I met Brian Andrew Whiteley at Arts & Leisure gallery in East Harlem during that eerie, quiet period between Christmas and New Year’s. As we brunched on (formerly) Haji’s chopped cheese sandwiches and mimosas, we discussed his recent series of paintings and his upcoming mid-career retrospective.
Arcade Project: I never thought of you as a painter. I did a studio visit a few years ago in the context of your performance art, and I’ve also worked with you in your role as founder and director of Satellite Art Show and Satellite Art Fair. Then there’s this residency in Spain and suddenly you come back with this series of angst-ridden, expressionistic paintings—so I guess the first question is: why beasts?
Brian Whiteley: When I got into grad school, it was through painting and I had a whole portfolio of painting works that got me accepted. Then, I separated myself from painting and focused more on performance, installation and other works and didn’t readdress it until recently, when I went to Spain for this residency. Through different personal issues and drama happening in my life, I started wanting to address things through painting again as a different way of release. Performance has its own way of being cathartic, but there was something that I felt I needed to express through painting. I was feeling the expressive nature of the works of Goya or Ignacio de Ries and I wanted to use this medieval demonology and source material as my own vehicle to get back into painting. I found that when you separate yourself from something for that period of time, everything feels fresh and new. I didn’t hold myself to the same standards that typical studio painters would hold themselves to. It was just sheer emotional expressive output.
AP: I think your performance work is more external and more about the viewer and the audience, whereas the paintings are autobiographical. You actually reached inside and put something of yourself out there onto the canvas. There was a lot you could hide behind in your performances, but here you are exposed, as far as the imagery goes, down to the entrails.
BW: Many of the pieces I had done had a way of letting viewers inside, but it’s ultimately from a distance. When you’re singularly producing work based on emotion, it opens you up a little bit more, and I think that what’s been shown here are the raw, natural ideas that are happening inside.
AP: The result is this visceral inner life laid bare. The high-contrast, high-key color scheme with the blackest blacks, speak to this raw emotion—the fear and anxiety of being on this earth at this time. I admire your honesty. I think I’ve gotten to know you more, as a person and as an artist, from this show than from the years of performances and directing Satellite.
BW: With this series, as someone who is mainly known as a performance artist, I wanted to find materials that would be easily accessible and just do whatever came out naturally for me. These are drop canvases from the hardware store. When I was in Spain, I accumulated whatever house paints and supplies and used them all in an unapologetic way. I didn’t care about having the right type of medium or the right oil or acrylic paint. Half of it is finger paint and raw brushes.
AP: Sounds like you had to get it out there by any means necessary.
BW: Absolutely—get it out there, think about it later. Go through whatever’s pouring out of your body and let it sit as that and not question it.
AP: This is an amazing show and I’m looking forward to your next exhibition, which is a mid-career retrospective.
BW: My retrospective opens January 11th at Hashimoto Contemporary on the Lower East Side. I’ll have paintings, sculpture, and some of my viral projects: news clips from Clowns and Cemeteries, Bigfoot, and Trump Tombstone stuff. It’s weird to combine video and sculpture and painting and all of that and make it cohesive, but I think once people go in and see it all together, it will make sense in some chaotic Brian Whiteley way.
Brian A. Whiteley: I Know What You Did Last Summer
210 Rivington Street, New York NY 10002
11 January to 1 February 2020