Farrell Brickhouse in conversation with Diana Copperwhite during a studio visit to Staten Island in March 2016
DC: Farrell you‘ve had a long and varied career to date; teaching at SVA is currently a big part of what you do, how does this impact and affect your studio practice?
FB: It is a privilege to teach, a sharing of one’s experience and a dialogue with another generation, to be relevant is a blessing. I want them to become students, as artists we are eternally students. I want to create a safe place for them to learn and to fail, which is what happens when you ask yourself to do things you have never done before and I want to share my passion. I come home and ask myself to do what I just spent hours asking my young artists to do. At times it is humbling what they achieve.
The students are also an endless reserve of abandoned materials! It is where the glitter came from, I had used it in encaustic works in the 70’s but here it was again! It was a bit like pixy dust, magical. Recently I used it to see what else there was to say, besides telling stories and tried to make more “abstract” works. Glitter suited this with its heightened materiality. It became a way to create this all- over feeling but eventually the glitter evolved to become just another paint which lead back to the stories. Every asset can become a liability; glitter had to earn its way in or it was gratuitous.
I also have an “SVA Waste Paint Series” where all left- over student paint goes onto one canvas at the end of the day’s class rather than into the garbage, I then bring it home at the end of the Semester and continue work. It is a great lesson in the mutability of paint. I just finished one brought home in 1999.
DC: What are your influences?
FB: Ah Influences, what one consults, well they change over time. As for many artists it can lay outside of Art History, the light on a building, a couple sitting side by side, for awhile it was Corot; the flickering light off the water catching leaves and debris floating in the air thru the forest breaking down notions of abstraction and figuration. Auerbach, Rouault and even Vuillard; I feel I am part of that trajectory all the way thru to the flickering light of a pixelated image streaming on the monitor, fragments of light and structure that inform how I build my painting, as in de Kooning’s idea of “a glance”. Light is paramount in a painting, it’s portal. As I paint I follow the light, how it moves over the imagery and surface. There’s a sentence from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man- a fantastic world of sombre masses with lakelike spaces of dark rosy light- I’ve been trying to make a painting as good as that sentence for quite awhile. Many of my contemporaries inspire me, hold the bar up to what needs to and can be said.
When I was a kid growing up in New York I went to the Museum of Natural History on a regular basis. I loved the dioramas. A world complete along darkened corridors and would come home and build my own stages cannibalizing my electric train set landscapes. My dad was a carpenter, I watched as he always found value in the material world of things as did my Mom who was an artist and home maker. I inherited this belief that everything can be of use, is sacred in a way. From the discarded materials my students leave behind I collect canvases, their surfaces, their previous history peeping thru, a face, a piece of someone else’s world, it’s archeology sometimes giving the work another dimension or place to start.
DC: Talk a little about the scale of your current work.
FB: It came about because of my resources and health. I lost my studio for a time after 9/11 living just 2 blocks North of the World Trade Center and that put limits on money, space, time and energy, so one does what one can. I like this small scale as there’s an intimacy that usually isn’t there in current larger paintings which can become almost operatic. I am more interested in finding a work thru the revelatory act of making a painted surface which I do more successfully on this current size mostly below 30” (76.2cm). Moving to a new smaller studio some years back required a belief I would be able to make good work at a reduced scale. There are 4” Goya’s on ivory and 5” Rouault’s that are stunning.
DC: Tell me more about the content and narrative structure of your thoughts in relation to your surfaces.
FB: Our elites seem to have failed us in some manner, when a society senses this it moves to an embrace of rumor and myth which allows for the creation of personal mythologies for better or worse, see late Goya. Looking thru Art History there are these fantastical stories. I’ve read whole European societies were on a diet that contained rye! When rye rots it produces a hallucinogenic, ergot which to me seems to have informed people’s imagination, see the Illuminated Manuscripts. They saw animals as stand-ins for people, but pharmacology and human intelligence were always linked creating space for mythological creatures and stories. I “muck about” and in that process I seem to arrive at some place of value which has allowed stories from my youth, current events and personal doings to be available to me in paint. Sometimes I find that in one or two sittings but most times it takes place over time which dictates the nature of my thick surfaces. I find it exciting to take what may be an end and turn it into a beginning. In my artist statement I wrote- I believe the making of a painting needs that moment of epiphany and 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.
DC: You have an amazing palette, how important is it that you see the history of your scraped off and abandoned decisions? It’s like a sculpture!
FB: My actual physical palette- That’s my vocabulary and history, paint piles into sculptures and onto canvas. The paint becomes a living thing. I dislike giving up on stuff and use discarded paint that builds up over the years, it takes on a life of its own and often gets worked into a new piece along with other bits of found debris or even a free standing sculpture. Many artists look at their palettes and wonder why at that moment it is better than their painting. I often, at the end of a working day, grab a canvas and use up as much of my left- over paint as I can, sometimes it feels like the day was but a warm- up for this release and surprising things happen.
DC : Talk a little about your painting career to date.
FB: I realize how fortunate I was as a youth to come up in the early 70’s when there was no student debt and space in Manhattan was cheap. I was young and living in an emerging artist community in NYC. I started showing with Julian Pretto. He too was an urban pioneer and took over large spaces in what was to become Tribeca in Lower Manhattan back when no one wanted them. Julian turned these cavernous floors into warehouse galleries. Guys like Robert Ryman Mike Goldberg and Al Held who showed uptown but wanted to show in these large spaces would hang work there and I was one of the new kids invited in. The Senior Critic of The New York Times, John Russell, came to see the big guys and saw my work and reviewed me quite favorably. From there I started working with Max Protetch but after some time with Max I dropped out as things were moving too fast. About 6 years later I was ready again and started showing with Pamela Auchincloss in the late 1980’s. When postmodernism came along by the mid 90’s very few were interested in painterly narratives and my career collapsed! In the long run this was actually beneficial as it allowed me to explore and experiment and make work without a due date for a show or collectors deciding what was important. This is now my third incarnation after a decade or more of working more or less in solitude except for a few artists and friends who remained committed.
DC How has social media affected your work?
FB: Well, that “third incarnation” is largely due to social media. My wife and I were forced out of Manhattan and moved to a then isolated part of NYC in 2004. My students were going online to this thing called “Facebook” and other social outlets so I thought I’d give it a try since I’d largely lost my actual community over the years. It was kinda fascinating and I quickly found this digital scene of serious artists posting their work. It didn’t take long before a gallerist, John Davis in upstate Hudson, NY, that I’d known many years earlier asked if I’d like to have a show. That kind of response and those opportunities have continued due to that community on Facebook. But also there is this great exchange of information, I am constantly informed of other folks work much of which I would most likely not have gotten to see or be aware of and also this great art history lesson by astute fellow artists. Some times a post will be the missing part of the puzzle to get to the next step in the studio as well as getting a useful response to my own work, it provides a kind of eyes- on that I need digital as it may be. It’s also a huge bulletin board of all the events going on, a bit overwhelming at times but quite appreciated. There is the notion that we are misplacing this all for a real community but at this moment it is a true supplement for face to face dialogue.
DC: Do you see your work as part of expressionism?
FB: If I were to use hashtags# that might be one but I think those terms are limiting and start to dictate how the work is seen before eyes even get on the art. Of course the “soul selects its own company” and I seek out many painterly artists for inspiration but too other art informs my work that wouldn’t fall into that category. We find beauty and meaning where we can and no one form has a lock on the truth.
DC: How important is drawing to your practice?
FB: I feel if you can’t draw it you can’t paint it. But the practice is not linear; drawing comes both before, during and after painting. I liken it to the musician practicing, looking at the notes on the page, learning the song and coming to know it to the point where when one goes on stage, for the artist the canvas, one is not looking at where one’s fingers go but eyes closed is now free to explore the possibilities of the song, what it may offer as a creative vehicle. I think of it too as how one comes to the final calligraphic brush mark by the repeated making of a from. It is a coming to know. Often it amazes me what just a few minutes of sketching will do for my understanding of what may be possible in a painting and in offering ways forward. I usually finish off the day in the studio by sketching in my Journals, documenting where I’ve “landed”.
DC: How important is music in your studio while working?
FB: I now have Amazon’s Echo so I just ask it to play what ever I feel like listening to, and of course on my cell phone there’s Pandora, Spotify and Radio Paradise apps amongst others. At specific times of the day I play different kinds of music, it transports one and is a conduit to emotion, memories and is incredibly energizing. I just discovered the wonderful Mary Margaret O’Hara thanks to Helen O’Leary. But too I am a bit dismayed at the time I use in setting up all this technology to have access to the world’s musical output but it’s worth it. Listening to the new Grimes’ Art Angel now.
DC: Your studio is also your home; one melts into the other?
FB: When I was young we hardly ever slept so one was painting, eating and sleeping at all hours and there was no sense in not living in the studio. Now I need to putter and I multi- task and so being at home has always been the way I live and work. I also need to keep seeing things, to kind of dwell in their presence, new reads and possibilities appear at any time, especially coming downstairs to the studio in the early morning to see if what I think I accomplished the previous day is actually there or what remains. I also often don’t know when my day is truly over, lots of good stuff happens just wandering back into the studio and finding myself working again for hours. Of course real distance is important, one goes out of town and upon returning nothing is precious any longer, being out of the trenches so to speak allows one to be an observer rather than a maker and that too is important.
Thanks so much Diana for this opportunity to share my thoughts. For those who may be interested there are Links on my website to further conversations.