John Brosio interviewed by Steve Parker

 

John Brosio interviewed by Steve Parker

 
SP: Hi, John, many thanks for doing this interview for Triggerfish. I was a bit blown away when I came across your work. My personal favourite is Queen of Suburbia. She scares me deeply. I really don’t want to be there in that moment with her looking at me like that, with all that disaster in the sky at her back and her looking so happy about it all. She looks like some genius loci of everything gone badly wrong, and loving it. She looks like she just materialised from the tornado and the badness, and she’s even laughing about it. Everything looks out of control. What’s going on in all that for you? I’d like to ask about your overall artistic ‘mission’, but I can’t help starting here because that picture just scared the crap out of me. What the heck is she, and what’s going on?

 Queen of Surburbia

JB
: I am very VERY pleased to read that this is your initial and deep response to Queen of Suburbia. That was very much my hope. This painting was a way for me to come up with what I am seeing around me, trying to figure it out. I am somewhere between scared and disgusted by our inability to get out of what has become an overly prescribed and mythological paradise.

It would almost be sufficient to depict the central character as such with that almost nuclear bomb light blasting away her features. In a way I feel that I am risking a kind of redundancy by putting in the setting, the twister, etc. But it is so overwhelming to me, the endless notion of these characters/ this setting that I decided to pile anything pertinent into the composition. The subtle version of the painting might be the character by herself, her cold light, her hands almost ready to grab perhaps. The “in your face” version of the painting is her setting but it serves for me too perhaps as the background of a movie poster and I think that I sufficiently pushed it all into what could amount to doubling as her possible state of mind.
 
What the heck is she and what’s going on, you ask?! She has not only bought into the whole thing but is succeeding at it. And she is doing everything she can, controlling every possible thing she can to make sure that it works. I think she knows perhaps that the twister is there, that threat. I think maybe that it is her, waiting for someone or something to step out of line. She is both oblivious to it but in league with it.
 
I would like at some point to make a “king” of suburbia painting but I feel that the man in the background is more subject to our female here.  The real “kings” of suburbia, now, are the hedge fund managers and bankers who pass out these flimsy, cookie cutter communities while living secretly in well constructed homes elsewhere. And those paintings are in progress if they make it.
 
Don’t expect them to fare so well.
 
Here is something I wrote about it on openmuseum.org – feel free to take from that as much as you like:

The inspiration for this is just what I see around us. We live in a country that is falling apart for now. And those things happen but people are stretching themselves in very disturbing ways not to merely live but to achieve what has become a very prescribed, unattainable, and ridiculous dream. If someone says “American Dream” one more time I’ll wretch. I mean, we already did “suburbia” once after WW2 and realized that there were some very disconcerting things about it. Very disconcerting. And right when everyone seemed to be growing up a bit from some of the missteps involved it all started over, only this time on CRACK. Make no mistake, the situation in this country right now was deliberately crafted and designed to hurt people. It is not something that just “happened” as part of an economic cycle. If you have any doubts, go to frontline.org and watch “Money, Power, and Wall Street.” It is creed.

SP: Okay, I can sort of pick up wheels within wheels in that picture. Portents of disaster that are themselves disasters already happening. It’s all pretty laden and complex and it lays itself open to the reader’s further imagining, which is how I like it, personally. But your explanation suggests to some extent a quite specific psycho-political purpose behind it all. Do you generally consider yourself a political artist, or is that way too narrow a definition? I’m guessing that, given the breadth of the ‘political’ vision here, I could almost substitute the word ‘spiritual’ and still be barking up the same tree, at least in a secular sense. What are your thoughts about all this?

JB: Ha! I hope I can live up to your questions! This painting is definitely me pissed off to some degree. There are a lot of people on board in this country for all the good causes except… wait… not yet… just let me get “mine” first… okay, there we are, now I can help make sure that everyone ELSE downsizes. It’s gross. I can recall when Madonna was at the screening for Al Gore’s climate movie when a British reporter asks her, on camera (paraphrased), “Madonna, how can you reconcile your call for environmentalism with the fact that you own nine homes?!” She was caught, stunned, and said, “we’re learning!”

What bullshit!

Dang, check this out – I was approached midday in California by a guy, all fit/ muscular, 2:00 in the afternoon on a Thursday, wanting me to donate to Greenpeace. And, while I kind of like some of what Greenpeace does, THIS guy brings up the fact that he has FIVE DAUGHTERS! How can you ask people for their money, to help the environment as part of what some call an extremist movement, and have 5 kids?!

Oh, wait, he got “his” first and now he can preach.

Lots and lots of greed out there, families living in boxes to increase their sense of control over a world that is less and less interested in human alteration.

To me it is also a sad painting – people trying so hard to be happy with signs all around that we might fail this time.

A very very wise friend of mine said the other day: “People ask me why I hold onto such a false sense of security. And I told them – ‘that’s the only kind there is.'”

It’s unfortunate but true. Maybe this painting is a portrait of any attempt we have made to find security and happiness.

Funny – you are this moment, by what you tell me you are seeing, making me freaked out by my own image! lol!

I do not consider myself a political artist at all but my paintings are definitely motivated by commentary. For sure. Maybe even “spiritual” commentary.

Another thing too – it appears that we live, worldwide to some degree, in a “lottery mindset” where people are increasingly hurting others to get rich.

Here is a GREAT article from a Los Angeles publication that talks about “for profit” colleges that take students for millions of dollars. Couldn’t be more sad or infuriating.

SP: You’re living up to them just fine, John. Yeah, I meant ‘spiritual’ in the broadest possible sense. Okay a couple of questions: the first painting of yours I came across was Fatherless Bride 2. I got into some weird places with that one about Cronos the father devouring his children in Greek mythology. I was trying to figure out why she was fatherless and whether she had just devoured him or torn his throat out. Then I found your description somewhere and you pointed out that if you look closely there are sperms in the blood running down her face, so then I wondered if maybe she had ripped something else out. Somehow it kind of connected in the inverse to the Cronos thing. So I am wondering what that one is all about for you. And the second one is just where you would place yourself as an artist, or in another way what your influences are. I sort of see Magritte here and there, like in the one with the guy looking at the huge octopus wrapped around his house, but then there’s all the catastrophic tornado stuff, which just howls out alarm and impending disaster to me. I know it’s sort of a bullshit question, but if you had to think about it, like in an interview or something (!), where would you say you came from?

Fatherless Bride 2


JB
: I think she is fatherless – either a bad or non-existent relationship with dad – and so she has never known what unconditional love from a man is like. That template, against which the well-reared eventually choose a partner, is not there. But, by way of vanity or insecurity or all of it, she will attempt a normal happy life like anyone else. But she will never dare trust it. She will ask and ask and ask of her partner until the relationship is destroyed. She will try to find her father’s love through her partner and, as a result, consume him. The chick in this painting has probably eaten several men who have given their blood, sperm, and all else only to end up consumed. And her notions of love are floating all around her. Note that the hearts coming up from her head are like a comic book thought bubble, culminating in nuttiness.

By the way, the sperm things are in the background blood, larger than life. You can see very hi-res at openmuseum  and enlarge the hell out of it.

And not a bullshit question! I don’t exactly know where I see myself. Influences of late are probably a disjointed group: Frank Auerbach, George Lucas, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ridley Scott, Ed Kienholz, Wayne Thiebaud, and so on. In a weird way, the images of mine you are seeing are kind of like film stills from the films I have never made but self-contained in their thrust and narrative.

There are other films and directors too that stir me up – “Touch of Evil” by Orson Welles is a huge influence. It’s like a cross between Ansel Adams and Edward Hopper. Ridley Scott activates his environments I think like no one else in some ways. Seven Samurai, Star Wars, Unforgiven, The French Connection (this one is ALL about texture) – all of these films grab me and it is a feeling I get when I am digesting them – a single feeling that lingers through the entire feature but it is a SINGLE feeling. And in that way I think I am able to engage that same feeling in a single image. I don’t think I am at all competing with another genre – I simply feel able to reach for the possibility of distilling a single feeling of that nature into a single moment – at least with regard to what it means for me.

Now – Fatherless Bride 2 – I do think you asked something of this piece before and I think I sent that one back. But it is a portrait of someone who is searching for a father’s love. She will never believe that she can be loved because she was not loved in the beginning. She will continue to eat and eat and eat and never get full. She is powerless and makes up for it with a search for power – men do this too but I don’t date men is all. And a parasite? I guess – unwittingly perhaps. With regard to this piece my rundown on openmuseum is pretty good I think.

SP: I think I get what you mean about distilling a movie into a single feeling. I can cook down each of the films you listed into a single sense or a texture or an impression, almost in some kind of synaesthesiac sort of way. Maybe that’s the sort of thing you mean. Even their titles give me that impression, as though they are little thumbnails or something. I could see how someone might want to convey something like that through painting. Unfortunately I don’t paint very well! With Fatherless Bride 2, I think what I was trying to get at was whether you are trying to say something about women generally, or if it is more a portrait of one person or of a tendency you’ve encountered. I feel like you are communicating that sort of bereft hunger that people develop when deprived of love as children. And I guess the potential destructiveness of that. It gives me a pretty haunted sensation looking at it like that. I guess it’s sort of about emotional crime then, partly against kids, and then how they respond to that later with their own crimes. That’s where you’ve got me to now anyway. One last thing about that then: do you feel sympathy for her, or is the carnage too great?

I have this impression that your paintings are about forces of nature. Even the humans seem to be like that. In fact, it almost seems like the natural forces become people and the people become twisters or something. Is there some kind of coalescence in your mind between your characters and the elemental forces swirling around them? And developing that a little, do you regard tornadoes or other natural forces as having some kind of personalities, or even messages? I don’t really mean in the archaic sense of being portents of doom or something, more in an artistic sense somehow. They all seem to get entwined in your pictures as though they are all part of the same message written in different languages. If I’ve expressed that clearly enough, could you say anything about that?

JB: That is very much the sort of thing I mean with regard to film. I might add too at this point that there are certain cues in music that I almost feel I am at times transcribing. Lots of Beethoven, Sibelius, Ligeti – there are times when certain sequences of music come up that I instantly see a given painting all at once and then have to go out and articulate it.

With Fatherless Bride 2 I am addressing a repeated theme with women in dating, yes. There could easily be a corresponding painting toward men from their side of the net but this is mine. The tendencies of a wounded woman, a woman without a father’s love, manifest about the same across the board in my experience. However, it is also a painting of the kind of woman I am drawn to for some reason – so there is a love/ hate there. She looks absolutely tasty to me though I will lose myself. If I saw her in a bar I would make a beeline over to her if only for conversation. And I’ve done it!

And it is a portrait, yes, of what comes from emotional harm, emotional crime.

I feel sympathy for her, attraction, and anger. I am more frustrated with her than sad. I pity her from a distance but the damage she does is pretty monumental. I know a number of women like that with several abortions under their belt. And I don’t judge them for that at all. It is a tragedy all around and usually most so by their own assessment.

I do definitely have women friends though – women friends with very lacking or damaged paternal love – who very much appreciate my thoughts and understanding (so they tell me). I don’t see anyone like that as less of a person but trauma like that always denies us, man or woman, our potential.

Now – forces of nature. I very much appreciate that because I do think that it applies. I was speaking once with a psychiatrist/ psychologist who, upon looking at my tornado paintings, saw a self portrait. She said that the tornado is me in the midst of society with people not understanding what is next to them. And it wasn’t all that necessarily complimentary either – angst, power, violence, control, size, delusion, desperation – she saw all of that in my Edge of Town series, the tornado being ME! And some of that makes sense to me too.

Edge of Town 11


Study for ‘Edge of Town’

And your second to last sentence?! I would love to reword that into a critique of my work! – “all part of the same message written in different languages” is a LOT of what I feel.

How is Fatherless Bride 2 not a tornado upside down with all of the debris swirling around her head?!

SP: Hmm, I assume you mean she’d look tasty if she wasn’t covered in blood with sperms flying around her head? Or do you have rather specialist tastes? Should put a smiley or something in here!

More seriously, how did you originally get into painting? What kicked the door open? And has the motivation changed over the years?

JB: In answer to your first question, what is more exciting – sex with a vampire or sex with a well-heeled, attractive, and professional woman who is smart with a good job?

The answer either way speaks to my own mental state and background.

Now, more seriously: I always wanted to go into film. I made little films as a kid in Super 8 and all that. Mainly spfx things of ships crashing and heads blowing up and things like that. Little stories here and there with my dog dressed up as a monster. But I can recall telling my mom that I needed 200 million dollars and she said no. So I thought I’d bide my time and do what any film-maker needed to do – become a good writer and good image maker, regardless of the tools. I could always draw and did a LOT of spaceship and monster design on my own as a high-schooler. I even have a novel that I work on from time to time. It is more of a hobby than anything but it’s getting good too – I enjoy crafting it and there are ideas in there that I am excited to bring to life no matter what. Good or bad, in the end it has real motive with regard to the history of thought, cosmology, where we’re going, where we come from. I believe that the only real pedal to the metal thinkers right now are in the sciences and a huge chunk of that is in cosmology. They are closer than anyone has ever been to answering what happens before birth and after death – all great stuff. But I digress.

I attended UC Davis in Northern California for two reasons. Advisors had introduced me to the notion that there was a great teacher and painter up there named Wayne Thiebaud. He was one of the few working with representational imagery at the time. And second, the school was somewhat close to Lucasfilm, the George Lucas studio where I eventually hoped to work. I spent 4 years learning under Wayne, Robert Arneson, David Hollowell, Mike Henderson, Roy DeForest, and Wally Hedrick at UC Davis in the development of my portfolio and things began to swing over. I eventually got to work at Lucasfilm during my last year in Davis but check it out:

1. I had been seduced by painting. I was the master of my own universe there and in touch with what mattered to me.

2. Everyone at Lucasfilm was often working on other people’s ideas – they all urged me to continue with my own! Some of them do great work on the side.

And Wayne had mentioned in an interview that he too, as young student, wanted to be a hot shot illustrator when someone took HIM aside and told him to be his own master.

So here I am ruling in Hell in a sense rather than serving in Heaven. And by that I am joking a bit – the income at Lucasfilm was probably a bit higher! lol! But I have definitely taken risks that paid off here and there but the cinematic influence has obviously never left. Was I attracted to film per se or where it took me? The answer is obviously the latter and I do definitely feel that I am successfully engaging much of what drew me to art in the first place.

And there is more to come – I definitely have some ideas in development that are unlike anything I have yet attempted. They could totally fail for all I know but I am thankful to be perceiving vast areas of unexplored territory ahead of me.

If anything, I am getting more and more in touch with my motives. Painting in and of itself without those motives is a chore to some degree.

SP: What questions should I be asking to get to the depths of John Brosio?

JB: Ha! I’m not sure! I was raised very Catholic and had a hell of a time finding my way out of that particular maze. I’m sure that shows up all the time but I wouldn’t know where. Heroes of mine though would be Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. Sagan did so much to open my eyes to what is truly amazing.

Of late I am so depressed and infuriated by the pride people take in ignorance. For instance, it can be proven that Earth is about 4½ billion years old. I have students though who are Creationists and call knowledge an “opinion.” People have no humility these days. All you need to know is who is smarter than you are. To say that the earth is only a few thousand years old is to say that your opinion and Einstein’s opinion are equal! Seriously! It’s the same as saying he was wrong! How can people do that?!

I think on the flip side that some of the best art ever though is being made right now. Same with science. I have students who dazzle me both in the sciences and in the arts. If just a fraction of them fulfill the potential I see of late then they will save humanity from itself.

So there’s a lot of rambling in me unless I’m asked about something specific. lol!

SP: Well, they think they have a bigger Einstein called God, don’t they. And they defer everything to that authority. Anyway it was a good ramble, and what I was hoping for, so thanks for rambling. Feynman and Sagan are heroes of mine too. I’m interested in this Catholic upbringing modified by Carl Sagan. Does that give you a sense of urgency? I mean in the sort of way that Carl Sagan had that sense of urgency to get NASA to turn Voyager 1’s camera around just before it left the Solar System forever, and take a picture of our Pale Blue Dot from 3.7 billion miles away and show us what we really are? It might seem a bit grandiose to compare anything else with something as huge as that, but do you know what I mean? Do you also want to say ‘Hey, wake up and look at this?’ The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ doesn’t it, and a catholicon is a panacea. Do you think art can save us all?

JB: Funny, I was at JPL and that series of photos is large on the wall in their press room. It looks great all together, our solar system. I keep up with a man there named Charlie Kohlhasse who designed much of the Voyager route.

But urgency? I used to have more urgency but of late I am finding a lot of people who are a bit lost, who don’t care, are trying hard with tons of obstacles – I am at a part now where I think often of Sagan’s quote at the end of Contact in which his character says, basically, that in “all the space and darkness, the whole universe, all we have is each other” (paraphrased) – and I think of how I can relate to some of those folks. I have very little desire to hang out with the artistically elite. What a soothing and inspirational thought though of Sagan’s – it drives me to connect, encourage, uplift, participate, converse, and contribute. But people cannot contemplate this without food and shelter. It’s rough out there right now.

I don’t care much about Catholicism. I’m finished with it I think. Nothing left to figure out for me there. Just curiosities. I’m having fun contemplating Socrates of late – how everything here is a “shadow” of all that is “real” only to be reading now about the holographic principle in cosmology that states that EVERYTHING is on the edge of the universe and that everything within is a shadow of that. Wow.

I want people to wake up and get excited about some of this, yes. I like to explain some of it to folks who are as hungry as I was for this kind of information.

Now can art save us? It indeed contributes to our sensibilities for sure. It keeps us sharp and elevates us – even single paintings let others know what is possible. It is a way to uplift. But it is the result of a personal need to “reach” and realize something for oneself. The presence and production of art is a way of maintaining ourselves I think.

As for now I have just gotten through a nasty virus that doctors cannot figure out. It is probably something that I got in the mountains and brought back home. My sister and gf have it now too and it’s stressing me out.

One thing I MUST add – without having my own art, my own projects as an outlet, I can crack. If things add up just right I can worry myself sick over certain things. Horrible brain to have in that sense.

SP: The last painting you sent me (of the little girl with bats) has a Gothic look, I suppose, as do some others. I know we all hate being categorised, to some extent, but would you regard yourself as Gothic in some way? I suppose we almost need to define ‘Gothic’ and ‘gothic’ to do this one. Obviously, ‘Gothic’ has less to do with bats than it has to do with being voluptuous and dramatic and to some extent caricatured. That’s not intended in any way as a criticism, but I am just wondering if you would see yourself as being anywhere on that spectrum. If you do accept any of the Gothic thing, would you think that maybe any of that came from the Catholic upbringing? I don’t know much about how Catholicism plays in the US, but here in the UK I think it still has some Gothic elements. I know I am theorising wildly about your origins and intentions, and obviously please feel completely free to refute me entirely – but if any of it is true, how come there are also events occurring in your art like the guy (who looks like he is straight out of Magritte) staring at a giant octopus on his rooftop? Can you explain a connection between all these things in some way, or do you just feel entitled to go anywhere? And while we’re at it, what sort of music do you listen to?

Fatigue (version 2)


Little Girl with Bats


JB
: I think I have some tendencies toward what other folks call gothic, sure – but mostly as it pertains to the vernacular of horror films and such. Bats, in a way, are almost campy things. If one is not careful, bats, ravens, the moon, and graveyards can all be very campy if not anchored into a more fundamental concept. But I definitely love some of that. Halloween is a favorite holiday for me, especially as a kid. I’m not reaching for gothic per se but it certainly tends to show up when it wants! And I think that others who enjoy my work sometimes identify with a more innocent time in their past when pumpkins, bats, and ghosts were the extent of their worries in life.

I have some paintings in the works that are even more whimsical along those lines but a couple coming up that are more violent than anything I’ve ever done. I am so very upset with the bankers and hedge fund managers over here who so very deliberately gambled the world economy for personal gain – wait, I take that back – they deliberately compromised it for personal gain. Imagery coming up has to do with harming those folks, plain and simple. I hope the paintings work. I think they will. And I think people will jump on board with them too.

I think, now that I have had time to consider it, that the Catholic upbringing can be best seen in my Edge of Town tornado pieces – that tornado, if it is me there as something of a self-portrait, is a very repressed, VERY repressed, and literally wound up locus of energy. I think that is where we see it. A Catholic kid often grows up having everything “wrong” pointed out to them – sometimes to the point where it paralyzes and keeps that kid from trying things. That was me in a way – the canvas is where I could explode and express, find sanity, and communicate in a way that folks could digest. Were I raised differently I might even be doing something else even – in film or the sciences. Maybe in writing. I work on my book as a hobby and it’s coming along nicely. Imagine C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet on major crack.

And I don’t feel entitled to go “anywhere” in my work – I am DETERMINED to go anywhere in my work! It’s the only place where I can be myself. Closing that outlet could be very risky to my sanity. And I also don’t feel that I have really gone too far astray in any one direction. Remember that page I sent you with all the paintings on it? To me I can see a single voice on display there and I am very pleased with it – humorous, cynical, colorful, and subversive. A little bit of dismissive disdain in there at the corners too.

Now, music – of late I have been getting very very much into modern classical music. I love Gyorgi Ligeti and Ginastera (John Williams rips these guys off a lot) and am finding more of them on Pandora which is a great thing. They are obscure, unappealing to the masses, and difficult to find. But when I do it is almost like finding something done by me in another dimension. I feel that able to relate to what I hear. I also love the very late Beethoven quartets like Op. 131 and 135 (Sagan put this on the Voyager record into space). I also enjoy very moody and atmospheric jazz from time to time. As far as rock goes I prefer Tool and Perfect Circle but Ligeti is my current squeeze.

That octopus by the way was literally begun with paint from a painting I did NOT want to finish for a show I did NOT want to do – they were side by side and it is a painting of how I felt at the time – no relief! lol!

SP: Yeah, I think quite a lot of Gothic stuff is pretty camp really, though in a good way. Nothing much more camp than Bela Lugosi stopping halfway down the stairs in the original Dracula movie and saying, ‘Children of the night, what music they make!’
 
I’ve noticed that you seem to have quite definite intentions behind your work. My takes on some of your paintings have been a bit different from yours. How do you feel about the whole idea that the viewer comes up with his/her own interpretation? Are you happy to relinquish the analysis of your work to other people, or does it feel important that your original intention comes across? I guess in a way I’m asking if you have any postmodern leanings.

JB: It’s funny – right now I am watching our Presidential debate and it’s driving me nuts. I think it would be a big big mistake for voters here to get rid of Barack Obama. They’re all politicians but expect more George Bush stuff if Romney gets elected – my opinion at least. I’m very worried because there are a lot of short sighted people in this undereducated superpower – they vote like animals seeking treats no matter who they vote for.

Lugosi – I love that you brought that up. Ha! I remember seeing that for the first time as a kid. Much fun.

But I very much welcome and very much enjoy alternative takes on what I create. I love it. I benefit from it. And that is because it is more so me offering up a “take” on things than anything else. The arrangements and pairings are at best intuitive and I sometimes don’t know why they fit. I am proposing things. Like the woman who saw a self-portrait of me in my tornado there are things that folks come up with that are there that I didn’t even see in the first place. The painting is always just a common context for communication – it is me offering up my part in a conversation and I very much expect and hope to hear someone answer back. I am very lucky to have had folks take enough interest TO answer back. I was almost reluctant to participate in openmuseum because I was afraid I’d get too specific and discourage folks from chiming in.

I am very grateful for the things I’ve heard from folks because their take is as valid as my own and I’m the one who then gets to learn from them.

On the drawing board I have imagery that is perhaps even more intuitive and more inviting to interpretation from others. There is always a risk that any such work will get too “weird” to be noticed but I have to take that risk as part of exploration.

Any postmodern leanings, while there, would be incidental I guess.

SP: An endless debate in poetry is about who one is writing for – who is your imaginary reader. The easiest answer is to say that you are just writing for yourself, but there’s probably some level of denial in that. Do you think you have an imaginary viewer in your head when you paint? Someone you want to communicate to or educate in some way, or someone you want to share stuff with? Any of the above?

I’m interested in what you have to say about American politics. As you might imagine, a lot of us in the outside world are watching with some trepidation. The US is a difficult thing to understand from outside. We get stuff like Norman Mailer saying the US is already in an advanced stage of Fascism, or Noam Chomsky saying you can’t understand the US without understanding that it is actually a Third World country. What is your response to soundbites like that? I’m not criticising your nation at all here, by the way, just interested in what an astute mind might have to say about all that.

And has the internet been an important factor in your work? I’ve noticed that you seem happy to engage with people commenting on your stuff at openmuseum. Is that online dialogue important? The internet has created endless opportunities for debate and feedback in poetry; has it done something similar for painting? There have been some negative aspects to this with poetry. What’s your take on all that regarding painting?

JB: The viewer is definitely myself. I feel sometimes as if I am experimenting with arrangements that are loud and obvious and painting them is a way of getting them out of my head in order to grow. It’s as if I am stopping and thinking, “wait a minute – I think these things go together – let’s see what that looks like.” Sometimes I think I have distilled something with each proposal. Other times it fails. I think that a lot of artists feel extremely compelled to realize something that strikes them and it could be in any medium. A lot of people can look at a tree and enjoy it but certain people feel a kind of need to stop and pound it into some kind of surface in order to “know” it. It is almost like chasing it, needing to know if it is either singular or possible yet again down the road. BUT – the viewer, any viewer, is the one who completes the piece. It doesn’t exist until someone considers it for better or worse – like in quantum theory: Looking at something that collapses what were until that point only possibilities into a kind of actuality. But I have no particular kind of viewer in mind. I do very much want to share and connect with other individuals of course and painting is the language I have ended up with not only for my strengths therein but maybe also because of weaknesses elsewhere. And any good painting can elevate: It can make someone stop and, along with the artist, consider something new as “possible.” I know that when I see insanely gorgeous works by Velazquez, Da Vinci, or Van Gogh I get very inspired to climb that ladder not out of hubris so much but by the shred of hope I have in any achievement by knowledge of the fact that they were also human beings and very much inviting us with what they have done.

American politics – wow. Well, the politics themselves are just that. Politics. I tend to agree with a lot of Chomsky. I don’t know Mailer as well but what you state here I can’t argue with. And go ahead and criticize! I enjoy that. The fact that you are viewing from the outside and seeing what we cannot see from within makes YOU the artist – your trepidation is reassuring in that I know I’m a) not the only one who is legitimately scared and b) able to be more confident in announcing my doubts. I do feel that we are a Third World nation in many ways. Folks like Romney and members of the Bush W. administration feel that they are “stewards” of the U.S. and the planet. Some of them even believe I am sure that, not only does their “worth” put them there because of how “valuable” they are, but that divine forces have placed them there in a certain time and place to be the chosen one. Some have even said it. They are so rich, they think, because they’re so smart – they see their fortunes as legitimizing what they think. And we have a very very very undereducated group of voters here. Part of this is because we have all been trained to chase that whole stupid “American Dream” fantasy (invented after WW2 in order to sell houses) but are now working two and three jobs just to sustain what we already have. No one has the time or energy to read and learn and participate. They are all worked to death and taking in reality television the same way that citizens in the decline of Rome used to watch fighting at the Coliseum. More and more folks are having more children because they don’t know what to do with themselves and, like in any other Third World nation, it is the impoverished. We have a lottery mindset over here. Everyone is waiting their turn to get rich but it is never going to happen. And if Mitt Romney gets elected he will attempt, he says, to get rid of our new health care system. Unbelievable. Dangerous. Stupid. You can fix it if you want, make improvements, all of that, but don’t get rid of it. Romney is a child and carries the mantra of “personal responsibility” when he really only means “everyone for themselves.” He thinks that he has to protect the financially “elite” because they are the gods of Mt. Olympus moving the pieces around. I look at both candidates quite thoroughly in each election but the Romney platform I have come to despise. I think that Obama is a reasonable man who is doing as much as anyone can in his position but I’m not a fanatic for him. But look at the some of the folks he has to answer to. And he is working with a Congress too in which there are self-proclaimed Creationists, for example. I do very much believe that if you have encountered actual information and still believe that Earth is only several thousand years old that there is a litmus test here: Creationists are incapable of abstract thought or conceptualizing. I don’t hate them but they need to stay far away from government. And by this I am not stating that I am conversely qualified to govern. I can be too emotionally rash for that form of responsibility.

I could go on but folks here have been brain-washed into applauding their own murder. Right now, if you don’t have health insurance (usually because you have been prevented from getting it) a major illness means immediate bankruptcy and a greater chance of dying. But idiots here keep saying with regard to obtaining health care, “no one’s gonna tell me what to do. That’s ‘un-American.'” Whatever “un-American” means. I think it means that everything over here is supposed to be free or something like that.

Yes, we are drowning in stupidity over here and harming the rest of the world as we die.

I want to start screaming about it but all I have here is this keyboard. It is hard to wrestle myself into coherence on the matter.

And the internet – haven’t focused on that for a while but I guess you’re right. It’s just like any new means of information propagation. The printing press gave certain folks the ability to disseminate thought and now the internet is the next step up for better and worse. Making art for me was always a refuge. Other kids thought I was very weird in what I said and liked but I always thought I was being normal with my early passions in life. And when I got picked on or bullied I did what a ton of children do – I went to live a little more inside my head. I see it time and time again in my students: kids who are misunderstood and need a place to go. I feel so very happy when I can connect with students like that, let them know that I used to hide in the same cave. The internet has allowed me to connect with other people who had no place to go but “in.” I did force myself to use the internet at first – or rather, computer friends pushed me to do it as if not doing it was foolish. I tend to agree – it was a good marketing move in the beginning I guess and thankfully they saw that where I didn’t. The dialogue I have now with folks, including yourself!, is very much a pleasure that I did not expect when first posting my images to cyberspace.
The downside, as always, is that there is a LOT of stuff getting “legitimized” to this new format that is not ready for primetime. And that is not just art – it is everything. 
But, both in teaching and by way of the internet, I have found younger folks coming up who are curious, bright, passionate, and capable. They can think circles around their parents and can draw, write, figure, and REASON in ways that are very reassuring. They have a wonderful sense of cause and effect and are communicating (via the internet) in a way that is creating a very promising generation of youth. They just need to have a chance.

SP: If we could just stick with the idea of ‘realizing’ stuff briefly, as it seems to get to the heart of some sort of artistic process, what is this urge to ‘realize’ something? It sounds very like some sort of alchemy, because it can’t be an urge just to leave things as they are. I know you say it’s about wanting to ‘know’ a thing, but it sounds like in order to know it one has to change that thing into a different medium. I think that for me, my urge would be to transmute a thing into a form in which I could describe it as it appeared to me, so I would be conveying my experience of it – not sure who to, maybe only myself, but that’s okay. Can you say some more about that? If you were to paint a tornado, for instance, would you be equally happy to take the ‘viewer’ to look at that same tornado, or would you prefer him/her to look at your painting of it? Or both?

JB: Oh, I can absolutely address this. I don’t quite understand your analogy to alchemy because the “change” is incidental, as is the medium. We use tools to consolidate and manage what we perceive into the space of language. For instance, the most progressive thinkers on the planet right now in many ways are the cosmologists. They, like most of us, are driven by the most basic and compelling questions of all but are, incidentally, translating much of what they observe into chalk on a blackboard. This is their art. This is where they can assemble a lot of what they understand into one place where it can be articulated into a common frame of reference. I don’t know that they are trying to convey their experience as much as they are trying to figure it out. What about anyone who makes a model train set or model of a fighter jet? It is very easy to go down and hang out at the train yards, absorb the environment, the sounds, the smells, the colors… But why would a given individual then want to go home and lay out miniature track, work them with miniature engines, and spend time painting the scenery and building small businesses and homes? It is not simply to do it – the feeling this one individual gets from the environment of trains is greater than the sum of its parts – he or she is trying to perhaps sustain that feeling, whatever it is, and perpetuate it through their daily lives. If I were to take someone to view a tornado I would probably still paint it for myself and possibly even include the added experience, in the painting, of having shared it with someone. Feel free to ask me to elaborate on any part of this.

SP: I suppose by ‘alchemy’ I meant something like it being a transformative process with the thing you are painting coming alive inside you –- being ‘realised’ in other words. In a similar vein, I saw a brief interview with you on another site, in which you discussed your ‘Spirit Hunter’ headdress. I noticed that it was based on Hopi Indian stuff, and was wondering if you see a shamanistic element in your art. Some of your characters seem to have that alarming and startling and revelatory sense that one might expect of spirits being dreamed up by a shaman. Do you feel any of that?

JB: Hmm. Interesting on alchemy – I guess that what you say applies. It is definitely a process of trying to make it somehow permanent within or immediately palpable and accessible in the form of something I can perpetually revisit.

Now, with that helmet. I am indeed drawn to various aspects of Native American belief and culture. I don’t see anything at all shamanistic in my work though I do have a kind of affection for the practice of vision seekers and healers. Even where Western medicine overwhelmingly triumphs in the solution of given health problems, older practices speak perhaps to a way of life that is better at preventing certain problems in the first place.

I do find a lot of that “health” in the Native American, and particularly Hopi, aesthetic as well. I do hope to elevate the presence of that influence in future work and my Star Wars helmet was a great excuse to explore that.

So many cultures have been tapped for Star Wars but Hopi seems to have been left out until now. 🙂

SP: John, I read in your bio that you were ‘seduced away’ from your original aspirations in the movie industry. That says to me that painting must have hit you with some force. Could you elaborate on that a little? I’m especially interested in the relationships you must have developed with Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Bunkall. By ‘relationships’ I kind of mean how their styles may have informed yours, or at least your attitude towards composition and dynamics. I’m quite fascinated by that process of transmission between artists. I assume they became pretty significant mentors? Are you still happy with that choice of direction? Do you feel you’ve missed out on any creative opportunities there?

JB: I think there is a constant and necessary cross-pollination among artists. It serves to keep anyone from re-inventing the wheel but is also a very stimulating dialogue because image making is how we speak to one another. And we look to others for problem solving, sensibilities, and to find out what is possible. I sometimes look at other art to find out what NOT to do. That is refreshing in its own way. Every artist I know takes bits and pieces from every other artist they observe, pro or con.

I was eventually “seduced” away from my pursuits in film because of a few things. In the beginning I had chosen my school, UC Davis, in part because it was fairly close to George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Add to that the fact that Wayne Thiebaud, a very very famous representational artist, taught at Davis and my plan was to bolster my portfolio under the likes of his instruction while in school and then try in some way to develop ties with Lucasfilm’s ILM. This plan actually worked. I did eventually get to Lucasfilm. However, in the interim, I had been introduced to painting and art per se, to reasons for doing it that were self-contained. It was made clear to me that artists at Lucasfilm were there to constantly work on someone else’s ideas. And there is a security in that, a community in that – think of having to design and build monsters that would be in a Star Wars film, etc. But if you are starting to generate your own ideas there is a conflict there.

On a related note, I was at one point in the Creature Shop at Lucasfilm and was watching monster designs come through the shop where, right in front of me, Academy Award winners were sifting through them. In quick assessment, just by looking at the design and reading a couple names on the page, they told me how successful or not the respective film would be. Truly. I was so amazed at the time that I kept track of their predictions and discovered them to be right on. And they conveyed an air of resignation that was certainly a bit of a downer for me, something I had not expected.

In the meantime I was at Davis and learned that Wayne Thiebaud himself had set out to be “hot-shot” illustrator only to be urged by a friend to pursue his own work. He had gone through the same thing that I was grappling with. And Wayne was an excellent, articulate teacher of the highest order. He was direct and a nice counter-voice to the more esoteric voices coming out Abstract Expressionism at the time (something I now very much connect with, by the way). He was accessible to a point but remember, he was also very famous and fraught with obligations elsewhere. I am still amazed though at how much he gave of himself in the midst of such a busy existence. He was immediately engaging, informative, warm, kind, and then gone for the day. Up there though at the same time however was a man named David Hollowell. THIS artist, this teacher, spent time pounding into my head some of the reasons for making any kind of art – movies, music, painting, poetry. I derived from him that it had much to do with an articulation of space, that an artist is very responsible for creating an additional articulation of space in presentation of the universe recodified. And what the hell does that mean, right? It means that every successful painting can be called “The Universe in Format.” For instance, 500 people can paint a picture of a hamburger on a table but why are only 4 or 5 of them of any note? It is because those 4 or 5 paintings, in direct conversation with a viewer’s intuition, are entirely responsible to how everything in the whole universe relates to everything else, even the air between you and me. It is a reaffirmation and elevation of the familiar – which brings me back to film/ movies. A studio can spend 300 million dollars on a film and have an audience just walk away from it the same way they might walk away from bacon and eggs in the morning – pleasant but now past. A great film and a great painting, however, are new every time. And each of them, when they are successful, leave the viewer with a single notion or emotion or feeling or something ineffable to which they will want to return. A movie can do it in two hours and a painting can do it in one second. The landscape painter, George Inness, has some great things to say about this if you look up his various quotes and interviews.

It makes me laugh to put it this way but you are, from a certain point of view, getting stills in my paintings from the movies I might have otherwise made. I don’t think of it quite that way but I am observing the same influences and motives making their way up from me through some of that vernacular.

Which brings me to the art of Richard Bunkall. Bunkall’s work spoke to a sense of scope and wonder that, for me, made the cinematic quite incidental. I got a real sense of panache from my time with him and he was here for far too short a time. I was his student on and off for just a few years before he died but he became a necessary influence to what I am doing now. He, along with Thiebaud, served to remind me that I should keep a painting in the realm of generalization and inquiry for as long as possible.

But am I happy with my choice of direction? No way for me to know! I can find gripe and pleasantry in anything. The only time I feel as if I am missing out is when I am pulled away to any degree from working on my own ideas. Those are always the best paintings.

SP: One last question, John, as the Triggerfish editor is pretty much beating my door down: I can’t help thinking your style could make for a heck of a graphic novel. Can you see yourself doing anything like that in the future?

JB: Ha! I love the idea. As I mentioned, I DO have a novel that is complete but I am currently reworking it a bit to get it right. There is no question that it would make a good graphic novel whoever did it.

Hmmmm.

SP: I’ll look forward to that then. John Brosio, many thanks for talking to the Triggerfish Critical Review. It’s been a great pleasure getting to know you.

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