Interview with Brian Cirmo

Brian Cirmo, Lost in a Crowd, 2020. Oil on canvas, 45 x 72in. Courtesy the artist and 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, New York.

Brian Cirmo: Where Teardrops Fall

532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel

May 20 through July 22, 2021

By ROBERT R. SHANE, July 2021

Like a novelist working in paint, Brian Cirmo tells tales of contemporary malaise and nostalgia, offering an empathetic and humorous take on vulnerable characters who find themselves lost in daydreams or trapped in absurd scenarios.

I spoke with Cirmo on the occasion of his second New York solo exhibition Where Tear Drops Fall at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, a follow up to his exhibition Gray Matters (2019-2020). We sat down in his upstate New York studio amongst his paint-caked brushes and newly stretched canvases, shelves of novels and artbooks, and a sound system perpetually spinning a selection from his vinyl collection of blues and Bob Dylan.   

We talked about time and narrative in painting, Piero della Francesca and pop culture, and the freedom to break taboos in art. 

Robert R. Shane: There is a fascinating play of gazes in your paintings. Sometimes your figures are asleep, sometimes eyes wide open, but they rarely make eye contact with us or each other. 

Brian Cirmo: When I started making a lot of those paintings, I tried to open up the eyes. But something got lost. There was something more mysterious about the characters when those eyes were closed. There's protection in the eyes being closed—like it's protecting you from seeing my soul. And it raises questions: Are they sleeping? Or lost in thought? Are they in pain, whether it be physical pain emotional pain? Do we just catch them in that split second of a blink, that moment when our eyes are shut off to the world? 

RS: Most of the time your figures are contemplative or dreaming. Then suddenly, as in Marco Polo (2019) from your first exhibition, or more recently in Battle Royale (2020) or Sorry (2020) there are moments of drowning, punching, bleeding. Your characters don’t seem to move except for violent acts. I’m struck by that contrast between stillness and violence in your work. 

BC: In Sorry I love the idea that we've come in after the event has happened. But in Marco Polo or Battle Royale we’re there in the moment it’s happening. I think about those kinds of things when I'm making the paintings: at what moment is the viewer coming in? I think violence is a huge part of the human condition; I think it needs to be represented. […] 

With Battle Royale, the kid getting punched in the face, there's a question of how did we get to this moment? You as the viewer aren't just walking up to a painting and asking, “OK, what is the meaning that this artist wants this painting to have?” You are involved in the meaning of that painting the same way you're involved in a novel. You’re an active participant in this piece of art. To read that book it's got to filter itself through your brain, your imagination, and on its way through it attaches to all your experiences. So if you read a Philip Roth novel, you're going to get the guts of the story like someone else, but those characters are going to ring differently with the different individuals reading the book. And I think painting can do that. It has done that for me and that's why when I started making paintings, I realized that I'm as much a storyteller as anything. 

Brian Cirmo, Cast Away, 2020, oil on canvas, 72 x 60in. Courtesy the artist and 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, New York.

RS: Speaking of Philip Roth, what aspect of his writing carries into your paintings?

BC: In Philip Roth’s writing life is absolutely absurd—and I don't think this is a negative thing or pessimistic way of looking at life. I think being alive and being human are absurd and I love that about Roth’s writing. He creates these horrible settings, sometimes loathsome characters who are just disgusting. But in some way you end up loving them and laughing at something so absolutely taboo that you wouldn't even admit to your closest friend that you’re laughing about what this character is doing. 

RS: Absurdity, humor—I can also see why Philip Guston has played such an important role for you. In his time, Guston’s shift to figuration was so taboo, but now it seems like there's a whole generation of artists, like you or Dana Schutz, returning to his work and using it as a starting point.  

BC: I think Guston gave us the freedom to realize that we can make the paintings we want to make, and he brought that personal psychology into the painting. We had this Abstract Expressionist idea of mark and color, movement and scale, and then Guston comes along and paints this kind of anti-hero, this beat-up weathered man. And I think that was a huge change in American painting. 

Brian Cirmo, Agent Orange, 2020. Oil on canvas, 18x18in. Courtesy the artist and 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, New York.

RS:  Your paintings often include recognizable sport teams’ jerseys, 1980s action figures, iPods and smartphones, popular album covers. How do you see the relationship between your work and popular culture?

BC: There's definitely a sense of nostalgia, especially with the toys. Those are the toys I played with as a child. But I think whether we want to admit it or not, it’s part of who we are, how we identify ourselves as individuals, not just as a culture. […] I'm a sports fan and it's another absurd thing in life—how you root for these teams for 20, 30 years. In a weird way these sports fans are the logos they wear, not just as fashion—it's almost like a coat of arms, like I belong to this family.

[…] I think my process is the process that's been around for a long time, where artists work from other artists. You know it's the folk tradition, you take a tune from someone and add new lyrics to it, make something new. If you look at the ET poster from 1982, it's Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. 

RS: You play a lot with modernism and the grid. In the foreground of Cast Away (2020), for example, there's a shark whose jaws humorously open at a perfect right angle. For so many modernists, the grid was a way of mapping the flat terrain of the canvas, of getting to something “pure” and proper to painting itself. But in your work it becomes like an element of the narrative. 

BC: Yeah, we were all taught that when we went to art school. And what did we study? We started with the Renaissance. That's really where the language comes from. We look at Piero della Francesca and the way he broke up his compositions. And then we move into modernism and look at someone like Mondrian or at the New York school… It's a language. It's like a novelist sitting down to write a book and telling this epic story and using this language that's been around for thousands of years. The Greenbergian idea of purity in abstraction—I guess I just never fell into that. Why can't I make a painting that's a narrative painting, that's about story, but still very much using that language of modernism? I never thought it was the wrong thing to do. It was just the language I knew. WM

Robert R. Shane

Robert R. Shane is a critic and curator and received his PhD in art history and criticism from Stony Brook University. 

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