(taken from New Zealand Herald’s ‘Canvas’ – Saturday 11 June 2022)

Joanna Wane meets urban pop artist and public health specialist Brad Novak, aka New Blood Pop, whose solo show, Hybrid 2.0, opens today in Chicago.

Geek, artist, doctor. That’s how Brad Novak describes himself, and in that order. “I have this hybrid artist-doctor identity,” he says. “But that comes after geek. Geek is first. Dozens of Star Wars figurines line the shelves in his art studio – “that’s about a 20th of my collection” – in a gritty, industrial space on the mezzanine of a screen-printing workshop in Onehunga, where the whir of machinery and a whiff of chemicals float up from the warehouse floor.

One of four brothers, Novak was born in 1976, the year before the first Star Wars movie came out. Among his limited-edition pop-art prints is the Say Cheese series, inspired by the dramatic face-off between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. In the foreground, a couple of stormtroopers are posing for a selfie. There’s playfulness in his work, for sure, referencing his childhood and a nostalgia for simpler, perhaps purer, times. In one print from that sequence, the main image is layered over a collage of pages torn from his old comic collection (X-Men was his favourite). The underlying social commentary, though, is a theme the artist known as New Blood Pop has been exploring for a while. Novak calls it “the digital dilemma”. The way he sees it, an increasingly technological age hasn’t made us happier or more deeply connected. Instead, it’s done the opposite. In the world of social media, people curate an online persona rather than being in the moment, just like those self-obsessed stormtroopers with their backs to the action and their eyes on the phone. In another series of pop-culture portraits, iconic figures such as Audrey Hepburn, David Bowie, the Queen and (of course) Princess Leia have cyborg-like graphics framing one eye. “It’s kind of like a warning that we’re all looking at the world through technology and there are definite downsides to that.

The research he’s read backs his concerns over the negative impact of social media on public and mental health, especially for women. And hold your fire, if you’re thinking someone needs to tell Novak, the artist, to get back into his box. A qualified doctor, he’s a public health specialist who helped manage the measles outbreak and was on the frontline of the Covid response in Nelson during the early stages of the pandemic. In fact, you could say a refusal to be “pigeon-holed” is the whole concept behind his first solo show in the United States, Hybrid 2.0, which opens today (11 June) at Chicago’s hip Vertical Gallery.In each of the 12 arch-shaped works, the head of an animal – including several New Zealand native birds – has been fused with a human body. It’s an idea he’s played with before in his Reservoir Birds series, a nod to film-maker Quentin Tarantino, who has one of the limited- edition prints in his personal art collection.

This time, the hybrids are warriors (centurion, knight, ninja, stormtrooper samurai) instead of snappily dressed diamond thieves. Novak says they symbolise the struggle we all face to break-free from our own self-limiting belies, something he has experienced personally. “We put ourselves in boxes around what we can be or who we are and it’s up to us to fight those battles. That’s exactly what I’ve had to do from a very young age, to have that identity as a medical doctor and then realise I’m highly creative and want to explore that side as well. The frailty of a bird versus the strength of a warrior, we’ve all got that inside us.”

Back in Novak’s day, art simply wasn’t an option available to A-stream students at Auckland Grammar. By the age of 17, he was at medical school. It wasn’t until he was a junior doctor, struggling with the futility of treating a revolving door of hospital patients with preventable health conditions, that he realised he had stumbled into the wrong vocation. In the UK with his girlfriend, Katrina (the couple are now married with two daughters), he began working in public health medicine, which he found more rewarding. His “lightning-strike” moment came on a visit to London’s Tate Modern gallery, where one of the works was a massive wall of sand, behind a sheet of glass or plastic, that had been coloured to represent dozens of world flags. “There was an ants’ nest inside and the ants were digging tunnels between the flags, which were dripping into each other,” he says. “What I took from that is that all the borders we put round us as humans, dividing us into different cultures and different places, don’t matter to animals. It’s arbitrary really. *Yeah, it blew my mind – that art could be an idea and represent something more than just what it looked like on the surface. I told Katrina that I thought I wanted to create, to be an artist. She said something like, ‘I dare you to’, I was about 24.”

Novak landed back in New Zealand during the meningococcal B epidemic and worked with infectious disease specialist Professor Diana Lennon on her vaccine study. He now holds a master’s degree in public health and still trains public health registrars once a week, alongside the occasional locum. But what began as a hobby, painting Kiwi pop in his garage, has become an absorbing passion.

At first, he cut back his public health job to four days a week, and then three, to dedicate time to maturing his craft. In 2015, he held his first solo show at Artrite, the Onehunga screen-printing workshop where he rents studio space, after three galleries turned him down. You can still see where the artworks were suspended from the rafters, dangling between the machinery. The show was held on a single Saturday night and Novak, who did his own marketing, sold 60 pieces. It was another of Artrite’s clients, celebrated painter and printmaker Michael Smithers, who persuaded art dealer Christine Rabarts to consider taking him on. She agreed to trial a few paintings in her Whitianga gallery, Bread & Butter, and when she put one in the front window, it stopped cars in the street. An established artist herself (in 2007, she exhibited at the Florence Biennale), Rabarts once had 100 artists on her books. When she decided to specialise in a select group of 20, Novak was among them. She says landing a much-coveted solo slot at the Chicago gallery recognises Novak as a “significant player” in the international field of urban pop artists. “It’s relevant not only to where he is now but where he’s going in the future. I believe he will be world-known.”

At the end of October, Rabarts is holding a joint portrait exhibition at her gallery of work by Novak and Smithers, titled The Difference. Smithers told her he couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate what will be his 83rd birthday. In his early career, Smithers struggled to be taken seriously in the conservative art scene in Taranaki, where his intensely coloured, super- realist style wasn’t considered worthy to hang in a gallery. Rabarts sees Novak, too, as an individualist ahead of his genre, although his influence has begun speckling through the work of other emerging artists in the urban pop-art sphere. His moniker, New Blood Pop, encapsulates the hybrid identity he’s carved out for himself: Novak comes from the Croatian for “newcomer” and blood references his medical career. In both his personal life and his art, there’s a lot going on below the surface. “There’s so much depth and empathy in Brad’s work,’ ” says Rabarts. “He has very strong values and integrity and that’s what comes through. It’s not just whether an artist’s work sells but the response it provokes. It takes something special to make people stop in the street.”