Studio Visit

Studio Visit: Derek Lerner

January 2019
Img 9497 corrected

Derek Lerner in his studio in front of a large work in progress.

Studio Visit: Derek Lerner


Derek Lerner (b. 1974 Jacksonville, FL) is a New York City-based artist whose drawings obsessively explore the complexities of contemporary issues concerning human interaction with and destruction of Earth’s environment through a series of visual metaphors that never allow for a certainty of place. He coalesces questions about how complex systems work, over-consumption and over-population into ironically beautiful visual metaphors that reference mapping, satellite photography, microscopic imagery or deep space photography, as well as signs, symbols, tags and random marks found on the streets of urban environments.

New visual elements introduced in recent compositions represent Lerner’s enduring interest in the digitization of everyday life and the technological singularity (the hypothesis that the invention of artificial intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in a highly evolved superintelligence that initiates unfathomable changes to human civilization). The components of each composition multiply and attach themselves to one another or consume others like runaway artificial intelligence, cancer, fungi, and suburbs encroaching on farmland or one nebula engulfing another.

In December 2018 we visited Derek Lerner in his Brooklyn studio to discuss the history of his work, major influences, profound experiences in his life that affected his work and where his work will take him in the future.

A grouping of older and newer work on Derek's studio wall. ©2019 Derek Lerner/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: You grew up in Jacksonville, FL in the 1970s and 80s. Can you identify experiences or ideas from your childhood that now in your 40s you can recognize in your current work or way of working?

Lerner: When I was 12, my stepfather and I built a small building together in our backyard. It had a poured concrete foundation, water, electric, and a serious roof constructed just like our house. Looking back on it now it was quite an accomplishment and I think I learned a lot from the experience. Other than my bedroom which had a drafting table in it for years, I’d say that “tool shed” became my first real art studio.

My best guess regarding anything that has lingered in my work from childhood until now, would be ideas about repurposing and recontextualizing. I was obsessed with model making as a kid and would take parts from different models and glue them together, “tricking out” whatever I was building, making up something new. I was one of those take everything apart and try to put it back together types. Outside of that, I’d say magic is definitely something I still think about. My uncle, Phil Cay, was a musician and professional magician and taught me quite a bit, primarily sleight of hand close up magic. The discipline it takes and manipulation of perception, creating wonder and mystery, is still very interesting to me.

RHC: After you graduated high school from the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, FL , you then received your BFA from the Atlanta College of Art. What experiences from young adulthood/college have a direct bearing on your work today?

Lerner: When I was in college my father bought me my first Apple Macintosh computer. Around that time, maybe 1993, my roommate came home one day and said his friend who was doing neurology research at Emory University (also in Atlanta) would let us come check out “the internet”. Using the Mosaic web browser we immediately started looking for art websites. I suppose it kinda goes without saying how much Apple and the web have affected the world, but... I was in art college in the early 90s so…

Derek Lerner, Untitled, 1997, mixed media on wood panel, 18” x 12” x 1.75” (45.7cm x 30.5cm x 4.4cm) ©2019 Derek Lerner/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Your work developed over many years from a more expressive attitude, influenced by graffiti, comic books, and graphic design, toward a more minimal approach of today. Please explain some of the influences or reasons that lead you in this direction.

Lerner: Growing up as a street skateboarder listening to rap, post-punk, goth, and industrial music; that all played into my attitude towards making art as a teen. From an early age, I immediately gravitated toward Robert Raunchenburg's work, primarily due to his multidisciplinary approach. I was also really into David McKean's and Kent Williams's graphic novels. I started writing graffiti in the mid 80s after a friend moved back to FL from NY. Personally I’d say my work is not influenced by graffitti because I’ve always sort of kept graff in a separate box. It’s one of those “it is what it is” things for me. I’d say that some of the tools and materials I use were learned by being a writer for such a long time, and every now and then, some graff references seep their way into my art, but that just might be more muscle memory than anything else. I’d say, in regards to minimalism, that I’ve always made work of that nature. However, what I’ve focused on more recently would be in terms of medium choice. My decision to create a body of work that utilizes only ink and paper has been years in the making and has gone through a reductive process over that time. I needed to do quite a bit of trial and error in order to get to a place that just felt right for the vision I had in my head. In high school I made a bunch of drypoint etchings, ironically while taking a photography class. Eventually Intaglio became a love hate relationship for me. I’m still enamored with how the lines hold the ink but never fell in love with the entire process. I’m much more interested in originals than I am editions. Maybe vague but definitely plays into my decision making process.

Two large scale works in progress in Derek's studio...and his work table...packing small work for storage. ©2019 Derek Lerner/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Environmental issues and technology are strong currents in your work. What is it about these topics that compel you to center your studio practice around them?

Lerner: I tend to make work about things that I have an emotional reaction too. In some cases it is motivated by wanting to learn more about the topics. Even though what I make is, at its core, dealing with complex systems, I’m not approaching these subjects in a clinical manner. The expressive nature of my early work that you mentioned previously is still interwoven into everything I do today, although hopefully quite a bit more refined than my work as a teen. I’m simply intrigued by human interaction with technology as well as how we affect this planet.

Part Two:

RHC: You mentioned the influence of photography on your work. This is not readily evident when looking at your drawings. What relationship is there between your work and photography?

Lerner: I’m constantly shooting photos and videos mainly as reference materials. Every now and then I’ll capture an image that I might consider to be art, but more or less I tend to use photography as a tool or means to an end, conceptually speaking. I suppose most recently I’ve enjoyed looking back on all the images I’ve collected and seeing how my daily intake slowly makes an impact on my work or how what I’m thinking about at that time pops up repeatedly in the randomness of my recording. I feel this can really be experienced looking through one of my CACHE books; a blurry line between what the drawing is and where a lot of the inspiration comes from.

Derek Lerner, CACHE1, Edition size 10, 252 pages, ©2019 Derek Lerner/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Speaking of your CACHE books…last year you published the first edition of this ongoing anthology series that relates to your work. Please explain their importance and your impetus to publish them.

Lerner: Over the last 20+ years I’ve increasingly become more interested in documentation. Maybe my motivation grew out of ideas surrounding memory or lack thereof, or maybe it’s about dreams, I’m not really sure. I began shooting photos with a Minolta SLR film camera my grandmother bought for me while I was in high school. It was for that photography class I mentioned previously. One of the best assignments I remember from that class was to create a “joiner” (process of taking many photos of a particular subject and then collaging i.e.… joining them together to make a larger composition). Keep in mind this was pre digital photography, actually even pre Internet. This layered, and to a certain degree, nonlinear mechanism of storytelling or image making has been something that’s stuck with me. The aspect of time and space which can potentially be injected into these types of images resonates.

Even though I still keep a sketchbook handy on most occasions, I’ve transitioned more so into utilizing an iPhone for note-taking and day-to-day photography. I’ve thought about shooting some chromes again. There’s just something that is still very beautiful to me about shooting on film, but in all honesty, most of the time what I’m doing is collecting visual notes or references that either inspire or relate to my larger body of work. This series of books primarily grew out of my desire to present all of the visual note-taking I had been doing, and continue to do. In a way, I had become frustrated with publishing these collections of images and thoughts online. As users of social media, “we are the product”, producers and broadcasters of content, which keeps others engaged and returning to any given social media platform. We are also the consumers, and in some cases the creators of advertising within these systems. There is an interesting TED talk by Jennifer Golbeck titled The Curly Fry Conundrum: Why Social Media ‘Likes’ Say More Than You Might Think that relates to some of my motivations. I’m sure you can see how easy it might be to fall down the rabbit hole on all this. I eventually decided that it’d be much more substantial if I translated all the “digital stuff” I’m constantly collecting, consuming, and creating into tangible physical art objects, something more closely tied to traditional sketchbooks.

CACHE1 by Derek Lerner open to a random page, ©2019 Derek Lerner/Robert Henry Contemporary

Lerner: For many years I've been intrigued by the idea of objectifying digital/virtual creations and have made a few pieces with this in mind. There is an intentional immediacy and improvisational tone to these publications. I think the content in terms of concept will expand and contract over time. These books are sort of nonlinear time capsules and the collections of documentation, inspirations, references and peeks into my studio practice, similar to what some call a data-body.

RHC: Your work alludes to a complex urban density. Are there places, real or imagined, that you draw inspiration from...places that influence how you create your fictional spaces?

Derek Lerner, Asvirus 46, 2013, Ink on paper, 26" x 20" (66cm x 51cm), ©2019 Derek Lerner/Robert Henry Contemporary

Lerner: Usually there are a great many points of inspiration and references bouncing around my head while I’m drawing. For the most part there are few occasions any specific real locations become pronounced or focused upon in my work. I made a drawing referencing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and another about the highly polluted Newtown Creek in Brooklyn. For my MTA commission I created six drawings all referencing the surrounding area of the Avenue X subway station in Brooklyn where it’s permanently installed as six large scale glass compositions. I sometimes think about William Gibson's fictionalized Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, a massive urban sprawl environment taking up the entire East Coast of the US. I definitely think about the cities depicted in the films Blade Runner, Ghost In The Shell (1995 anime version), Gattaca, and Fallen Angels, among many others.

RHC: Earlier you mentioned the influence of magic on your thinking...which is a bit of a surprise. How does this relate to the illusion of space you create with the numerous layers of ink you add to your drawings?

Lerner: I think part of what I was attempting to express is how the repetitive nature of practicing a slight of hand magic trick requires an enormous amount of dedication and skill in order to reach any sort of WOW moment. Sadly, one of the best card manipulators in history, Ricky Jay passed away recently. If you’ve not had the chance to watch the documentary Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters and Ricky Jay, please take a moment to watch and have your mind blown. (

For years I’ve been interested in social psychology and in 2006 I made a multiuser open source sockpuppet artwork titled RobinAstro.txt ( There is a great FRONTLINE documentary titled The Persuaders that’s worth watching if you happen to be interested in the subject. In terms of how all this translates into my drawings, I’d say that the more I’ve focused on and refined what I’ve been doing, the stronger and more complex, both visually and conceptually, the work has become. I kind of like the thought of a viewer looking at what I made and thinking “Holy shit! How the hell did someone do this”…or even better… “Why did someone make this?”. Maybe this is where the layers you mentioned come into play?

Stay tuned for Part Three of our studio visit soon! We will ask Derek about new ideas he is thinking about, technology and where he sees his work headed.

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