Last winter, artist Andy Herod received an email from a stranger. The message was brief. The woman, identified only as Evelyn, wanted to know if Herod had painted a picture of her. He had, and for two weeks the piece had hung in his Cotton Mills studio. “I was kind of nervous,” Herod recalls. “I didn’t want her to think I was a creepy stalker.”
In his latest collection, Sorry I Made It Weird: Portraits of People You May Know, all of the artist’s subjects come courtesy of Facebook. Specifically, from the profile pictures of people the social media platform thinks Herod might know. The series will be on display at PUSH Gallery through Oct. 4, with an opening reception held Friday, Aug. 19, at 6 p.m.
Known primarily for his prints of animals (and his role as the frontman for indie-rock band Electric Owls), Herod says the inspiration for his latest series didn’t initially stem from Facebook, but rather from a desire to shake things up. “I wanted to do human subjects just to see if I could,” he says. While in pursuit of this new challenge, a stranger’s face showed up on Herod’s homepage. “It was a really beautiful photo and I was like, ‘I want to paint her.’”
Herod replied to Evelyn’s email, acknowledging that he had, indeed, painted a picture of her. He then sent her a photo of the work. Evelyn’s response was somewhat ambivalent. “She was like, ‘I guess I’m really flattered,'” Herod says.
It’s this ambivalence and potential uncertainty that both fascinates and fuels Herod’s latest work. While he doesn’t have a thesis for the project’s overall intent, he’s interested in the questions it raises about privacy, oversharing, ownership and the unknown doors we willfully — albeit at times unintentionally — open when we create these online versions of ourselves. “It occurred to me,” he says, “that it would be cool to fill a whole room full of strangers and just see what happened. That’s basically how I arrived at this show.”
The criteria for Herod’s project were simple. Facebook had to suggest the individuals to him through its “People You May Know” function. He could not seek subjects out online. The artist could, however, use discretion. “If I just took the first 20 that [Facebook] showed me, the pictures wouldn’t be that interesting, and it would probably be all white people,” he says. The faces also had to belong to locals to whom Herod had no actual ties.
There were some challenges. In one instance, a photographer who took the photo of one of Herod’s subjects objected to the artist’s use of the image. Herod acquiesced. Another time, at an art event, Herod recognized one of his subjects in the crowd. “We ended up next to each other,” he says. “I didn’t want to talk to her, but she was really nice and kept trying to engage me.” Herod was intent on keeping the subject a stranger until the piece was finished, “But I didn’t want to be mean,” he says. “So finally I talked to her.” He didn’t mention the project, however.
As for Evelyn, Herod ran into her, as well. “We talked a little more in depth about it,” he says. “She said, ‘I’ve got to be honest, I kind of wish that you had asked me.’ And I get that, but part of what I really liked about it was that I didn’t ask. I don’t know why, to me, that was the interesting part. … But do I have to ask someone [permission] when their picture literally shows up on my computer screen every day?”
Herod adds that, despite the show’s title, his aim isn’t to make things weird. “My intentions are good,” he says. “If someone [I painted] really hates it, I’m happy to take it down or destroy it or whatever, but I’m interested in having a dialogue before I do.”
WHAT: Opening reception for Sorry I Made It Weird: Portraits of People You May Know
WHERE: PUSH Gallery, 25 Patton Ave., pushtoyproject.com
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 19, 6-9 p.m. Free