The frenetic energy and oddball characters of Fred Tieken’s paintings reflect the artist’s own life and times, which stretch back to 1935. Born Frederick Earl Tieken in a one-room Illinois home, the artist now lives and works in Paradise Valley with his wife and manager, Gail Tieken.
In between, Tieken spent more than five decades in the fields of music and design. Look carefully at his work, often imbued with wry humor and social commentary, and you’ll spot evidence of time spent playing more than 3,500 music gigs and running his own design firm.
“I paint my experiences,” Tieken says. “Look deeper at my paintings, and you’ll see I’m telling stories.”
Tieken’s studio sits inside his home, where walls are filled with works by local and national artists. The garage doubles as a workshop – holding two cars, art materials, and a work-in-progress. It’s a painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat for Tieken's new series of portraits featuring famous artists he admires. Andy Warhol also made the cut, but right now Tieken is focused on attaching rubber tubes for Basquiat’s hair.
His first painting, completed seven years ago, hangs in a nook near the back of Tieken Gallery, a space the couple had built in their own back yard. Opened in November 2015, Tieken Gallery shows works by Tieken as well as other artists. Their first exhibition included works by 45 Arizona artists, and their latest features works by Emmeric Konrad and Richard Kessler.
But it’s Tieken’s first work that’s most striking. It’s a montage of scenes portraying time spent at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors removed one of Gail’s kidneys and transplanted it into Tieken. The couple says they’ll never sell it, but it hangs as a testament to their fierce devotion to life, art, and each other.
For Tieken, a typical day involves getting up around 6 a.m. and making art nearly nonstop until around 8 p.m. He’ll break around 7:30 a.m. for a light breakfast, and head out to eat with Gail at around 3 p.m. Often he paints while blasting loud music, typically punk or bebop, but sometimes funk. Sometimes, he says, the best ideas happen in the wee hours. So if Tieken gets the urge to sketch at 3 a.m., he runs with it.
“I’m probably far too dedicated to what I do,” Tieken says of all the time spent painting.
Even so, he shows no signs of slowing down.
The Tiekens traveled to Miami in November, where Tieken showed works in two art fairs as part of Miami Art Week. Now he’s getting ready for an art fair happening early next year in Los Angeles, where his exhibition will center around a relatively new character — a GMO bird named UNO, who often tops a skateboard. The giant UNO sculpture that currently sits poolside in the Tieken’s back yard will go along for the show, leaving behind myriad sculptures that transform the space into an informal sculpture garden.
“A lot of this is rebellion,” Tieken says of his unyielding art practice. After years of feeling bound by the precision and polish of graphic design, the artist says he’s ready to let it fly. “If it’s too tight, I make it look messier,” Tieken says. “I like to see how much I can make the paint run.”
It’s all a reflection of Tieken’s take on life: “Life isn’t perfect. People aren’t perfect. That’s what makes it beautiful.”
Tell us about your work in haiku format.
Music you can see
Blurring the lines
Between reality and bliss
What artist (s) are you really into right now?
The list never really changes — Warhol, de Kooning, Basquiat, Dubuffet, Picasso, Miro
What are you reading?
I don't read a lot of books since my typical schedule is I paint, I create, I sleep, I paint. Because of this, I read more magazine and news articles than books. I think the last book I read was "Becoming Richard Pryor" — I prefer real life to fiction.
What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
Vice — I also like Real Time with Bill Maher, The Blacklist
If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Fred Harman, the creator of Red Ryder comic strips
What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?
I just got back from exhibiting at Art Week Miami and got to see Art Basel Miami while I was there. It was really inspiring. I also recently saw the "Emphatics" show at Phoenix Art Museum and found it very enjoyable. It was very significant in an historical sense.
Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovic? And why?
I like Jeff Koons because he takes things to a different size and level of absurdity. He works with interesting materials.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
You can do it. I heard this from my high school music teacher, my football coach, and my mother, who drove me around with my clarinet so that I could sit in with bands in our area.
What are you currently working on?
I'm doing two more pieces for my portrait series — Jean-Michel Basquiat and UNO, my GMO bird. I'm also designing ads for art publications to promote my installations at the LA Art Show 2017 in January and building various parts for the installation. It's going to be UNO's Beach Party, held on Monsanto Beach.
What's your most valuable tool as an artist?
My wife and manager, Gail Tieken.
And one more note ... Many people don't realize the importance of my work, but they will. If it happens when I'm dead, that's okay. I want to leave a legacy!!!