“There were two and only two messages that could have been comprehended by what he said.
But neither of them was soothing; neither of them was a lie.”
~ Sanhita Baruah
“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”
~ Ray Bradbury
If , as playwright William Congreve declared in his 1697 play, “music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” might we not expect the same from all art forms? Isn’t that, after all, why we purchase paintings for our homes? To serve as a sort of visual declaration to all who enter, ourselves included, that here is where all struggles cease. Here is our refuge, our escape from all the vulgarities and messiness of life.
Should not Surrealism, then, with its emphasis on connecting to dream and imagination, transport us, more than all other genres, up, out and away?
And yet since its very inception, the Surrealist Movement has been about drawing attention to inconsistencies and absurdities in modern life. And beneath this exterior of humor, there is often revolution at play.
“Contrary to prevalent misdefinitions, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine, nor a philosophical system, nor a mere literary or artistic school. It is an unrelenting revolt against a civilization that reduces all human aspirations to market values, religious impostures, universal boredom and misery.”
– Franklin Rosemont, from André Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism
In my interview with southern California oil painter, John Brosio, I asked him about the sometimes unsettling, surrealist, or, as he terms them, “uber-representational,” images he creates, and what they have to say about this modern world we inhabit.
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BROSIO
Pasadena, California ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your celebration of the absurd feels more than merely playful; there’s an undercurrent here of dissatisfaction, frustration with what is going on around us, unacknowledged. Or am I completely off base here?
John Brosio: No, you’re straight up!
I am, of course, not entirely sure of what is going on in these images because, were I too certain, I would have no need to attempt them. But the dissatisfaction, or ‘frustration,’ as you call it, is very much a necessary ingredient. Maybe even the only ingredient.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Even though there’s been no shortage of what is often termed “sophomoric” humor in entertainment coming out of this country of late, one gets the distinct sense in viewing your paintings that it is your opinion that we are a nation that takes itself far too seriously ~ perhaps even to a dangerous degree. True?
John Brosio: I was speaking with a woman over the summer who is from Denmark. And she talked about how folks over there view the U.S. as a nation of extremes, all stemming from overwhelming insecurity, and in a continuous chain of efforts to chase down some sense of security. It’s laughable in a way, and has to do with humoring our sense of entitlement, I think. You see it a lot in what are called “zero tolerance” policies. Like a kid getting suspended because he drew a picture of a gun. And then the idiot who shoots up the school because he’s not famous ~ you think that last notion is simplistic? That some kid would shoot up a school because he’s not getting movie star treatment! It is at the crux of the matter.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Why do you suppose we are far more comfortable with humor in film and television, even photography, than we are with humor in paintings?
John Brosio: People are still intimidated by museums and the whole “don’t touch” aura that goes along with visiting a museum. It’s like a library: has lots to do with quiet and dead people. Not really a place for fun. Stimulation? Yes. But not fun. Folks are always going to be more comfortable with humor in venues where they able to talk, relax, take off their shoes, etc. But look at the Low Brow movement and you’ll find all kinds of humor in there that very firmly rejects intimidation.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Could your message also be that we are living in a time that trivializes everything?
John Brosio: Not sure that I have a message, per se. I don’t feel that everything is trivialized so much as everything is quickly swallowed, quickly digested. More intensity in shorter time periods. Every meal is a celebration of some kind (meat, sauces, liquor). Folks have to work too hard to enjoy any free time, and then we sit at home with hundreds of t.v. channels while every big movie tries to be Star Wars.
John Brosio: I think many of us are just numb.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The idea of an unreliable narrator seems to pop up repeatedly throughout your work. How would you describe your environment growing up? As a child did you observe dangers going for the most part ignored, swept under the rug, for the purpose of keeping up a pretense of normality? If so, does art then remind us that perspective, even reality, is vastly more subjective than we would like to believe?
John Brosio: I did observe things being swept under the rug growing up, but it didn’t seem all that “subjective” to me. It was straight up denial, no? I grew up Catholic, and that is a wild ride. The rules. The guilt. But when you realize one day that there is no chance at all that anyone ever rose from the dead, it feels strange when so many people around you keep running with it. I mean, a lot of whatever Jesus supposedly said is great ~ about love, forgiveness, all that ~ but his rising from the dead does not make it any more or less true. But say that at the wrong time and place and you’re going to start a fight. Same with global warming: Why is everyone chiming in with an “opinion,” when the most accomplished, quiet, responsible, smartest, and non-partisan scientists are saying how bad it is?! This to me it is about as objective as folks can get, but it just trips me out that people still want to continue along without incorporating the obvious. I think that art can serve to rein things in. Good art can center us, even if we are unable to articulate what it is about exactly. I mean, if a Morandi still life is in the room, it can stop an argument!
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In your tornado series, we can come away with two interpretations: One is that despite all our best attempts to exert control over our lives, still, we are at the mercy of forces much grander than ourselves, rendering us almost like extras in a natural disaster film.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The other is that these tornadoes serve as a metaphor for our own recklessness.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Or might both interpretations be true?
John Brosio: Or even more: Folks in those paintings could be numb in the modern sense, desensitized, detached. They could also be so tired from always working that they just can’t think about it. I mean, why try and fix something that you cannot even begin to manage? They could also be oblivious to information. Or completely delusional ~ such that they are convinced they are somehow “safe.” I recall growing up in the Los Angeles area where it was stated at times that one street could be safe, but a block over was very dangerous. And those on the safe side would just sit and have coffee. Tripped me out. Very scary sometimes. There is no right answer. I think all of these ideas work for sure but the notion of some false sense of security is definitely an ingredient. But what other kind of security is there?
Deanna Phoenix Selene: There is also a third interpretation: Could your paintings be also suggesting that in our effort to become increasingly civilized, the true life-force of our existence is being sadly and dangerously ignored? If so, what do you think we are afraid of?
John Brosio: I love this notion. I think that the more we try and become civilized, the more we, yes, box other, more primal things into a corner. Sometimes into a pressure cooker. And it just comes out in different ways. Sometimes explosively. I think Freud was dead on. A lot of people think so, of course, but I still run into folks who talk about how we are so very socialized away from what we used to be in this modern day and age, but I think that’s just goofy. Yes, we are socialized into beings that manifest old urges in different ways, but those dynamics are still there. Nurture at best adorns nature. It can steer nature. It cannot change it.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Can you tell me about your Fatherless Bride series?
John Brosio: That is an interesting thing. At the time I was doing only tornado paintings, and ran screaming into other work. Almost blindly. I had other things I wanted to paint, but I was not sure what they were yet. The octopus painting, Fatigue, came around at the same time too.
John Brosio: But in Fatherless Brides, I was playing with the notion that my generation has been very much affected by the “free love” of the 70’s, and what became almost a divorce fad in the 80’s, and all of those broken homes have had quite an effect on so many people. And in dating, no matter what race, what type, what profession, women seemed to manifest the same fears and insecurities in response to a lacking or non-existent relationship with their father. And I intend no pejorative whatsoever with that statement. Men suffer in their own way from broken homes, of course, but I haven’t dated men. There was also, at the time, a low brow movement in art that I thought was losing its gravity, so I took on some subject matter that was a little less humorous.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How does working within the realm of surrealism allow you to more successfully express your truths than if your style was more representational?
John Brosio: I think my style is almost uber-representational. And funny, if I try to paint trees, still-lifes, or people, my brush work can become quite a bit more wild. And I have work like that around. But with a more surrealist bent, the almost indulgent sense of Other gets wrestled into description. But there are a lot of paintings that I do not do because I am just not sufficiently excited. I do not naturally love painting. I love ideas. And the idea of conveying sensibilities. If there is something that can account for a kind of relationship that appeals to me, I will paint it. I just mentioned Morandi above and his very quiet arrangements are on a thunderously tense tightrope, as far as I’m concerned. But I doubt that he set out to make those paintings because he was interested in a cup, square, and vase. [quote]Any truths are found in the relationship of one thing to the next and, if the relationship strikes true, the characters come to life.[/quote]
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What was your greatest take-away from working with Wayne Thiebaud? Best advice you have for new artists coming up?
John Brosio: Once, in the hallway of the art building, I was walking along with a friend, now painter, Randall Cabe. And he was joking around, asking Wayne what the “magic tricks” were ~ i.e. “I don’t want to put in the work, tell me how to wave the magic wand.” (paraphrasing) Wayne chuckled a bit, but then actually answered the question: “Well, use every color and generalize for as long as possible.” Thiebaud is so amazingly informed and articulate, that what I took away was a beginning hope of being able to identify things – motives, urges, emotions, observations – and take them to some other place that I needed them to be. Does any of that make any sense? And even the best advice for artists coming up is still Wayne: “no matter what, you have got to love making these painted little worlds.” Ray Bradbury said this with regard to writing: “Fall in love with it and take care not to fall out of love with it” (paraphrased). With upcoming artists it is important to realize that you are making these images for yourself. Albert Pinkham Ryder is a great example of someone who needed to just get it right – money or no money he needed to do it.
John Brosio: Now I’m not addressing food and housing here. Not at all. If you want to make money, enough to have a family or whatever, choose another profession. There is no way to teach passion or need, and those are necessary ingredients. But come what may, do the work. If you do the work, a lot will take care of itself. The rest of it, the whole gallery thing, the networking ~ that means nothing at all if you do not do the work. Learn about all of art. Go to both museums and galleries. And don’t try to base a career in art on anything having to do with “the current scene.”
John Brosio interned in the Creature Shop at Industrial Light and Magic (Lucas Film) in San Rafael, California. He studied at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA, and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of California at Davis.The artist has exhibited throughout California and New York and has been featured in a solo show at the National Academy of Sciences Museum, in Washington D.C. Visit his website at: www.johnbrosio.com