1) You have a very particular approach to making a wall drawing: seemingly organic in process and extremely specific in subject matter simultaneously. How does research figure in your process and how does immediacy factor into the finished work?

I stop at all bulletin boards. I like thinking about the details that led to a LOST TURTLE sign stapled to a telephone pole in the meatpacking district. I detest fake graffiti though, like the kind you see on a Broadway stage set. It’s just so obviously fake (particularly when they use tags like “GRUFF” and “WIZ”). I could try to make up everything but that would be silly because there’s so much great material happening outside all the time. My research is almost entirely personal—things I see, overhear, and learn from talking to people. I talk to strangers and friends about whatever I’m working on, and I make up a lot of material. Let the journalists do the serious, official work. I want to tell a story.

2) Your current exhibition deals with your infatuation with New York taxicab culture. Please explain.

People have looked to New York taxis for a real sense of the city as long as we’ve had them. When I lived here, I rarely took cabs but when I did I’d make up stories about who rode in them just before me, where they were going and why. Cabs are the ultimate entry to a good story: strangers from widely different backgrounds going from point A to point B together at breakneck speeds. But really it’s the cabdrivers I’m interested in. I have deep admiration for people who are often new to America and so quickly become guides to this chaotic city. It’s a sharp learning curve and one I’m clearly unfit to handle. Even the ones who have no clue how to get on the Manhattan Bridge impress me. I realize it's a horrible, horrible job, and I would be awful at almost every part of it, but I still fantasize about driving a cab one day.

3) How does your interest in Chinese painting inform the prominent use of words and line work in your drawings?

Chinese painting was my first real spark. It’s hard to say what drew me in so deeply, it seemed oddly relevant somehow. It gets tricky making comparisons—particularly in academia—but I do have a vague sense of universal beauty and if those paintings weren’t beautiful to so many people through time I doubt we’d know so much about them. One thing I learned early on is that calligraphy is considered by many to be the highest form of painting in traditional China. Also that the artists, collectors, historians and even politicians were often the same people. I don’t know what it says that we have fractured all those groups, but I like the idea of art running through all parts of society. I’m not talking about more paintbrushes for public schools. More like an assumption that art, in whatever form, is relevant. And I’m not trying to make a statement about that in my drawings, but I am exploring things like why big writing here is “sign-making” and there it was this great combination of poetry and fine art. We don’t currently have the same cultural appreciation for the physical act of writing, but I see no reason why we can’t get there.

4) You seem quite capable of making a drawing of a ketchup bottle and a drawing of the sparest abstract marks, while yet another drawing reads "CONSIDER YOURSELF LUCKY." How do you differentiate between your various voices when you sit down in the studio?

It’s not entirely conscious, but saying I draw whatever I feel like isn’t quite accurate either. To me the modes are all interchangeable, all part of a personal test to see how concentrated a form I can use and still express something full. A phrase, a form, a line—all these things can be enough to chew on. I’m trying to stretch the line to see how far people are willing to come along and bring their own associations. I can easily fail on either side: too much information and there’s no mystery and too little and they’ll just ignore it and walk on.

Nichols’s exhibition at ZieherSmith is his first solo show in Chelsea and will feature works on paper and panels, in addition to a large wall drawing in the side gallery. The artist has recently mounted solo shows at Lincart and Mission 17 in San Francisco, Kunstpanorama in Luzern, and Southfirst Gallery in Brooklyn. His work has been featured in group exhibitions at the Drawing Center and John Connelly Presents in New York, and Rocket Gallery, Tokyo, among others. His drawings have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Believer, Zyzzyva, Bridge and the New York Times.