Interview with Farrell Brickhouse
© Farrell Brickhouse and Figure/Ground
Farrell Brickhouse was interviewed by Julia Schwartz. June 10th, 2013.
Farrell Brickhouse is an artist/ educator who lives and works in New York City. He attended Skowhegan School in 1971 and Queens College of the City University of NY graduating with a BA in 1974. Farrell is an Instructor of Painting in the Undergraduate Program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC since 1980 and has been a Visiting Artist at Ohio State University, Columbia University, Parsons and the New York Studio School. He is the recipient of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pollock- Krasner Grant. His work is in the collections of The San Diego Museum, Weatherspoon Gallery, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the William Benton Museum and numerous private and corporate collections. Farrell is represented by the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY. He maintains a studio on Staten Island, NY.
How did you come to art? What were your earliest experiences of making art?
My Mom was an artist/ homemaker and my Dad a contractor, so making something with my head and hands was always present. We illustrated a 4th grade project together about dinosaurs, it was a knock out but a lot of work. The Museum of Natural History in NYC had these dioramas that were magical, I’d come home as a kid and try my hand at building my own. When I turned 18 I decided to major in engineering but it was too linear for me and I dropped out. I started traveling keeping a sketchbook along the way; it was something that was always there for me. I somehow made my way back to Queens College, a New York City University and there made a commitment to making art despite the turbulent times of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Artists as diverse as Charles Cajori, Gabriel Laderman, Ilya Bolotowsky, Richard Serra and Judy Pfaff were teaching there. At that time the lines between abstraction and figuration were still sharply defined and defended. There was a push to be in one camp or the other, which I never really followed and caught some flak for. I also was always running up and down the flights of stairs from the painting studios to the basement sculpture rooms. Charles Cajori was wonderful to me and I completed my last two years there forging an Independent Studies Program for myself. I opted out of attending Grad school as I was already living my life.
Can you describe your first projects/ exhibitions? You’ve already described early mentors, influences, but what about current influences- who do you look at now or listen to?
Teaching young artists today makes me realize what a wonderful moment my youth was. There was cheap space in Manhattan still and that geography allowed a concentration of fellow artists who built a community that was very exciting and supportive. You could walk upstairs or next door and get a crit and a beer at any time of the day or night, dance in lofts the size of city blocks and come home with your pockets full of food the more fortunate laid out for all to share. There was a belief if you worked hard there would be space in that larger art world for you. Artists organized their own shows in the storefronts that were all but abandoned in downtown NYC at the time, much like what’s happened thru out artists’ communities in Brooklyn the last few years. There was a wonderful dealer who took note of me named Julian Pretto who would somehow acquire some of the more spectacular spaces downtown and many noted artists would show their outsized works while their uptown shows were running. Julian provided a meeting place for very young and more mature artists to have breakfast on a Sunday morning and to hang their work side by side. Robert Ryman, Al Held, Dorothea Rockburne, and Mike Goldberg were some of the regulars at Julian’s. I made many friends then and my best friend was met at Skowhegan School in 1971. His name was Ralph Hilton and together we explored what living the life of an artist was all about. Ralph was an amazingly talented, smart, handsome, confident, well educated and connected young man. I was at the time rather mute when it came to discussing art matters but managed to hold my own as far as living life went. One of his friends was the theater director Robert Wilson, who became my friend too. Ralph and I worked on many of Robert’s early pieces. I came to be a specialist making performance artists’ visions come to life in a place called The Kitchen. I also spent a few years out of Manhattan fishing professionally in a little town called Montauk. It was an “intervention” on my part from the rather wild and dangerous life we were living. I decided to come back to NYC and the arts after a while and have been at It ever since. My influences as far as the arts go are the usual suspects for painterly painters, late Goya, Soutine, Rouault, Guston and my contemporaries who too are committed to painting. Facebook has emerged as a vital artists’ community and it’s wonderful to find and offer support there. I’m so encouraged by what’s happening with younger artists as they place their faith in this making of things and a belief in paint too.
Could you talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career?
My first big success was to have my work at Julian Pretto’s reviewed by the then senior critic of the NY Times John Russell who championed my work, it was rare for such a young painter to receive his attention but I still had to borrow money for dinner that evening after the reviews were printed. I was reminded that fame and fortune are two separate things. There were two “failures” that worked to my advantage in the long run. One was not being able to keep up with the demands for product when I was with Max Protetch Gallery in the early ’80′s. I was in my early 30′s and everything was selling, at one point I had no time to live with what I was doing or learn from it, it all just went out the door. I decided that was not why I was an artist and left the gallery. I spent about 5 years just painting for myself without any due dates. It allowed my art to mature and to produce a body of work I was proud of. I found Pamela Auchincloss Gallery and had a wonderful run with her. The second “failure” or turn of fortune was when she closed and Post Modernism came into favor. Painterly painting was out and so was I. I used the decade to do anything I wanted since virtually no one was paying any attention. The rise of the internet and particularly Facebook and a turn to a more pluralistic art world has given me an unexpected humble run again and I have the work to respond to requests for shows and people want to know what I think!
Can you describe your rituals or routines in the studio – i.e., daily painting vs. sporadic, music. Can you talk about your process? Do you start work with a concept or does the idea come later?
I don’t think my process is all that different from what most of my peers do. There seems to be a fairly constant process to creativity. Work comes from work. In my Journals which I’ve kept for some 40 plus years I refer to this state of working as “studio- time”, giving up the long awkward sentences I would construct trying to describe what was going on while painting. Most mornings when I know I will have a chance at being in the studio later that day I will lay there before fully waking and “dream’ of what I will do. There is also a period in the early afternoon before getting in the studio, when chores are done, when I will lie down and let myself wander. My intentions range from seeing exactly where to start or continue, to having no intention what so ever besides that a pile of orange pigment has so excited me that I can finally do something, anything. I understand for myself there is a process to working, of starting somewhere and then building on that, like a counter- puncher, put up something and then move it from there, trusting that I know what I want or don’t as I see it before me. There are times where I long for the idea that will get me out of my seat, there are times I’ve walked into the studio and on the way to the intended canvas I pick up something lying in a pile and make a leap onto that unexpected surface. Patti Smith sung about losing control to gain control, understanding one’s intentions, not being afraid to make mistakes, looking for what one doesn’t know, all those things that apply to any creative process. With my terrible spelling I had to look up fugue and found fuge- combining form, expelling or dispelling either a specified thing or in a specified way…. I feel once I am fully immersed in “studio- time” I approach a fugue- like state where things seem destined, like I am discovering not making, where I have complete access to what I know yet am beyond my own knowledge, using everything I know to say something I don’t and at the deepest level do know as true as it is happening. Things become animated, real, all those elusive words but one knows when a mark is right, that an image has something to offer and one’s soul is satisfied that what is being done is worthy. Getting there requires that fuge idea; stating then dispelling the known, engaging and then editing, where marks and images struggle to earn their way, to deserve to exist. At some point, that whole process of working may bring one to the other deeper creative state. Sometimes it comes easily and other times it is quite scary, where one feels the whole thing is collapsing, all one’s assets are now liabilities, the process and images are a caricature of themselves and one should just buy a boat, but then there is nothing to lose, one is free to do anything if one can. There is a Native American prayer- allow me to make things happen. I want to surprise myself, step back and be a viewer, as if seeing it for the first time as the work unfolds offering itself beyond what I had intended. And hopefully that experience continues over the course of repeated viewings, where the novelty of the thing has worn off and what one believed was there is surprisingly evident.
Farrell, thank you. That is a wonderful way of expressing a process that for me often defies language. What about your choice of materials: what draws you to them, are you consistent with this or do you switch it around?
I am always amazed at what just a 3 minute pencil/ pen sketch can offer my clarity about a thing. I love gouache for its immediacy and like oils it’s reductive as well as additive. Oil paint is such a luscious medium offering me all I want to do with paint. I like touching the thing I will paint on, rebuilding canvases or panels and turning endings into beginnings. Wax, lead, plaster and wood are materials I use to take a break from oils with. They allow me to play and see what else I know. Just the sight of these materials in my studio thrills me. I was invited a short while ago to print with Master Printer Sue Oehme and her crew and that was a revelation. What that medium and her skill did to my imagery was so exciting and unexpected.
I use photography all the time to document my work at various stages and when too tired to paint but wanting to keep my hand in things I’ll work an image scanned into Photoshop and I do make decent Epson Prints but noting like what I did with Sue. There is a constant practice now in my studio- time of drawing at the end of the day to document work done for my Journals, there is no Save As in painting and drawing is as close a way as I have found.
What would you say is the impact of your personal life on your work? What about other external influences? place, politics, family, etc.
As an “experiential” painter certainly my work comes out of my life. I’ve written that making Art is a way to share the totality of what I’ve seen, touched and what has touched me. Below are a few Journal entries about what motivated the work at the time:
Journal # 17, 4.19.90 “Narcissus realizes his tragedy, the denial of Echo, and holds fast to what is left him by the springs edge- himself, his reflection and the onslaught of Life as he turns into a flower (paint brush).
Painted stage and player took all my love and not the things they were emblems of. W.B. Yeats.
Finding marks like toe-holds on a rock face…
On Flounder painting:
Flounder Dream, Metamorphosis I- 2009, 9″ x 12″, oil on canvas. I dreamed I was a flounder with my face slowly rotating to one side of my flattened head.
In the late 80′ there was a NY Times photo of a bombing in Iraq, the people running were caught in motion by the camera and it looked like modern dance, so composed. So I’ve been trying ever since to make a painting that captures that, the horror and the beauty of violence, then after 9/11 I seem to have figured it out somewhat. I think of Goya’s late paintings of two guys swinging cudgels at each other towering over yet rooted in the landscape, and of Leon Golub’s work. I want somehow to comment on what we do to each other and even how we pit all life against itself. But also I want to make something I want to live with.
Can you describe what are you working on now?
I’m 64 now and I have this large vocabulary to draw from, imagery found a decade ago is available and malleable. The poet Yeats called it his “circus animals” he could bring out on stage to perform. The issue is to animate them anew while all the time looking to expand one’s vocabulary. So the question is what do I paint today, what needs to be said and how best to do that? I always have a number of canvases going creating a dialogue between things that frees me to take the chances I need in my work. I will run with themes seeing which canvas realizes it best freeing the others to then spin off and improvise yet further variations or something new altogether. Of course things take their own course regardless of what I intended and there are always surprises in how things unfold. We start with a kind of monologue on the canvas that then needs to turn into a dialogue. I’ve been out of the studio for near two months now except for some drawing so that distance from the making of things also makes them less precious. I’ve stepped out of the trenches so to speak and that allows for me to approach things with some fresh perspectives. I continue to want to tell my stories and speak to how it goes.
Katherine Bradford recently curated an exhibition, which focused on what she calls “human painting.” I see you that way, making very human work, and recently had the opportunity to watch you at work. Could you talk about that?
That was really fun painting with everyone who showed up in Brooklyn that evening even though Kathy put a blue daub of paint on my forehead right off the bat! And thanks to Julie Torres for such generosity in making that night happen. Its great to be placed in such fine company, Kathy has remained a constant champion through thick and thin for both of us. I think she deeply believes in community, a sharing of the ground gained and that life and our art are our offering. For a growing number of artists committed to painting this is an exciting time. We have access to the vast extraordinary history of painting and are crisscrossing old borders with passion, wisdom and abandon to make work that resonates. I quote myself: For me in painting there needs to be an epiphany, a trace of how the imagery conveyed thru paint was discovered and experienced by the artist. Not a graphic notation of the language of experience but the mystery of it. Art is a personal odyssey, a vehicle to carry me forward and find some deeper unity in what is happening in and around me. One of art’s chief functions is to resist the denaturing forces that are always present: those things that would take away our transcendent possibilities and turn us into stereotyped beings. Art is not the production of meaning but the providing of a genuine experience of what it is to be alive and in the world now. Our political, financial, religious and even scientific leadership has mostly failed us at this moment in history. I think the re-emergence of painting today is tied to the need to create our own mythologies and to document the sense of wonder and sadness that are the fabric of this life. There are synchronicities in the air. I am on a wonderful creative moment and things emerge each time I work that surprise me. This sharing of our selves in the medium of paint and in our lives is the best that we can do as artists.
What’s next as for as projects and/or exhibitions?
I’m interested in textiles but that’s a steep learning curve. I have some science projects I want to realize too but mostly it’s the daily practice of painting that I’m interested in maintaining. I’ve taken a sabbatical from one of my classes next Fall Semester at SVA and want to forget what day it is as I paint away. Group shows keep popping up for me and I’ll be in John Davis’s Carriage House next year in Hudson, NY.
I also want to ask about your experience as a teacher. Was it a conscious decision to become a professor? Much of the anti-art education debate focuses on the excessive cost and the fact that most graduates will not be able to support themselves. How relevant is that argument? Please take this in any direction you would like- politics, the economy, balancing teaching and studio practice, economics, etc.
Of course cost is a problem, as is Education in America and it’s become politicized too. Students come to college with a “test” mentality, either its right or wrong and are generally fearful of being “wrong”. Art like science proceeds by experimentation, and doing things one has never done before entails failure, but that is really experience gained to be applied yet again. In learning any new language one will make “mistakes”, it’s how we learn and I want students to embrace that concept. I don’t have an answer to the dilemma of the cost of education. In the Fine Arts one doesn’t graduate with a job waiting. One’s life in the arts is just beginning and it could be a decade before the work is substantial enough to allow for sustained professional success. SVA has provided me with a wonderful place to work. I hadn’t thought about teaching when they approached me after some success with my work as a young artist. I’ve been there since 1980 in the Undergraduate Fine Arts Department and I teach both Freshman and Advanced Students working two days a week.
A teacher/ mentor can play an important part in a young student’s life despite the faults of any institutional paradigm. Teaching is about being a conduit for the student, to provide a route to themselves. Faculty must address art- making on so many Fronts! I call it Studio Generalship let alone nurturing the spiritual ambition of making an object that contains one’s intentions. We offer a safe place for them to learn and to fail and make what they need to make at this time in their emerging careers. We endeavor to turn them into Students worthy of the name. I offer them my passion, my knowledge of how to work, the belief that art is a language and that the function of language, once the right language is found, is to allow us to speak and that art comes from a life lived as I’ve mentioned. I champion making work that asks questions, that revels in its own making, I ask them to evolve a methodology that allows them to think in the medium, that is reductive as well as additive, that is non- linear, that is not just problem solving or about getting it right or finishing, that is not afraid and that prepares them for any future endeavor. I teach them how to work. Philip Guston said, yet again the nail on the head that the real problem begins when we see what it is the soul will not permit the hand to make. Students learn when they realize that the tools we are offering will enable them to get to where it is they want to be. We offer students themselves via this extraordinary history of art making, not just names and dates and movements but this shared ambition and means of rendering our being in the world. Faculty can be an example that it can be done, that a life in the arts is possible.
It’s such a privilege to share one’s hard won experience and be in a dialogue with young people, to be relevant. It is a vibrant part of my life and informs my own practice. We are all eternally students if you are an artist.
Any advice for future or emerging artists?
Make your work, separate what takes place in the studio from all else, find your own pace, its not a race, allow yourself time rather than seeking to “finish”, just stop and regard if you don’t know what to do next, find community, see what you have to offer, art comes out of a life lived so allow yourself that, work your butt off when you can, find joy in what you do and roll with the punches.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Farrell Brickhouse and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Schwartz, J. (2013). “Interview with Farrell Brickhouse,” Figure/Ground. June 20st.
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