Whitehot Magazine

John Brendan Guinan’s Art of Displacement

John Brendan Guinan, Salvation camp, 2023. Installation, sewn found tarp, vintage military canvas tent, vinyl, ratchet straps, bungee cord and sleeping bag on stretched canvas with sewn found tarp and found carbon steel machetes with holy water font and aspergillum, 60” x 72.” On view at Latchkey Gallery.

By MICHAEL RIZZO, April 2023

I met up with John Brendan Guinan on the sidewalk in front of the graffiti-covered industrial building that houses his Bushwick studio. His aquamarine eyes burned with the fierce energy that imbues his art. We first crossed paths eight years earlier in Washington, DC, where we were both heavily influenced by local music—Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi, and others. John grinned and swung open the building’s metal door. We went upstairs. In his studio, I leaned against the wall by a 4’ by 4’ framed piece composed of vibrant, textured materials. John sat at a worktable outfitted with a heavy-duty sewing machine.  

Mike: When did you start making art?

John: After my dad got sick, I couldn’t sleep so I painted all night. I don’t use much paint now though. Mostly found objects and materials that reference shelter, displacement, violence, class, and the sacred. The feelings and ideas transferred through reworked objects really interest me. Materials have coded histories. 

Mike: When you say materials what do you mean?

John: 19th-century French grain bag, sail cloth, found tarp, bungee cords, faux fur, silk Catholic priest vestments, an aspergillum used to shower people with holy water during mass, WWII-era military tent canvas, lots of things. Materials are imbued with histories of violence, pathos, sanctity, heartbreak. 

Mike: Do you use these coded materials when addressing home and shelter? 

John: Yes. In 2021, I had a solo show in DC called “Where Do You Summer” at Homme Gallery. The show was in response to new homeless encampments that sprang up during COVID. DC already had many encampments but with COVID the number shot up. I thought a lot about the encampments. The show grew out of that meditation.

Mike: What was going through your mind during the meditation?

John: My upbringing and family. I grew up in the Catholic Worker tradition. My parents were essentially Christian anarchists and activists helping the homeless and destitute. 

Mike: Given your parents, you must feel more empathy than most for the homeless. Living in any big city people have to walk past homeless encampments and while many people have gone numb, clearly you haven’t. Do you think your show grew out of the cognitive dissonance of living near a large homeless population and your parents’ activism? 

John: I would say so, yes. The show centered on me reconciling my family’s history and my faith-based upbringing, with my present existence, which is oriented towards artmaking.  

Mike: You know how there are places in DC where you can see homeless encampments with the U.S. Capitol in the distance? 

John: Of course. It’s such a sad irony, people living in utter poverty blocks from the axis of power, greed, and corruption.      

Mike: In the actual shadow of the Capitol dome. As Congress is in session. How do you translate your feelings about this irony into your work?

John Brendan Guinan, Survivor Church Pew, 2023. Installation, refurbished found church pew, stained wood, carbon steel machetes, magnets, and replica Glock handguns, 36" x 72" x 24." With "The Last Supper" by Esteban Whiteside. On view at Latchkey Gallery.

John: Homeless encampments are frequently fluorescent colors because camping materials are often bright, inorganic colors. The materials are highly visible, yet we’ve learned to walk past encampments without a second glance. Imagine seeing a skyscraper in the woods and not being taken aback.

Mike: So, you’ve chosen bright materials, and yet the experience of people living in encampments is surely very gray.

John: Exactly. It’s a painful contrast. Sleeping bags stretched over wood frames could have a playful quality formalistically, but the preeminent way these materials are used in larger cities points to crisis, survival, trauma, and injustice. 

Mike: Right. No one is leisure-camping in New York or Washington, D.C. People in tents are surviving one precarious day after the next. When you walk past encampments, do you feel like you’re turning a blind eye to suffering because of your parents’ work? 

John: Yes, and I’m sure many people have those feelings. Do you? 

Mike: It kills me. My parents weren’t activists, but it makes me feel guilty. You don’t sound like you turn a blind eye. You feel deeply enough to make installations in response. It’s like an internal empathy engine drives you to honor the day-to-day struggle of unhoused people. You see them. You see their humanity. 

John: For sure, but my art is a way of coming to terms with times I did turn a blind eye to suffering. It’s my own personal penance.           

Mike: You’re flawed like everyone else, but with more empathy than most. I think your tough side makes your empathy illegible to you.

John: If you say so. My reaction to what I’ve seen on the streets comes from a conflicted place. While making pieces for the show, I was working through painful stuff related to my faith-based upbringing. That kind of childhood is common but mine was extreme.

Mike: How extreme? 

John: I was born above a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Washington, DC that my parents founded and ran called The Community for Creative Nonviolence. At one point it was the largest homeless shelter in the country. 

Mike: Your work definitely honors your origin, right down to the materials homeless people need. 

John: Yup. Ratchet straps. Sleeping bags. Bungee cords. 

Mike: And they fit together in decisive geometries with lots of crosses. Can you talk about how you’re using crosses? 

John Brendan Guinan, Warlord, 2023. Mixed Media, sewn Balenciaga foam textile, vegan leather, 18k gold chain and cross, vinyl on stretched canvas, 36" x 36." At Latchkey Gallery.

John: I find the cross formalistically interesting. I want to present it but also subvert it.

Mike: What do you mean ‘subvert it?’ 

John: Let’s start by asking what ‘the cross’ is. Christ was wonderful, and the historical Jesus was a badass, but what does ‘the cross’ really mean?

Mike: That sounds rhetorical. Are you saying it doesn’t mean anything?

John: No. You grew up Catholic. What is ‘the cross?’

Mike: Do you mean the cross is just a shape? Doesn’t represent anything. Not shorthand for a religion. Just a geometry. Is that what you’re saying? 

John: Not at all. For me, it’s a device. A tool. The cross in this work serves as a mirror for the viewer. If you look at a certain piece, you might think, ‘What the hell is that? A sleeping bag and bungee cords that form a cross. What does that mean?’ Many of my pieces are minimalist compositions. I want them to confront the viewer from a phenomenological standpoint and cause the viewer to really reflect.

Mike: And the cross symbology seduces the viewer into reflection. The cross isn’t a casual choice or happy accident. It’s highly intentional.  

John: Crosses are a way of signaling the transcendent—and not necessarily a Judeo-Christian transcendence. The cross is a prompt. It poses primal questions.  

Mike: Are you suggesting in some way that the cross reflects back that we as individuals contribute to the epidemic of homelessness? 

John Brendan Guinan, Keeper Priest Mask, 2023. Sculpture, sewn priest vestments, Balenciaga faux fur, beads, bungee cords, found tarp, ratchet straps, Dacron sail, crystal rhinestones, and football visor, 30” x 10” x 8.” On view at Latchkey Gallery.

John: Everyone’s going to respond in their own way. There’s no wrong response. 

Mike: It seems like you’re at least helping people figure out where they fit. Helping people locate their consciences and compassion. 

John: That’s generous. These pieces aren't meant to teach anyone anything. Just suggest reflection. I’m not morally righteous. I’m as human as anyone else.      

Mike: Let’s hear about your current show that grew out of all of this work.  

John: I have a two-person show at Latchkey Gallery in lower Manhattan with another artist and good friend of mine, Esteban Whiteside. It’s called “There is no God and we are his prophets,” which is a Cormac McCarthy quote. A lot of McCarthy’s writing has a nihilistic and post-apocalyptic feel. It investigates the hellish existences of forgotten people, many of whom are poor and victims of circumstance. 

Mike: A related theme. 

John: Exactly. The show is in response to the state of ‘brinkness’ we’re living in and what might lay around the bend if we continue on this destructive path. There are many outlandish and cinematic elements to the work. There’s an over-the-topness I’m leaning into. WM

Michael Rizzo

Michael Rizzo is Program Manager of Hunter College’s Creative Writing MFA Program and Director of the Distinguished Writers Series. When time permits, he teaches creative writing and contemporary literature. He is the recipient of residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Butternut Ridge, and fellowships from the Hertog Foundation and Independent Feature Project. He's working on a novel about family and the environment. Find him on IG: @themikerizzo.

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