Interview: Scott G. Brooks
Scott G. Brooks noted not long ago, perhaps half-jokingly, that what most of his paintings have in common is “flesh.” And it’s true that flesh abounds in his work, but there is so much more: in his figurative art, Brooks incorporates technology, religious imagery, and even cartoonish animals into tableaus that explore sexual politics, domestic strife, the self, and occasionally politics at large.
“I…think of myself as a very private person, though in this day of social media that’s all relative. It’s a delicate balance trying to create work that’s honest to who I am, and then putting it out there, without making myself vulnerable.” —Scott G. Brooks
Julie Winters: Where do you derive inspiration for your paintings?
Scott G. Brooks: Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” To wait around until I’m inspired seems like a luxury at this point. I do get the question, though, and in that sense I’m inspired by many things. Seeing other artists’ work is an inspiration; the drive to do good work and improve myself is also an inspiration. The desire to pay my bills and travel is an inspiration. When it comes to the ideas and the subject matter, sometimes that’s present from the beginning, other times it evolves along with the painting, or I plug away until something hits me.
JW: Since you live in Washington, DC, do you ever feel pressure, even from within, to address politics more directly than you do in your work?
SGB: I don’t feel pressured to address politics in my work, but I’m aware that anything can be politicized. A pretty landscape can be about global change, or a cute puppy can be about animal rights. The world is so full of turmoil and so much is happening just a mile or so from where I work that it’s tough not to feel the weight of that. I get it into my work because it’s a part of who I am and what I see around me. I’m also very much affected, as we all are, by the decisions made just up the street.
JW: What is, for you, the most satisfying aspect of creating art?
SGB: Hmmm—good question. I try to find something satisfying at every point in the process. It’s always fun when I discovering a new technique, a simpler way to do something, or find a new tip to speed things up. I work very close to the canvas, so when I step back and see that what I’ve been laboring over just inches from the canvas looks okay from a few feet back, that’s satisfying. When something works the first time, or I get a likeness right away, that’s also satisfying. Still, if I need to pick something, it’s probably signing my name: that means I’m done, or almost done.
JW: As someone who tells stories through his paintings, what do you find to be your biggest challenge?
SGB: Misinterpretation is my biggest problem. In my attempts to be subtle, and clever, the message can get muddled or lost in some cases, leaving the viewer simply confused. I’m okay with that for the most part, and actually enjoy hearing how other people interpret my work. Stories that seem so obvious to me are sometimes lost on the viewer. Others will come up with really outlandish and crazy stories that never even crossed my mind. Other viewers assume the stories are about me personally.
JW: When we spoke a few years ago, you said that sometimes you had to censor yourself. Do you still find that to be true, or have you found that once you’ve pushed things a bit, you’ve been able to push a bit more?
SGB: Hah! Did I say that? I’m sure people think that I just put down whatever I want, or that I try and paint imagery that makes people uncomfortable, but I really am careful about what I put down. If something hits me that I think works for the painting, but I know might be “awkward” for some people, I’ll need to decide whether to use it or not. Codpieces are a good example. There are several in my most recent work. Personally, I think it’s a fun solution for a delicate issue. It references art history on one level, and I can also incorporate it into a painting’s narrative. I think there are two in Monsters of War: one character has a hand grenade “codpiece, ” and another has a small nuclear bomb strategically placed. It especially worked well in that painting since so many wars are just about penis waving.
I call it creative distraction rather than censoring. In the end I want people to see my work, and some things limit the audience or the venues, so I make a decision to include it or not.
JW: Tell us a little about how your work has evolved in the past few years. Your artist statement mentions, for example, bringing some of your technical skills as an illustrator into your painting.
SGB: Yeah, there has always been this “thing” in the arts community between illustration and fine arts, and I had a real hang-up about that. My illustration work has always been “tighter” and my paintings a little looser; I think people are calling that “deskilling” these days. I’ve always been inspired by great illustration, both what’s been done in the past and what I’m seeing now. My illustration work is 100% digital now, so the brush handling and detail I love are now incorporated into my fine arts.
JW: Rats have emerged as a presence in a few of your pieces, taking a big role thematically. How did that come about? Are there any other recurrent themes in your work that you’re excited about and would like to highlight for our readers?
SGB: I grew up in Michigan, and thought I would one day be a wildlife painter. Since I now live in the city, the wildlife I see most often are rats, squirrels, and pigeons, so it was natural that they would be a part of my work. Rats in particular are a powerful metaphor for many of the ills we face as a society today.
In regards to recurrent themes, I talked about the codpieces earlier, so that might be a thing. Reproduction also fascinates me and comes up quite often. Another theme, at least in my bigger pieces, is that there always seem to be some populace that emerges. In Monsters of War, there are happy bombs and missiles; in Strategic Negotiations, we have a little bird army versus a small furry generic animal army, and in Trimming the Hedge, we have some happy—and mortified—plant life. I guess that could be called a recurring theme, though after this show I’m going totally minimal… so we’ll see where that leads.
JW: You also mention that your work necessitates exposing parts of yourself, that it is personal in nature, and so it carries personal risk for you. Could you elaborate on that?
SGB: My work is personal, and sharing it with the public isn’t necessarily my primary concern. I know it will most likely happen and I take that into consideration, but in the end it’s MY work. Some pieces are are more therapeutic than others, and I can end up working out issues in my own life on the canvas. I want to create work that’s honest as well. Some elements get obscured in the process, and I also use lots of symbols and metaphors.
I also think of myself as a very private person, though in this day of social media that’s all relative. It’s a delicate balance trying to create work that’s honest to who I am, and then putting it out there, without making myself vulnerable. I have a partner and a family so I need to respect their privacy as well. Most aspects of my life are public if people want to look, and I’m okay with that. Most of my life was also pre-Internet, so while I use it when I can, I do remember what life was like before Facebook.
JW: Tell us about the use of humor in your paintings. Is it a conscious effort to balance out elements that could be hard for the viewer to take in, or does it arise from your own whimsical view?
SGB: I use humor in my work and in real life as a way to cut through the uncomfortableness, both my own and that of other people. My humor can fall flat in both circumstances as well, but often it can put people at ease. Art with a capital “A” can be quite intimidating and take itself too seriously, so the humor in my work helps alleviate that. You asked earlier about things that are satisfying about my work, so I’ll add seeing people laugh aloud at my painting, fingers crossed that they’re laughing with and not at.
JW: Are there any artists whose work you’re following particularly right now?
SGB: Lately I’ve been very much about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I had seen a couple of their shows at the NGA [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC], and also when I was London recently. They were an amazing group of guys, and it seems like they really got shafted by the emergence of photography and the impressionists. It’s great to see the renewed interest in their work. I look at many contemporary artists as well and am friends with quite a few. Erik Thor Sandberg is amazing, of course, and I really love what Troy Brooks (no relation) is doing. Kris Lewis of course, and Jean Labourdette/Turf One to just name a few. I try and keep up as best I can.
JW: You’ve been making art for a long time and have a substantial body of work. Do you ever have swaths of time where you feel the well has run dry? How do you keep things fresh for yourself?
SGB: My current show at Last Rites is my first since 2011. While I wouldn’t call it a dry spell, I seriously questioned what I was doing and explored some other options there for a while. I continued to paint over that time but didn’t know where I’d end up. I tried a few things that didn’t work and in the end just kept painting, and I put about everything I had into that. I keep things fresh by just starting new work. I have lots of empty canvases here and usually have something booked way in advance, so that keeps me going. I also have other non-painting projects that distract me for a stretch, so it feels fresh when I get back to it.
JW: What does the beinArt Collective represent for you in relation to your journey as an artist?
SGB: I’m very thankful for Jon and the beinArt Collective for including me and elevating surrealism, and the kind of work I do, to another level. He took me in many years ago and proves there’s an audience for surrealism. He’s also expanded its definition beyond what most people think to incorporate more of us. It’s not just about Dali and Magritte anymore. He also provides a way for us artists to get together every year or so and hang out, which is great. I’m very much looking forward to the beinArt collective group exhibition next February in LA and seeing everyone.
JW: What would you tell an artist just starting out about the art world in general?
SGB: Be patient. I don’t teach and am not around students at all, but I would think that it’s tough for them to think long-term. I know it was for me. I would tell them that their work will only get better if they keep going and don’t quit. I would stress the importance of being honest to themselves, and to get a real job but find a way to keep working on their art.
JW: Tell us what’s coming up for you in 2015.
SGB: My show “Inappropriate Nature” is at Last Rites Gallery in New York through April 4th. I also have a show in my hometown of Flint, Michigan, that opens in April. It’s called “Unfinished Business” and will feature a mix of old work, new work, and a few pieces that I’ve had around, and maybe showed, but that I didn’t feel were quite finished, hence the title of the show. I’ve recently been working more in video and am working on another music video with singer-songwriter Tom Goss. We previously collaborated on a video for his song “Make Believe”; this one will be completely digital. Finally, in December, I’ll be part of the group show “Holiday Star Killer, ” a Star Wars-themed show at the Anacostia Art Center [in Washington, DC] curated by Andrew Wodzianski and featuring some stellar DC artists.