TO HANG PAINT ON MY IDEA
Nadja Sayej interviews Brian Fahlstrom
Brian Fahlstrom is a painter based in LA, whose work balances between the abstract and expressive landscapes. While Fahlstromâ€™s work is often connected to using art historical visual mannerisms as a point of departure, there is a strong part of his work that is entirely undefinable and inventive. Thereâ€™s only one way to find out what his work is about, and that is to ask him.
Nadja Sayej: Your work is often heavily connected to art history, but that aside, what is your work about?
Brian Fahlstrom: The paintings are not about any historical comments or history. Theyâ€™re only about historical paintings or paintings made in the past only in the degree in thatâ€™s what painters do and what theyâ€™ve always done. The images in the Saatchi collection are unplanned landscapes, completely improvised. How do you take an empty rectangle and make form out of it? They are guided by intuition, entirely. Each painting gets its own distinct emotional resonance and presence. Anything can happen.
NS: How did you get into making this kind of work?
BF: I used to work as a museum guard at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and it was the act of being around those paintings. I got the chance to really absorb them in an intense way that other artists donâ€™t get the chance to do. Being able to experience art in that way pushed me to do more representational paintings, compared to my previous work in 2002 where I painted entirely monochrome, austere, abstract paintings. The images were color field paintings, but I saw them as landscapes.
NS: Why did you see abstraction as landscapes?
BF: Itâ€™s a general idea to be able to paint something, to hang paint on my idea. But more importantly, painting is the best possible vehicle to express what kind of experience I want to have when Iâ€™m looking at artwork. It is an alternative or a retreat from our everyday experiences. Iâ€™ve committed to the idea that art is separate and apart from what we have to deal with from everyday, an elevated place mentally and physically. I want my paintings to be like that. Iâ€™m painting places Iâ€™d like to be at or experience.
NS: What qualities do these non-representational places have?
BF: Theyâ€™re related to my own experience with nature in the world. Experiencing certain landscapes can have a really profound emotional impact on how we feel. I think I try to paint dramatic experiences. Iâ€™m working from intuition; it is more of a recklessness than a trust. It allows me to surprise myself and to keep me making them. I want to be really excited or thrilled by it. To get to that kind of excitement I receive, I have to take those risks.
NS: When does risk taking turn out badly?
BF: I do it constantly while a painting is being made. Mistakes are always in the process, there are numerous and numerous layers of paint on them that you donâ€™t see underneath. Barnett Newman is a very important artist to me; he had to make those expansive paintings, because that was the extremism he needed to keep propelling himself. If I am going to be working a traditional mode of art making, oil paint on a rectangular support, I it has to be extreme in some sort of way. Monochrome paintings are one extreme, while on the other is filling up the canvas full of information.
NS: Why did you go from painting abstraction to landscape?
BF: Iâ€™ve always had representational narrative tendencies in my work, and I saw the monochromes I used to paint as being narrative as well. Iâ€™ve always been very much into drawing, and having a natural facility with drawing. I started making landscapes because in my flat fields of color, I asked myself â€śWhy am I repressing myself?â€ť Good paintings are not dependent on technical skill. And abstract paintings that are very composed require a lot of skill. I got tired of actually explaining them in a very specific period to art history and what the relationship was between them. I got a hunger for a different kind of image.
NS: How is painting your visual language?
BF: Painting is always going to resist language because when youâ€™re standing in front of a painting, it always eludes no beginning or end. In my paintings theyâ€™re always the immediate happening, I wouldnâ€™t want to make paintings that are dead on arrival. One thing I got from spending a lot of time around paintings working as a museum guard is that paintings that were done 300 years ago are always still active. Theyâ€™re still happening, theyâ€™re projecting presence. I try to make my paintings have a presence that is hard to describe, that cannot be defined.
NS: What is the driving force behind your work?
BF: If you asked dead painters their force and drive, I donâ€™t think theyâ€™d be able to define it as well. My art making is an undefinable impulse and I can never quite predict where itâ€™s going to lead me. I just want to make paintings that are really powerful, emotional experiences because thatâ€™s what I want to do. Certain feelings, emotions or sensations that I can only get out of certain paintings that I make, I canâ€™t pinpoint the feelings or sensations or what they are. The paintings show what that might be. They depict a very romantic longing space, an emotional space. Theyâ€™re idealistic. Physically, the paintings are enveloping the image Iâ€™m depicting in the way theyâ€™re composed. They are not a resistant space; theyâ€™re not cold but warm. Thereâ€™s always central warmth.
NS: Itâ€™s like youâ€™re inventing your own language.
BF: I have started to feel like recently like I am making my own way. I feel like Iâ€™m starting to have my own language but I think it all comes from painters of the past. I donâ€™t see myself doing anything radical, but I can see it sitting over a long historical line. Itâ€™s taking things from other people and also starting on a blank canvas with nothing and forcing myself to invent things.
NS: For you, where does landscape and abstraction meet?
BF: I think they meet in reality. When weâ€™re in a real landscape, thereâ€™s no such thing as realism. When youâ€™re trying to paint something, nature is extraordinarily abstract and therefore in any kind of painting. I think that itâ€™s just as abstract as a monochrome. Thereâ€™s not conflict, really. The natural landscape is so wild and abstract, and the way our vision works and perceives the real is very abstract and how our minds process it is abstract. For me the distinctionâ€”conceptually or philosophicallyâ€”there is no conflict or distinction. Landscape and abstraction meet in nature before meeting in painting.
NS: Do you ever feel torn between the two?
BF: No, but Iâ€™m torn between other hard to pin down painting issues. On a day to day basis it is visual problem solving, classic painting issues, like when is a painting finished?
NS: When is it finished?
BF: It becomes a big issue at first, but it is a profound issue for every painter. And the answer is that no one knows because there is no criterion. It all depends on the criteria you have set for yourself. And thatâ€™s where the conflict comes in, because what I expect from myself shifts and changes. I have a hard time figuring out how to apply the idea of being finished to certain paintings. But sometimes I know instantly when it is done. It is a real instinct and develops in time.
NS: Do you think art history is sequential?
BF: No, I donâ€™t think it is at all. The idea of a sequential art history is a practicality, the actual objects and artworks transcend it. They are made at certain times, and one thing did come after the next, but the artworks are for the most part living objects. And to define them using historical tools chills them. In an ideal world, for me, there would be no such thing as reproductions of paintings and no need to explain them.
NS: Is art a foreign language?
BF: It is foreign to the language of art. Language in general is foreign to an actual object, to the painting or the sculpture, something that is entirely visually or physically experienced. The objects are going to resist time.
NS: Itâ€™s hard to believe youâ€™re so young, because your paintings look so mature.
BF: I had someone visit my studio and she said â€śI feel like Iâ€™m in the studio of an artist at the end of their career.â€ť That interests me. They are aged looking, like they are older paintings. Itâ€™s something I do constantly. I donâ€™t believe in artistic progress. Art doesnâ€™t evolve to some end point, it just doesnâ€™t end.
Nadja Sayej is a journalist who works in New York and Toronto
LAYER UPON LAYER OF REFERENCES
Brian Fahlstrom's solo debut is a modest affair: five paintings unceremoniously installed in the small square room behind the front desk at Marc Foxx Gallery. It's also among the most memorable of the season: sophisticated, intimate, quirky.
The young artist layers paint with the best of them, brushing on extremely thin coats of, say, metallic vermillion, followed by several layers of various matte grays. This results in semi-translucent veils that seem to flicker, capturing and reflecting light as your eye travels across their sensuous surfaces.
Fahlstrom holds nothing back in terms of historical references. Borrowing freely from artists so renowned that it's hard to imagine anything new comparing favorably to their achievements, he manages to make paintings that are neither derivative nor academic.