Interview: John Brosio
John Brosio uses traditional painting to portray the relationship of people to their environment in very nontraditional terms. With elements both funny and foreboding, his work captures what people so often miss: the awe that should be inspired by some very large thing we’re overlooking and our arrogant inflation of our own place within the universe. Brosio’s paintings challenge us to not get stuck in the milieu of the everyday but to see the beautiful and sometimes terrible things around us.
“Any art is in the end going to rely on how much can be realized with a simultaneous maintenance of the relationships involved. To what extent, for instance, can someone be both 100% careful and 100% reckless? To what extent can one choreograph a dance between gravity and levity and not only that but also get it ‘right’ such that audience members (including myself) immediately connect with the experience?” —John Brosio
Corinne Beinart: First, I was wondering where you grew up? I ask because sometimes we are as influenced by places as much as by people.
John Brosio: I grew up in South Pasadena, CA. It is just wonderful. I was very lucky.
C: It seems to me that lots of the more recent works of yours depict nature (or the forces of) as the “big bad” and the human subjects being quite oblivious to the happenings around them. I get similar feelings to those that I get when I read Sagan’s description of “the pale blue dot” or Edgar Mitchell’s statement about grabbing politicians by the scruff of the neck, forcing them to look back at the earth and shouting, “Look at that, you son of a bitch!” People so consumed by the ordinary that they seem blind to the extraordinary power and complexity of the universe that surrounds them. In BFF and Fatigue 2, Queen of Suburbia, Terrarium, Definition and Definition 2, to name a few, I truly feel the same sentiments as Edgar Mitchell—wanting to grab the subjects and force them to turn around! I wonder if a similar frustration was part of what prompted these pieces?
J: Wow—I am so giddy to have Sagan mentioned at all. He is my hero. And I would definitely say that he has informed my inquiry as much as any actual artist. I love Pale Blue Dot and gave copies of it to all my friends that Christmas just after he died. But while the people in my work do indeed seem oblivious to what is going on, it could also be that they are actually comfortable with what is going on too. In the paintings Definition and Definition 2, for instance, I feel that those are self-portraits more than anything and that the figure is very much aware of what is happening. On the flip side, another take is that folks these days are just barely able to get their creature comforts in order and really don’t have any leisure or exploration time left over. But the “elephant in the room” could easily be the economy, gang violence, the environment—all of it is bigger than us. But I do very much get frustrated in life, in conversations, when folks insist on having one another focus on things that just don’t make sense anymore. Or that don’t matter. Like the arguments over gay marriage, marijuana, or people actually rising from the dead. I mean, give me a goddamn break—the really bright people in the background right now are talking about the oceans dying around 2048. Seriously. As in things like tuna, salmon, sharks, swordfish—all of it being only a memory. And I didn’t make that up—go look it up! Who cares about some stupid fantasy like the Immaculate Conception when reality coughs up a problem like that?!
C: Following on from the previous question, is your work influenced by the enormity of our planet’s current environmental predicament and the blind eye most of us take in favor of our immediate creature comforts?
J: All I know is that the most respected scientists almost unanimously agree that global climate change is real, not political. If you want my opinion, it might be nice to address the remaining aspects of any culture that foster a sense of shame for not reproducing. That would be a good start for the planet. Yesterday.
C: I wonder about the lighting in a lot of your work. To me it seems like it is often dawn or dusk, the “in between” times. Is this purposeful?
J: Very much so. That twilight zone is just magical to me. It’s when things get figured out. I don’t know why so many of us are compelled by this time of day, but it speaks to transition and variety, maybe. It is when we can see the ingredients of everything, when the sun and planets share the visible sky, the trees with the stars, some animals waking up while others go to sleep. Recall too that before electricity, this was our own goodbye to the day. It is the way we were designed.
C: Earlier you mentioned that the figures in your work are aware of what is going on behind them and quite comfortable with it. Perhaps, there is something serene about a reaching the point where you can accept your fate?
J: Very interesting—why, do you conclude that the presence of something larger necessarily connects to fate or mortality? A lot of folks immediately see impending death in my tornadoes or giant animals but I think that this is incidental. It is my guess that those giant things represent one end of a gamut to which death is incidental. I think that a lot of folks walking through my paintings are alive the next day and that those “giant” elements are always in some kind of proximity. It is a painting of a daily dynamic, I think.
Except, of course, for the dead banker being eaten by dinosaurs. That piece has become quite popular.
C: I suppose I didn’t mean fate as is in a final fate (death/mortality). The characters in the images continue existing with these “giants” nearby and remain aware of their presence. They accept it as their fate: to coexist with the “monsters” and the “big bad things.”
J: Nice! They aren’t always conscious of the giants but always in proximity I guess. Agreed—on the same page for sure. But the truly big things right now, like all the fish dying around 2050, aren’t being talked about as much as they will be.
C: You mentioned earlier the work depicting the banker being devoured by dinosaurs. I read elsewhere that you have said that that was the only painting you remember being inspired by anger. Do you recall if there was a particular event that provoked those feelings?
J: Oh, for sure—the financial collapse relating to the housing market. There was deliberate fraud there but no prosecution. Kind of a pisser. The “experts” can go on and on about how convoluted it all was, how nuanced and complex it all was but then why was the homeowner left holding the bag by themselves in the end? Don’t talk to me about nuance until the right people get hurt.
C: I’d like to touch back on the underbelly of suburban America, and the things that hide in plain sight. I’m curious to hear your perspective on this as it is something that I find so striking about your work.
J: But “the underbelly of suburban America”—one can go on and on about this. And it is definitely at the core of what I am considering in “that daily dynamic.” The weirdest thing to me is that so many people here in America seem to acknowledge the creepiness that can come with suburban life but openly pursue and perpetuate it nonetheless. Now I’m not talking about healthy neighborhoods. What I’m talking about is what happens when folks get enough money, get a family, get a house, get a car, etc., like “everyone else” and conclude that because of this success, what they think of the world must therefore be correct, no matter what it is. I know of specific individuals who (or did) abuse, molest, terrify their children with lies, commit harmful crimes—folks who “know” that Earth is only about 6, 000 years old, folks who make major decisions based on superstition or astrology—all of whom have giant suburban homes with the boat outside, swimming pool, etc., and have BBQ’s right across the street. THAT to me is the creepiness. And it leads to decay and ignorance. I think that all of this still comes from a post-war (WW2) mentality in which no one wanted to look at anything at all unpleasant. And it also comes from an economy which values only how well someone is trained as opposed to what they know. But there is so much written on this topic.
C: I am also curious to hear which of your works seem to have drawn the biggest (or most surprising) response from your audience?
J: But to single out paintings for which there has been the most response? Hard to say. Hmmm. I think any image in which I “got it right” tends to draw the most attention. And while folks might believe it to be the subject matter they are drawn to, I very much feel that it is the relationships and ratios of one dynamic to another. After School, State of the Union, Whole Foods, Edge of Town and Fatigue get a lot of attention.
C: The works you mentioned are fascinating! I can see why most of those get the attention, but I wonder why After School makes such an impact? Can you expand on what you mean when you say people respond to the “relationships and ratios of one dynamic to another”?
J: I never know exactly why one painting generates more feedback than another. But I think that it very much relates to what I am saying above, to a more successful orchestration of elements. Any art is in the end going to rely on how much can be realized with a simultaneous maintenance of the relationships involved. To what extent, for instance, can someone be both 100% careful and 100% reckless? To what extent can one choreograph a dance between gravity and levity and not only that but also get it “right” such that audience members (including myself) immediately connect with the experience? Those are the concerns in the end. And they are very abstract concerns. In this piece you selected, After School, note, for instance, that small purplish tree in the foreground. Look at how I needed that in order to alleviate what would have been a very clumsy 1:1 event between the boxy house and swirling sky. That little tree, in its tiny eclipse, introduces a chance of complexity and pattern—maybe even a kind of calm.
C: John, I am really interested to hear whose work you find exciting and inspiring right now?
J: I just discovered a composer named Steve Stucky who I am exploring. Penderecki and Ligeti are still favorites. Listening to a lot of John Coltrane lately, too. In film there is not too much grabbing me at the moment, but I feel a lot of us filmgoers “waiting” for someone to get it right again. I did enjoy The Force Awakens, though I would have turned it on its head at the last second by having the good guys FAIL to destroy the battle station. Looking too at painter Elmer Bischoff. And you should look at an artist named Amy Bennett.
C: How do you see your practice and vision progressing from here?
J: As for what comes next, I am trying things. Increasing the range. I do not know how it will manifest, but nothing is out of bounds. I have found that one needs to be not only reaching for something but running from something as well in order to have any focus.