London The painter Glenn Brown keeps good company. His London studio is in Rochelle School, Shoreditch, built in 1895 and now chicly refurbished, housing a fashionable restaurant, studios and spaces for artists, publishers, and fashion and graphic designers. The school, founded to educate the children of London’s first model housing complex, whose red brick apartment blocks still surround it, now forms the hub of an East End art scene, which has come a long way from the freezing studios in abandoned factories and shabby galleries in run-down shops that its pioneers, Brown’s friends and contemporaries, first staked out in the early 1990s.
Entrance is through a door in the perimeter wall of the schoolyard, and as I press the bell labeled “Brown,” I notice that names on the other bells include former Turner Prize contenders Michael Raedecker and Goshka Macuga. As I wait for a response, Mark Wallinger, a Turner runner-up in 1995 and the winner in 2007, emerges from a car parked just behind me. He, too, is making a studio visit, although not to his old friend Glenn. When we eventually gain admittance, he guides me through the building and directs me to Brown’s anonymous white door.
Inside, the high-windowed studio is quiet and businesslike. Shelves crowded with exhibition catalogues and art-history books line the wall behind a long work table, where two big computer screens rise up out of a jumble of sketches, photocopies and cutout shapes like paper dolls ready to be played with. In front of the table, two armchairs side by side face the opposite wall. As Brown and I sit down to talk, we can see several of his paintings and sculptures. Some of the paintings are new and some have already been exhibited. If a painting is in the studio, Brown tells me later, he may choose to continue to work on it, even if it has already been shown.
Born in 1966 and trained at Norwich School of Art, Bath College and Goldsmiths College, Brown was one of the original Young British Artists and has been at the heart of the British art scene for some 20 years. His painter contemporaries include Gary Hume, Chris Ofili and Peter Doig, who, like him, have built successful international careers. All have developed distinctive, individual styles, but Brown is unique in that all of his paintings (and the photographs, prints and sculptures that he produces) are based on the work of other artists, which he transposes from reproductions. His technical skill is legendary—he can render the surface of paint on canvas as flat and smooth as a glossy magazine page. In the process, however, the original images—of Auerbach heads, Fragonard beauties, Dalí nudes or Chris Foss fantasy landscapes, to name just some of his better-known sources—are put through manipulations and distortions that take them very far indeed from their starting points. As reworked by Brown, these familiar images become something else entirely, a powerful, highly personal running commentary on painting in the 21st century.
My first long conversation with Brown took place at Heathrow Airport, when the plane that he, his fellow artist Richard Wentworth and I were due to travel on to São Paulo for the 2002 Bienal was delayed for six hours. With two such companions, the lengthy wait was an opportunity for much convivial conversation, but the topic of art was barely touched on. Now, however, on the eve of a major retrospective that opened at Tate Liverpool in February 2009, it was time for some serious talk about the extraordinary paintings that have made Brown one of the most respected artists of his generation.
Lynn MacRitchie Thank you for inviting me to the studio. I think it’s important to do the interview with some of your pictures around. Two crucial aspects of your work are your subject matter and technique, and I wanted to remind myself about how the paintings looked in person after having seen so many photographs of them while doing research for the interview.
Glenn Brown The paintings do not photograph terribly well, which is the point, really, because they have such flat, precise and sheer surfaces. You really need to see that. In reproduction the precision of the color and the glazing goes off.
LM Is this new work?
GB They are not all finished—some of them have been on the go for over a year.
LM How long do they take?
GB If a painting is on the wall it’s open to being painted! This [indicating Burlesque, 2008, a still life painting of apples] has been out of the studio twice now and come back. Every time it comes back I change it, even though it’s going to be in the Tate show and has already been photographed.
LM Part of the power of your work is that you are directly addressing the problem of painting. It seems to me that one of the huge challenges for artists now is what to do—what subject can you possibly have?
GB That always felt very much an issue when I was at college. What you paint, how you paint, painting is dead, this is the last dying throes of painting. And I really no longer think that. I’ve tried other things—I’ve tried using photography, and I do use computers and forms of image-making other than painting. The computer is probably the best example of something that is there to challenge painting. But the whole process of printing is so bad, so lumbering and awful, that it can’t compare to the precise technology of painting, where what you put on the surface is what you actually see. You can get gradations of color that are far more complex than anything printing can achieve. So the immediacy and impact that painting can have compared with other forms of technology just blows them away, I think.
Therefore, the whole thing of should I paint or not, is painting dead—of course it’s not. Nothing has yet come about that can compare with it as a translation of that human desire to make marks, to make two-dimensional images of things or two-dimensional surfaces with color and shape. I love computer technology; I love Photoshop and all of the possibilities of manipulation that it gives you to play with. But the final product from the computer is always very lackluster. Not that I would ever do without it.
The work wasn’t always about the brush marks, but they have developed as a fascination of mine. I suppose it is born of my desire to be the sort of painter that is able to manipulate those bravura, quick, elegant and speedy brush marks. I want to be Soutine, I want to be de Kooning, slashing away at the canvas; but that’s just not me. I can’t do it that quickly, and it doesn’t look good. And also I have a kind of healthy cynicism about what it is to look at the world, to be in a modern world surrounded by images.
LM It’s not just the slashing and dashing around with the brushstrokes, is it? It’s also about the relationship to the subject. If you had been Soutine, you’d have been in the studio with a side of beef rotting away, and you’d be painting what it looked like. You’d have been in a direct relationship to the subject.
GB But Soutine was also in there with the history of an awful lot of other artists. He had the knowledge of Cézanne and the Impressionists, van Gogh and all those artists to back him up, to suggest what he could and couldn’t do, what works and what doesn’t work. He also had the notion of the avant-garde to push him into doing things that might not necessarily work. The point was more to try than to succeed.
LM You certainly have succeeded, in terms of public recognition of your work. Your biography is very impressive—constantly exhibiting, show after show, year after year, all over the world, an extraordinary amount of hard work.
GB I get a real kick out of painting. There are not many other things that can give you that long-term satisfaction, that “my life is worth something” sort of feeling. It’s intellectually stimulating: the problem-solving aspect of “How can I continue to make things better?” At the end of the day I always feel that I’m short of what I wanted to achieve. The paintings are a struggle to try to get to work. To some extent they often fall slightly short of my aspirations. That’s what keeps you going. You start on the next one because you always feel that you might get closer to this goal of the ideal painting. Sometimes you see it. Or you see other art that inspires you and you come back to the studio and think, “Oh, my work is so dull,” so you try and improve.
LM There’s a group of painters from what used to be called the YBAs (Young British Artists)—you, Chris Ofili, Gary Hume, Peter Doig—who’ve become established. It seems to me that your work is very different from theirs.
GB I think we’re all quite different from each other. It’s a bit difficult to say that it’s a group, really.
LM I meant that you were contemporaries rather than any kind of organized group.
GB It’s an interesting point because in many ways it would be nice if there was a group, if a style had developed that was YBA painting. It would be nice if there was a group discussion and everybody had moved things on in a group way, like Cubism, Impressionism, Expressionism or even Neo-Expressionism. But I don’t think that the YBA thing was ever about that group sense of itself, of trying to answer a question together. I think it was more about competition, people spurring each other on in a competitive way, which is also good.
LM Each of the YBA painters found a way to develop, which can be very difficult for artists. You make a start, go to art school, then you go out into the world, get one or two shows. But to keep going can be hard. What I get from your work is the sense that you’re really digging in, really delving into what painting is and what painting could be. You take things to a deep level of exploration. I get the sense that you are very settled, very secure in your purpose.
GB That’s interesting! [laughs] If you say someone is very settled and secure as an artist that sounds very bad. It means that you are no longer questioning and pushing things forward. But, as I said, maybe that avant-garde notion that you have to continually hit your head against what’s new and what’s rebellious no longer really exists. Hopefully, now it’s about what is good painting and intriguing image-making rather than just what’s new or what hasn’t been seen before. I think the whole rush to “what’s new” has been interesting but in retrospect the results look a bit dull. If you look back at the history of 20th-century painting, some of what were thought to be high points at the time aren’t so high any longer. For instance, I would say that Mark Rothko’s late work isn’t a high point. It was avant-garde and new at the time, but it looks rather dull and uninspiring now.
LM The number of artists whose works you have used is quite limited, a small group so far. Why did you choose those particular artists?