Los Angeles, Nov. 2010: Brian Bress manages to master the strange addictive quality of television with delightfully nonsensical games played by characters (almost always the artist himself) trapped in repeating circuits of comic madness. The comedy is that kind, perhaps, where a spectator may not even laugh, as no punchlines are forthcoming. But the whole morass of strange behaviors, tics, and idiosyncratic rhythms for each of the characters in his various videos leave you feeling that you’ve had a profoundly hilarious experience with often nary a n outright chuckle. His visual language is the a mixture of 80s music video surrealism and a collage so floating and strange it feels more composed of random poetry than precise messaging. Often absurd, Bress’ work finds a way to mix gentility with rough-and-tumble slapstick and the awkward weirdness of grown men playing card games amidst the ritual of art making. Bress transmits the peculiar shape of thinking for this generation.
Andrew Berardini: Hey Brian! I'm feeling rubbish today so hopefully, the archives of humanity, known as the internet won't hold it against me. Which image do you want to start with?
Brian Bress: Interviewer's choice. There are some shots from the studio as well as finished pieces.
AB: I'm going to play it safe and go with the first image you sent - a white bike with colored strips and a sort of collage in the background that looks mildly set-like and some wooden armature.
BB: Yes. that's a smattering of what's going on in my studio these days.
AB: Oh, and a pencil, lonely by itself on the ground.
BB: I didn't notice that until now. You have a good eye for detail. The collage pieces are enlargements of materials I usually use in the 2D collages I make... they will comprise a set, which I also included a mockup for in the images
AB: So the sets start out as collages and then get enlarged?
BB: Not usually. This is my first attempt at sort of replicating (in my own dumb way) the collage as a set. The analogy to collage has been raised before and the videos are collage-like. This is the first time I'll be replicating a collage as a set. Make sense?
AB I think so, I've got two questions for you. The first is about the nature of collage. Unmonumental at the New Museum tried to make a case that collage was the medium of our time. Do these terms mean anything reallly, collage vs. assemblage vs. dj-culture? The first thing I ever read about your work was by Brian Kennon, who lauded the work for its dumbness?
BB: Those terms, collage, assemblage, etc don't make me pause and reconsider what I do or don't do. I don't really see it as my job to consider what the medium of our time is or is not. Perhaps I'm a product of my time and I'm so unaware of the forces of culture acting upon my decisions as an artist that I can more easily make decisions that are less encumbered by self consciousness. The second question....Hmm... Well, my initial thought is that I'd rather be accused of being dumb than pretentious. But it's more than just a reaction to how pretentious the art world can be, it's about being just dumb enough to make a mistake or do something that I probably shouldn't.
AB: Great answers to the questions, but like all interviews they beg other questions. You're right not to think too hard about either thing I feel. The work of the artist is some kind of alchemy of accident, imagination, intuition, and research (from life or from art or from anywhere really).
BB: I agree.
AB: Let's shift to the next picture.
AB: It's better to talk more to the work skulking about your studio anyhow.
BB: skulking present participle of skulk (Verb)
1. Keep out of sight, typically with a sinister or cowardly motive.
2. Move stealthily or furtively. That's for the readers...
AB: I'm a bit of a skulker maybe too, in the second sense. Right now I'm looking at a portrait of a shirtless man that seems to be tearing something in two, but the tear has begun to take over his face. I know that you've started to think about portraits as a mode to work through, but what I think is more interesting maybe is the nature of the collage in your work. What can you tell me about making this piece? And maybe perhaps what attracts you to the images that you take apart and pull back together in much of your work?
BB: What attracts me to the images I take apart and put back together in my work? That's a difficult question to answer but it's one I ask myself sometimes. There are a few formal prerequisites that an image must meet before I'll use it. There's usually ( I hope) a synergy between that of the image I am working on and that of the images I'm appropriating. Many times they need to play off of the original form, color, tone, etc of the original image.
But once they meet the formal requirements they still need to untether themselves enough from their original source. I think I see a need for the images I use to be led around by the image they are collaged on top of and not the other way around.
Then there's the content of each individual piece of paper. Sometimes that plays more of a role than other times, but I do pay attention to what's going on and whether I let accidents precede my intentions. For instance, there's a figure in the center of the collage piece that I believe is an image from the surface of the moon. That's chance, like so much of what happens in collage, but it's a nice moment for me in relationship to the main figure in the piece.
AB: There's a lot to digest there, but looking at this piece, a few different wildly unrelated things have come to mind, which is probably the point. The first is the picture reminded me of the New York Times Magazine Cover in The Royal Tenenbaums of faux-Cormac McCarthy writer Eli Cash.
BB: I remember that.
AB: After that sort of initial totally idiosyncratic pop reference, I started to try to figure out the image itself. And I experienced the joy of failing (I read too much Beckett as a child) to grab on to anything that clearly. Yet we still have the frame of the man. It seems a bit macho, but totally broken by the explosion of images. The fake Times cover was sort of about a kind of machismo, but maybe this is very quietly and playfully as well. And sundry other games likely to boot.
BB: I like to think that there's a lot of room to stray into heroic poses when you're erasing the face, or tease that motif.
AB: Damn that's good. Baldessari said the same kind of thing when I interviewed him about the images he uses.
BB: He's amazing. I started to write something about how much better at distilling that idea in a more simple way, but that's obvious... he is great at it.
AB: It's funny, before this conversation, I always sort of associated you with Paul McCarthy, as if you were enacting some of the same kind of visceral taking apart of our generation’s pop culture. But Baldessari as a forebear makes more sense. There's a sweetness still to your work. It's not fake asshole-blood-poop-body like McCarthy. What you're doing has a more personal touch, more idiosyncratic and less messy for sure. Maybe that's not right either, the collages are messy, but less mock bodily fluid sticky.
BB: Well, I love McCarthy and Baldessari, but McCarthy's work is there and it's shocking and full of the scatological and everything else and that's fine, but for me... I think it's more of a challenge and desirable way to make art when it creates unease in less obvious ways. And even if I did want to make a video where my tuckus was hanging through a hole in a piece of plywood, I think Paul's done sucked all the air out of that room. Or the baton has been solidly handed to Ryan Trecartin. Either way, I'd rather conjure up memories of the Trashheap from Fraggle Rock then Chef from Bossy Burger.
AB: I want to get to the next picture, but this kind of gets at the heart of what makes your work so great to me. I recognize the play and shards of my own childhood in them, though I don't think it's wholly grounded in that. The shards themselves are more process oriented, a relationship to meaning that's less obvious and less obviously fucked up, more playful. When I wrote that review of your show for Artforum, I said that you were taking apart Sesame Street like Paul took apart Uncle Walt. Intentional meaning in the work never comes into consideration for me, [the works] are so weird and unstuck and often beautiful in a way that I just sort of make up my own meaning within its simple humor and troubling juxtapositions.
BB: That's nice to hear and it makes sense since we're of the same generation and share similar cultural cues.
AB: Alright, let's try to do two more pics. I'll pick this one, you pick the last.
AB: I want to talk about the Papua New Guinea fellows torn out of a book hanging on your wall. It's three images, the top two are unique costumes developed by these fellas as likely some sort of ritual, but there very strange looking to me, totally unstuck from their intentions, and I feel some sort of weird attraction to them, which is likely troubled by the third image of naked men rasslin' in a field. The whole thing is so weird, though that may sound culturally insensitive or un-PC, the tableau is really compelling, misinterpreted as I have.
BB: Putting these images in the mix was a little worrisome for me for a couple of reasons. One is that sometimes revealing the source too early can be a let down to the piece; the final work fails to come even close to how wonderful the original is. The second reason is that I have no earthly idea what the fuck is going on in these images nor have I done any research to figure it out.
It's not out of laziness though. I'd prefer not to know. It's a more powerful resource, a more inspiring image if I have to imagine the reasons behind the decisions they made. In that way these images function in the way that I want my art to function. As a launching pad to imagine a back story. To think about how something came into existence.
AB: It's funny you say that, because one of the things I wanted to ask you about was story.
BB: I was just about to talk about narrative.
AB: There are definitely narratives in a few of your works, that are more apparent than others.
BB: Yes, I agree. They're in there. It's impossible to avoid, but for me advisable to leave unplanned. If you asked me to come up with a story I'd come up with the lamest story you'd ever heard. It would be trite, didactic, predictable and slow. However, if I take scraps of stories, segments of stories, and stitch them together around the visual ideas in ways more closely associated with planning a painting, then the resulting narrative will perhaps be more compelling for my lack of planning. Or I should say, for my lack of a clear and concise written narrative.
AB: It's funny, they don't seem so haphazard as more un-conscious
BB: I think that's a result of a few rules being put in place to keep them from being a jumbled mess. For instance in the last long form video, Status Report, I knew that the video was about occupation and the depression and as long as I stayed within that motif I could let that stream of consciousness balloon carry the dialogue and the actions.
AB: Alright, last picture... your choice.
BB: Well, it's not really a choice. We hit everything else. So I pick the scattered red bits of paper on the autumn trees
AB: And you chose all the pics anyhow.
BB: Hahah. yep!
AB: We did sort of doctor that picture but I still think it's amazing.
BB: But if I had to decide between the two, I'd say studio_floor2.jpg (yes, we did) There's one more image I can send you... you might consider interesting over these...
AB: Ok. That isn't a costume is it? It's a sculpture?
BB: It's a costume. I'm in it.
BB: The green will be chroma keyed out, so just the particles remain.
AB: And of course, the bike.
BB: Hee hee, yep!
AB: Ok, first rapid fire question.
AB: What do you feel is the relation in your work between object, performance, and film? Maybe that's too obvious?
BB: No, I think that's a valid question... and one I think about when I get referred to as a performance artist. The quick answer is that I'm not a performance artist. I don't perform in front of a live audience.
AB: No one likes to be a hyphenated artist I don't think.
BB: True that.
AB: Even if you did perform, it wouldn't necessarily make you a performance artist, that kind of term I feel is for those that are really thinking about a certain formal history, reviewing images of Carolee Schneeman and the Viennese Actionists for inspiration..
BB: Indeed, and I don't really think there's much of a relationship there. However, if you look at The Kipper Kids. It would be hard to say they aren't performance artists. And I can't deny being influenced by videos of their performances.
AB: McCarthy sort of used to be a performance artist, but got of the business and made almost exclusively video after a time.
AB: It is at the least, performative, if you'll allow the descriptor.
BB: Yes, it is performative. There's also a durational aspect to performance art that can be demanding in a way I don't want to be. Charlie Ray once told us a joke in class at UCLA...
"How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
"I don't know, I left after four hours."
AB: As this has been about stuff in your studio, what do you think of it? Are you a "studio artist"? Perhaps studio, is more like a one-man movie studio as opposed to a one-man painter's garret.
BB: I think both usages apply. I wish my resources allowed me to run a proper mini movie studio, but that's not the reality. I do however like the switch between costumes, sets, editing, animation, collage, etc.
AB: Too big of a studio would destroy something I think. It's small and thus forced to be inventive as opposed to bloated, too many artists of the last generation just went big, yuck.
BB: Yes, I tell that to myself all the time, and although I agree that limited resources force one to come up with innovative solutions, there's something to be said for a 2000sqft building and a team of people making 10 little green suits for me to ride around in.
It's funny. I wonder if we thought of the same artists from the last generation that went too big and went yuck.
ArtSlant would like to thank Brian Bress for his assistance in making this interview possible.
(All Images courtesy of Brian Bress)