Alex Brown, Frisbeetown, 2008; 81x81.5; Courtesy of the artist
Joe Heaps Nelson in Conversation with Alex Brown
Alex Brown and I go back to the good ol' hardcore punk rock days in Des Moines. We must have met in 1984. Alex was always creative and very involved. He played in bands, drew flyers for shows, and put out a fanzine called Loveseat. Later he moved to New York for art school (Parsons) and joined the Gorilla Biscuits.
The guy is definitely unique, a little mysterious, almost perversely individualistic. For some reason, as I write this, I'm imagining Sarah Palin's voice saying, "He's a maverick!" Yeah, it's disturbing.
I was back in Des Moines visiting my family over the holidays, and since the snow and ice were only about 3 feet deep, I took the opportunity to catch up with Alex at his enormous downtown studio. Even though I have known him and followed his career for many years, his paintings still have the power to EXPLODE MY BRAIN.
Joe Heaps Nelson: Alex, looking at this new work you are making, which is a continuation of what you have been doing for a few years, some paintings are based on a strict grid, and sometimes you tweak the grid. It's a design element which kind of tells you how to do the painting. Then there are other paintings in which you combine two images, and that seems to give you more freedom in your decision making. Am I on the right track?
Alex Brown: Yeah... no. The ones that are done with the organic pattern, which is basically a picture on a picture, using a picture as a template, they are quicker paintings to make because they don't require as much fuss. I don't feel like I have to be so mechanical when I'm making them.
JHN: The other ones you are kind of obligated to paint one square at a time.
JHN: On these ones, how is your approach different?
AB: I wouldn't say the approach is different. But on these ones, it becomes less about the image that I'm working from, because when you are working with a geometric pattern, you aren't referencing anything else other than the image you're trying to paint. With these paintings, you have this duality going on, like a dream sequence. You have an image defining another image. If you look closely, or you live with the paintings, I think they end up informing each other.
JHN: What do you call them?
AB: I think of them as geometric, and organic.
JHN: So if you are working on one of the organic ones, do you have more of a choice which image you'll emphasize?
AB: I don't know if it's a choice, but it doesn't seem as important, because that's not really the final decision. There's a lot of happenstance.
JHN: The grid ones definitely have a system that you follow.
AB: Yeah, it's systematic, and I kind of know what I'm going to end up with. Whereas with the other ones, they have an accidental quality.
JHN: There's a mechanical quality to the way it's put together, but the brushstrokes are super free and expressive.
AB: I'm not sure I would say that. I mean I switched to bristle just because it seemed to give more importance to the paint itself. The brushstroke is a result of applying the paint. It gives it a nice quality, when you look at it from one side, the way the light reflects.
JHN: It's bouncing off the painting in a crazy looking, beautiful way. When you started developing this system of painting, were you thinking about Chuck Close?
AB: Oh sure. The original thing that I made was right when I came back to Iowa from New York. In southern, rural Iowa. I had this postcard of a hamster and I didn't know how to paint it. I thought it was this cute, funny, weird, Koonsian kind of image. I thought, well, I'll just do the grid thing, because it's what I knew to do, and thinking of Chuck Close.
JHN: He's all pixeled out.
AB: Yeah, I was thinking of him, and Richter.
JHN: I remember when I visited your studio in New York (probably 1995) you showed me a painting of a two headed cow. That had a Richter quality.
AB: It was kind of a Rorschach cow.
Alex Brown, Zucker, 2001, 65x50, Courtesy of the artist
Alex Brown, Zucker, 2001, 65x50, Courtesy of the artist
JHN: The first time I saw the more organic paintings was at Feature, in Chelsea. There was a pirate ship and an airplane in the same painting.
AB: That show was in 2001, right before September 11. (Alex pulls out a catalogue) This is the first one I did like that. I was looking at this picture, and I thought, that shirt is almost like a pattern. Maybe it would look cool if I used that as my pattern. I ended up hating it. I thought it was awful and I ended up washing it all with this brown.
JHN: What's the title of this one?
AB: Zucker, which means sugar in German. It's a picture of Sugar Minott, who's a reggae dancehall singer.
JHN: That's your thing these days, isn't it?
AB: I don't know if it's my thing, I like it.
JHN: You're obsessed! I know you, you're an obsessive guy. I remember you from the punk rock days!
AB: Yeah, you should see my 7 inches. I sold most of 'em, but what I have left is some really good stuff. (He pulls out a box of records and starts going through them). Adolescents, Adverts. This is a good one... Angelic Upstarts.
AB: These ones are. This is a really great single, the Automatics. Great pop punk. This is a good one, the first Buzzcocks single, the original, "Spiral Scratch" on New Hormones. I got this when I worked at Venus. It was $25 in 1987. It was a lot of money for a record right then.
JHN: So, 1987, you bopped out of Des Moines and went to New York that year?
JHN: So how does it feel to be back in Des Moines?
AB: It's a weird place. It's the most normal place in the world, which is why it's weird. It's daunting. Day to day it's the easiest place to live. In the summer, I can ride my bike down here from my house. I got a little crackerbox palace in Beaverdale, and I can have a studio that's twice the size of my house. Those are the benefits... You talk about career, or artworld, anything like that, it's obviously a detriment, inasmuch as you're not able to network here, and meet like-minded people.
JHN: Yeah but you're probably able to get a lot of work done.
AB: Exactly. That was my counterpoint. You can get a lot of work done. You don't have to pay exorbitant rent, and then have a studio on top of it, and a closet somewhere in Maspeth, Queens. I don't know if it's liberating or what, but I think it's good to be away from the artworld and not be looking at art all the time. Although I love it, I think it's hard to get out of the mode of what I just saw on my three hour walk through Chelsea.
JHN: Well you are finding freedom through limitations in life as well as art.
AB: Oh sure. Well, it's always a balance, you know? I think there's a certain freedom to not thinking about people coming by your studio to see what you're doing, who live in the neighborhood, popping by. But at the same time, you gotta think about what people might want to buy... although with the current economy, for the foreseeable future, I don't think that's gonna be much of a concern. So, I don't know.
JHN: Do you think your paintings would have developed differently if you had stayed in New York?
AB: I can't say. I think my paintings are certainly a reflection of my genetic makeup, my personality, my level of intelligence, or lack of intelligence. They are a reflection of the fact that I'm not too quick to put anything out there. I feel like these are all kind of a schmear, camoflaged and disguised. I'm not painting my life story, or my daily diary or who I fucked.
Alex Brown, Lost Planet, 2008; 90x80; Courtesy of the artist
JHN: You're painting images within images.
AB: Well, no, I'm painting landscapes and portraits. I'm basically a traditional regionalist. I'm the new Grant Wood.
JHN: Yeah, but it seems the way you're painting is more important than what you started from.
AB: (obviously not agreeing at all) Aaaaaaaaah ... that's an interesting observation....
JHN: I mean, only you know what makes you choose which images you want to work from. It seems kind of random to me, but when it's finished, it's totally an Alex Brown.
AB: Yeah. I've done shows before where I had paintings from here and there, you know, stuff that didn't sell, it would feel like a completely random show, and it ends up working. The last show I did I made a conscious effort to try and make a suite of paintings, 8 or 10 that referenced each other in some way or were different from each other in some way.
JHN: This was a show at Feature?
AB: Yeah. It turned out to be, just like, nothing. I sold one painting, and the gallery closed a few months afterward. That was it.
JHN: They're coming back. Hudson is coming back.
AB: Yeah, he's a whack-a-mole. Beat him down and he just pops back up. You know he's a tough guy. He has a vision.
JHN: He has a distinctive vision and he's one of those guys who follows his own path. So, what do you have coming up?
AB: I have a show in Geneva, which is kind of in association with Feature, in May. It's at BFAS, Blondau Fine Art Services. The owner is a guy named Mark Blondau, who's really great. It's not a typical gallery. He does about 4 shows a year and he supports the gallery with his partner. He's a really interesting guy, really generous, fun, and cool, and awesome. So it's really great to go there. I did a show with him 4 1/2 years ago which was excellent. So what have you been working on, Joe?
JHN: Hey! You can't interview me! Uh, read any good books lately?
AB: I've been reading The Next 100 Years, by George Friedman. He talks about the military. The reason America was able to become the only superpower is because they were able to control the seas. The Soviet Union had very little coastline, and the U.S. had bases in Norway and could monitor all their movements. America basically controlled the whole North Atlantic and Pacific. We have this huge military which does all the bankers' business, whether it's running drugs, or child prostitution rings, or whatever nefarious activity they're into. Because they're all Satanists.
JHN: You make these paintings that are kind of obscure... You're taking away information even as you're adding paint.â€¨ â€¨
AB: Yeah, totally. They're all about...â€¨
â€¨JHN: They're kind of covert.â€¨
AB: Yeah, they're disguised portraits, disguised landscapes... I don't know if disguised is the right word.â€¨
â€¨JHN: They're black ops paintings.â€¨ â€¨
AB: I'm trying to pull the essence out of a weird little scene, or somebody's face.â€¨ â€¨
JHN: You've always changed your grids around, bringing in different shapes, and now you're bringing in curves and the grids are taking on a life of their own.â€¨
AB: I feel I always need to be changing it. It looks homogeneous otherwise and it's not very interesting to me. The differences are pretty minor. I think there's a different rhythm you can get with different approaches you can make, with similar decisions.â€¨ â€¨
JHN: You're allowing it to progress gradually and naturally.â€¨
AB: Progression isn't something I really think about. Lately, I go back and revisit what I had been doing, because there are always a lot of avenues you could take. It's fun to reinvestigate where you were 10 years ago.â€¨ â€¨
JHN: Oil paint. This is all oil paint, the whole way. And there's no underpainting either, you pretty much go section by section.â€¨
AB: Yeah. Top left to bottom right. Next!
Alex Brown in his studio