Interview: Pharrell and Artist Michael Kagan Talk Art, T-Shirts, and Their New BBC Collaboration

Pharrell talks about the T-shirt as an artistic canvas.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Billionaire Boys Club recently dropped their newest collaboration in time for New York Art Week, a capsule collection of T-shirts and sweatshirts with artist Michael Kagan. Kagan's texture-heavy paintings caught the attenion of the BBC team because of their striking interpretations of astronauts, rocket launches, and other out-of-this-world imagery.

We stopped by BBC's SoHo store last week during a pop-up shop with Pharrell and Kagan to check out the collection, see original art by Kagan, and talk to both artists about the collaboration, art, and the T-shirt as a canvas.

Pharrell, I understand you were familiar with Michael's paintings before this collaboration, how did you first find out about his art?
Pharrell: One of my colleagues introduced me to his work. The collaboration was his idea, actually. I was like "Yeah, for sure. Let's get him on the phone." So we talked to him, worked it out, and the rest was history.

What I really like about Michael's work is that there's an integral respect for the stroke of a paintbrush, and what thousands of strokes can really mean when you pull away from the picture versus when you're up close to it. It just looks like a bunch of strokes, and then when you pull back, it's like a mosaic. 

Michael: As far as paint strokes go, Pharrell hit it dead on—I like when you can walk up to a painting and it's a little abstract, and as you back up it all syncs together into something that makes sense, but if you walk up close it all falls apart.

In the context of the BBC mythos, the spaceman is a significant icon—and BBC has literally been to space on Atlantis mission STS-129. How does the astronaut imagery in this collaboration tie everything together?
Pharrell: I think Michael and I share an obsession with space and the machinery—my son's name is Rocket—so I like where he's coming from. 

Michael: I grew up looking at pictures of the moon on a telescope with my father. I went to Space Camp as a child, so I think that idea was always there to make these iconic paintings and imagery about space.

When BBC e-mailed me, they were very sincere. I've known other stuff Pharrell's done and it wasn't like this was a one-off thing, they were dedicated. They liked the paintings so much that it felt like a perfect fit right away.

We were talking earlier about how you named some of your paintings after song lyrics…
Michael: It's more like a line. Sometimes I'm in my studio late at night painting, and I do a certain brush stroke and it just feels awesome and amazing,  and it's like this moment. My paintings are all about moments. It's almost like a performance piece that ended up on a painting. 

Sometimes I'll have this one badass paint stroke that just feels so amazing, that I have to stop for a second and let it sink in, whatever's happening at that second—that's when I name the painting. It could be the first five minutes of a painting, it could be the last minute, and if I don't have a title by the end—it's "Untitled." So, that's kind of how I work.

On the flipside, Pharrell, as a musician and producer who is no stranger to art yourself—which you've addressed in previous works like Seeing Sounds—do you find yourself influenced by visual art? 

Pharrell: Visual art is just like everything else that's creative. It's man-made, divine-inspired—or ether-inspired—and I'm sort of the third part of that chain. I see those things, and I react. I give an auditory interpretation of what I'm feeling, and it's just cool to see and be able to turn into music. That's a process that never gets old to me.

It's "Art Week" in New York right now, so let's talk about the idea of the T-shirt as a canvas, especially with this collaboration in mind. Michael, your work is texturally impressive, how do you think details like that translate onto a T-shirt print?
Michael: Well with the brush strokes, I don't try to make my paintings thick. I never double back on the brush stroke, so if I get a thick glob of paint on it, I just let it happen. But I think the T-shirts really capture the thickness of the paint. It's a good reproduction, it looks nice. You get the sense that it's a nice, juicy painting—which is perfect.

Pharrell, as an art collector yourself, what do you think of the T-shirt as a medium for helping artists find new audiences, whether it's kids who are fans of a brand like BBC, or aspiring patrons of "wearable art?"
Pharrell: I mean, we love collaborations. We love them with super creative people, and Mr. Kagan is one of those people. In a weird way, I've been sort of thinking about doing a sweatshirt and sweatpants with a different design of his. If you look at it, it's almost like camo with the strokes, but at the end of the day, it's kind of cool. I may put it in another line, but I gotta work that out.

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