Craig Drennen

Atlanta, GA | by March 21, 2010

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:
http://burnaway.org/2009/05/craig-drennen-at-gallery-stokes/
http://www.samsonprojects.com/index.php/drennen
http://www.craigdrennen.com/​



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3 Comments

  • The radi­ant bea­con of the south-​​east! I can’t wait to see the records! Love the piece in the 4th image from the bot­tom. Look­ing for­ward to the photo shoot with that leather jacket! It is inter­est­ing how much peo­ple get stuck on the anus image as a one liner… the grand­chil­dren will soak it up like the Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring… Thanks for the peak!

  • The radi­ant bea­con of the south-​​east! I can’t wait to see the records! Love the piece in the 4th image from the bot­tom. Look­ing for­ward to the photo shoot with that leather jacket! It is inter­est­ing how much peo­ple get stuck on the anus image as a one liner… the grand­chil­dren will soak it up like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring… Thanks for the peak!

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