The weird world of Andrew Novick: Blood, pancakes and punk rock
“If I’m not back in a few hours,” I said to my husband on an otherwise ordinary Saturday, “let the police know I was having coffee with the man who makes art out of human blood.” My fears were put to rest the minute I met Andrew Novick
, a person Samuel Schimek of the I Heart Denver Store
, both a friend and intermittent business collaborator, jokes is “like Darth Vader but conceived by niceness.”
The blood art, technically titled Blood Lustre
and on display at Kitchens’ Ink Tattoo & Art Gallery
last month, was grotesque, true. For this strange series of photographs, Novick covered female models in their own blood (he used anywhere from twelve to sixty cubic centimeters) and then shot them, figuratively speaking.
Some models were photographed doing mundane things like eating Count Chocula cereal, while others, like the model drenched in blood then wrapped in cellophane, were interjected into campy, horror movie scenes meant to shock even the most die-hard Dexter fans.
“Nowadays,” explains Novick, “with zombie culture and special effects makeup, things aren’t as edgy.” It follows that the show was less shocking than anticipated. “There was this one picture of a girl about to pop her eyeball out with grapefruit spoon. At the opening, a woman brought her elderly mother, and the mom really loved that one,” says a somewhat disappointed Novick.
Atomic clocks, Peeps and an astounding problem
Even when he isn’t painting people with their own blood, Novick’s easy to spot at an overcrowded Stella’s: tar-colored, punk-styled hair, a bit vampire-like in complexion and in stature, meaning he’s mysterious, charming, and surely capable of vanishing at a moment’s notice. Which, by the way, isn’t totally outside the realm of possibility since, by day, Novick watches the atomic clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology
in Boulder where he’s worked since 1987.
“I don’t actually watch the clock,” the engineer clarifies. “There’s a team of super smart physicists who do that.”
And Novick swears he doesn’t know how to time travel, though it often appears that way: When he isn’t playing with the world’s most important timekeepers, he’s got his hands in so many projects it is early to lose track of them all.
Aside from electrical engineer, in no particular order, there’s: husband, Peeps expert, collector extraordinaire, chef, entertainer, burlesque dancer, nationally renowned musician, even breakfast boss. Of his eclectic, slightly ADHD resume, Novick says, “It’s my unwillingness to be pigeonholed. Even in high school, you were either a jock or a stoner or new wave. Not me. I was friends with all the groups because I’ve never wanted to be categorized as one thing.”
Maybe this is because Novick isn’t one for titles. He doesn’t consider himself an artist, though he’s quite good at it and, as Schimek points out, he “puts concepts together and presents them to public, which is generally how an artist works.” Novick concurs: “I’ve been photographing things since, hmm, the late ’80s. But I never was a ‘photographer.'”
Photography, for Novick, is part of his prolific collecting habit. He worked with Schimek to put together a compilation of nearly 100 cake photographs. Placed on a grid, the result was “almost like a mosaic with all the colorful icings.” Before that, Novick compiled his pictures of cuts and bruises (strangely, there were many) and arranged the gruesome photos on a mannequin, matching injuries to proper body location. His first photography exhibition focused on food at the cafeteria at NIST.
The show that officially launched him into the art scene, The Astounding Problem of Andrew Novick
, on display at The Lab at Belmar in early 2009, was a collection of things amassed over a lifetime: sleeping bags, lunch boxes, dead animals, watches, concert tickets (he’s saved every single once since high school), trash cans, Dukes of Hazzard
paraphernalia, even a hair collection from college.
“He definitely had some things I didn’t want to open or touch,” says Michelle Baldwin
who curated the show, which featured 8,000 objects arranged thematically in compartments floor-to-ceiling on one very large wall. The facing wall held photographs of approximately half of the physical items (Novick ran out of time while scanning). A third gallery displayed textual descriptions of each item, which got Novick to thinking: “What the heck do I really collect?”
Novick’s claims he’s not a hoarder. “Hoarders have some psychosis about saving things, which I have, but the reason why I’m into these things is because there’s some kind of ephemeral appeal to the items and not letting it fall into a black hole in history,” he explains.
And if Novick ever was a hoarder, Schimek thinks he’s reformed. “The art exhibitions have allowed him a different outlet rather than collecting just for the home,” Schimek says. And, while he does have a storage unit for all of his odds and ends, Baldwin agrees Novick is “less of a hoarder and more of a collector.”
“He brings something really off-center to the art community because he isn’t from an art background,” she continues, labeling Novick as “almost an outsider artist.” His contributions are scientific, bizarre, and experimental. “I don’t think he really cares if he makes money,” Baldwin adds. “This is a pure expression of himself.”
Adam Lerner, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver compares Novick’s affinity for the mundane to Andy Warhol’s work. “Novick has a similar love for everyday objects,” says Lerner. “He may have some rudimentary form of classification, but he really is much more interested in objects that feel, to him, different. His genuine love for everyday culture is very similar to Warhol’s relation to everyday objects.”
“Very few people have the ability to be both so marginal and so much in the center,” Lerner adds. “Somebody who is fascinated with blood and carcasses of dead animals, which he definitely collects, that’s not really that interesting to me. But somebody obsessed with those things and also really into Britney Spears — now that’s interesting.”
Punk rock, Japanese pop culture and lack of sleep
When he isn’t creating art, Novick might be dabbling in music. Maybe you remember him from The Warlock Pinchers
, a national-touring band Novick and some buddies started in college at the University of Colorado in Boulder after Novick decided he “didn’t want to waste four years of life focusing solely on school.”
The concept was centered on hating Boulder; the backlash to then-pop culture was “almost a rebellion to the music itself” seeing, as Novick puts it, the band members weren’t particularly good at music. “There are lots of really talented musicians who aren’t in great bands; we took the angle that you can have people who aren’t very talented at music but are in a great band.”
The Pinchers, which released three albums over its five-year lifespan, were about an experience that Novick calls an “assault on the audience.” “We would go nuts, using lots of low-budget effects like opening powered Kool-Aid packets and throwing them around to make fog machines. It was like, ‘I saw this band last night and got hit in the head with a piece of chicken.'”
What Scramblehead, Novick’s subsequent, less-known group, lacks in fame it easily makes up for in eeriness. The band — two guitarists, two drummers, two bass players, three female vocalists adorned in ’60s dresses, marked with Xs on the forehead and armed with guns, and Novick screaming into a walkie-talkie — only performed renditions of Charles Manson’s folk songs. “It was all strobe lights and fogs machines. It was the most uncomfortable thing to watch, really aggro,” Novick says.
When I ask what gives with all of the creepiness, Novick explains that, like his hairstyle, his interests are more about moving away from mainstream culture than anything else, an expression of his refusal to submit to the ordinary. The same goes for drinking and drugs, which Novick’s never been into — though he’s got nothing against either.
“I was really anti-peer pressure as a teen,” says Novick, who always abstained, even when he was deep into the punk scene. “Punk culture was all about escapism and rebellion. I was definitely into these things, but I was about doing them fully consciously without drinking or drugs. I must just get my creativity from someplace else. I’m very influenced by pop culture and the extreme sides of life and existing.”
These days, Novick’s musical outlet is GetYourGoing, a performance-based production that’s basically Novick singing along with extremely obscure records — like a Chevrolet “safe driving” album from the 1960s that you would have received had you purchased a Chevy a half-century ago — as video rolls in the background. For the Chevy songs, it was a scare film with images of teens drinking and driving and slow motion videos of crash-test dummies.
Just when you’re about to peg Novick as a total oddball, he does something truly shocking like cooking mass batches of pancakes for a family-friendly fair. What started as a personal birthday tradition — for the past decade Novick’s been doing a front-yard, all-out breakfast BBQ — evolved into a Denver County Fair event when, three years back, Novick became the breakfast boss.
Since its inception, Andrew Novick’s Xtreme Pancake Breakfast has been gathering praise for its delectable pancakes and delightfully vast toppings. In August, there were 84 toppings and 31 flavors of butter alone.
“Sometimes he comes up with things that you don’t think would be delicious but they are, like shrimp pancakes,” says Baldwin. “But,” she laughs, “he definitely had a table this year that was stuff you’d never put on a pancake unless you’re completely insane.”
Don’t get used to normalcy though. Novick’s other culinary endeavor, the Japanese Surgery Dinner
, is anything but. ” For art,” says Schimek, “the surgery dinner is hard to top.”
The weird, Japanese-inspired foodie experience was 13 courses of medical-themed dishes that tested the boundaries of cannibalism: gauze (mozzarella with tomato jam), bacteria (a petri dish with potato spaetzle), anatomically correct heart-shaped bread, and red wine poured from blood bags. Guests ate in an abandoned warehouse decorated like a hospital, wore masks and used scalpels and servers dressed as nurses.
For the “grand finale,” a girl was wheeled out on a gurney and the crowd consumed one of her legs, which was actually red velvet cake with skin colored fondant and a Rice Krispie foot. The antics are “akin to stuff that happens at Japanese restaurants.” This October 19, Novick plans to host Yurei Cafe
, a one-night Japanese horror dinner themed to Japanese ghost stories and horror movies.
Novick and his wife have traveled to Japan annually since 2001, which is when they first fell in love with Asian pop culture. They subsequently launched Gimme Gimme Pillow Toast
, a novelty online store offering “clothes, crazy snacks and housewares.”
If you’re wondering when Novick finds the time to sleep, well, he doesn’t. Not much, anyway. “I sleep as little as possible,” he says.
In high school, Novick stayed awake for 78 hours for a paper on sleep deprivation. In college, he experimented with sleeping eight hours every other night, which was “a crazy idea.”
“I’ve always tried to maximize my time here on earth,” says the 44-year-old savant. “There are so many things I want to do.” What’s next is anyone’s guess.
This story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here.