Interview with Michael Brennan, by Jacob Gossett, Kollektiv magazine, 2009



Michael Brennan: Knife Paintings
MINUS SPACE project space, Brooklyn, 2006
Skeleton Star, Knife Painting #3 (left)
Bishop, Knife Painting #2 (right)


Jacob Gossett: How long have you been teaching here at Pratt and what brought you to this school?


Michael Brennan: I’ve been teaching here for 10 years—I went here for MFA from ’90 to 92. I was out of Pratt for several years, showing some and doing a lot of writing on art. Linda Francis, who teaches in the graduate program, very generously asked me to substitute for one of her classes. So I came back then, and it was kind of strange, because at first the place was so full of ghosts for me—whenever I walked into someone’s studio I would remember who had had that studio when I was here as a student. A semester or two later Gerry Hayes asked me if I would be interested in teaching undergraduate classes and I told him yes. I was already teaching at Hunter and I was about to do some teaching at Cooper Union. I was interested in collecting as much teaching experience as possible. Pratt always uniquely felt more like home to me—I guess since I had gone here as a student.


JG: Do think that the painting program adequately equips its students to step out into the professional art world?


MB: I think there’s a lot of work to be done, and I think the biggest need for improvement is in helping students after they graduate. I think other schools are more aggressive about maintaining the profile of their program through their graduates. In terms of the facilities and everyday use, there has always been a lack of quality exhibition space—which seems kind of strange for an art and design school. Other than that, compared to other schools I have taught at, I would say the program is generally above average. There are lots of small things that I think would be easy improvements—like having rolls of butcher paper in the painting studios.


JG: How important do think it is to talk to students about the part of being an artist that lies outside the studio such as approaching a gallery?


MB: I try to bring that into my classes. I think some professors avoid it—they feel like they’re protecting their students from that to some degree, and truthfully, maybe they are not as up on it as they should be because it’s constantly changing all the time. I think an artist is always struggling to get a feeling about what is happening at large. The class that I have with you is mostly sophomores, so it’s probably too soon for a lot of that. Most people view graduate school as the proper domain for professional development, but I do think it is our responsibility as professors to give students an idea of what the reality of the situation is (being an artist) and that is probably the most useful thing an older artist can offer a younger artist. They can share their experiences because everyone has to gauge for themselves how much they’re willing to change to negotiate the art world, etc.


JG: What do you think the biggest significances are between student work and “professional work” and what issues do students need to be aware of in order to elevate their work to that next level?


MB: That’s a really good question. I don’t really look for a professional standard as far as undergraduates are concerned. I do with graduate. I think one of the things that students should think about is what the difference might be between so-called “student work” and the work of a “young artist” —I think there is a big difference there. A lot of it has to with cultivating some kind of personal approach or personal vision, and it is never too soon to start thinking about that. I think one of the biggest problems we have here is that somehow students think that just doing the assignments is perhaps enough, and one thing I’ve learned from being out in the real world is students who tend to do well in the program tend to do real well in the real world. There is a shortage of really fine work, and if you can cultivate that, it might not have a mass appeal, but most people are quick to recognize some kind of quality. The difference between a young artist and a person making student work is a certain level of self-awareness about what it is they are creating and also what the larger context of where that work fits in might be.


JG: With this economic crisis in full swing what do think a student who is about to graduate should expect when trying to enter this now fragile art world.


MB: It’s going to be a tricky time because I think Chelsea might be coming towards the end of its natural life cycle. It could be something like what happened when I graduated in ’92, there was a recession, and as many as a third of the existing galleries closed. There is definitely going to be a contraction, but that is not necessarily bad news because usually following that something new emerges. After all the gallery closings in SoHo in the early 90s, before things shifted to Chelsea, a renegade scene popped up that was interesting for a short time. Perhaps something like that will happen this time, something from the bottom up rather than the top down.


JG: …so do you think there will be a big change in how people make and exhibit their work?


MB: Yes I do, and it has already started. There has been a geographical shift to the Lower East Side, where you see fewer galleries getting much more attention than those galleries that are part of the glut in Chelsea. I just think that these active art zones tend to last ten or so years before something new comes along, and I’m also kind of optimistic with what seems to be happening in Brooklyn now.


JG: Do you think New York will stay the center of the art world?


MB: I do, but we are talking about something that is very much an international scene. The local part of it is actually quite small. I think that is lost on a lot of people who are in the midst of it. It’s strange, the economic forecasts are incredibly dire, yet in the past few months I have managed to sell a few paintings. If people don’t trust their money in 401ks, or other more traditional investments, maybe it will be how it was in the inflation ridden 70’s—people will insist on buying something tangible. I don’t think anyone knows if it’s going to be a two-year recession or a ten-year deflationary period. Artists are very resourceful, and the people who are committed to what they are doing will still be around.


JG: You currently have work on view at PS1 in Long Island City and Gallery 210 in Brooklyn; can you tell us about the work you are currently engaged in?


MB: A couple years ago I was doing work that was more of a literal response to the landscape around me in Gowanus, and I did a very specific project for MINUS SPACE that engaged those issues. Since then, I have returned to a darker and more fantastic imagery. I spent most of last year cultivating this new body of work, and I am satisfied with it. I think I am maybe making my mature work now.


JG: This work seems to focus more on the tonal qualities of painting, what led to the removal of color in your painting?


MB: Well, this is a strange thing, and it is funny talking about it with you, because you are so engaged with color. About 7 or 8 years ago, I taught the standard Albers color theory class at Cooper Union—so I really had to immerse myself in color theory. The more I learned about color and the more color theory I read, and I read everything from Goethe to David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, the more I realized I was something of a color atheist. That has caused me problems, because I also teach at Hunter College and a large part of the faculty there makes work that is exclusively about color. Color is the main force in their painting. I did engage color in the first works I did for MINUS SPACE, but soon afterwards my skepticism came to the fore. It is tonality, or value contrast, that I am more interested in—what I can find between .0 and .1. I use a small amount of color to what I hope is the maximum effect. I do not begin with black grounds, but rather Paynes Gray or Sepia—chromatic black grounds—and the whites tend to be tinted. It’s really this range of gray that I am interested in, and I think some of it has to do with my interest in, not just abstract painting, but also photography, film, and of course this digital paradigm we’ve been living under for quite some time now.


JG: How do you think painting can remain relevant in this era where more and more artists are gravitating towards more interactive approaches to making art such as multimedia, instillation, etc?


MB: It’s a real challenge to artists. I believe painting is such a synthetic medium that it can accommodate so many different ideas and images—so I don’t think it is ever going to disappear completely. I do think it’s a challenge when say a flat screen TV takes up the spot on the wall that was previously reserved for painting, or where you have computer games like Halo or WarCraft—I’m not that familiar with them. I don’t play them myself—which are so completely immersive that a painting must look awfully static in comparison. At the same time, I believe in the poetry of painting, and its power to work from individual to individual. I still have faith in that, and in the sensitivity of viewers. While paintings’ role may not be expanding, there’s a certain area that it still has a very firm hold on. Most of that, sadly for me, has to do with color. Most people go to painting for the richness of color. The color you get in paint has a much broader range than inks or anything being reproduced. One thing painting has left, that I think other media doesn’t have, is that it has a significant surface. Now that may not last for too much longer, but it’s something substantial. At this moment there has been a lot of serious talk about Morandi and a complete reevaluation of his role in the 20th century. You couldn’t have work that is any more about core painting issues than Morandi’s work. Anyone with any artistic sensitivity responds to that work. The potential for somebody to do something with still life (it’s not going to be me) is still there. I like the economy of painting. I like that it doesn’t take up that much room or resources—it’s not necessarily part of the noise. Again, I will reaffirm that I believe in the poetic potential of painting, and I think that will be its mainstay.


JG: OK back to your work now. You seem to have a very direct approach to painting can you give us some insight into your process?


MB: You mentioned that I was in a show at 210. I showed there with David Row and also Ross Neher—three very different painters, but each incredibly direct in his approach. Directness is one sign of mature work. In the past, I probably did a disservice to myself as a painter in that I tended to over paint. I went through this difficult phase a year or two ago where I felt everything had to be coated with this auto body enamel, and it had to be applied a certain way with a certain number of coats…When I finally decided that my own process was getting in the way of me expediting my vision, I stripped all that down and just focused on what was essential to my painting, and I think it got better. I tend to be a perfectionist, which is not an uncommon trait in a painter, but one that was working against me. When I gave myself the latitude to make something less than perfect, oddly enough, it allowed me to make something not perfect but somehow better. That’s one of the paradoxes of painting. If anyone is wondering what I am talking about, Manet did two different portraits of Clemenceau, one is finished, and the other remains unfinished. The unfinished one might be a better Manet painting than the finished one. Maybe that’s too grandiose an example, but that has a little of what I am talking about in terms of the directness issue in painting.


JG: In regards to the show at gallery 210 the other artists work in the show were quite large in scale in comparison to your own. I have heard you talk a lot about scale can you tell us what scale means to you in painting?


MB: I think there’s a lot of confusion in the art world about size and scale. Size and scale seemed to be used synonymously. Size is about whether something is big or small and scale is about a proportional relationship. I think scale is much more of an important issue, and is much more of a subtle issue. I have made big paintings in the past, but I was seeing so many big paintings in Chelsea that I was starting to think that I was just looking at area all the time, or things that were inflated. I happen to admire Clyfford Still but there are many Clyfford Still’s where you could lop off a few yards and it wouldn’t be any better or any worse. I was thinking a lot about scale, and what the scale of our time might be. We live in an era where a lot of information is concentrated in small objects, whether it is an I-Phone or a Blackberry. So I was thinking about that—and I don’t want to sound like I am green (I think it is very difficult to be green and also be a painter)—but also in terms of conserving resources. In my own work I was thinking about what would be appropriate for the kind of mark I’m making with the knife, and the tape sizes I prefer to use. Even when I was making very big paintings they always felt like they were contracting anyway. So I started working smaller again, and on stretchers that had a thinner profile, and I found that I got a better object/painting correlation that was maybe analogous to a flat screen TV, or some of these other tricked out tech things that we are all surrounded by. I also thought that most of the images of painting are trafficked through the web, and the first thing you lose is scale unless you’re photographing your painting against a brick wall. I just don’t think big is that important, and Morandi clearly proves that this season. The reality of my situation is that most of the shows I am invited to participate in often have a size restriction. I am not an art star and I often deliver the paintings myself on the subway. It just seemed more right in terms of where I was as a painter and where I think the culture is right now.


JG: In your work you tend to have this atmospheric wax- oil knife work in the top half of the painting and these hard edge striped bars at the bottom. Do you see your work as trying to unify these two types of languages?


MB: Yes, that’s exactly it. People who tend to favor something more organic tend not to like my painting and people who tend to favor a more purely hard edge language—and there many people in New York who do—find my painting lacking too. I think my work is very modernist, but it is postmodern in one aspect in that it’s a hybrid and that I quote from these antipodal conventions. Most of my favorite painters are modernist painters, but there are some postmodern painters that I admire quite a bit, like Jack Goldstein. Even the influence of collage on someone like De Kooning, who is thought of as a high modernist, might be considered postmodern in practice. I see those two approaches not as separate categories, but as things that belong together. In terms of film making, if you are completely austere and geometric you would make films like Robert Bresson, or Yasujiro Ozu, and if your films had a little bit of expressionism in them, but still retained some rigor, they might be more like Carl Dreyer. I am looking for some kind of synthesis like that—something that works together in an aggressively harmonic kind of way.


JG: What kind of carryover is there between being a full-time artist and a part-time professor? How does one affect the other and how do you balance it?


MB: A lot of people who teach complain about it, I personally find it incredibly rewarding. I get to talk with young people about painting, what could be more interesting for someone like me who is a monomaniac about painting? I’ve had other jobs—my first job after Pratt was working on a tugboat. I’ve had real jobs that paid better but I never found that I was using my whole being. Teaching goes hand-in-hand with my studio practice. Not to say that it isn’t ever trying, or exhausting, or challenging, but I get so much back from my students. I like the long aspect of teaching, where I have students as undergrads, and then I write letters for them when they’re applying to Grad school, and then they eventually become colleagues. One of the reasons I left Florida to come to New York is I wanted to be part of a community of artists. To be among artists that didn’t necessarily agree on everything, but were deeply engaged in what they were doing, and that just didn’t exist where I came from. I like painting immensely, and I like talking about painting secondly, and good teaching requires both.


Kollektiv magazine is a bi-annual publications that showcases emerging artists at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.  Jacob Gossett’s web site.