James Brinsfield – Anxious Abstraction Exhibition Reception Lecture

James Brinsfield – Anxious Abstraction Exhibition Reception Lecture


[Music]>>First of all, thank you to Bruce Hartman for putting me in the show, it’s indeed a privilege; and thank you to all the staff that helped me along the way. Also, thank you to Alice Thorson for the essay. She interviewed me twice and she was unhappy with what she had written. She came back and she said. “There’s something missing”, and it was for the painting that’s downstairs that’s got the cactus. I said. “Oh, it’s this!” I told her, “If you want to know what the mystery is [with] the paintings down there” with her explanation. That’s me in 1969. I was a – how can I put it? – a crypto-punk hippie. I don’t believe in everything but I wish I could. I’m with my friend, Rory Heenan, and we’re out in Paradise, California, which is about halfway between San Francisco and the Oregon border, and we’re going to Spain. I’d saved up my money. I should say that I had dropped out of school in Boston, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. I had a free ride there. My Principal and my art teacher arranged that. It was a wonderful thing until I didn’t quite fit in. It might have been a little bit too early for me to get to school and go through the rigor of a foundation class. Right outside the door was Boston, which was to me just like this gigantic playground, and I thought that I could learn more in the museums and going out to the galleries, and that’s what I did. Anyway, we went to Spain. This was after I lost my scholarship. I was there to lie on the beach and just have fun, but I realized once I got there that I was there to lay on the beach, and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had a Rolleiflex camera and I ran out of money. I sold the Rolleiflex, went back to Chicago, and started in at Chicago City College, then I went over to the University of Illinois – Chicago, and then over to the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. This is from 2014. The things you’ll see here are from 2014 to 2018. This is my show at Haw Contemporary, and the photograph is by Irwan Park, a well-known photographer. I think you saw it in Los Angeles. But, I had asked him to take a photograph of the installation. I love installation shots. It just seems to me showing the artwork within the environment, within the space, and those two chairs were left over from when Bill Haw and his assistant had set the show up. When I saw that, I said, “Oh, man, let’s just leave these chairs, because they’re the perfect counterpoint to the pithyish feeling of the paintings”. That’s the original Bill Haw photograph. Bill said, “Jim, go home. We’ve got it. We’re going to hang these from here. Their position, everything’s great. We’ll go up on the ladders and do the lighting”. I This photograph comes over and they changed everything. This is what I saw. I thought, “They did a better job than I did. This is just perfect.” From Bill’s cellphone photograph, that’s when I went out and hired [Park] to mimic the very same photograph that Bill took. It’s a trick photograph. Take a look. The line where the floor meets the wall is a perfectly straight line. It’s a little [unintelligible] that I really like, it’s a great photograph. This is another shot looking down the gallery. I got home, it was about ten o’clock. Here’s a close-up of what was going on. The painting on the left is called “Dust Off” – Remember, from “Aliens”? “Dust off”. Then, a grouping of two. What I was doing was I wanted to – Justin touched on this briefly – is that so much of abstraction is about the history of abstraction. In other words, abstract painting is about abstract painting that came before. Great strategy, post-modernism. I thought that what I would do was critique not only the great abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, the usual subjects, but what I would do here is I would take a blank canvas, I had these large sheets of watercolor paper and I had mixed up a lot of paint. If the background on the canvas was white, I’d mix black up, take a big palette knife, splat it on the piece of paper, draw a line or two, then take it, mush it into the canvas and take it away. I would work in a grid-like fashion, starting in the upper left, going across and then down. I didn’t try to make it nice, I didn’t try to make it to be a good composition. I just wanted to do this job, if you see what I mean. It’s my job to start in the upper left-hand corner and end up at the [lower] right. Bill did everything. He had a fashion show in there. He had these people – I don’t know who they were. They came in and they did a fashion catalog. You can see the model and the other models in the background. Then, the director of the shoot is over there on the left-hand side. He did a fashion show, which was terrific, and I thought it was just perfect for my paintings. They were background, and they functioned in a there. He had these people – I don’t know who they were. I’ve actually done a couple of backgrounds [for] fashion shows up in Chicago, and I liked it, because the ones I did in Chicago, once the show was over, we just took this paper and threw it away; but here, I thought it was neat to see it in this kind of an environment. The other thing he did was a pizza and beer dinner for architects. That was great. He also did a group of collectors from Johnson County who came in. I spoke with him and we were getting along just great. I could feel like they liked me and I was going over well. Then I explained to him how I made the paintings. I saw this gigantic [thought] bubble over their heads that said, “My kid could do that!” To me, it turns out that this is the kind of disconnect between artists and our audience, which is like that old cliche of not misunderstanding the artist, but mistrusting them, that we’re the clowns and the magicians. The thing that I could come up with was “Your kid could do that, but your kid couldn’t think of that”. I think that’s the crux of the thing: we’re thinkers as well as doers. I think this is actually the first one, and that’s a small Matt Wyckoff next to mine. This is a single, maybe a double pass of white paint. In other words: a layer of white, wait for it to dry, and then go back over it again with white. You can see the two major strains in abstraction, side by side. One, the rational, geometric, Western sort of thought; and then the other that’s usually labeled “intuitive” ,”expressive”, et cetera. I kind of liked that, I thought that that was a really nice pairing. [Here’s] a double. It’s funny – these two were made at the same time, and as I was making them, I thought they looked exactly alike, but obviously, they don’t. Then to my surprise, [I saw that] one’s really different from the other. By the way, this was at the old Dolphin. The story was that John O’Brien owned the Dolphin Gallery, and then he sold the building to Bill Haw, who came along and then called it Haw Contemporary. This is from the Dolphin. Just what it looks like: this is a black painting that I wasn’t crazy about, and I put a black wash over it. Then, I grabbed some white paint, and you can see I just went over certain sectors of this painting with white [unintelligible]. Then, that kind of ghostly thing that happens down in the lower right-hand corner. Then, back to this guy, again. These weren’t the last of the press paintings, but these were among the most complicated. On the left is a painting called “FBI Jesus”. I usually get up early in the morning and I turn on the TV for the local news. At that time of day, there’s nobody around but reporters, who are looking for someone to interview for a story: “What do you think of this, what do you think of that?” They went to the Town Topic, and I forget what it was that they were asking the customers, but this fella at the counter turned around and he had this baseball cap with “FBI Jesus” embroidered on it. I thought, “That’s the name of this next painting, perfect!” But anyway, the one on the right I did kind of fall in love with, because it has so many different layers to it. It’s black on white, but then more black, more white, until in that last pass, I thought, “It’s disappearing, it’s achieving this thing that I want”. I thought that this is one of the paintings that did everything that I was hoping it would do. If you notice, your eyes can’t really focus on it. It bounces around your visual cortex, like [it’s] looking for a place to land, but it’s not there. They sort of shimmer on the wall. We’re up to recent [works]. This is a painting in my new studio, called “Long Division”. Alice and I had gone up to Minnesota. We had rented a little cabin on a lake. As I said, I get up early in the morning. Alice said to me, “Why don’t you get in the car, go to downtown Brainerd and look for a place for us to have breakfast?” So, I did. I pulled into a little greasy spoon diner and ordered my breakfast. A couple of tables over for me, there was a fight that started. One table was [all] Republicans, and the other table was [all] Democrats. These guys were yelling at each other. Then, one fellow got really, really angry and kicked his chair out. The waitress rushes over and stops the fight. It occurred to me [that] the genie’s out of the bottle. It’s just this divided country, kind of like what Jack Kerouac called “Old, weird America”. I took it literally about the idea of the country being divided. This is a big switch for me, because usually, I’ve been kind of like what other people in the show have talked about, where we make paintings about painting. This one was me saying to myself that I wanted to do something that felt personal. It was still abstract, it still carried a message, but it worked on metaphor. I thought the simplest way of doing it was just dividing the painting with something on one side and something on the other side. Then, that corralling thing that I got with the two black marks on either side. The whitewash, the false lies, the things that you don’t believe, the fake news. Where do you go with all that? [Here’s] a close-up of the painting. This was going to be in this show, and we had planned on that. There were going to be five paintings. Then, Bruce told me that four is a better number, because of the space itself, and this was already in a show at a gallery. It saved us all a lot of trouble about negotiating with the gallerists and getting it down here so I was happy the way it turned out. We’re actually at today, but I have to go back to yesterday to explain this. These are [what] I call “cracked paintings”. and it was the first painting that I did that I started getting a cracked surface. It was totally by accident. That blue lozenge thing that you see there I had painted one color, but didn’t like it. I thought I’d do it really quickly, [using] some white enamel over it, and then painted this great blue that I’d got mixed up. I put the white enamel down and it got tacky to the touch. I thought. “[I’m] ready to [put] the blue paint on”. Lo and behold, it started cracking and separating. You can see the white coming out from underneath it. It’s just a chemical reaction, that is the oil on top was not drying at the same rate as the enamel at the bottom. I don’t know if you can notice it, but I started to scrape it off. I thought, “Oh God, this is horrible!”, but then I thought “Oh, well”. I sat down and I looked at it, then I thought “No, it’s a keeper. I’ll keep it like that. It’s a moment of interest”. I did a bunch of these, probably two years worth of work, and I would use the cracked paint, but I was using it as a kind of decoration, or I should say, almost like a focal point for the viewer. I wanted to do an all-over cracked painting, but this thing was a total freaking disaster. I did it, then I thought, “Oh, no, this is not working”. This went straight to the dumpster, but I’d wanted to see what an all-over cracked painting looked like. This, in the new studio, was the first cracked one that I thought was OK. It’s similar to the ones downstairs, but this was my first shot at it. You’ll see where everything comes from [in a moment]. My friend, Don Cottman, dropped by the studio. We’re sitting there on the sofa and I said, “Don, what do you think?” He said, “Jim, that’s a striped painting”. I said, “Don, you and ten thousand thousand people do striped paintings. It’s not yours, you don’t own striped paintings”. But, he’s sitting there with his arms folded and not saying anything. So I said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, I won’t do that”, so I let it go and put it off to the side. But, the thing that kept with me was the idea of stacking things atop one another. The boom box I bought, but the rest of it I made all out of plastic. Dick Job job did the legs, down at Machine Head. I love this idea of taking – I love furniture, but I like to put things atop one another. In doing this, I decided I didn’t want to do it again, because plastic is so hard to work with. The fumes of the glue will just knock you over, and you’re cutting things with utility knives, jigsaws and exacto blades. It’s dangerous, smelly, stinky and boring work to do it right. I thought, “Maybe this is the end”. This is our backyard in May. Alice’s garden looks gorgeous. I put our dog, Axel, up there on the bench. I knew that I would be showing photographs of this work, so I thought I’d put him up for size comparison. It’s about three and a half dachshunds high by approximately one and a half wide. You can see he does not like being up there. He’s [telling me], “Get me out of here!” I also did these, a series of cubes of color, and sometimes, units of one, two or three panes of color. I just got down there, working with my hands. It’s small, and everything had to be right and had to fit. The idea was you could take a bunch of these units, say 16 or 18 of these, and sort of construct your own Mondrian on your wall, and it worked. I had this fantasy of me becoming this big entrepreneur, I would have people working for me, and all these things would be sold over the Internet. It sounds preposterous. This is the old studio. You can see I’ve got my voodoo dolls, and photographs of all the women who started in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movies. It’s all good luck stuff, with a bit of voodoo mixed into it, and then of course, the plastic stuff. These are my dad’s patches. My dad was in the Army, and these patches are from the
Cold War. I’ll read it for you, left to right: That’s the Seventh Army, which is Europe; 14th Armored Calvary; and that’s a dress patch. It’s got the gold braiding. His particular “forte”, or concern, as they call it, that’s a French word. That’s the Third Battalion. If you don’t know French, “Suivez moi” [means] “follow me”. So, 7th Army, 14th Army Cav, and 3rd Battalion. I love the 7th Army patch. I thought the stair steps were a beautiful abstraction. I thought it was a beautiful abstraction before I knew what abstraction was. I was just so impressed with the design of it. I started collecting patches, and I had the blue jean jacket with the patches sewn on the back of it. This is the first one of the cracked paintings that I thought was a total success, that I got what I wanted. It’s a very small work. I has done some under painting, and then, you can see the craquelure going on, then the “longhand” that’s almost like calligraphy that I’m using. But it actually comes from when I was a kid in Washington State. We lived in a suburb of Olympia. On one end of my block, one of the teenage boys had a custom car. It was great to look at. It was an old Mercury, but he had it painted [with] what was called “pin-striping” on the hood and on the trunk of the car. I would go over there and just admire the car, but particularly its paint job, and this decorative stuff that went along the hood. I thought that was just beautiful. I’m getting back to what to do with this cracked paint. I had no idea. I’d put this in the center, but I never really finished this painting. I know what I would do to it now, but at the time, I thought [I had spent] five weeks on what I thought was an utter failure. Nevertheless, the incorporation of the practice. Here we go, this is the stuff downstairs. This isn’t the earliest version of “Ceylon” I painted. I had painted the bottom part on. I thought, “To get around the Don Cottman thing, I would just go up halfway”. It would kind of mimic furniture, like the legs on Modernist consoles, and it would be off-kilter. I wouldn’t put it at the bottom. It wouldn’t be referring to something that it actually rests upon. Then I thought, “I need something on top”, and I came up with this blade sort of thing I thought of it as a sail. That’s what it looks like. I went back in over the blue and then scraped some of the blue off. I was writing an article for KC Studio about the Picasso show down at the Nelson. If you look closely, about midway through the sail, I sort of scraped away an African mask on it, The hint is you can see the eyes going across, horizontally. I thought this was going to work. The plaque painting I should explain. Enamel today isn’t the same as enamel was ten years ago. The manufacturers keep on diluting it. So, I had to send to a place that carries a paint from Holland. It’s old-fashioned, really nasty black enamel. I put it on this, but I wasn’t familiar with what the exact properties of the enamel were, and everything came out just fine. But I came back to the next morning to take a look at it, and it was like the entire bottom of the painting was black, because the surface of the black dried at a different rate than the black enamel underneath it. I scraped everything away, washed it away with rags and left what was there. Some [of it] just wouldn’t come off by that time. For the next painting, the one that’s called “Blue Base”, that has the cactus. At first I thought I would put tulips in it in the base, but along comes Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and a cast of characters. I thought, “Oh Gosh, these look too much like phalluses. I’m not going to put this in here”. I thought I might be able to get around it by breaking some of the stems of the tulips, but that didn’t work out, so I went ahead and put the cactus in. If you go down there, you’ll see the tulips that are drawn on there. I never took them off. I did such a good job putting them on that I didn’t want to ever take them off. If you look closely at this, I changed the painting around in subtle ways, in a lot of different places. That’s what the painting looks like, downstairs. so I wanted to, in an old-fashioned, [unintelligible] sense, shift the weight of the painting itself. This is “Test Strip”. I’m not obsessive, but I did write down when I did this, when I put wet black enamel down, and when I put wet white enamel into it. You get that gorgeous penumbra, but I wanted to see how fast this stuff was going to dry, because I had done a part of the painting while it was laying down, the part that has this necklace thing happening on it. The necklace forms a boundary, another division line that I was really happy to do. Here’s all three of them, and then there’s a fourth one, but started gathering the paintings and just stacked them up. Let me go back one. Here we go. The reason why I’m showing this to you is photography of art is just so incredibly complicated. I was surprised to learn this. The camera, lighting, and everything is controlled on his laptop. He’s not rushing around any more, adjusting the lights. He’s not going up to the painting and running a light meter over everything to see if it’s right. There he is, setting his laptop up. That’s just the stand for it. This is one of my favorite photographs. Somebody from the Nerman sent me this photograph of my work that just arrived downstairs. It’s like a peek behind the curtain of the work arriving in its crate, and you can see some of the documentation, on one of the mats. The lights and the labels aren’t up. I guess it was some of the first work that arrived for the show, but I just got such a kick out of seeing it, It was like, “Oh yeah, that’s where you belong.” That, of course, is the installation downstairs. OK, thank you.

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