FRED ARMISEN: 'The Dream of the 90s'

Feb 13, 2014 6:21PM

Fred Armisen is probably best known for his long tenure on the television sketch-comedy program, Saturday Night Live — where, in addition to dozens of original characters, he famously impersonated celebrities from President Barack Obama to NPR host Ira Glass. Last year, Armisen left SNLamid the success of Portlandia, an IFC comedy he created with Carrie Brownstein that mercilessly satirizes today’s hipster culture.

But Armisen’s creative impulses date back much further: Like Brownstein, who played guitar and sang in the band Sleater-Kinney, Armisen cut his creative teeth amid the experimental post-punk scene of the 1990s as a drummer for the band, Trenchmouth. He’s kept abreast of creative trends since then, as a budding art collector, and through his various collaborations. Ahead of our “90s to Now” online-only sale, Christie’s senior editor, Austin Considine, spoke with Armisen about the comic’s roots in the 1990s underground, his formative years in art school, and the artist he’d most like to impersonate.

Q: You went to the School of Visual Arts, in New York, for a few years in the late 1980s — before you dropped out to form a band in Chicago. Did you aspire to be a visual artist then?

A: No, I wish I could say something like that. It’s such a cool thing to be able to say that you’re a visual artist. But I actually went only because I wanted to be in a band. It’s almost an understood fact of life that if you want to be in a cool band, you just go to a visual art school. SVA is where I met Damon Locks, the singer from Trenchmouth, so that’s where it came to fruition. But I will say that I learned a lot about art because of the School of Visual Arts. That’s how I ended up seeing [video artist] Bill Viola's stuff. The school exposed me to a lot. So as a school it did its job.

Q: Were there artistic movements or classes you took at that time that influenced your direction?

A: Just introducing me to [video art] as a medium — even the idea of being exposed to an editing bay was huge for me. I took film classes as well; they introduced us to experimental film, and even [to] the concept [that] commercial movies have an element of being experimental. I was inspired to go to that school to take some classes because of [independent filmmaker] John Waters.

That was early on, and throughout the rest of my life I’ve just always tried to follow [whatever artists] I could. And only recently — I’d say in the last 10 years — I’ve sort of expanded or developed my interest in paintings and other art.

Q: Any artists you’re really into right now? Anyone you’re collecting?

A: Joe Coleman is someone I’ve followed for a while. Over the last couple years, I’ve acquired some of his work. Another is [painter] Mike Davis. He’s great. Then a couple weeks ago I went to a show by Shepard Fairey, and he has these incredible paintings of Sid Vicious that were really great. That was something meaningful to me.

Read more from this interview here, and view our 90s to Now online-only sale, which runs from February 6 – 20, 2014, to get more information on young talent as well as a glimpse at the early work of established artists.

(Image Courtesy IFC)