Being a visual artist has never been tougher than it is today, with the internet and social media offering audiences constant distractions. Yet, for Nicholas Osella, a recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, the field’s new challenges represent opportunities for reinvention. Working under the alias StudioWOS, Osella creates unique collages that remix the world according to his own imagining, sometimes even using elements of popular culture.
“Nowadays, it’s incredibly hard to even get one person’s attention,” said WOS. “I constantly take that as a challenge to be the loudest voice in the room.”
Through email exchanges and a phone conversation, the Michigan Daily spoke with StudioWOS about his creative process, artistic evolution and most recent magazine, MAGNOLiA. Excerpts of the conversations can be seen below.
When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?
“I’ve always filled sketchbooks and pursued a lifestyle of an artist. It kind of just came naturally. In high school I often thought about what I would do in college — would I pursue a degree in art or study some other field that could provide me with comfort? Long story short, I went with the latter and fell into graphic design. The experience I gained has absolutely influenced my style. Especially in my recent work, I’ve taken a more 'designerly' way of thinking.”
You seem willing to express yourself through infinite types of mediums. Did you always view art as such a borderless process?
“It was last year, around the summer, that I realized I can’t make everything perfect. I started painting on chairs with some of my friends — that eventually led to me finding TVs, clothes, mannequins and buying stuff specifically to paint on. I’d spend five minutes painting on something with the goal of not spending multiple hours on making a line perfect. I just wanted to have fun again. It’s still probably the most fun I’ve ever had as an artist.
I think allowing myself to actually express myself honestly and be organic in my process has tapped into some weird subconscious process that is really interesting to see come through after such a long time of forcing myself onto these 3×4’ canvases.”
Your older work is more cartoonish than the more recent stuff. Is animation a style of storytelling that you were particularly focused on? I noticed the The Assassination of Animation Zine (published in 2013) while scrolling through your Instagram.
“In my freshman year of high school, one of my best friends had just died, and I was really struggling to find myself. The characters I drew around that time helped me cope with the changing of scenery. They let me talk about things I wouldn’t have been able to without them — death, happiness, love — all things I was really passionate about, but too timid to show.
I don’t really rely on them anymore, since I’ve been getting more in front of my work and trying to put my face first. (But) even though I don’t use them, I haven’t lost my ability to tell stories or create narratives — that’s still really present in my work.”
Your recent work feels more modern than illustrations alone could. How is it different approaching a photograph of a celebrity as opposed to working with a truly blank page?
“I usually warm up by drawing on blank pieces of paper. I’ll cut them out of my sketchbook and just numb my brain to some music and see where that takes me. After, I’ll start working up to remixing photographs and sewing, but it just takes a different muscle to do all of that work. I love working on each of them and I take great pride in my sketches. Most of the time, though, it’s much easier to show a picture of Kendrick Lamar and have people immediately associate with that. That’s just common human behavior.”
What was it like to work on a project as grand as MAGNOLiA? It seems like you both created a magazine and re-approached it afterward.
“What’s weird is that MAGNOLiA was never really supposed to happen; De (the photographer/stylist) and I met to just take pictures of me working in my room. I thought the pictures would be cool, but then it turned into this huge thing. I asked if he’d be interested in doing a zine and he agreed. I spent another month working and re-working, and came out with a zine that has 40 pages. It was a really organic process — I worked on the pictures at night, failed a few tests. I really took my time on each spread. If something was forced, or wasn’t working, I moved on to the next.
After I finished the book, I didn’t really know what to do with it. I showed it to De and a few other people, but part of me thinks that I made it for myself. I’d love to do something similar for someone else — a musician or photographer. If I had all the time in the world, and a full arsenal of supplies, I could probably take over the world. Remix the world!”
You told Study Breaks: “Now (artists) have to make something that elicits a specific response, something that engages a little more directly. Something that makes someone say, ‘I would destroy a TV to cover it in that thing. I’d wear it to a concert. I’d wear it to a fashion show.'”
A lot of artists probably view that as a negative, but you seem like an outlier to that mentality, a creative who is inspired by the challenge of people’s shorter attention spans.
“As an artist, it’s my job to challenge the viewer’s sense of reality. If you think about what was going around in the 1950’s and '60s, artists constantly re-invented how art could be perceived. Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism — I mean all of that shit was their way of taking the world around them and putting it in a way you could kind of understand. I love that.
I think we need to realize that technology is going to be changing not just interpersonal connections, but like, the landscape of human behavior. And with that, art will one hundred percent change. We’re already not going to galleries. If we are, it’s so people can see us going to galleries.
It’s disheartening, but if we’re not taking these as challenges to work other angles, then would you really consider yourself with the likes of Warhol or Jackson Pollack? Meet the problem with an answer— or die. “Create, or Die” is something my friends and I say a lot.”
Some of your most recent pieces have involved remixing photographs of famous hip-hop personalities, while some of your favorite artists have strong connections to streetwear. Do you think that artists are empowered through these less conventional collaborations, since the final products can sometimes gain attention from a larger, more diverse audience?
“I’d agree with you, but that was never how I looked at beginning this series. Earlier this year, around February, I started remixing big books and magazines to just see what that was like. I used an Hermes catalog as a sketchbook for about half a year. I’d paint inside of it, chain stitch inside, tape pieces of paper to existing pieces. I tore that book apart and by the end it didn’t even look like an Hermes catalog. That’s where I started.
Around the time GunnerStahl started getting more recognized, I started printing out his photos and using them. The first one I did was a picture of A$AP Rocky, and I’ve done a lot of Gunner’s pictures since. His style is incredible. When I first started to post them on Twitter, people actually started fucking with them. Turns out, when you put music and art together, people actually like it a lot. Just another problem I met with an answer.
What artists like the GONZ do for brands like Supreme is to have them associate with the culture around art. Take the skateboard brand Illegal Civilization — all of the graphics are made by one guy, Ryder McLaughlin. He has a crazy style that people recognize. I don’t know if that’s what makes them successful, but it works for their brand.”
You also told Study Breaks that you’re “focused on turning StudioWOS into a brand.” Do you mean that you literally want to push StudioWOS clothing in the future, or are you just speaking on the brand-i-fication of art that has occurred in the digital age, and the new ways that artists are being forced to market themselves?
“Let me start by saying, Lil Yachty is one of the most interesting people on the planet. I’ve heard him interview a few times on the process of turning himself into a brand — the stories about him dyeing his hair red, or (deciding) to only wear Nautica clothing. Now we immediately associate these things with him. Whatever game we’re all playing, he won.
I saw this going on and I thought, fuck, that’s amazing, I can do that too. I started thinking about how I could make myself and StudioWOS into a brand that people could identify with. I started painting on my clothes and creating more and more new art. What I’ve been pushing a lot is kind of just the name. Call it brand recognition, call it whatever you want, that’s the most important thing right now.
But you’re right, artists are now having to market themselves to get noticed. I wish that wasn’t the case — we lose such creativity when we have to force people into boxes. I guess whatever is easier for people, y’know?”