Allen Brewer is interested in thingness. He says, "By eliminating my own perception of the thing, I am getting closer to its truth." Amina Harper aims to find out what that might mean, in an interview that spans Brewer's creative process, his background in illustration, and the narrative threads in his art. We find Brewer endlessly fascinating, if not slightly mysterious. You will too.
Allen Brewer will be taking over the Minneapolis Institute of Art with us on January 17, where you can watch him work and even directly inspire his process. There will be an opportunity to creatively describe an artwork in the collection (without identifying the artist or title of the piece). He will then transcribe your description into a visual masterpiece. Your words might inspire a piece included in his upcoming MAEP exhibition.
Amina Harper: What I notice most about your work is that it has a lot to do with how perception can be altered and limited. Do these ideas factor into your content and creative process?
Allen Brewer: When I paint without looking, the goal is to create an unvarnished interpretation of the original image. The self-blinding is a limitation I place on myself in order to achieve objectivity, so the subject matter I choose usually has something to do with “unexplained or miraculous phenomenon.” Pure objectivity is truth, and that's ultimately what I’m searching for, in each brush stroke and mark. Perception is what we invest in daily…and to take it seriously would exhaust your eyes and brain. My process relies heavily on factual perception (not so much interpretation), as I attempt to unravel the minutiae that comprises larger ideas. For the MAEP exhibition, however, I will be interpreting visitor’s descriptions of art within the museum’s collection, using their own words as my “truth.”
AH: How will the perceptions of others create limitations as you make their truths your truth?
AB: The limitations exist in the words themselves. By asking a wide range of people to send in descriptions, I am welcoming all of the pitfalls that come with art criticism and personal experience. Words: those guttural sounds we employ to sum up casual-to-sublime experiences are all we have, besides body language and inflection. I will be exploring the origins of the words in a Platonist approach, one that recognizes the infinite possibilities of language and visual art, at the same time recognizing the concept of objects-as-ideas. For example, if a description involves flowery language and very few factual words, I am restricted to use ONLY the factual words, like “round” or “yellow.” The romantic words are unusable, since my mission is to erase my own artistic proclivities from the final work. So, in a way, their truth can (and will) be read as a universal truth. I want to honor the exacting nature of the words each person writes, in effect, creating a visual that is Verbatim to the description.
AH: In the series Double Paintings you took cut outs from magazines and then painted the images on the other side on a silhouette of the original cutout. What was the inspiration behind this series, and what conversation where you hoping to create?
AB: With the Doubles, I was inspired by the notion of Exquisite Corpse as well as a mediated collaborative experience. As I flipped through my hundreds of image sources, I started to notice parallels between completely random images that existed just on the other side from one another…like an image I found of (1970s) hairstyles for African American men: I cut it out and found that there was an image of a white supermodel’s red lips on the reverse. I liked this random, yet provocative dialogue, so the search for more instances like this began. The conversation resulting from the work, I think, is a reflection of how my mind works (in tangents). I also think that random events and phenomena are not as disparate as we think. There are links, formally and sociologically, that bind most things together. I could keep talking about this subject, as it appears in daily occurrences, like graffiti that’s been painted over, but not matched correctly (these, to me, are anonymous collaborations and quite beautiful).
AH: Do you think there is a level of mystery to that? Of the discovery of how seemingly unrelated elements connect to create a new narrative?
AB: Yes. I enjoy finding the connections, whether planned or not. Often, art is about the artist fabricating this mystery of narrative and concept, with a certain nod to the artist’s opinion. I find more mystery in the purely objective accidents that need no art history or didactic in order for anyone to try to unravel and find a more personal understanding. It’s funny I say this, given my history as a commercial illustrator and set builder for photo shoots, where targeted communication is rule #1, but, some things change. One of my favorite “pieces of art” is an old billboard on University Avenue in St. Paul. Over time, a huge sloppy pink tag was scrawled over the bleached white surface. Then, someone painted over some other areas with gray, creating sharp-edged forms combined with the pink line. Then, the weather eventually wore them all away, so each week as I drove past the sign, a new composition greeted me, almost like turning the page of a book. I love that form of communication as much as the direct stuff.
AH: You mention that you used to be a commercial illustrator. How has that targeted visual communication inform how you communicate visually today?
AB: Illustration is essentially working with clients and illuminating their message, brand, opinion, agenda, campaign, etc. I have been doing this for a wide variety of clients (from American Girl to CNN) for fifteen years now, and I still enjoy the process tremendously. I love the art of communication, especially when that dialogue offers something new to the respondent, something deeper than what we’ve all seen and known. Illustration has affected my practice, but it hasn’t necessarily informed my art practice. I would say that opposite is true, that when I figure something out in my studio, I tend to apply that to my illustration and then see if it is worthy of communicating…pushing that limit. I tell all of my MCAD students to first find the artist within (I actually say “Inner Freak”), then apply that vision to illustration/design, etc. It’s important to know this first, rather than the other way around. Lately, the random construction and breakdown and simplification of form, present in DADA artists, are inspiring both practices. With my MAEP exhibition, I will still be taking the “clients’” words and interpreting them—the major difference is the literal and technical aspects of the text will be factually presented, rather than illuminated and opinionated.
AH: Having worked in the arts for so long, what is something that you’ve learned that you still apply to your practices today?
AB: Flexibility, patience, humility, honesty, obsessive compulsion. Teaching at MCAD (for the past eight years) has been a unique reminder for me, in terms of why I do this and what it takes to do it well. Another driving force has been my family lineage…my great-great-grandfather Nicholas Brewer was a renowned artist, along with his seven sons. My great-uncles/aunts, cousins, dad, and brothers all call themselves artists. So there seems to be something in the DNA, but I don’t let that phenomenon call the shots. One thing I really enjoy in terms of application to practice is studio visits. I learn the most when I have critics, curators, writers, and fellow artists come in and talk about what they see. In one respect, I think it’s vitally important to be selfish with the concept’s origin and then really come to terms with “it” in the studio. Then invite strangers in to get a fair assessment. The one constant in all of this is work. Make work, and don’t edit yourself until you need to.