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An Artist Returns From the Edge

Violette’s debut at Team opened in the winter of 2000. His work somehow blended the austerity of minimalism with the anarchic violence of a Slayer album cover. That first show included a plaster-and-aluminum sculpture dangling a death’s-head heavy metal necklace from the twin-lightning-bolt insignia of the SS, and installations inspired by a 1987 suicide epidemic among teenage heavy metal fans in Bergenfield, N.J.

Violette fostered a gloomy persona and encouraged dark interpretations of his work. For a 2005 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, he built the skeletal remains of a burned church, based on a tradition of ransacked sacred spaces — including ones in Norway that had been burned and destroyed by members of the country’s black metal scene. Violette felt a strange kinship with these subjects. “If you can find this compelling as an aesthetic experience,” he says now, “that’s one step down a queasy slope to putting yourself right next to the person who’s lighting the match. You realize, I am clearly capable of doing exactly the same thing in the right set of circumstances.” Some fans approached Violette on Myspace, eager to discuss “the joys of murder.”

Over a handful of shows, Violette developed a following among curators and collectors — making him an accidental figurehead for the growing commercialism of the art world — as well as for metalheads and disaffected hangers-on. His work began to exert a cultish influence on other artists. New York magazine noted at the time that the gallery district in Chelsea “looked like a teenager going through its goth phase.”


Violette, at home in Ithaca.

Doug DuBois

VIOLETTE HAS SO MANY tattoos and markings on his body — creeping up his neck and down to his fingertips — that he compares himself to a “bathroom wall.” The tattoos are like relics from a time, not so long ago, when Violette personally embodied the heavy metal style of his work, with all its intensity and excess. Still, a sense of weary maturity is unmistakable in the artist, the philosophical mien of a survivor.

In his career’s first incarnation, Violette treated every show like it could be his last. As his reputation grew in the mid-2000s, he used to blow off steam with a provisional crew of kindred artists that included Dash Snow, Ryan McGinley and Dan Colen — all young men getting famous off confrontational art. After years of avoiding drugs, Violette began dabbling once again, using heroin as a coping mechanism and as a means of fueling his production. “A lot of it was just being young, being in New York, suddenly having a bunch of attention, suddenly having packed openings, not being able to sleep and working 24 hours a day,” Violette says. “It wasn’t really even fun. It was more, ‘Hey, we’re super freaked out, let’s…

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