same River Twice; there is a direct link between those two things in that I pictured myself as two characters: One is the person that stayed in that small town and the other is the person that went out into the world. So it’s a question and answer, a call and response. ‘Where have you travelled, where have you been my childhood twin?’ It’s about a guy who has been out into the world and spent time in jail and read and tackled Ahab’s Great Whale. Then he comes back to this small town really to break down his gun and spend the rest of his life basically worshipping the sun and the moon and that kind of stuff. That’s where that comes from. It’s kind of like the dichotomy of myself, it’s very autobiographical.

VENTS: Musically who are you inspired by?

RH: I still go back, musically. There’s that remaster out now of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles and their Abbey Road album. I go back to that and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is bigger than life.’ Lyrically I would have to say that Bob Dylan is a huge influence, or Roger Waters from Pink Floyd. I always felt that the story is super-important in a song…The Stones, of course, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin; when I first heard Zeppelin’s first album that was probably my first true introduction to the Blues. People of my generation didn’t know the real Blues and I went backwards to the Blues to Robert Johnson and that was a fifteen year journey backwards through time for me to get to him.

VENTS: So would you consider Zeppelin your access drug to those early Blues pioneers?

RH: Absolutely. Even more so than the early Beatles, because the early Beatles were doing covers of early 50s stuff, you know?

VENTS: In 2010 you released a volume of your poetry entitled Towards a Naked Horizon. What inspired the book and can we expect more poetry in the future from you?

RH: The book was inspired by my love of writing. There was a gallery here in the city and it was becoming a multi-media type of gallery and the fellow who ran it asked me if I would like to be the first book they worked with…I had ninety or a hundred poems that I’d written over the past five years before that and I kind of picked the ones that I thought worked the best. Some of it is from my artwork. I did a piece called Body Language where I wrote on a naked woman’s body and a naked man’s body separately and filmed them turning so that the words would slowly reveal themselves. You couldn’t tell it was written on flesh because the camera was so close-up, so I put those pieces in there…When you’re writing lyrics, the lyrics follow more of a pattern, so that poetry is like freeform poetry where you’ve got your lyrics and you’ve got your chorus and you bridge, so it’s a different kind of writing. It’s of two different mindsets; lyric and freeform poetry and I’m sure freeform is not the right terminology….I still write all of the time. I’m constantly writing. For Nomads, they have a pretty significant catalogue of music; there’s probably sixty or seventy songs in their catalogue, maybe even more already. But if there are sixty songs in the catalogue then I’ve written at least three hundred songs. We can only choose one out of five, if I’m lucky.

VENTS: What’s in the future for Richard Humann?

RH: I just closed a show in New York but it’s still available. We have something here in New York called the High Line and it’s an old railroad track that runs above 10th Avenue. It was laying fallow for thirty years in the meat packing district and they went and renovated it, a very well-known architectural firm called Dualerscape Video. I put Ascension, which is the piece I premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2017 – it’s an augmented reality exhibition – that’s floating right now over the High Line. You can view it through your phone. You download AERY, it’s an app, and you can go there and you can see the thing floating above and that’s going to be there for a while…The Tiger Horse is set to premiere at the Monot Museum of Modern Art Theater next spring time. And that’s a documentary about the tiger horse between North and South Korea.

VENTS: Finishing up our talk today Richard – and I really do want to extend my gratitude for your time today – I’d like to wind things down with a silly question I ask everyone in the arts and entertainment industry: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only read one book, watch one film and listen to one album for the remainder of your days, what would your choices be?

RH: As far as albums go, my choice would have to be the White album. Number one, it’s a double album so you get two albums in one. The book would be The Grapes of Wrath. As for film, you want to say something very erudite and lofty; I’m going to say Goodfellas.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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