An interview with artist Mark Brown

Mark Brown was interviewed by Shana Dumont Garr, Director of Programs and Exhibitions, on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Artspace from Sept 12 to Nov 1, 2014.

Shana Dumont Garr: Your paintings are abstract, and they at times suggest architecture, at other times the very process of painting.

Mark Brown: I think most abstract painters are closet alchemists who try to combine divergent visual concepts to make two and two equal five. With me it’s structure and the unruliness of paint, imposed form and improvisation, Apollo and Dionysius.

SG: Does it make you bristle when people refer to your paintings as “minimalist”?

MB: ‘Reductive’ is more descriptive since Minimalism had tenets and restrictions. Subjectivity was not important to Minimalism but to me, it’s essential. Minimalist surfaces could appear as if finished by a machine. In contrast, my paintings have layered surfaces and pentementi. My approach pays attention to the properties of paint, the uncertainty of risk and insistence on the work of the hand. I’d make these paintings now if Minimalism had never happened. Schopenhauer wrote that “Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.” My work is reductive because I’ve learned that less is more, especially given a media-saturated culture. I don’t own a bell or a whistle.

SG: What are you leaving out of your paintings?

MB: For centuries Chinese visual artists proposed that emptiness is a necessary component of fullness, presence and absence being two sides of the same coin. The synthesis is rhythm, which is vital to existence. I’ve explored this concept from time to time in my work by limiting activity in the centers of the compositions. Intervals are essential, one can’t experience an upbeat without experiencing the intervals before and after. Think of heartbeats, breathing, tides, and music. Life is peaks and valleys until you flatline.

SG: Your current series is in oil paint on panels. Have you tried other types of paint or grounds? How did that go?

MB: Like most artists, I’ve experimented with lots of materials. Acrylic, flashe, gouache, watercolor, casein. I once had a studio in an old cinderblock gas station where in the summers it was so hot that acrylic paint would dry mid-stroke. Now I use acrylic on paper when I want to take a break from oil on panels. Oil paint has become second nature to me. In addition to using store-bought Williamsburg Paint, I make my own. I’m also using aluminum paint on some of the new paintings.

SG: Describe how chance affects your process. Do you create preparatory sketches? How often do you draw?

MB: While I’m painting chance is neither encouraged nor discouraged. Like riding a bicycle, if you think about it you’ll fall off. As for drawing, I keep a sketchbook by my bed. Occasionally I’ll make a thumbnail sketch to remember an idea but I rarely refer to them.

SG: What role does music play in your inspiration? Do you feel that you are depicting certain passages, such as in Schubert’s Winterreise in your previous series?

MB: I always listen to music when I work, usually classical, and I painted my Winter series in a visual minor key. Muller’s poetry for Die Winterreise can be distraught, with the exception of Der Leiermann (The Organ-grinder), which is a metaphor for the artist and art-making. A collector I’d never met came unannounced to my studio, looked at a Winter painting and got verklempt. She now has twelve pieces. The mood I identified with in my Winter series is called waldeinsamkeit in German, the feeling of being alone in the woods. Not loneliness, but in solitude with nature. I live in woods and heat our house with firewood I cut and split, alone.

SG: Tell us more about your current series, October Red.

MB: My Winter series had an austere mood that I heard in Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, which is scored for only tenor and piano. The Winter paintings became more and more difficult to make because to communicate the affect they required that I visit a particular psychic state, and it took a lot out of me. The October Red series is more accessible and gets its power from allusion. I appropriated an arch-like framing device from icon paintings that I worked with in the Winter series, where I removed the Christian imagery. In this new series I join two of these panels at their bottoms to form vertical diptychs, deconstructing an artistic convention and reconstructing it to create new forms. The resulting central lozenge shapes have been referenced to doorways, hourglasses, heraldry, surfboards, skateboards, pharmaceuticals, Rorschach blots, flip phones, tantric lingams, scarabs, cartouches, any number of things.

SG: Why do you name your series by season? Is October Red referencing something other than color and season, the way your previous series referenced music?

MB: I had been painting with blacks and grays exclusively and wanted to add color. I experimented with various colors and this mixture of reds works the way I like. A painter friend came for a studio visit and said that the new paintings were forming a distinct identity and suggested I name the series. These reds were prevalent in Soviet propaganda posters associated with the October Revolution and it seemed as good a title as any. For me it doesn’t reference a season or an ideology; in fact there’s a kind of irony. In my formative years as a painter the Marxist periodical October insisted that painting was dead. The further removed I am from academic preoccupations, the better.

SG: Share with us something unexpected about you or your art making.

MB: A few years ago I learned that I have moderate dyslexia. As a child I transposed lower-case b’s and d’s. Teachers at that time recommended eyeglasses, case closed and good luck. My mind must have developed a compensatory strategy that served well enough in most situations. To apply to a graduate school I was required to take the Miller Analogies Test. I thought I had scored a low C and asked the proctor if I could get in any school. He told me my score was ten percent above the MENSA cutoff. With that kind of wonky brain I’m grateful to have made a niche in art, doing what I love.

Mark Brown, studio, 2014

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