When I found out that me and my husband had to move to Atlanta from Washington D.C. in 2006, I started searching for some contemporary artists who live in Atlanta through White Column’s online slide registry just to see what is going on over there and found Craig Drennen’s work for the first time. Like everybody else I just looked at his images without knowing much about them. I was rather engaged with his bold colors of stripes, sense of abstraction and trompe L’oeil style of texts and objects within the picture plane. I found his work strangely interesting. Mr. Drennen’s works are minimal yet full of mysteries.
So, now I get to know him as a person a bit better as we have lived in Atlanta for over four years. Drennen has been living in the Atlanta area for almost eleven years. He is a native West Virginian, and went to graduate school at Ohio University. He is a full time faculty at Georgia State University and shows internationally. He is working with Samson Project in Boston and is busy with both his teaching job and making art.
For the first time I had a chance talking both on and off line with Drennen about his long time project “Supergirl”, (the series of work that I had mentioned on White Column’s slide registry) the movie that he was inspired by. We discussed why he chose this subject and how this project gets developed and goes further and beyond, along with his recent body of work, Timon of Athens, the only play by Shakespeare that was not produced during his lifetime.
During the conversation I was slowly engaging his ideas with his images. The way he chose Supergirl and Timon of Athens have similar sensibility as the way he chose blue painter’s tapes or pink styrofoam to make mock up objects for his paintings. Whether these subjects and materials are considered to be a failure or cheap objects for the general viewers, they play important roles in Drennen’s work. But what I have learned is these are not certainly what his work is about.
Drennen says that painting is the best flu virus: it keeps on coming back with a new form after so many times people have killed it already! It will not die…. It gets influenced from other media to survive and now other media try to follow what painting can offer.
Today we also talked about his idea of how certain style of painting can be a certain role playing in a movie or theatrical setting. It just makes more sense when he pointed out his trompe L’oeil methods as one of special effects in movies. “You watch a movie and if you only want to talk about the special effects….” You can imagine how he thinks about employing this for his paintings.
Here is some honest conversation with Craig. These questions and answers are based on our earlier online discussion from past few days regarding his work in general.
And please, make sure to watch the video that Drennen talks about one of his controversial subjects: Mistresses series from Timon of Athens, the anus paintings.
JM: I have seen your work both online and in person and I realized that both your subject matter and ambiguous images are really intriguing. Can you elaborate about how you get into the subjects you are investigating now and how you first got started? For example, can you talk about “Supergirl” series? How you get into this movie (or chose this) and how this becomes relevant to your art?
CD: Oh Jiha, you might be disappointed by my answers. I realized a while back that if I had an overriding idea around which I based by my work, it did two things for me. First it pushed me into directions I would not have gone otherwise. Second, it made me feel free. I worked on the Supergirl project for over five years. I heard about the movie from a song by a Brooklyn band called 18 that I used to go hear. I don’t have an accurate count, but I think I made over 90 drawings, 50 paintings, 20 sculptures, 3 audio pieces, and video of a performance. Not bad since I only watched the movie once! But Supergirl gave me just the type of unstable field of play I like. She’s “super” but, with the diminutive “girl.” The lead actress was chosen from 350 actresses who auditioned. The whole film is a complex bouquet of hopes and dreams, both personal and corporate…and I find that delicious. And it allowed me to have a surrogate self portrait in the form of an 18-year old girl.
Now I’m working on Timon of Athens, the only play by Shakespeare not produced during his life. I will admit that I’m not interested in making work that appears as a monument to my own subjectivism. I’m much more interested in making work that inhabits abandoned cultural airspace—like Supergirl. Or Timon of Athens. That should not be confused with an affection for failure, because that’s not true at all. If I’d chosen Hamlet, for instance, there’s too much activity related to it. But with Timon of Athens no one cares and I can be left alone and make it my own.
JM: That’s an interesting explanation of why you chose Supergirl instead of Superman and Timon of Athens rather than Hamlet. There is definitely something about sense of unknownness from a famous series of movies or authors. I wouldn’t say it is affection of failure but rather, the work hasn’t had a chance to be evaluated or appreciated. I feel like that this often happens to artists/art work as well, even if they deserve to be. I almost feel like your activity of choosing this subject is an important part of its contents. Also, it makes me feel like you are treasure hunting for your work?
CD: That’s a nice way to say it: “treasure hunting.” It might be more accurate to say that I’m looking through abandoned wreckage. The search is the treasure.
JM: I am changing the subject. Your work seems based on project base as you do video works, installation, paintings and drawings. How do you choose your medium and how are these related to each other?
CD: That’s a good question. Nobody asks that question very often. Basically, I start within the tradition of drawing and painting. I try to be thorough in my investigation around my subject, and that often leads me outside of drawing and painting. I don’t mind that, but it’s a fact that keeps other painters from trusting me! (Drennen laughs.) It’s almost as if the centrifugal force of the ideas propel me outside the tradition of painting—and I don’t mind being outside. But I always come back in. That’s partially what I meant before when I said that making project-based work makes me feel free.
JM: Looking at your images from your show 2009 at Stokes Gallery, in your whole installation paintings seems like they have roles rather than being individual painting. In other words they act like props. Is that on purpose? What do you expect from this and how was your experience with viewers?
CD: When I started my Timon of Athens project, I decided to go down the dramatis personae and make a signature work for each character in the play. The show at Gallery Stokes in Atlanta in April ’09 was the first time multiple characters were in the same exhibition together. I had shown the Mistress paintings with Taylor Davis at the Samsøn booth at the 2008 NEXT fair in Chicago. And actually I was in a two-person show with my friend Yuqui Zhang at Zero Degree in Beijing in December 2008.
So yes, you do get the sense in the exhibition that distinct characters are on stage together. It was very much a choice on my part to do that. The Stokes exhibition was called “Mistresses, Apemantus, and Flattering Lords” because those were the three characters I planned to show. As it turned out, I had Timon, Chorus, and Certain Senators too as an added bonus. But I feel like every time I go to a museum I’m seeing characters on a stage—like when I see an On Kawara and a Sigmar Polke in the same room at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’m still exploring this idea though.…
I don’t remember seeing you at the show, by the way. Were you there?
JM: That is quite exciting imagination, seeing master artists as actors and museums being stages! I think I am slowly getting into your art world.
How do you deal with public reaction, using such directness of certain taboo images (anus)? I understand you get that question a lot! But definitely see you are trying to bring certain beauty of them as well, or is that my misunderstanding? It is almost too funny for me to imagine that you spent a great amount of time rendering these anuses? Do you ever see humor or Irony in these series? Can you talk about it?
CD: The public reaction hasn’t been that bad, to be honest. There was no problem in Chicago, no problem in Beijing, and no problem in Atlanta. Viewers can handle a lot more than they get credit. Even my wife just shrugged and said, “Whatever.”
When I first started the Timon of Athens work, I wasn’t sure at all what I wanted to do or what direction the project was going to go. So I decided to start with minor characters first. The Mistresses have very few lines and only show up a couple times so I decided to start with them. I’ve had a lingering urge to work from the figure, since I’ve never done so. So it occurred to me that I could make an “anti-portrait” by painting the anus instead of the face. It’s non-heroic, and typically unseen, but it’s still the person, just as much as the face. And I like how the anus can be sexual, but non-gendered. You should know however, that I don’t take the source photos—it’s important that they get sent to me as a gift.
I really don’t see any humor in my work. People tell me they see it, but I don’t.
JM: Too funny, my guess is that you are playing not to be funny. I have seen Kiki Smith prints like that but they are more about shapes (no colors) and have symbolic gestures. So, it isn’t the first thing that you noticed and realized that the source images are directly printed on…But in yours, they are seriously rendered and all colored in a photo-realistic manners. One can’t avoid the moments of embarrassment as viewers, but can’t laugh out loud because of your serious painting attitude. Is that all planed out? I mean you want the viewer to feel serious?
CD: I can’t control who my viewers are or what they’re likely to feel. These are portraits, and portraiture has tended to be an aspect of painting that was serious business. You keep mentioning humor and laughing, but I really don’t see it. What I’ve done with the Mistress paintings is invert the terms of portraiture—what is supposed to be painted I do not paint and what is never, ever painted I paint very carefully. I think when people first see these pieces their expectations are destabilized by the inversion they see. And one way to respond to such an inversion is nervous laughter.
I see you’re not convinced (Drennen laughs).
JM: From more recent works, paintings which I strongly engaged as a painter, because these are more open and less specific as a project, but has more formal concerns as a paintings. Can you tell me about this series?
CD: You must mean the ones that literally have “Timon of Athens” written on them. Those are somewhat larger pieces that I was thinking as acting as posters or flyers for the play itself. They say the name of the play and give some glimpses of the characters that appear. And they do open things up and let me do more with paint. But those pieces are just as much tied to the project.
JM: How much does it matter that viewers know about your subject, like Supergirl or Timon of Athens? It makes people think that your project is very conceptually based.
CD: I don’t think it matters at all. I definitely structure my projects in a way reminiscent of conceptual art, but I have a belief in the inscrutable art object that most conceptual artists don’t.
Viewers develop relationships with the works themselves, not my thoughts. And I do believe that works of art can exceed the thoughts of the artists who make them. It’s like Duchamp used to say, artists always have ideas they think are in the work that never make it in. And there’s always unintended content that is clearly present. That’s as true for my work as everyone else’s.
JM: It is very true what you just said. We all want our work to be better or more than our thoughts or subject.
Please, check out more of Craig Drennen’s work on line links below:
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