A Conversation with Craig Drennen

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© Marc Mitchell and Figure/Ground
Craig Drennen was interviewed by Marc Mitchell during the Spring/Summer period 2016.

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Craig Drennen is an artist based in Atlanta, GA and is represented by Samsøñ gallery in Boston.  His most recent solo exhibitions were “Ninth Mistress vs. Dutch AWFUL” at 9Ace gallery in Atlanta and “New Mistress vs. Old Athenians” at Brooklyn Fire Proof in Brooklyn, NY. His work has been reviewed in ArtforumArt in America, and The New York Times.  He teaches at Georgia State University, serves as Dean of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and writes for Art Pulse magazine. Since 2008 he has organized his studio practice around Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.

I wanted to start off by saying how wonderful it is to get the opportunity to chat. Our paths have crossed in the past and we have a number of mutual friends, but this is the first time that we can really discuss aspects relating your studio practice. I’m excited and hope that I don’t bore you with my questions!

I wanted to discuss your education and the fact that you have advanced degrees in both studio art and art history. While many programs offer a combined MA/MFA for Studio Practice (University of Iowa, etc.), it’s a little less common (these days) to see a studio artist hold an advanced degree in art history. Can you talk about how (or if) the canon and theory plays out in your studio practice?

I always felt undereducated most of the time.  I don’t think an MFA is necessary for an art career, but I felt so behind my peers in grad. school that I used the MFA process as a way to catch up.  I took every art history and photo history class I could when I had a spare elective.  By the end of my MFA degree I almost had enough art history credits for a second degree, so I went ahead and did that too – and possibly because the university let me keep my studio for an additional year. I think as a studio artist, my relationship to art history goes along the lines of that Tracy Morgan quote: “How are you going to be great if you don’t study greatness!”  As for theory, it was a little different.  I wanted to understand the conversation.  I’m not sure theory influences my work in any discernible way, but I just wanted to know what people were talking about when they said “reify.”

fg-drennen_samsongallery_poet-awful_solo-exhiibition-2014webDrennen’s “Poet and Awful” Solo exhibition 2014 at Samsøñ gallery

I love that you used that particular Tracy Morgan quote. Not just because it carries a certain weight for all fields, but also because it’s a demonstration of your desire to look outside of art/art history to make connections which relate to your studio practice.  When I first saw your work in 2007-2008 at Samson Projects in Boston, you were just finishing up the work based on the 1984 film, Supergirl—by many accounts the worse film ever made—and starting the series based on Timon of Athens. What is it about the idea of using already existing, but (perhaps) obscure narratives from film and literature, that appeals to you?

On some level I was never completely comfortable making work that seemed like it was only about me.  I much prefer finding something that has already been made, but has also been abandoned.  The exhibition you mentioned was the first time I tried this method. I worked for about five and a half years on the failed movie, Supergirl.  I made drawings, paintings, audio pieces, sculptural multiples, and at least one video of a performance–which is amazing since I only watched the movie once!  Then I decided it would be beneficial to work on a new project that was farther away in time, but still theatrical.

Timon of Athens had been on my radar for some time. So, in 2008, I started making work based on the list of characters from the play, which is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays not produced in his lifetime.  With painters, it’s always assumed it’s ok to stare at one spot in nature in order to create a work, like Monet’s haystacks or Cezanne’s Mont St. Victoire.  But I feel like we’re also allowed to stare at one spot in culture.  I feel like that’s what I’m doing, thoroughly examining one item in culture instead of nature.

That is interesting…. thinking about re-framing the idea of “observation”.  It no longer needs to be focused on traditional subjects (nature/landscape, architectural spaces, or still-life), but can be anything that has already been constructed and exists within society. Can you talk a bit more about how you utilized this system for the introduction of formal and conceptual elements? I know that you have made work based on certain characters within these narratives (Supergirl and Timon of Athens). In many ways, it seems as though this approach allows you to stack or layer groups in a manner that simultaneously build off each other (vertical growth, relying on each other), but also start to stretch out (horizontal growth, pushing away from previous works).

Yes, working on these long-term projects this way did present some challenges that I did not anticipate. And it relates to exactly what you’re saying.  For the Supergirl project, I treated every bit of information on the VHS box or DVD case as if it were fair game. So I had paintings and drawings with titles like Alexander Salkind Presents or Peter O’Toole as Zaltar. The use of language provided a predictable rhythm, and the pieces with the Supergirl works were formally unified in a way that seemed consistent with one artist’s work. For the Timon of Athens project, I intentionally make every character different from the others. I also start on each character from a position of discomfort, since I don’t technically know how I’m going to make each one.  When several of the characters are in one exhibition together it can look like the work was made by various artists instead of just one, me. But, and this turned out to be very important, I noticed that when viewers would look at my work they expended a lot of energy trying to reconcile the heterogeneity they saw. I even had curators and gallery people furrow their brows and say, “Why do these look so different.” What I realized was I had accidentally put viewers into the position of acting like structuralist anthropologists -I was creating a situation where their primary goal was the search for sameness. So I found that if I said one simple sentence, like: “The works are based on characters in a play,” then it removed that burden for viewers.  Mind you, it did not add one drop of additional understanding about the work.  Still, it seemed to remove a burden and allow people to actually engage with the pieces directly again. To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure if I was going to mention the play at all. I was just going to introduce the pieces into the world with no additional information other than the titles.

 fg-drennen_new-mistress-vs-old-athenians_brooklyn-fire-proof_2015_solo-exhibitionweb Drennen’s “New Mistress vs Old Athenians” at Brooklyn Fire Proof Gallery, 2015

You mentioned that for the Timons of Athens work, you didn’t know how you were going to create the work for each character. You alluded to that freedom being liberating for both you and the viewer. I would think that also may apply to conceptual and formal aspects of the work. I know ‘technique’ has played an important role within the work. For example, the ‘Mistress’ work features photorealist imagery whereas the ‘Painter’ paintings are much looser and tend to be about a different type of touch or mark-making. To what degree does this freedom play within the process of developing the characters? How do you decide the aesthetic of the character?

Well, I think freedom plays a big role in all art. I’d guess most artists search to find a balance in their practice between discipline and freedom. For me, it was liberating to consciously incorporate intuitive processes within the entire Timon of Athens project, especially since I came of age at a moment when overdetermined conceptually based work was so valorized. I build each character based on contemporary associations spurred on by them, but each character also forces me to address a new condition of painting. The ‘mistresses’ were partially about the relationship between painting and the jpeg image.  The ‘awful’ pieces dedicated to Apemantus are wrestling with the relationship between painting and performance. And so on.

And, on that topic, I’m also very interested in how other artists have instumentalized the literary canon to produce visual art. I’ve always loved Rauschenberg’s Dante’s Inferno pieces from 1958. I’m a big fan of Allen Ruppersberg’s work, but I think the first encounter I had with him was seeing his Dorian Gray canvases from ’74. I went to a Basquiat museum show earlier this year and saw a grouping of his Melville drawings. I have to say that I think Monique Prieto’s new paintings prompted by the 17th century diary of Samuel Pepys are really, really good. I might have even sent her a message saying that. I’m happy to be in the company of a group of artists like this.

It seems as though you are someone who is keenly aware of the canon, yet also seeks ways to question it. I really enjoy that about your approach to the studio. With that, I would like to transition a bit. Since you teach, recently Dean at Skowhegan and currently at Georgia State in Atlanta, are these types of conversations (canon/etc) common when talking with students? There is always a need for students to understand and appreciate what has come before, but also a natural desire to forage into new territory – whether through modes of making, technology, etc.  Would you be willing to talk a little bit about the role of teaching and how it may contribute to your studio practice?

That’s a complicated question. Back when I lived in New York City, I worked a lot for galleries and museums. I could say you learn a lot about the canon on the loading dock of the Guggenheim. The canon does provide a function though, for better or worse. Being born into any historic moment is like walking into a movie that has already started. You sort of need somebody to tell you the important things that happened before you walked in. The problem occurs when you realize that no one telling you about those early scenes is a completely reliable narrator. So that list of crucial previous moments – what we call the canon – should always be malleable and under scrutiny. Teaching is one of the few places for sustained intergenerational contact between artists.  One of my roles as a mentor is to remind young artists that the canon is a work in progress that they help confirm, alter, or re-create. At a residency recently I was having a conversation with a group of high achieving artists and writers and we were actually discussing which literary works should now be removed from the canon! It was a very interesting evening and I was a little shocked to find myself defending Kon-Tiki.

 fg-drennen_craig-drennen-is-awful_solo-exhibition_2015_helperwebDrennen’s “Craig Drennen is Awful” solo exhibition at helper, 2015 (Pictured: Craig Drennen and Erin Palovick)

How wonderful that, perhaps inadvertently, the tables have been turned by the young artists! As one of the Deans at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, in addition to your role at Georgia State University, I would think you might purposefully initiate heated debates as a catalyst for reflection. Have you found that through these types of discussions you’ve re-adjusted your outlook on various topics? When I look at your work, I see changes – not so much on the basic premise, but rather the methods by which you deliver the object, the various techniques used to create the work and the presentation. Can you talk a little bit about your use of photographs, more traditional painting techniques, found objects/assemblages and even painting the wall or placing works in specific locations? All of them feel very intentional yet also very disparate.

Oh, I’m in a constant state of re-adjustment. The disparate nature of each character is part of the overall movement of the work. I’m hopeful each character can be different enough from its predecessors to actually create tension when they’re seen together. That’s what has been interesting to me this past year: how the characters behave in a room together. The solo exhibition projects I did in 2015 all tried to dial up the discord between the works. “New Mistress vs. Old Athenians” at Brooklyn Fire Proof tried to see how many Old Athenian pieces it would take to counteract one Mistress painting. As if turns out, it took five. “Craig Drennen Is Awful” at helper* also in Brooklyn, pitted two performers playing the same score, but out of sync. And “Ninth Mistress vs. Dutch AWFUL” at 9Ace gallery in Atlanta tried to place the spectacle of a performance piece against one modestly scaled Mistress painting. The pieces I worked on at my Skowhegan studio are trying to unite disparate characters within a single physical unit, instead of a single exhibition space.  I’m excited by this prospect.

 

fg-drennen_verschrikkelijk-inside-9ace_installation_2015webDrennen’s Verschrikkelijk at at 9ACE installation at 9Ace Gallery, 2015

On the topic of ‘new in the studio’, do you have anything coming up? I think that I saw you had some work in a museum exhibition in California and there may be something at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center… Is this correct?

I was in the “Grafforists” exhibition at the Torrance Art Museum outside Los Angeles earlier this summer.  It was a really terrific show to be included in because I’m not always mentioned within the conversation of abstract painting.  As for upcoming projects, I will have a solo exhibition at MOCA GA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Georgia that opens in December 2017.  A few other things are brewing, but I’ll save those until later.

Well, Craig, it has been a pleasure. I am looking forward to seeing the new work and the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Georgia!

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Craig Drennen, Marc Mitchell and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All images courtesy of the artist and Samsøñ, Boston.

Marc Mitchell is an artist and curator that received his MFA from Boston University. He has participated in a number of exhibitions throughout the United States at institutions such as GRIN Gallery, Providence; Laconia Gallery, Boston; Denise Bibro Gallery, New York; University of Wisconsin; and University of Alabama. Over the past 10 years, he has overseen exhibitions that feature artists such as Josef Albers, Mark Bradford, Philip Guston, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Mary Reid Kelley, Allan McCollum, Richard Misrach, Thomas Nozkowski, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and many others. In 2014 his work was selected for New American Paintings. Mitchell is currently an Assistant Professor of Art and the Director of Exhibitions at the University of Arkansas.

Suggested citation:

Mitchell, Marc (2016). “Conversation with Craig Drennan,” Figure/Ground. November.
< http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-craig-drennan/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com