Houben Tcherkelov, known as Houben R.T., is one of the most significant contemporary Bulgarian-American artists living and working in America. His innovative artwork depicts money and explores the symbolic links between national currencies, power, and national identity. Houben R.T. renders banknotes into ‘money images’ in a colorful, visually explosive and highly textured manner, isolating them from their traditional milieu of paper money and transposing them onto canvas. The subject of money is explored and presented through a highly distinctive creative style that mixes traditional techniques from the color field, with multimedia approaches from abstraction, pattern, portraiture, ghost impressions, digital glitches, digital surfaces and light reflections. His artwork has earned acclaim for its authentic combination of skillful ingenuity, painterly science and futuristic expressionism which offer the viewer an exuberant and memorable ride of the senses through color and light.

Houben R.T.’s innovative art has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, by galleries in America, Asia and Europe, the Bronx Museum of New YorkBulgaria’s National Endowment Fund Gallery, The Museum of Modern Art of Sofia,  and the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, among others. Houben R.T. received his art training in Painting, at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia and is one of the founders of the revolutionary art movement around the XXL galleries in eastern Europe.

Houben R.T. on the Process and Prose of His Work

AV: How should the modern viewer interpret your art – is your work the Art of Money and the Art of Wall Street?

Houben R.T.: I try to explore the power of currency, not just as an intrinsic unit of value backed by the full faith of governments, but as a transmission of national identity and a unit of power. Nations identify with their money. In the popular mind, money is identified with the government-approved ‘money’ images which are printed on banknotes. In a constantly changing financial world, where currency is transitioning to include cashless transactions like Bitcoin, Onechain, and mobile payments, I wonder how national identity – as it’s defined by money – will be represented in the future. When digital currency replaces paper currency, how will we come to identify a nation’s currency?

My art explores the national identification inherent in banknotes, or money images, which I believe remains even after these images leave the vignette and are rendered in a new medium…in this case, on my canvasses. My art certainly explores the same subject that moves the world of Wall Street -money; but it does that from a different, completely aesthetic and philosophical angle. Wall Street, of course, is a powerful force that can and does set and drive valuations, including those of art; so, whether my art is or will become the “art of Wall Street,” to a large extent depends on the degree to which my collectors are represented by Wall Street, whether on an individual or corporate level.

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Houben R.T.’s “Quarter from Florida” (2012) represents American optimism in conquering space.

AV: How did the central theme of money become the light motif of your artwork?

Houben R.T.: I started painting money many years ago after I discovered the powerful imagery and artistry behind the coins, which I had to always keep in my pocket to be able to pay for international phone calls in phone booths. That was in the pre-cell-phone age, and that’s how I started experimenting with ‘money images’ in my art.

AV: What are the key themes around money that you seek to express through your colorful canvasses?

Houben R.T.: The leading principle behind my artwork, including how I select the banknotes to create the ‘money images’ I transcend onto canvas, is the aesthetic one. I use art to communicate the power of money as a unit of exchange. I work with all currencies. I do not select banknotes or ‘money images’ based on the monetary strength or weakness of their currencies. I take the banknotes, the ‘money images’ as they are, and create an interplay of color, patterns, and light around them.

You can say that the key theme around money, whether on paper banknotes or canvas, is that money can create powerful emotions – whether on Wall Street, in the stock exchange pit, or in the heart of an art viewer. The other theme is its relative impermanence. Just like the color and glowing lights play and change on my canvasses, so the value of money changes, as well. It also comes and goes. In my work, I make money more visible by placing it in a vivid and colorful medium, like I’m trying to accomplish an exorcism of money through art, in a way.

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Houben R.T.’s “10 Yuan 1999” (2012) replaces the mao with a rose symbol.

Houben R.T. as an Art Entrepreneur

AV: Who are your collectors and who does your art appeal to?

Houben R.T.: Most of my collectors are from the financial industry in New York, Europe or Asia. So you could say that my art appeals to a particular audience segment and that, for that audience, money is central to their life and work in more ways than for others. Wall Street is certainly that segment. There are aspects of my art that may be construed as pop-arty, however, since my collectors are coming from the financial world, I think my art differentiates itself from the more traditional Pop Art, which has a broader mass appeal.

AV: Stereotypically, artists have been perceived primarily as creators, detached from the material and financial world.  Is there such a thing as an ‘art entrepreneur?’

Houben R.T.: The image of the struggling artist continues to live in folklore and in movies. This perception is not correct. Historically, artists have been close to people of power and money, many have been powerful personas themselves. Think of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, the Medicis, the Pope, Goya, Rubens who was himself a diplomat…Many artists have been close to the material world of royal circles and aristocrats, or to that of their patrons and collectors. Many of the modern icons in art are also successful and commercial businessmen and would consider themselves an art entrepreneur…famous ‘art entrepreneurs like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons come to mind, but there are many others. Modern art is business in its own right.

AV: What does risk-taking, change, innovation and art entrepreneurship mean for you and how do those themes find their place in your creative process?

Houben R.T.: Art is first and foremost a form of self-expression and a reflection of the times an artist lives in. Artists are free thinkers and doers. They value freedom in all its forms. They do what interests, engages them and what expresses them. I think most entrepreneurs feel the same. Artists constantly evolve and experiment. Risk is part of the game. Innovation is not a focus per se, but it is a happenstance in the course of creative experimentation. An artist first has to be able to produce convincing work and second, must have the conviction to defend his unique style and ideas. He must also be very tuned into the undercurrents of society, to be able to capture and communicate various social issues through his art.

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Houben R.T.’s “25 Rubies” is a nod to the artist’s influence by Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel.

AV: Was it always easy to sell your work?

Houben R.T.: Not at first, no. I spent a lot of time visiting galleries without much luck. Then, I applied to a program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, called Artists in the Marketplace. The program got me thinking about what to do next. What would be the best way to gain influence and get to the marketplace? At that point, I started thinking about changing my work because I was doing more experimental things that were difficult to market. So I think after attending I started to confront my paintings and changed my style so I could be more accessible to the people.

AV: What drives experimentation? Is there a chance experimentation can affect an art entrepreneur?

Houben R.T.: There is a commercial risk to an artist changing his or her style. For the artist, however, change is part of growth and is a necessity. Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, for example, had multiple changes of style through their career. Intuition and gut feeling are very important in driving the evolution of an artist and the choices he or she makes along that path. Artists work very hard for many years before they get recognition for their work. Even Picasso had to! Intuition drives the sense of direction. I have been working with currencies and money images for almost 15 years now, but I believe in my art direction and I see the endless possibilities it offers for expression and creative impact. There are so many currencies and nationalities!

Houben R.T. on the Global Arts Marketplace

AV: What do you think is the state of art as an investing strategy?

Houben R.T.: Art as an investment has been its own asset class for some time now, but buying art as an investment to this day continues to be an expression of wealth, success, sophistication and, to a large extent, a lifestyle choice. As wealth grows in emerging markets, which have no historical aristocracy or business traditions, art becomes more and more one of the hallmarks of success. After two to three homes and two to three cars, for example, art becomes a status identifier.

I believe that as disposable income and wealth grow in the world, art investing will re-affirm itself as a distinctive investment strategy. The art business is notoriously opaque. Buying decisions are made based on the quest for “the next big thing.” My advice to art collectors is to first buy what they love, and then to hold it for 20-25 years. Art investing is no short-term profit game.

AV: What drives valuations in the art market?

Houben R.T.: The key drivers of art valuations are the artist’s representation by top-tier galleries, as well as top-tier art collectors. It used to be the case, that if an artist gets exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, he or she becomes an overnight big commercial success. In the past decade, however, individuals, such as the owner of Christie’s Auction House, as well as several other museums in Europe, have been the arbiters of valuations in art.

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“$1 Coat of Arms” (2015) highlights the link between government and the arts.

AV: The art marketplace is one of the big industries which has not yet been disrupted by digital technology despite a few unsuccessful attempts. Is there something uniquely distinctive about the behavioral signature of the art consumer that is not yet deciphered by the entrepreneur trying to reshape this market?

Houben R.T.: Art sells emotions and is an experience of the senses, which is different for different people. It is personal and is difficult to capture and measure qualitatively. Digital platforms trying to disrupt and reshape the art market will have to work in that direction and offer this type of personal experience digitally. That is not an easy task. Whether they do so through 3D video-guided tours or otherwise, what has escaped the aspiring entrepreneur and industry-disruptor so far is the personalized approach to art, in my view.

AV: Your art is becoming the buzz in big financial centers, especially in Asia and overseas. What should the American art market know about your art that it is not yet familiar with?

Houben R.T.: My work is being positioned and becoming more well-known in Asia as we speak. The main markets I am focused on there are China, Korea, as well as Taiwan, where I work with one of the top galleries. Although these are different markets, my works can be locally translated. My objective is to create art that is identified as distinctively mine, yet appeals to various local markets. I guess what the American market is not yet familiar with, is how internationally diverse and easily relatable my art is.

Learn more about Houben R.T. by visiting his Orangenius profile.

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