Simon Haas

Artist

Conducted by Samuel Snodgrass on April 9, 2021 at Los Angeles, California and New York, New York via Zoom

Simon Haas (b. 1984) is one half of artist duo The Haas Brothers. Raised in Austin, Texas, Simon and his twin Nikolai grew up in an artistic household: their father a painter and sculptor and their mother an opera singer and screenwriter. Simon Haas studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and has used his education there as both valuable instruction and dogma to rebel against. Based in Los Angeles, California, The Haas Brothers have worked in wood, ceramic, metal, beads, and many other materials. Their oeuvre has playfully blurred the lines between art and design. Often they have incorporated functionality and tactility into whimsical and witty forms. Their collaborative pieces have been based on shared experiences, while Simon Haas’ personal practice in painting and drawing has concerned his individual perspective. The imagery of his drawings have often been homoerotic in nature and produced through a slow and meticulous process.

This interview focuses on Simon Haas' unique approach to artmaking, or rather "system making," and how personal issues of sexuality and addiction influence his life and work. He explains his systematic process of creation and love of tedious repetitive tasks. He also discusses his spiritual relationship to craft making and his thoughts on hierarchy in art, craft, and design. As a collaborative maker, Haas reveals his love of making systems that can be followed by the hand of another maker.

Interview duration: 1 hour and 13 minutes.

Samuel Snodgrass (SS): My name is Samuel Snodgrass and I'm interviewing Simon Haas via Zoom on April 9th, 2021. So Simon, how do you identify? As an artist, designer, crafts person or something else altogether?

Simon Haas (SH): I identify as an artist, but I mean all of the above, but artist is more broad and it's just easier to say. It can mean anything.

SS: Yeah. Do you have a certain preferred material to work with?

SH: I like anything that can be built with iterations, so beads or any kind of stitching. Right now I'm crocheting. Same goes for drawing and painting. Cause it's layers. I like anything that's built in layers. But when it comes to the work that I do with Niki [Nikolai Haas], really anything that can have a repetitive process that will build something. So, if you look at caves or something, or anything in the natural world that builds just by having a drip fall in the same place for a long time, that's the kind of thing I'm to trying to create on my own.

SS: And that has a lot to do with time. That's almost another factor of the medium. The repetitive nature takes a lot of time.

SH: Yeah, exactly. For me, wood is not fun. I don't like wood. I don't, I mean, I like it, but I personally just don't use it. So when we'd make wood in the studio it's usually Niki and he's kind of a faster sculptor and I'm all about taking years to make a process.

The Haas Brothers, Madonna installation at Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, New York, 2019. Courtesy of The Haas Brothers.

SS: Hmm. So there's a difference between like a singular thing and then the process.

SH: Yeah. I would say I'm more like a process artist. I make processes and he’s the sculptor in our studio.

SS: Process is a very like craft related thing. Not that it has nothing to do with art. But I think this idea of a repetitive thing, like crochet, you do the same thing over and over to create something.

SH: Which I love. I talk about this kind of often, but I have a hard time separating art from craft. And yeah, crochet is craft, but that doesn't mean that it's not also art. There's an accepted hierarchy that’s like art and then design and then craft, which I don't really love. And I don't know when I see somebody make like a big—or a really tedious beaded piece or a basket, like I have a little tiny basket that's made out of pine needles that a friend of mine's son goes and collects pine needles and then weaves these crazy baskets—I don't think the intention behind making it as any different than somebody who would do a painting. And it's really hard to do, like it takes forever. To me, it's kind of all the same thing. And it really serves the same function for me, which is kind of to meditate and like turn off part of my brain while I let another part of my brain just run wild.

SS: Yeah. I've done some craft projects. I have a making background as well. And the meditation aspect is really therapeutic. So you find that in your work as well?

SH: I did this bead project that I spent five years on and there's very few objects that came out of it so far. I mean, we'll have more of them, but we made these trees for Marianne Boesky and I make little flowers and things out of them. And the process of creating, making that process is actually for me the art piece. I don't have that much to show for it, honestly. And now, for me where my interest lies is finding a way to sort of prescribe a way to do something with craft. So with beads, I wrote an operating system, and it's a really simple operating system. It's just like a set of rules and it's on its own. It's in a closed system and it's all just written on paper, but you can generate 3-D shapes using it, if you just follow some rules. I was just obsessed with, “How do I use a kind of computer language; how can I mix computer language and beads?” Because beads are a little units and I spent like five years figuring out a system for that. And it's stuff that most people will probably never see, but that doesn't matter at all because it was so good for me. And like, just in my everyday life, if I get really stressed out I'll start to bead or knit or something. And same thing happens if I want to draw, I do the same. Or if I'm stressed, I can also draw. 

SS: It's like, you need that outlet to let off some stress. And I found that when you see a, really any type of work that looks tedious, or it looks meticulous, the first question that people ask is “How long did that take?” Do you see the time and labor that you put into pieces, it ends up kind of being part of the subject matter of the piece? How do you relate the amount of time versus the final product?

SH: I do, and that's not to say that something done quickly is less valuable or less important. But I love knowing that something took forever because I kind of imagine that whoever made it, you know, if it took a year, all of the stuff that happened to that person in that year is kind of locked in there. It's a little spiritual to me. If you focus on something or you put a lot of intention towards something for long enough, like that does something, it sort of creates. I’m thinking of The Empty Man. Have you seen that?

SS: No.

SH: It's a scary movie that just came out, but I've been thinking about it. I’ve had this thought for a long time and now The Empty Man pops into my head to describe it, but there's the idea that if you focus—if enough people focus on one thing then it actually manifests, like it actually becomes real. So I feel like the same thing happens in a craft where if you're focusing on it for a long, long time, even if it's just the same thing over and over, there's a bit of spirituality in the piece and it has more of the maker’s energy in it. I sound like a hippie, and I’m really not. But I really believe in that. And for me my spirituality does come up the most when I'm making something. I'm otherwise a total atheist. I think it's very important and, you know, rocks and crystals take forever to make and something about them is really powerful. Or just anything around us, that's been there for a long, long time or historical artifacts. Knowing what an object went through or an old house in Europe or something, just being able to picture the story behind it. There is more in that than if it's a replica or a brand new house. So it is, yeah, I think it's definitely important.

SS: There’s other stories going on in a thing’s history. And I think when you're making something that takes a long time, you build a relationship with the material and you just know the material so well.

SH: Exactly.

SS: Or even with your drawing, just staring at the same image to recreate it.

SH: Yeah, it's intense intimacy with that piece. I mean, when I'm drawing, it's even more focused. If it's beads, I'm able to sort of like, just zone out and do it. But if I'm drawing, it's hyper focused for a long time to a point where I get majorly fatigued by the end of it each time. And there's something a little more painful about that, and you know, I like to wrap that emotion into my drawings too. They're not cozy drawings.

SS: Yeah, you have recent ones that are very erotic. You're talking about pain. It can get very kinky too.

Simon Haas, Tongue/Skin, 2020. Colored pencil on paper. Courtesy of Simon Haas.

SH: Very. They're weirdly dark. And that's something that I don't have in Haas Brothers' work. Like we don't really focus on darkness very much. And so that's my outlet for that. And most of it is sexual. I think that's because my experience is different from Niki's. So we focus on experiences that we share, and those are generally really happy and cartoony and funny. Then in my private work, I'll explore the more complicated shit that I haven't figured out.

SS: Hmm. Is that specifically sexuality related or is there more to it?

SH: It's more like intimacy and yeah, generally sexuality. But my experience of growing up in Texas, closeted and not really understanding intimacy or having barriers and wrongness baked into my idea of intimacy and just untangling that as I get older. And how it kind of stays with you. I mean, that's the case for a lot of gay people for, I mean, for everybody, I think. Maybe some people not, but it's in there and you kind of have to embrace it, or I've had to like embrace parts of my sexuality that I thought were wrong and just go with it. But I'd say a theme in my drawings is longing and non-intimate intimacy.

SS: That's a great descriptor.

SH: Thanks.

SS: Yeah. And I definitely can relate to that. Okay. Can I ask when, when did you come out and what was the process like?

SH: I came out when I was nineteen. And it was—it was hard. My family was cool. Like everyone was actually kind of cool about it, but I had been so tightly closeted for—like very very closeted, and I was super gay. So I was really focused on trying to not show that, and that's just miserable. And I don't think that's a unique experience at all, but you know in the nineties, “that's gay” meant “that sucks.” And Texas was really like—well Texas is still not great with that or with any kind of progressive social things. But back then it was very okay to just be openly homophobic. And so it kept me very closeted. As soon as I knew that I was going to go to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], I was like, fuck it. I'm coming out. And I shaved my head and I dyed my hair leopard print. And I was wearing this like white rabbit fur coat everywhere. I don't know. I did a complete flip around and then, I then—I did drag for a long time, which I don't do anymore.

SS: Oh my gosh. Tell me more about that. Did you have a name?

SH: Mine. I mean, I do it—I will pull it out for Halloween, which that's not what drag is about but I like to like keep her and yeah, my name is Toxika. And she's like a really slutty kind of vampire with really big tits and like kind of goth, cyber goth.

SS: Amazing.

SH: But when I first moved to LA for the first like four or five years, I wouldn't go out unless I was in drag and it was a little more androgynous, but that character I'm talking about came out later and I just pulled her out once in a while.

SS: That's awesome. So Toxica was this outlet for you and now how does that come out in your artwork? Is you're drawing the replacement for Toxica, or I don't know if you can relate that all at?

SH: I think my expression of drag was definitely—I don't consider myself a drag queen, but when I did it, it was a way for me to be freer and I was able to like kind of fearlessly express myself, I guess. And I still had ideas about what I could and couldn't draw or what job I could or couldn't have. And like, that was my only outlet for that. And as I've become more comfortable in what I do and a little more just fearlessly, you know, draw whatever I feel like, and I'll put it out there. I feel less need to transform myself in order to feel free so maybe that's how they're related, but I don't want to make it sound like I think that's what drag is, but for me, that's what it was.

SS: Yeah. I think that's what it is for a lot of people that start drag. But yeah, a lot of people don't. And I love this idea of you being fearless and like trying to play with what you can and can't do. I recently watched an interview where you you're talking about the hexagon Bronze and that you had heard somewhere that you can't bend a grid. So how else does this idea of breaking the rules enter into your work?

The Haas Brothers, Sir Hiss, 2015.  Brass Hex Tile, Blown Glass Bulb RaWle, Glass Marble Eyes. Courtesy of Simon Haas.

SH: The rules of what you can and can't do felt so oppressive to me when I was young. I had to like go to church all the time and—I guess it was just a reaction against that. Like, I actually joined the Church of Satan when I was like eighteen, 'cause I just wanted to do everything that was not what I'd been taught. And I mean, when I was younger, I was going to Baptist church and then my high school was Episcopalian. So not that intense, but I had to go every day to church and I just was never into it. And then when I got to RISD I was surprised even there that there were rules with certain teachers about if you do a portrait it's not really good to have them looking at the observer, which I thought was really weird. Like, why is that a thing? Or restrictions on how much white or black paint you put into a painting. I understand now, why teachers would have you not put too much white into your painting in the start, like save it for later because you don't want it to get all washed out. But I was like, why can't I? Why can't I use white paint in this? Or what if I want it to be really light? I don't know. And then we had a lot of discussions about what is design versus art? Like it's very clear that design includes function and I don't really even think that's up for discussion, but again, it doesn't mean that it's not art. Like it can be art and have some function. And basically I just wanted to rebel against all of those things and I think I was steeped in that rebellious attitude to a point where even with the material—if I hear that hexagons don't like to bend, now it's not so much like rebellion, but the first place I go is, “How do I,” or “Can I change that?” Or like, “How do I do something about that?” And it's true. Hexagonal grids can't bend. And so you can't keep them hexagonal but you can keep them mostly hexagonal. And in our process, you're not allowed to go under a pentagon. You can't make squares and you can't go over eight sides. 'Cause it all still kind of looks like it's hexagons.

SS: What do you mean by that?

SH: So hexagons—you can't keep hexagons if you're bending them around a surface. So every once in a while, like on a soccer ball, you have to use a pentagon also. You'll like stick a pentagon in there once in a while in order to make it bend. When we were making that brass process, I won't allow any square pieces and I also don't allow any pieces above eight sides, above octagons. But even less, so as close as you can stay to hexagons the better. And I guess I just like overcoming challenges. That was a really hard process to figure out.

SS: I want to go back to this idea of functionality. Some of The Haas Brothers work is functional, it's furniture. And then some of it's not. And I don't know, does the intention of the function change how you design or what is the process when you know something is supposed to be functional versus when it's not?

SH: Niki and I definitely—we started out as like furniture makers, and actually my dad owned a furniture company when we were kids. And I love architecture and design so much and I actually—I love—what am I trying to say? I liked the most functional stuff. Actually, if I'm looking at design, I'm really into, “Can it be made in a factory” and like, “What's its impact” and “How light is it?” And, the function is itself really beautiful to me. So I still appreciate that. And we definitely consider all of those things when we're making a piece that's functional. But I think when we're creating anything with function, we think of it as—we think of the function itself as a medium, I guess, to create an artwork. It’s something similar to what can happen if you're pairing two odd words together. So if I say, “A building is like a palm tree,” I don't know what pops into your head, but probably something about height, or I don't know what pops into your head. But something pops into your head that isn't necessarily a word. So there's like a magic in analogy and in metaphor of being able to kind of transmit an idea that's a little harder to get a grasp on. When we're bringing function into our work, it usually has more to do with that. So, what happens if you have a table with six legs, but one of them is lifting its leg like it's peeing or something? Then, your brain is seeing a table, but also seeing something else. And all that we're trying to do there is force a little bit of an extra thought process to happen. We definitely make sure it's still stable and that it works. And, we try to use materials that aren't going to fall apart. I still have to give care instructions, like you would with furniture, but we're always thinking about what the emotional or psychological impact of the object is going to be. And I think maybe that's not as present in like a straight-up piece of design, but you can call it design or art. It doesn't really matter to me.

SS: Yeah. You can also say the same thing for traditional artwork. That it doesn't have the question of, “Well, how do I use this painting?”

SH: Yeah, yeah. In a way it's more boring. Just that hierarchy to me. Oh, I was thinking about what I was talking about earlier with the hierarchy. I remember in painting class that the classical hierarchy of a history painting and then architecture, no, sorry history, then portrait, then landscape, then still life. I don't remember what the order is, but like there was a codified hierarchy of what kind of paintings were more valuable. So I think, I don't know. That's like a lot. I’m fixated on that and if I had never taken a class or sat in for that day, I might not have been so pissed off at that idea. But yeah, it's almost more interesting if you can make a piece of artwork that has some function. It’s difficult. Like it's not an easy thing to tackle. And to me, it's really cool.

SS: You talked so much about your art school days. It seems to have a really big impact. Did you always know you wanted to go to art school?

SH: I actually wanted to go to school for language, or I wanted to be like a translator. And yeah, my dream was to—I don't think I'd like to be a translator now, but I was really interested in linguistics. I always wanted to be an artist, but that became sort of my focus when I was looking at schools and I actually didn't get into any of the schools that I would have gone to for [linguistics]. RISD is the only school I got into which is crazy. But I'm actually really glad that that happened. And I don't know how much of that was what I thought I should be doing versus what I actually wanted to do, because I've always drawn and I've always been obsessed with art and when I was eight or so I would hang out in my dad's painting studio and read his David Hockney book and think about “that's the life that I wanted.” But I've been kind of equally split between art and then systems, like language or computing, but art was the path for me.

SS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you almost bring in this idea of systems into your processes.

SH: Definitely. I love them. I mean, there's something magical about a piece of code being able to act on its own. And obviously the codes only work in a context and they have to be created by somebody, but they're so beautiful. And when the lay person looks at code, they’re like, “Oh, I can't read that.” You know, but the codes are all succinct. And that's the height of abstraction: to be able to write, to use symbolic logic. It's so human to be able to do that. I think we're the only—I mean maybe not, I think crows maybe can do it: like crows and octopus. But I don't know—but humans are able to do that, to abstract ideas. And there's something so awesome to me about having to turn having to abstract your thought process into such a strange written language. Or how do you even generate something from a string of text that's going to do something? It's so cool. It's like the most magical alchemy and yeah, I try to bring that into our work all the time. Like self-assembly is something I'm really into.

SS: Once you've created this code or this process it has a life of its own afterwards.

SH: Yeah, exactly. And yeah, like seeds I think are really cool. I like to make seeds of something. And with my bead process, if someone else knows it, or if they're able to read it, I could be gone and they can make the exact same object I would've made. And I think that's really cool. I'm more into like generating the seed of an idea than an actual physical object. And that's where like, thank God Niki and I work together because he's more object focused. If you just look at my studio, it's like a bunch of unfinished things and we wouldn't be making what we make if he were weren't around or vice versa. Mine would be even more just like a—like a bunch of samples of things.

SS: It almost sounds like you're coming from like a conceptual art background.

SH: Yeah.

SS: And that makes me wonder, how is the studio set up? Once you have your bead process, do others kind of take over and start making that or kind of, how does it work?

SH: Hmm. Well now, because of the pandemic, we don't have a very big studio. But yeah, actually part of my process too—is we've done projects in South Africa and now one in central California. Where with craft in particular, it's actually a good vehicle. It's a great way to—let me restart that. We need help making stuff. So we do have people we hire, makers, to come in and help us. And we did have a team of like twelve people in our studio, which during the pandemic we realized was unsustainable and the art market was not doing well. So, unfortunately, it's now just—we only have two employees, which is really crazy. But when it comes to craft and especially with bead work it's been a really cool thing for me to design those seeds, like I was saying and be able to bring them to anywhere and basically generate sort of a micro economy. So I think a lot of artists hire people to make stuff for them. And I became aware of that and I realized that there's a big business side to art and that a lot of money gets thrown around and that you have a choice of where to push that money. And so I became really interested in when we need to make something or bring people on—“Is there a way to bring it somewhere where there's not that many jobs.” So Lost Hills, California is a farming community where there's very little work for women. It's mostly a migrant workforce and it's seasonal and pretty much only the men have opportunities to work. And a friend of mine owns a business out there and she was telling me about that. And she suggested that I bring bead work out there. So actually, currently they're making a tree and there's a group of women that I taught to bead. And then we all just like sit around kind of in a quilting circle and we'll bead something for a few days, but then after that, they work at their own pace. Beads are perfect cause you just make like- you can hold them in like a little Tupperware container and you can bring them to school or wherever. And so that's become a big part of our making process. The show that we did at Marianne Boesky, it's called Madonna, was made exclusively by women in different places, like in different places in the world. And you know, a bunch of different people can work on like leaves or flowers, and then we can bring them to the studio and assemble them. And that ties back to the time spent making something. A tree that's made by ten women, each with their own lives happening. And like, you know, where were they? Maybe, like someone's kids spilled all their beads and they had to pick them up. Or like, you know what I mean? Like there's so many stories in the making that are wrapped into each leaf and then that all gets assembled into a tree. To me that's a very powerful object.

SS: Yeah. Do you have any way of like, I don't know, recording those stories and their experience? How does their voice continue after the piece has been made?

SH: I mean, I personally know them but I haven't recorded them. But that's a good idea, I should. My hope is they continue to make stuff. In the case of South Africa, they were already bead artists and actually taught me how to do it. Some of the women made objects that wound up at the Cooper Hewitt. And they came to see it. I think that it sort of like, I dunno, just seeing something you made in a setting like that is pretty confidence building and they've become—they already were, but they just—I think it just boosted them a little to make their own stuff. And you know, my hope is for anyone we work with, including people that we just hire in our studio to actually wind up doing their own thing. And that has happened pretty frequently. So that's a good thing.

SS: And that brings up the idea of collaboration, and of course The Haas Brothers has been a collaboration from the start, but you've worked with many other people. How do you balance these multiple voices?

SH: It's pretty natural. I mean, what you said is true. Niki and I are twins, so we don't have any problem collaborating. It's easy for us to have another voice present and still be able to make what we want too. But I think we just understood naturally the value of other people's ideas. I'm going to bring this back to language, but like, there's certain words like in German. There's a word "doch" which means like—I have to explain what this word means because it doesn't exist in English, but it actually means like “to the contrary,” but, not really. It means “but,” or “to the contrary.” And it doesn't quite exist here. And I wouldn't understand what that meant unless I'd gone there, my dad's German. And so there's a bunch of other words in different languages like that. But if you're not exposed to that, you're never going to have a concept for that. The same thing with metaphor and analogy, like I was saying, you would never have this new concept if somebody didn't pair these two words that aren't actually—that don't work together. So for me, when we're collaborating, it's always an opportunity to reframe whatever I'm thinking or whatever ideas I have and sort of jumbled them up. And then come out of it, hopefully with new thoughts. And we only work with people that we can tell are just as open to that process. Like having a good time while we're working. It's not like a “collab”, like a DM [direct message], “Hey, let's collab on this.” And then you're actually not collaborating. It's always like everybody has a lot of input. And I think that just takes a lot of, it takes being very open and trusting that the other people have good ideas and it takes some humility. You know, when I was younger, I didn't like doing group projects because I wanted to be in total control. It's been a good practice to not try to be controlling just let it go and then trust the process, I guess.

SS: That's great. In contrast to that, you have started or continued with your personal practice, which doesn't seem to have too much collaboration.

SH: None. I actually find it less interesting because of that. I mean, I do drawings on my own just because I want to, and it really—I do it when the mood kind of hits me. But if I compare my drawings to the work I do with Niki, I don't find my personal work nearly as interesting. And if it's just my voice, I'm personally not getting as much out of it at the end. If I look at something that had other people involved, then my voice is a good entry point into that object, but I'm also having to consider how other people's voices have changed it and it changes me as a result. So that's a more like living, breathing thing to me. My own work can feel a little too—like in a bubble, but I mean, I love doing it, but it's just very much for me and about me.

SS: You kind of miss some of the humility you’re talking about, and challenging your own voice.

SH: Yeah. And I don't like the idea of an artist as a monolith. If I think about Picasso, I kind of hate him. He was reportedly an asshole and like, it's just all about Picasso. Maybe that's rude, but I think he was. I think he was a prick and I don't really like the idea of he almost was selling a lifestyle too, which is very—it's all about him. And I almost feel like that about Dalí’s lifestyle too, except he was really cool and he had really cool people like Amanda Lear around him, so I don't feel like that about him, but I dunno, like I really like Gaudí and I know that he wasn't just doing it by himself. Like, yes, he was doing a lot of it, but to build the Sagrada Familia, obviously there must have been hundreds of people involved in that process. And he was doing public works and made all the tiles in Barcelona and to me that's more exciting. Like he was trying to engage the public or making something like a tile that everyone's walking on. Like that's kind of a lowly object, but he changed how the city feels and the piece itself is woven into the city. That's cool to me. Or Roberto Burle Marx. I'm thinking of tiles again, but in Brazil, there's all those like black and white kind of swirly plazas. Have you seen those before?

SS: Maybe? Yeah.

SH: I think it's Roberto Burle Marx. But again, I don't know how collaborative it was necessarily, but I know he was working with the city and really thinking about activating a space for people. And so, I dunno, when I think of Brazil, I actually imagine that pattern. Or if I ever see a similar pattern, I think of Brazil. And to me that's more special than Picasso who just stole a bunch of ideas. I like hate him. [Laughs.]

SS: I love what you said about the tiles and you step on it and it's not really a precious object. That goes back to what you were saying about like the hierarchy of history painting versus still lifes. And you're just messing all that up.

SH: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And you know, I'm not trying to shit on painters that work alone. Like Max Ernst, I love. And I love David Hockney, but to me they were doing stuff that was just amazingly weird. Hockney doing those fax machine drawings or his fax machine paintings, embracing technology and kind of going against the grain of what people thought was okay. I like Max Ernst documenting his own mental breakdown and kind of working through that in his paintings. To me, that's really exciting. So there there's a lot of cases where artists just working by themselves and not collaborating are really amazing. But you know, for me, it's If I don't collaborate, my stuff gets a little too tight.

SS: And "tight" meaning what exactly?

SH: I dunno, like a clenched fist or, I don't see it speaking to a lot of people. I know it speaks to some people who might share or might have like a very similar experience to me, but it's not—it doesn't have any broad appeal.

SS: And the broad appeal, that's an important aspect to you?

SH: For sure. And I mean, I love pop music, I think it’s amazing. I think it's important. Like pop culture is actually amazing and wonderful. And it, more than other art forms, I think pushes culture in different directions and it has a bigger impact on the world. Yes, it's partially engineered, but it's interesting to me that something can be engineered to have mass appeal. What is it that we all like about Britney Spears? There's a lot to like.

SS: There’s a lot to love, for sure. Yeah. And even though something like, I mean, Toxic is a great song and even though it is totally pop, it doesn't mean that there's not substance. It means so much to so many people.

SH: It does. And to me too. I was a huge—I still am, but I was a big, big Britney Spears fan in high school. The guys around me were like listening to Willie Nelson and whatever. I like couldn't play—if I played Britney in a group setting, it didn't work. So she became like my escape. I think a lot of gay guys have the same experience with her in particular, but she meant so much to me. I still genuinely love her. And, that's a big deal. I think that's a huge, she's done a lot for a lot of people and she can't really even understand and probably ever quite grasp what she's meant to everybody. Which is cool.

SS: Just to bring it back to your work, I’m looking at the Gorillas in the Mist. That's one of your public pieces.

The Haas Brothers, Gorillas in the Mist, 2017. Aventura Mall Aventura, Florida. Courtesy of The Haas Brothers.

SH: Yeah.

SS: So tell me about making that and the idea of pop and wide appeal and all of that kind of goes into the piece, I'm sure.

SH: So Gorillas in the Mist, it's based on a movie title. Oh my God. I'm forgetting her name. Who was the gorilla scientist? I forgot her name.

SS: Jane Goodall? [Dian Fossey.]

SH: Yeah, Jane Goodall. Okay. We bring in pop culture references to our titles all the time, but the point of making that—it's at a mall, which tons of people are going to go through whether they like art or not. And we wanted it to have appeal beyond being this heady piece of art. And I want people, and Niki definitely wants people, who get tired in a museum or don't really care to go through a museum to experience art and get something out of it. And that was kind of about when we were kids, we would go play in fountains on UT [University of Texas] campus. The rules were pretty lax. We were allowed to go swim in public fountains, but it was the most fun thing that we could think of. And I loved doing that. We tried to make a fountain that you can also swim in and it's kind of a kid's play fountain. But then it's weird too. It's like a little bit sexual for being in a public space like that. There's a monkey, who's spitting water out and she has one of her legs up and she has a really beautiful butt. So there's a slight bit of that adult appeal too, but it's just about having fun and it's more really, the point is for it to be like a waterpark.

SS: The interaction with a lot of your work is what makes it so fun. The first piece I remember seeing of yours is a white chaise lounge. And I saw it at an art fair. So I went up and sat on it or something.

SH: Good.

SS: And so my question is, what happens when your pieces are in museums and they can't be touched or played with?

SH: There's a little bit lost there. I want to have stuff in public. And I think museums are really wonderful. And it's just part of an institution that you don't get to touch it. And that's, you know, that's too bad, but if everyone touched it would be ruined. So you do have to keep it like that. I remember we were installing our show at the Bass Museum [The Bass, Miami, Florida] and I wasn't allowed to touch the work because museums have to have insured art handlers. And I wasn't covered under that. So I actually had to direct people to move things. Even though I had just been making it, I was just not allowed to touch it. And it's a little bit of a bummer, but at the same time just wanting to touch it is enough for me. Like, I think it's—if it makes you want to touch it, that's nice. That's what we want in our work. But they're definitely made to be interacted with. I mean, when we were making that white chaise we were just imagining where it might wind up. You know, like luxuriating nude or like with a robe on, on that piece is both like very luxurious and also really funny. Like, I don't know. I do want people to be able to interact with our stuff and it's mostly built for that. The only exception is our ceramics. Like you can't touch those. And in that case, I kind of liked that tension of you want to, but if you do you're going to destroy it.

SS: Wow. Yeah. And I'm reminded that you said in an interview before, you researched by touch and the feeling of your fingertips. Is that an important part of your process?

SH: It is. I have really sensitive fingers. When it comes to building stuff, and this, I think like drawing too. You have to be really conscious of the pressure you're applying and all of that stuff. So I think that's kind of what I meant by researching by touch is just I'm very in touch with my hands. And I can feel with a piece of metal or something. I can feel its properties, sort of. A little, I don't know, like just being really mindful of how it bends, for example, I'm not explaining that well.

SS: It goes back to this kind of intimacy with material, that spending time with it and touching it. You get to know it more

SH: Yeah, exactly.

SS: Great. I mean, I could go on, but I don't want to take up too much of your time.

SH: I mean, I'm good either way.

SS: Let me just go through and see if I have any other interesting questions. What do you do beyond art making and what's the rest of your life like?

SH: Kind of simple. I'm sober, so I used to just party a lot. And I was a wild child now I'm sober and my life is pretty peaceful. Road tripping is my favorite thing. I watch a lot of movies and shows with my boyfriend. He's a TV writer. So we watch a lot of shit together. I like to cook, I hang out with my nephew. My life's pretty simple actually outside of work, it didn't use to be, but I think my favorite thing to do is road trip.

SS: When did that change? Like when did you have that transition?

SH: Four and a half years ago I got sober. So I went to rehab and that was like a big, big, big change for me. And I was out of control and it was kind of good. Some of it was good, like as fodder for making art, but mostly it's just really destructive. And that was definitely the hardest thing I've ever gone through was getting sober, but also the most beautiful. And when I say my life is like simple or boring right now, that's like a really positive thing. And I've just started to embrace being there, which is really nice. Because I used to not be able to “be there” without a substance and it was getting to the point where, we did a project for a client in her house and she invited us over for this fun night. And I shut down the party by being too out of control. And Niki actually told me about that last year. And I didn't remember that that had happened. I was so embarrassed. I don't know. It's interesting. A lot of our work early on was sort of inspired by drugs because we did a lot of psychedelics and like, I was like Mr. Ayahuasca and mushrooms and all that stuff. And there's a connection to that spirituality that I was talking about, with making and with images and stuff. But I, don't think it's a genuine connection to it or at least for me. Because it wound up being this thing that I would just chase and then my whole life fell apart. So it was a really good experience for me. And now, now just gratitude for being alive is the thing.

SS: I know we're getting fairly personal, so feel free to—

SH: No, it’s fine.

SS: Was there any pressure from being gay to get into drugs or was that not related?

SH: I mean, yeah, we, the gay community definitely is a little more on the edge of alcoholism than other ones, but a lot of that is just, you know—I think a lot of that is trauma and then drugs and sex are pretty tied together there. Like I hadn't had sober sex for—I mean really until like four and a half years ago, which I didn't realize until then. But yeah, I mean, we like to have fun and it's just—it's there. I think there's a lot of trauma and, and we also want to have fun. So that breeds that, and I'm fine with that. I actually don't mind that that's part of our culture and I really don't judge anybody for taking drugs, but for me it was like a death sentence. So I had to stop.

SS: Yeah, I know you say your life is simple, but I don't know. The work does not seem simple.

SH: The work's not. You know, mostly I work. Even when I come home, I'm like kind of working and, and my addiction has kind of—has wound up in that place now instead. And it's a much healthier version of it. So actually, I guess when I was talking about doing iterative processes, I omitted that piece of it, which is that it's actually a little compulsive. I personally come from a mindset of scarcity that I'm trying to get rid of. Like if I order food, I need to order more than I'm going to eat, because it's important to me to know that I'm not going to run out. And that's how I was with alcohol too. Like if I knew I was about to run out of it, I would freak out. Now I kind of satisfy that by working. If I'm working on a task, like a beaded tapestry, I have a long runway before I run out of something and I can do the same thing over and over, and it's predictable. And I know I'm going to keep getting the same result. The good thing about that is that there aren't diminishing returns.

SS: I always, when I'm making something, when I'm just about to finish, I'm like “Ugh, I don't want to finish it.” You kind of get that when you don't want to see the end?

SH: Completely. Yeah. It's about the making. And I also get depressed when I—Niki and I both get this, we're working through it, and I think it happens less now, but for a long time, whenever we had a show, we would get really depressed and it should be celebratory, but like, it was sad. I think that's sort of like postpartum depression kind of thing. But I so love being occupied with a project that it is definitely a bummer to be finished. That's been a struggle to figure out how to be okay with finishing something because you have to do it. I mean, you've got to finish. at least if it's your job, you definitely have to finish it.

SS: Right. And especially with clients too.

SH: Niki's better at that than I am. I love planning and I love, I love the middle part, but I don't like the end part very much.

SS: Okay. Well with that in mind, what does the future hold? What's next?

SH: We have some museum shows coming up that I'm excited about. I'm just excited for this coming year because we're going to actually get to do art fairs and gallery shows again, which I kind of was getting tired of. And then I realized how much I missed the social part of being an artist and how lucky I am to travel and meet a bunch of strangers all the time. And talk to them about work and I got to do cool things. I mean, we went to Nepal to do rugs and we just wind up in crazy places and I love, I love meeting people. So that's my future. I think we're all feeling like that though. It'll be nice to finally have connection again.

SS: Yeah, definitely. I know you mentioned reducing the people in your studio, but what other things have changed since the pandemic started?

SH: A lot of my work has moved to digital now. The art market took like a something like a ninety percent hit during the pandemic, which is really big. And we almost lost our studio actually. And that was incredibly stressful. But in a way it was really good. It kind of reminded me of the type of work that I used to do and that nothing's certain. But I've moved a lot of my work into Blender, that 3-D program, because I can make pictures of this stuff now. And I guess just more planning. Our studio used to be really R and D heavy and out of necessity, we had to cut that out for this year. And yeah, I don't know. Digital has been the way to go and I always resisted it, but I actually love it. It's a cool way to make stuff.

SS: Yeah, it seems perfectly aligned with your system and process.

SH: Yeah. It should have naturally been the way I was doing stuff anyway, but I like didn't want to. I like systems, but I’ll usually make them hard. And if you're using a 3-D program, that tool actually makes it easier. I was worried about losing the hand in the process, but honestly, digital programs are flexible and intuitive enough now that you can have your hand in it. Which is such a blessing and I love doing it. And every time I do it, I'm marveling that it's possible. And I feel like it's really only just now possible too. To conceive of and build something fully digitally that's interesting.

SS: So are you saying like you'll have fully digital pieces or is it—

SH: Well, recently I've made a few—I'll sculpt it in the computer and then we can CNC rout it or 3-D print it and then we'll do more to it after that by hand, but it's an amazing tool to get a core of something finished without a lot of labor, which is maybe what I was resisting. Because I liked the labor part of it. And we grew up as stone carvers actually. Because my dad did a lot of stuff, but his main thing was carving stone. There's something about having to chip away at a big block that I romanticize and that I still think is really important. And that bit of it does get lost in digital. But you know, there's also an economy with art and I do ultimately run a business also. And so I have to take that into account, which is the less romantic side of making art, but it's there.

SS: Yeah, that's the practical side. You have to be both an artist and a business man.

SH: Yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, and I was also an employer and a manager, or I am, but I was managing a really large team and yeah—that almost took more away from me being able to create stuff then—that had a bigger impact, like taking away from me then moving digital does, because I wound up becoming like HR and I had very little time to actually just focus on work for myself. And the business end of it isn't talked about that often, but it's just so present. 'Cause we live in a—I mean like money is everything in this reality and our work is really expensive to make. That was the thing. That was the biggest problem of last year.

SS: Yeah. I bet. I mean, it's just been miserable for so many people.

SH: And I hated being the person who was laying people off. That was really terrible. But like there's literally nothing that could be done about that. And, you know, I'm in such a—I'm really fortunate. I'm not complaining, I had a cushier way through that year, then tons of people. So I don't mean to like, make that about me, but yeah, it was so rough.

SS: Okay. Well, you've been so generous. So I'll end the recording here.

SH: All right. That was fun.

[End of interview]

simonhaas.art
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The Haas Brothers Madonna installation at Marianne Boesky Gallery, NYC, 2019. Courtesy of the Haas Brothers
The Haas Brothers Gorillas in the Mist, 2017. Aventura Mall Aventura, FL. Courtesy of the Haas Brothers
Simon Haas, Tongue/Skin, 2020.  Colored pencil on paper. 18” X 24." Courtesy of Simon Haas
simon haas 3.jpg