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“People often want to lick my paintings...” CultureCritic interviews Glenn Brown

CultureCritic | 23.May.2012 | 10:42

A cluster of historic brewery buildings in coastal Suffolk will be home to a superlative contemporary art festival next week, launched in 2011 by YBA enfant terrible Sarah Lucas and fellow artist Abigail Lane. Brian Eno and Gavin Turk feature this year.

In advance, we talk to participant Glenn Brown, one of Britain's most successful living painters, Turner Prize nominee and sampler of imagery from across the centuries. His ghoulish versions of paintings you think you know already, taken from the likes of Fragonard, Dali or Rembrandt, reveal a fascination with reappropriation; and he has sampled lyrics by Joy Division and the operatic kitsch of sci-fi illustration. He tells us about this heady mix, people wanting to lick his work and why painting will never die...

Glenn Brown Star Dust
Glenn Brown, Star Dust, 2009 © the artist. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Can you introduce us to the SNAP festival and why it appealed to you to take part?

SNAP takes place during the Aldeburgh Music Festival and as such I imagine a lot of the audience for the art will be primarily interested in the music. It seems like a very educated, critical and curious audience, which is very appealing to present my work to.

SNAP utilises exhibition spaces far removed from the idea of the white cube. Is the immediate physical context of your work important to you?

The space I am showing in has quite dark red brick walls, and as such needs quite strong images to succeed. It was important not to be too subtle.

Snape Maltings
The Hoffmann Building at Snape. Photo: Philip Vile

You have reappropriated images from across culture, including Old Master paintings and sci-fi illustration. What do you find interesting about the reproduced image?

The sheer quantity or reproduced images and their dominance in our lives makes them impossible to ignore. If sometimes they lack the subtlety of the real world, this just leaves room for me to insert my own perspective. A painting may be fairly perfect but a postcard of it always has room for improvement.

What draws you to the images you reproduce - is there something that links them all? And has your decision-making about which images to use changed?

I tend to look for a wide diversity of art to appropriate so there is sometimes little to connect them. However, the brushstroke as a means of expression has become the dominant theme in a lot of the images I use now.

You have said contemporary art interests you much less than historical art. Why is this?

Obviously there is far more historical art than contemporary, so of course it is more interesting. But dealing with new art can also be exciting and politically charged.

How long do you spend on a painting on average?

I make about five to six paintings a year, they take a long time to develop.

Why are you drawn to those emotional, escapist or even romantic tendencies in your work, such as fantasy fiction and the use of lyrics from popular music in your titles?

I want to achieve a sense of movement so I look for subjects and themes that are sometimes almost diametrically opposite. The viewer is thus asked to slide between different emotions. From Romanticism to Analytical Realism, from the Neo-Classical to Pop, from escapist fantasy to the brutality of death, these subjects create a sense of animation.

Glenn Brown Natural Selection
Glenn Brown, Natural Selection, 2010 © the artist. Courtesy Max Hetzler Gallery

Much of your work renders figures or objects corpse-like and putrid. Where does the impulse to make unsettling images come from?

The images may be dead and putrid, but they are hopefully rendered alive and beautiful. People often say that they would like to "lick" the paintings, even if they have a whiff of the grave about them.

Painting continues to be very much alive. What are its main enduring qualities, in your eyes?

There is an unquestionable joy in seeing a mark made by another's hand. It does not need to be translated or transcribed. The painting is always as fresh and energetic as the day it was made. There is no printing process that can reproduce the immediacy of the artist's thought as well as paint.

What works of yours can we expect to see at SNAP?

Two new paintings and a new sculpture. One painting is of a vase of flowers, a larger painting is of a rather grotesque foot, and the sculpture is an adapted 19th-century bronze.

Have you encountered any good non-visual-art culture recently that you can tell us about?

I keep being delighted by 18th-century Baroque music. Handel, especially, seems to have a sense of movement that I would love to capture.

A boat on Aldeburgh Beach. Photo: Mykel Nicolaou

SNAP 2012 runs 8 to 24 June at Snape Maltings, Suffolk

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