Patrick Brennan’s paintings are visual conversations of materiality, representation, abstraction, and definition. They are, in essence, about painting, forcing the viewer to question the potential for and representation of a visual language and interpretation of imagery. Abstraction is a central tenet of Brennan’s work, and his engagement with color, material, and shape are all exercises in furthering the ideal realization of that conceptual form.
Brennan’s recent solo exhibition Drifter at Essex Flowers (NY, 2018) was the jumping point for our transcribed conversation. This show, made up of around 100 small paintings that engulfed the gallery space, depicted imagery of mountains, streams, roads — composed shapes and forms that created scenes of landscapes and nature. Though more representative than Brennan’s formal abstract works, these paintings engage with our interpretation of symbols, shapes, and colors, playing with the relationship between universal and personal visual language, and reflecting on abstract representations of memory.
Patrick Brennan lives and works in New York. He received his BFA from Alfred University (Alfred, NY) in 1998, and is currently an MFA Candidate at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY, 2020). He has shown his paintings and videos in numerous exhibitions nationally and internationally. This past year, Brennan had a solo exhibition Drifter at Essex Flowers (New York, NY) and showed in a two person exhibition with Melissa Brown Going Awol at Biggin Gallery, Auburn University (Auburn, AL). He was awarded the Liquitex Cadmium Free Research Residency (London, England) and was a visiting artist at the US Embassy to Bahrain (Manama, Bahrain) in 2017 and received the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Painting in 2015. Brennan was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Alfred University (Alfred, NY) from 2013-2015, and has served as a Visiting Artist, Lecturer, and Faculty at Bennington College (VY), Heiner Contemporary (Washington, DC), and Atlanta College of Art (GA). This fall, Brennan will begin his MFA in Painting at Cornell University.
You recently had a solo show at Essex Flowers called ‘Drifter’. Can you talk about that body of work and how it relates to your current practice?
For years I would never put recognizable images in my paintings, but I drew them in my sketchbooks and drawings. Once the painting process starts, it wouldn’t even become a painting that I could show someone until the piece was unrecognizable and came at you with a sense of complete wonder. But now that my life is tangibly changing, I’m finding it important to paint these tangible things, which are just symbols like mountains, moons, and roads. This idea of escapism that I’ve always found through abstraction has become real because it’s really happening in my life. I’m actually escaping -- my process and my practice are going upstate where there is grass and trees.
The Essex Flowers work came from thinking about my movement commuting back and forth for these past few years. That show was all drawings from my drive back and forth upstate, from the month I spent in London last fall, and from when I was in the Middle East in the spring. I had these chunks of residency time where I was making stuff basically just in hotel rooms, these small works that I could just fit in my backpack. It started to feel like I had all this work that I didn’t make in New York City, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened since I was in school. It was kind of exciting to put that show together and present all the work about me that I’ve been able to make not being in New York. It also made me then question what that means for the future of my work.
I think it was also a way for me to start thinking about how I deal with abstraction. My love for art is still purely in the idea of abstraction and that something can be completely new to a person’s eyes. The main reason I make art is to have someone look at a work and go, ‘Woah, what is that?’ I like to make new colors and new shapes, and it’s really hard to do that. But there’s also this diary that’s unfolding with the work too, like a narrative. Narrative is something that I usually don’t do, but it’s unfolding to me.
Can you talk about the sculptural and three-dimensional elements in your works?
I’ve always been interested in a shape language that’s specifically my own. I want a library of shapes that I can continuously go back to. Making shape as iconography in your work is really hard because shape, color, and composition are all universal by nature and universal to painting. I can be making a video piece or a weird foamcore thing or a stretched canvas, but I want to talk about all of them like an artwork. I want you to feel that everything is new, not in the sense of every time you see it, but new as in my own. I want you to have an experience that you wouldn’t have with someone else’s work. It’s like graffiti artists’ tags, where there’s a little bit of a secret identity there. I’ve been developing this for years, mainly through color. I use toxic colors next to each other to give that specific thing and shape. I think at one point it became boring to just keep drawing and painting it, so I started cutting shapes out of wood and foam core and gluing things together, even gluing popsicle sticks and glitter to surfaces. I think secretly I’ve always wanted to be a sculptor, so I think sometimes that my paintings are like sculptures screaming to jump off of the wall, but I’m not letting them. I think I started making the paintings sculptural and fucking with what painting is because then, what is that? But now I’m at a point where I’m almost reversing that. I’m making fun, colorful landscapes, which is the opposite because it’s falling back into the wall. I think a lot of it is me fighting to be outside of painting and still calling it painting, but I’ve enjoyed getting back into painting and feeling okay. The context and the history and the language is so vast, I don’t need to feel afraid to fall into something mundane or boring.
What were you fighting against in painting and what was the thing that you were pushing towards?
I think I was fighting against a picture of something, which is funny because I’m really thinking a lot about pictures now and this idea that the image is the art. If you look at that Richter painting for example, ‘Ema (Nude on a Staircase)’, is it about that cool thing he does with the blur, or is it this image of the woman walking down the stairs? For me, painting always fell in between there, and I more just liked the way it was painted. I wanted the story to be really buried in the painting so much so that you had to live with it for years to formulate what it was about, and I still strive for that. I think what I was always fighting in my mind was how to be an individual in the art world. Why is my thing different? I wanted to be different by pushing everything back and having it be completely abstract in the truest sense of the word where there’s nothing that’s recognizable, even though in all reality there is -- there’s popsicle sticks, there’s the paint you buy at the store, everything is super recognizable. I always liked that idea that a painting is a thing on it’s own.
Have you always worked within abstraction?
In art school I did a lot of figure drawing, but I definitely knew early on that I liked Jackson Pollack and Basquiat and these things that were outside of a traditional draftsmanship. Rendering feels like a task sometimes, whereas I feel like I can just make something totally out of my head and I don’t have to hold any image responsible for it or anything that I’m looking at necessarily as important. It’s more what I’m feeling, hearing, or looking at all combined.
What is your work process like?
I make watercolors every single morning. I do this for two or three hours, it’s my main practice. The making of the paintings happens a couple days during the week in the actual studio, and it feels a little like going to work. I really do love that process, but the sketches I make are just on a table, sometimes with my coffee, often times with a few drinks, I’m probably stoned. There’s a shift that happens when they get big -- I’m standing up, the piece is on the wall, and the start of it isn’t me starting something, it’s more questioning the material that I’m going to start with. I know immediately that it’s not going to look anything like the sketch that I start with. I never really know where it will go, and I work hard to keep it that way. I try not to look at things that might enter into it or even to the drawings that do have those elements. I think that once the material starts to develop, it’s on the canvas, and it’s stood up on a wall, I start to go into painting language. The process is weird because I think it’s a lot of just me convincing myself that it’s not a ‘thing’ or the original image. Or, I’m also convincing myself that it is the ‘thing’.
It’s funny too because I have a good outline and I made that drawing, but for all these years when I make the drawing into the painting, the painting comes out nothing like it because it has its own speed and its own development. I’m such a drawer, and the difference between painting and drawing has always been a challenge for me. It wasn’t until into college that I realized that painting had its own language and process. Painting wasn’t just me mixing a color and making a picture with it, and it also wasn’t that thing that happens when I draw, which is really freeing and I’m able to screw around and make mistakes and experiment, and then wad up the paper and toss it out. Now, I’m putting $70 of paint on this canvas and I have to contend with that because I have to deal with the economics of painting and the challenges of painting. The physicality of it. You can draw and have this relationship with drawing in the sketchbook or on these pieces of paper, but when you get into the studio, it’s like you’re a painter now. You’re standing up straight and you’re remembering what you learned about composition and all these sorts of things. With the drawings, I just don’t care. And the more I do that ‘I don’t care’ thing, the more those worlds start to blur because I care less about categorizing everything and putting everything in its proper place. I think you have to be genuine about the work and process, and for some like me, it might 40 years to figure that out. And I’m still figuring it out.
How do you deal with challenges with your work? How are you thinking about the history of painting in relation to your practice?
I think more than anything I’m just a big fan of art. With artists that I used to like or like right now, I won’t say that they don’t find their way into my work. Obviously you should be trying to make your own work, but as someone who has been interested in art for such a long time and who looks at paintings to learn how to make a painting, I’m not going to deny that that’s not all in there. My heroes are embedded in me. I think the first art I ever saw was pop art and graffiti. I was a kid that did graffiti and I liked those pop colors, the high contrast, things that were loud and maybe a little dangerous. Graffiti was dangerous to me. Keith Haring getting arrested was really cool, and I realized that there’s maybe a place for me to be in there. For me it was just finding out what version of that was for me. As a kid, I was looking at everything in magazines from a distance, and when I got to art school I was able to see it a little closer. I truly became myself in college. Going to art school was super important for me, and I loved that time in my life and I’m always trying to get back to it.
And I’m going back to it too. It’s crazy. But I think it’s also a selfish thing about fighting for time because that was a time in my life where I had so much time. And I wish I knew that then. It’s so interesting now going back to school and having this conversation about all these other changes in my work and life and getting rid of my apartment and moving out of New York. I put off going to grad school for so many years and made a million excuses not to go, but I still feel like an artist that’s missing that gasp of those last two years or something. I’m psyched to do that now from the back door. I’ve totally done it the weird way, and I’m coming in late, I’ve been teaching for a few years, I’m 43, and I’m sure all the students in my class are going to be in the 20s and 30s, so it’s going to be interesting. But I chose this program and it seems like a good fit for my life right now.
How are you thinking about escapism as a theme in your work now?
I think maybe I’ve always been approaching escapism as a theme in my work, but I never knew until the last couple years when I put a tagline on it. I got a job teaching at Alfred, so I left New York for 9 months, and then the next year I was driving back and forth every week. Before that, I never went anywhere. I would maybe go on vacation every once in a while, but I was really always here. I think the physical act of travelling like that made me realize that I’m actually a total escapist. I’m either doing it through art, drugs, the people in my life, but I’m always looking for ways to escape and I have been since I was sixteen years old. Luckily I’ve done it more productively that others, but that’s what it is. So I started thinking about the work in relation to that. It’s always been a thing for me to get away from the mundane life that’s boring, and life does bore you sometimes. It’s almost like I need to have things sensationalized. I’ve just always wanted to do everything through making a new version of it. I’m always living in Mr. Rogers’ Land of Make Believe. The regular thing isn’t good enough or isn’t exciting enough.
What are you working on now and thinking about tackling during these next few years in the program? How are you thinking about your work now?
I have a few goals. I want to develop these works in a material sense, and I want to develop these pieces that are kind of like wall sculptures. I want to do some different things in the space that I now have in upstate New York, where I can start actually making some things that are not on paper, wood, or canvas. I want to get into the shape and open up that idea. I’m also excited about taking the idea of landscape even farther into some kind of personal mythology and figure out how I can take some historical paintings and make my own versions of them. My proposal to go to school was focused on repainting Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage of Life’, which is four paintings -- childhood, adolescence, middle age, and old age -- and it’s this man riding a boat through the Hudson River. I wanted to use that work as this representation of the essential escapist image. I remember seeing that painting with my mom when I was really young, and it was the first time that I looked at art that wasn’t an art object and had a feeling that I understood what the painting is about. I understood that Cole is talking about death and all the elements that were there, and I remember just thinking, oh my god, art’s about all that? To me, Andy Warhol is really cool and interesting; I thought it was cool he partied and had this life and then also made cool paintings. But it never really came together until seeing those older paintings, which two years before I wouldn’t have paid attention to them, but those were the actual paintings that moved me. And then I was able to look at Warhol and understand why that is completely moving, and that your original attraction to something is real. So going upstate and making this new work, I want to return to that and force myself to deal with the history of painting and tap into the academics of it, to really use this institution for what it is. I want to use this time to really develop my ideas and figure out what’s happening with this thing in my painting between real imagery and abstraction.
Are you thinking about your work now in terms of landscape painting, or are you still thinking about it as abstraction?
That’s a good question. I think of them as landscapes because I’m pulling these images out of my view of the landscape, but I don’t think of them as landscape paintings because I’m not in front of a landscape and I’m not trying in any way to recreate the actual thing I saw. A lot of the imagery is from the ride through the Poconos from here to Alfred, which is a five and half hour drive through these weird mountains that are small and strange, and the weather is always wild and different. The works sort of become an accumulation of that. I’m not looking at the landscape and recreating it, instead I’m taking bits and pieces out. They’re like my memories, and then that gets interesting too hopefully because you don’t really know what your memory is. A lot of these works I’m sketching, and the ones in that show at Essex Flowers, were all from memories of a landscape.
But I guess you also have to figure out how to define a landscape painting. If I go outside and do a plein air painting, to me that’s landscape painting because I’m going after what is good about landscape and that is the sublime. Landscape painters I think were trying to paint and attain the sublime. I keep calling them landscapes so that everyone knows what’s going on because there are landscape elements, there’s a moon or mountains. But landscape is a weird thing. What makes something a landscape painting? Is it plein air painting? Is it a horizon line? I think there has to be a lost in translation thing that happens when you work from memories of a place and paint off site. I think a painting of a landscape and a painting of memories of a landscape are two different things, and they have to be.
How are you approaching materiality, color, and scale?
To me, color is the thing that people are drawn to. When I walk into a room full of paintings, I’ll always walk first towards the most colorful one or the brightest, most contrast-y one. It’s like advertising and why when you walk down a grocery aisle everything is pink and purple and bright and screaming at you. So for me, the idea of using bright colors and putting them up against black and white stripes is to just draw someone in. I feel like the material is what you get when you are up close to it, and you get there with the color. The material is what keeps you there. Why is there silk there, or a popsicle stick? Why does the paint have this consistency like hardware store paint? I want my paintings to have a DIY feel. I want it to seem like they could have been made anywhere, and it’s not important for them to follow the rules of the color wheel, contrast, and shape. It’s kind of like the Beatles. The Beatles are this tight group, but Ringo Starr was always this weird, not that good drummer, and famously so -- someone described him once as playing the drums like he’s falling down the stairs. I always thought that I wanted to be the painter that’s like that. I want to hang next to all the tight stuff, but I want to be a little clunky. I think that shape and material lets me do that. I want it to have the feel of temperance.
Scale is weird right now since I’m working smaller because I lost my studio. I like to work big, but I’m better at working small and that’s always been a thing. Working large is about scaling things up, and I’ve learned a lot of those skills and can do it, but it’s so much more fun to work on a table or on the floor. When I move into this larger studio upstate, I bet I’m going to be making bigger work again. I’m not going to lie though, while I didn’t like losing the studio, I did make tons of drawings and they were so awesome to make. I went everywhere with them and it was really fun and very liberating to not be taking myself too seriously. The small stuff I can bring wherever I am -- I can work here, I can work if I’m visiting somewhere else, I can work while I’m watching TV, while I’m having my coffee...I love it. I love that freedom.
Can you talk about your video work?
I’ve made a lot of videos, and I’ve shown them a little bit, but not a ton. I want to continue this video that I’m making now into a feature length film. I was making videos in college , and when I graduated I got a job in Atlanta at the Atlanta College of Art teaching video, which was an unbelievable and lucky thing. At the time I was thinking I might be more of a video artist than a painter, or more of an installation artist...Or just Mike Kelly in some way. Trying to be Mike Kelly was what I was doing (laughs). But now the videos have become more like sketches for me and something I can do when I’m on the computer. I collect tons of imagery and municipal videos of moon rises or landscapes -- similar kinds of things to the paintings -- and then I just manipulate them in the computer and layer them on top of each other. I sort of draw with the imagery.
Can you talk about this recent video you worked on?
All of this footage is from a municipal fire station site from California. This is a training video that they show their firefighters for how a house burns down, but it’s just a cardboard model house that burns and on the actual video there’s a guy talking over it. It’s filmed in the backyard of the firehouse. That footage is intercut with the moonrises and moon falls. I have about a hundred of those timelapse videos that I’ve collected from cities all around the United States. Usually I search for things like ‘moonscape’ or ‘fire’ and then weird shit comes up.
You’re standing here while we watch it, so I get to explain this and where the footage is from, but people don’t generally know that just watching it. I was thinking about how I could use sound to aid in that. I collaborated with my friend Dan, who made the music for this video. I wanted the music to be almost like an infomercial realization, where it can bring you to this place of understanding and where you can question, where does this come from? You can also hear small clips of it in this video, but I’ve been doing a project layering all of Robert Altman’s dialogue from his films on top of each other, so there’s just all this talking. It’s kind of like what I do with my paintings, so many things going on at once.
How are you thinking about the structure of the videos in terms of arc, narrative, form, etc.? Especially in relation to your other work -- it’s not abstract, you’re sourcing material and layering it all together.
It’s really hard to make a video abstract. You can get there if it’s a single shot and it’s about a texture or a color, or something happening that’s static. Something that’s like Nam June Paik, or that’s about the video signal itself and the materiality, which is also something I’m interested in. But as soon as I start editing things next to each other, which I can’t seem to not do, I end up wanting to tell a little story. I want to make a movie. I want to eventually keep going to the point where people walk out of the film and they’re totally mesmerized. I love making videos. I definitely know the language of the paintings better, I know what they’re about better, and I’ve spent many more years learning how to be a painter or an object maker than I have a video artist. I feel like the video thing is some luxury in that it’s fun to do and fun to collaborate with my friends on, but at the same time I’m also very drawn to it and when I’m making them I’m very serious. TWhen I’m at Cornell it might be really interesting for me to take a class dealing with what narrative is, whether it be creative writing or a film class, but something to tap into that. I’ve worked for so long just to be abstract that maybe I need that, and I should take advantage of that as an opportunity.