Whitehot Magazine

those that never listen to music anyway: a conversation between John Brooks and Jan Dickey

John Brooks, Islands Are Not Forever Installation view

By JAN DICKEY April 16, 2024 

Jan Dickey: I had the pleasure of seeing your exhibition Islands Are Not Forever at MARCH Gallery in the East Village (NYC) the other day. I was really struck by the format of the drawings and what it said about your process. The walls of the gallery were lined with giant works on paper (70 x 50 inch each), hung unframed and side by side. They stretched through the space creating this vast expanse of representational space, populated by old houses, Greco-Roman columns, animals, and a really eclectic cast of human characters: historical, fictional and anonymous. 

John Brooks: Thank you so much, Jan. There are quite a few characters in the work, almost all of whom are juxtaposed and contextualized in unexpected ways. This sort of dizziness is one of the most fundamental aspects of the work, and also, I suppose, of my practice as a whole.  

Jan: I understand that you are drawing on these sheets of paper one by one, side by side, in chronological order - like a solitary game of exquisite corpse. I see something kind-of Jack Kerouac/On the Road about it, in the sense that there is a stream of consciousness captured across a continuous ream of paper, recalling a long winding adventure. Does travel play a role in your work?

John:  Yes, for many reasons, travel absolutely plays a role in my work. I need new colors, sounds, sights, experiences to fuel me. I grew up in a relatively small town in Kentucky but have always been a person interested in the wider world, the world beyond the one I know. As a kid, I pored over every National Geographic I could find and the maps from the magazines were pinned to my bedroom walls.

The catalysts for “Islands Are Not Forever” literally did come from travel. First, in August of 2022, I attended the Venice Biennale. I have been fortunate to travel a great deal and I have seen A LOT of art in the last twenty years, but I was not prepared for what I experienced in Venice. The quality, the breadth, and the volume of art was simply overwhelming, particularly Anselm Kiefer’s Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po' di luce (Andrea Emo) in the Sala della Scrutinio at the Doge’s Palace. What I found so compelling was the humanity, or the human effort, behind this grandeur - of both the Kiefer’s work and the palace itself. Being in Venice felt like it was ok to be ambitious, in terms of both scope and content. And then in December of the same year I went to Art Basel in Miami and visited the Rubell Museum, where I saw Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled, which is composed of twelve woodcut panels. I had seen this work before, but somehow viewing it after Keifer was the spark I needed to begin this new series.  

John-Brooks, Islands Are Not Forever Installation detail

Jan: There are columns and cornices that emerge in your drawings, which I can understand might relate to the experiences you had in Venice. But there are also instances of what it looks like to me are “old Kentucky homes,” or at least American rural houses of some kind. Can you speak to how you see the influence of Europe and colonial architecture in the US playing a role in your own identity? 

John: Wow, this is really an astute question. Although I didn’t necessarily start out with the idea that this work was explicitly a self-portrait, it might really be one because it is absolutely a distillation of what is in my mind, of the experiences I have had, have held on to, and think are important to document and amplify. So in that sense, the work does have a lot to say about American identity because I am American.

Identities are handed to us, or assigned to us, by our families and communities as if they are these fully formed, concrete, immutable things but then, if we’re self-aware and curious about the world and, really, life itself, we construct them ourselves bit by bit. Yes, I am an American, but that’s not enough for me. Why should it be? Existence is bigger than nationality, isn’t it? I am an American, a southerner, and I’m fluent in parts of those proverbial languages, but as a Queer person and an artist, I never felt fully at home in those places and sought out other things. Many of my interests and influences have been European; this is true in art, literature, music, and yes, architecture. 

Architecture and constructed spaces have always fascinated me. It isn’t just aesthetics that intrigues me but the fact that architecture, whether it survives intact or in ruins, is one of the most visible ways the past continues to exist in the present. That is, after all, one of the main things I’m trying to emphasize with my work. The past is not gone. We live with its ghosts and repercussions, be they colonial, imperial, aesthetic, whatever. Architecture is so evocative, and I love that the structures in my work have brought to mind “old Kentucky homes” for you. They’re actually not – for example, the wooden house in panel number two is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s cabin in Davos, Switzerland – but I don’t think that really matters.

There are some elements of the work where the references are rather obvious, such as Frankenstein’s monster, but many of the others have sources that are more obscure. I don’t expect everyone to know them and it isn’t necessary. There is neither an answer to the work nor a narrative but rather I am after what I think of as the scent of a narrative. Each figure in the drawings hopefully sets the viewer on their own particular path. I want people to bring their own experiences and interpretations to the work, and the fact that Kirchner’s Swiss cabin conjures something Appalachian only proves how interconnected everything is and how meaning, which we want to be resolved, is incredibly nuanced and nebulous. 

John Brooks, Islands Are Not Forever Installation detail

Jan: Can you summarize the feeling you want to convey with this immersive presentation?

John: I want the visitor to feel the way we are all just bombarded with images and information. Information in particular is a wonderful thing. It’s how we communicate, understand and progress. But as information becomes more accessible we’ve lost hold of what information is real or manipulated. People are more confused and in disagreement than ever. Part of it is bad actors and part of it is having so much stuff. 

The first big event I remember in my life was the Challenger exploding. There was a collective attention being directed toward something tragic. The memories of that stayed with me, but it's not something I revisit all the time. Whereas images of 9/11 are there all the time. At any given moment people are watching those videos. How can that be healthy? It's not to say we shouldn’t remember those things, but if you think about the course of human history there are so many tragedies. The visceral nature of them doesn’t linger in the way they do today. And it's because of our current technology. There’s a carnival of the macabre unfolding every day. The volume of it is continuous. As things continue to happen they are added to this pool of tragedies that we continue to live with.  

Jan: Is the work political? 

John: I studied Political Science, I even thought it might be something I pursued as a career path. I don’t think of the work as explicitly political, but the work is made with a recognition of the times in which it’s being made. It comes through most strongly in the over-Queerness of the work. That’s something that’s still relatively new for me. In the last 4-5 years I’ve been building a global community of other Queer artists, and that’s definitely reflected in the work now. The more push back I get on that development the more I want to pursue it. We are in a time of backlash, of going backwards. I am more committed than ever to making the work visibly Queer.  

Jan: Big reveal for the readers: we are having this conversation on a couch in your studio in Louisville, Kentucky - where I happen to be visiting family for Easter. I have, therefore, had the chance to see your latest panels, which are a continuation of the work up at MARCH Gallery. We are also surrounded by your paintings, which are another huge part of your practice. I’m noticing now, in the drawings and in the paintings a lot of birds! In particular I have been staring at this painting of a black swan throughout our entire conversation. What’s going on with the birds? 

John: Birds in general are beautiful. They sing. To be able to walk outside and there’s these things in the trees that are singing. That’s amazing. There’s also the interesting evolutionary position of birds, if you think about dinosaurs. The presence of birds puts human existence into better context. But most importantly to my work: birds represent freedom. 

John Brooks, Millions of us in Love, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches, 2023

I went to Hawaiʻi at the end of 2022, and visited a Buhddist temple on Oʻahu. There were so many black swans. When I encounter something I research it. It turns out black swans are indigenous to Australia. In Europe for many centuries the idea of a black swan was an impossibility. So, when Europeans finally encountered black swans in Australia an undeniable fact was suddenly wrong. This, for me, encapsulates the fallacy of rigid declarations - of seeing the world only from your perspective. That is something particularly Queer about black swans. 

By bringing birds, and many other animals like deer and alligators into my work, I’m trying to bring a focus to living with a sense of wonder. There are so many terrible things, but there are also so many amazing things on this planet. If more people lived in a state of wonder things would be so much better. Wonder has to do with respect with things that are bigger than you. And there are obviously so many things that are bigger than me. There is a Bob Dylan quote I think about often: “This land is your land and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by those that never listen to music anyway.” 

Jan: A Bob Dylan quote is a great place to end. Thank you very much, John. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and getting to know your work so much better. 

John Brooks: Islands Are Not Forever is on view February 29 through April 13, 2024 at MARCH Gallery. WM 

Jan Dickey

Jan Dickey is a painter based in Brooklyn, NY. He earned an MFA in Studio Art from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa (Honolulu, HI) in 2017. He earned a BFA in 2009 from the University of Delaware (Newark, DE). Dickey has attended numerous artist residencies, including: The Sam and Adele Golden Foundation℠ for the Arts in New Berlin, NY (2023), ARTnSHELTER in Tokyo, Japan (2019), the Kimmel Harding Nelson Art Center in Nebraska City, NE (2018), and the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT (2017). His spring 2023 solo exhibition, "Passing Through," held at D.D.D.D. in NYC, was reviewed in "Two Coats of Paint" under the title "Jan Dickey: Both sides now.” In fall 2023, he showcased his work at My Pet Ram in NYC alongside Hawai’i-based painters Nanea Lum and Kainoa Gruspe. Jan has published reviews previously in Whitehot Magazine. 


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