Cowboys Don’t Cry | Interview: Taz

Citizen LA | Citizen LA

Taz is the nom de arte of the artist formerly known as Wayne Niemand, an accidental Angeleno from South Africa whose paintings echo his fascination with the symbols and iconography of native cultures of Africa, the Americas and Australia and reflect the influences of Miro and Motherwell.

He never intended to make the U.S. his home but when he was on his way to Canada from South Africa in the early 90s a confrontation with a surly Canadian customs agent soured him on the Great White North. Fortunately, his travel agent in Johannesburg had over-equipped him with a five-year, multiple-entry visa for the United States, just so he could fly into JFK and catch a connecting flight to Canada from LaGuardia. Feeling not inclined to challenge Canada’s frosty welcome, he invoked his U.S. visa privileges and retreated to Baltimore.

He also experimented with New York and Chicago but the weather was alarming. He headed west and found himself in Cheyenne, Wyoming, one autumn day: “I drank in the hotel bar until I was wasted. Woke up the following morning, guys were banging on my door, ‘Taz, get up, get up!’ I thought, what the fuck? I looked out the fucking window and there was fucking snow. Now, I had never been in snow my whole fucking life. I go out there. I don’t know about dressing in layers. I mean, I come from South Africa! Layers to me is a T-shirt under a cotton shirt. After twenty minutes in the snow I’m back inside in the jacuzzi. It’s like ten in the morning. A waiter walks by and I’m like, ‘hey, a tub of brandy!’ You can keep fucking snow, mate.”

Taz eventually landed in L.A. after a brief sojourn in San Francisco. “That city smells like mothballs to me.” He came to Los Angeles because his passport was stolen and he needed to report it to the South African consulate. He met his future ex-wife here and he found the climate relatively inoffensive. In the decade and a half since he has steadily built an impressive body of work, mostly paintings, in his Arts District studio.

He thinks of himself as primarily a sculptor and his paintings reveal an interest in mass and form. Many could be studies for works in three dimensions. He is primarily self-taught. He walked out of the only university art class he ever signed up for. “I walked into a lecture, the professor walked in and said ‘Realism is everything and abstraction is nothing.’ I sat and pondered about this for a while and then I stood up and grabbed my bag. The guy says, ‘Young man, where do you think you’re going?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’m outta here, mate.”

Later, he studied for a year under a traditional native woodcarver in Swaziland, an experience that ended up being as much about character as art. “If I had to choose one thing I learned in that year it would be patience. I learned how to be patient. Instead of forcing something to come to me, let it be and if it takes two years or it takes three years, finally we’ll see what it is.”

Taz says he thinks his vocation as an artist was inevitable, given the nature of his interests and his sensibility as a child, although he was unaware of it at the time. “The weird thing is, I’m so visual, I don’t remember phone numbers by the numbers but in the shape I dial them. I never got to identify with the so-called art world because I grew up in South Africa in the 60s. My stepfather is a total South African macho, you know, like ‘cowboys don’t cry.’ I kind of feel it was difficult for him as well when I was a kid because I was always asking these questions of a kind my age shouldn’t be asking. I had nobody in my family who would actually pat me on the back and say, ‘Kudos to you, Taz.’ It was always, ‘Your son is weird, Marina,’ ‘Dick, that’s a strange kid you have.’

“So as a kid, growing up in South Africa, we went all over on vacations. I had a great kid life. I got to see all kinds of shit—different cultures. There are something like 37 different tribal groups in South Africa alone and I got to see all of them and the visual impact on me was just unbelievable. The reason why I got into this work, it started off with the reading I was doing as a child about different cultures. Native American, South American, Australian aboriginal cultures. I saw these recurring images, you know, the coiled snake, for example, and it means the same thing in different cultures. And I wanted to know why. ‘Why, why, why?’ I drove my parents nuts with the word ‘why.’ I’m still pondering these things.

“When I first started I basically used the symbols I saw. Gradually I grew beyond that and now I develop these images and shapes in my head. I connect them with other images and I come home and I draw it and I go, ‘okay, how did I get that? You just keep challenging yourself as an artist. Somebody said, ‘If you stop growing as an artist, you die.’

“I guess my influences are Miro and Motherwell. Miro’s work is very playful and his use of color is amazing. But I think there is an underlying thing to Miro that I really like. Although the work is joyful and playful there is a serious side to Miro which goes much deeper. Motherwell, too. I love Motherwell’s work. When people say of something of mine, ‘Oh, it looks like Motherwell,’ I say, ‘Thank you!’

“Now I have this dilemma about taking the next step in my paintings. I don’t know if they’re going to become much, thicker, stronger, more like in-your-face or more delicate lines and little more Miro-influenced. I’ve done a couple pieces along those lines and I’ve been getting a really great reaction.”