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Episode 73
Artist Glenn Brown

  • 21 min read

Episode Description

A discussion with artist Glenn Brown. Finding inspiration in works from art history as well as science fiction, Brown creates beautifully crafted paintings built from layers of fine brush strokes and thin glazes. The process can take years, but yields paintings that captivate the viewer with sublime colors and intertwining strokes that invite the viewer’s closer inspection. The conversation dives into Brown’s artistic mindset and methodology, as well as a discussion about his current exhibit “We’ll Keep On Dancing Till We Pay the Rent” at Gagosian’s 24th Street location in New York - his first show in the city since 2014.


Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with artist Glenn Brown, finding inspiration in works from art history as well as science fiction, Brown creates beautifully crafted paintings built from layers of fine brushstrokes and thin glazes. The process can take years, but yields paintings that captivate the viewer with sublime colors and intertwining strokes that invite the viewer's closer inspection. The conversation dives into Brown's artistic mindset and methodology, as well as the discussion about his current exhibit "We'll Keep On Dancing Till We Pay the Rent" at Gagosian's 24th Street location in New York - his first show in the city since 2014. And now, a conversation about the appropriation of images and the seductiveness of brush strokes with artist Glenn Brown.

Craig: [00:01:19] GLenn Brown, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. Glenn, I usually like to start with artists with the hypothetical, which is say you're at a dinner party and you're seated next to someone who has absolutely no idea who you are or what your work looks like. How do you describe that to them?

Glenn: [00:01:41] Well, I say I'm a painter, but I also make some sculptures and drawings. And I do always start off with saying I appropriate other artist's work. And most of my work are portraits, and they usually ask, What kind of portraits do you do? Commissions? And I go, "No, I appropriate other artist's work" to try and get the point across that that's very important that I'm a postmodern artist if they know what postmodernism is...yeah, it frequently happens, so I'm well-practiced at it.

Craig: [00:02:19] So in that conversation, which it sounds like you have from from time to time, where does their mind go when you start throwing around the word appropriation? Because, you know, in the current set of conversations just recently, I had Shepard Fairey on the podcast who was part of a whole $9 million lawsuit with the AP over the appropriation of an Obama image for his Hope poster here in the US. And there's a current case in our Supreme Court here involving Andy Warhol's estate and a photographer, I mean, or like Richard Prince. I mean, do they do they go immediately to, oh, you're you're using...your copying or do you have to kind of explain a little bit more about exactly how you're appropriating?

Glenn: [00:03:05] It depends how old the person is. Generally, if they're over 40, I sort of assume they know a little bit about appropriation. And the most recent history of it, I sort of...artists of Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, generation and that means something to them in the way that artists borrow other artists work. If they're younger than that, I'm slightly at sea because I don't know how much art history they've studied. I always assume that the younger generation of artists take appropriation as just being part of the landscape of painting or contemporary art, and therefore they understand it. But I'm never quite sure.

Craig: [00:03:58] Appropriation being part of the generalized landscape. For me, it feels like it's very much like you are in conversation with art history. You're engaging with the past. When we talk about appropriation, one of the terms that comes up here in the US is fair use, and that's all about how do you transform that appropriated work into something that's uniquely yours. And I don't think anyone's going to you even start to challenge that you don't make these images uniquely yours, right?

Glenn: [00:04:36] They have in the past. I tend not to deal with living artists anymore or artists where the estate is still active. That means 70 years. So the work the work I use is not under copyright anymore. It used to be the case, and it still is occasionally the case that it is under copyright...laws in England are very different than they are in America, America and most of Europe. They're much less progressive here, which I don't think most artists actually understand. It's very difficult to appropriate under any circumstances here. We don't have fair use law, for instance. But generally, it sort of muddles along because artists and artist's estates tend not to sue other artists, but when it comes to photographers, graphic artists and designers, that's a different story. And illustrators, as I found out, have a very different notion about how they own their own work. So I have had copyright problems and I have had legal cases as well in the past.

Craig: [00:05:47] So what is your process look like? You know, you kind of have a thousand years of art history to sort of draw from. Where do you start in finding inspiration? And once you do, how do you get it from the history book or the museum wall to your canvas?

Glenn: [00:06:10] There's a wide variety of ways. I have a very large collection of art books. I like visiting museums, so my idea of a holiday is to go to a museum somewhere in the world. Because to me, not only traveling in terms of distance, but you're traveling in terms of time when you visit a museum, which I absolutely adore. And it's a strange combination and surprise as you get when visiting a collection, which is always extraordinary. And there's so many very brilliant museums in Europe that you visit that have very different takes on the world. Also the Internet, of course, and there are certain museums that are very progressive when it comes to allowing access to their digital files of the images they have of their own collections. The Rijkesmuseum is brilliant. The Met is extremely good and there are other museums around the world, but some of them, some museums, really do not want you to have access digitally to their work, and others really do want you to have access to it digitally. And obviously I like the open access ones because there's hundreds of thousands of images there to trawl through. And that's where I find images. And they're brilliant when they're online because I can download them and I can start playing with them on Photoshop, or sometimes I'm just scanning them from books, sometimes I'm just taking a picture with my phone in the gallery space because I don't necessarily always need a really high resolution image to start working from something.

Craig: [00:08:10] And that's because you're your mark making. And what you add is, is so beyond what that image is in my mind. When you start a painting, there is a framework of a structure, but you just start applying layers and layers of marks, which I think is really what a lot of people think of...when they think of Glenn Brown they think of just how you engage the viewer with with the mark making, right?

Glenn: [00:08:39] Yeah. Mark makings. I mean, for a very long time since the 1990s, what I've really been interested in is painting paint. Or rather painting the gesture that's held in the paint. And I like that idea that you're using, that each artist's paintings held within it has a very personal, almost like their handwriting signature of their identity held within that movement in the brushstroke. And it's very personal. And that's what I'm reading and translating. And I have a very particular take in how I like to make brushstrokes. So I'm always translating from other artists their brush strokes or recent more recently drawings as well.

Craig: [00:09:37] You know, so often in this day and age, we're only seeing works online and we can kind of have a misconception of what the surface is like if we were to engage the painting in person. I hear you oftentimes, especially with your works, like the Frank Auerbach works that look like impasto, but that's actually a trompe l'oeil, you know, your surfaces are very thin and flat, right? The drawing series, there's this beautiful mark making that's akin to the old practice of sign making or a window painting for shops, the long hair lines. Can you talk a little bit more about the difference that we see between works there?

Glenn: [00:10:20] Well, the the drawing and the painting that I make are very closely related in that even the painting...when I'm appropriating, say, a Frank Auerbach or a Fragonard or Boucher painting or Rembrandt, they're using quite stiff brushes and the brushstroke leaves a line in it as each hair leaves an individual trace of its path across the canvas. And therefore, you end up with lots of little lines. So there's a strong relationship between a line drawing and a painting that has the gestural brushstrokes in it as well. It's all made up of lots of little lines, and that's what I'm really interested in. These often quite minuscule meandering, as you say, always curving. I'm very much a baroque artist. I don't believe in modern or classical straight lines. I like everything to be curving and moving and flowing and effervescent. So I'm continually trying to get the viewer's eye to move around the canvas as much as possible in different ways, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes jagged. Lee sometimes very smoothly. But differences of texture for your eye to enjoy.

Craig: [00:11:46] You know, on the on Thursday night, I went to a talk at a local museum where there was a Velazquez portrait of Philip IV on display in this art historian was talking about how Velazquez adopted this looseness in his mark making after studying Titians and he was talking about how the use of these loose marks was rather self-aggrandizing because it made the portrait no longer about strictly documenting the king and what he saw in front of him. But it became about, "Look at what I can do with this paint", right? "Look at me. Look at me." I know much of your work is in response to quick gestures, but your your goal seems to be sort of the same in terms of you're asking the viewer to be engaged with your adept mark making, right?

Glenn: [00:12:39] The Velasquez with paintings you mention are extremely good examples because in the Prado in Madrid you have there's a beautiful room full of Velasquez paintings and on one side it has the paintings of the royal family and on the other side it has paintings of the court jesters and basically the poor people in the courts. And the smoothness, the calm colors, the generally very sensual way the paint applied on the pictures of poor people is wonderful contrast to the other side of the room where the king and the prince are depicted with quite raucous colors, very jagged, rather aggressive brush strokes. They're almost pantomime in the way that...I suppose pantomime doesn't quite transcribe to American, does it? But there's sort of over, I should say, these brush strokes and you just held within the brush strokes, is this idea that you think he didn't really like his subjects, he didn't like the royal family particularly, and that's held within those brush strokes. You can just feel it. So it's a wonderful example.

Craig: [00:14:02] Well, it's really interesting. You know, I know that in many of your works kind of glaze over the eyes. They almost look like they have cataracts to the point of of being blinded. And I've heard you say it sort of turns the figure into sort of a shell of a person. It becomes more of just a form and that can then kind of become a vehicle again for you demonstrating this mark making that engages the viewer. It almost makes it sculptural, you know, in that a lot of times sculptures don't have very engaging eyes and it becomes more about that form than going directly to trying to perceive the "spirit of a person". Right?

Glenn: [00:14:46] Well, it really depends what I'm trying to guide the viewer to look at. Am I trying to guide the viewer to look at the the subject, the person painted and to read them and to try and understand what they're thinking, what their position in the world is and how they're reacting to the viewer, or am I trying to get them to look at me in the way as an artist and the way I've painted them? And most modern paintings of the 20th century, they were really far more interested in getting the viewer to look at the way the work was made and not really understand the person painted too much. And therefore it's a very common thing in early 20th century modernist work, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne for them to block out the eyes, Degas, they all did it because they wanted you to look at the brushstrokes and they wanted to look at the strange colors they were using. And then these very strange changes of form that they were playing around with. And they weren't really...they didn't want you particularly to engage with the person. Now I'm...with my glazing and you're almost giving the person cataracts. I'm sort of playing with that idea of not completely taking the eyes out, but giving this idea that the person is having difficulty looking back at you. But just because as humans, we're all about the gaze. We're all about how we look at the world and how the world looks back at us. Engagement with other people is very important to us. And therefore, if you see somebody in the streets that you realize are blind, there's something fascinating about them. You sort of think, "Can I look at them? Can't I look at them?" Because we always want to stare at other people. It's just how much staring can we get away with? And so I'm almost allowing the viewer to stare at the person in front of the person depicted in the painting. They can get away with a bit more looking than they would normally be able to do if the person is looking back at them.

Craig: [00:16:53] When you describe that kind of go to Goya in my mind, right? You know, I'm sure that was probably part of the appeal to some of the work that he did. And I know Gericault, also. Doing portraits of people that people really don't have the access or license to really study, right?

Glenn: [00:17:15] Yeah. I mean, it's that's one of the wonderful things about painting is it does allow you to take a long, hard look at somebody that you wouldn't normally want to face down in the street. You wouldn't normally be looking at them. And they're the fascinating people, the people that might be slightly dangerous and untrustworthy, oddballs, crazy and they're people you want to look at, but really don't. Just in case something happens when you do look at them. Obviously you want to look at beautiful people as well. But yeah, I find it's often the slightly misshapen people that I'm drawn to really want to look at.

Craig: [00:17:55] I recently had an artist on. Her name's Anj Smith, and she does these these paintings where she has loads of fine detail with really small brushes that are this detail is just kind of buried and you have to like, stop and engage. She kind of intentionally uses that fine detail to slow the viewer down. And, you know, I kind of think about that with your work that the craftsmanship and the mark making and the brushwork and the volume of it, you're really asking the viewer to to slow down and and spend more time with your work. And, you know, I know you've even, you know, talked about your marks, especially these these long curved marks almost working like, a game of "Snakes and Ladders", which here in the US we call "Chutes and Ladders". Can you talk a little bit about this game play you have with the viewer asking them to stop and ponder your work?

Glenn: [00:19:00] Well, it seems many years ago I came to the conclusion that most painting that was happening in the 1990s when I was a student was pretty quickly made, wasn't even necessarily being made by the artist. It could be a studio of people making it and quick production was very much part of it. Quick expression, and then the paintings were pretty quick to consume as well. And part of my training as an artist, I think at Goldsmiths especially, and at Bath College where I was, was to try and find those things that other people aren't doing because one thing you have to try to figure out as an artist or any creative person is to do something that other people aren't doing to try and find your own voice, to try and engage people. And that usually involves to give them something new and something surprising. And I thought, well, let's try and go against the current trend and let's make some very slow-to-make paintings, which also happen to fit in to. My particular way of my brain works because I am quite slow to make decisions. Maybe I would love to be an artist that could throw paint at the canvas and do quick gestures and produce something wonderful, but it's just not the way my brain works.

Glenn: [00:20:31] I take days, weeks, months to think about whether something's working or not. And so, yes, I'm trying to slow the viewer down, just like Anj, her paintings. She brings you in to look closely at these small paintings and what? She to have a very different feeling than you do with an awful lot of contemporary culture, which is about sort of that swipe left continuously. That's obviously the new image, let's not spend too much time dealing with detail. And I think both of us are trying to do the opposite to an awful lot of contemporary culture to slow you down. But that's not unusual. I mean, there are a lot of very long films made. There are a lot of very long books being written that do, again, try and slow you down. So it's not as if we're the only people trying to do it. It's something which artists and writers and filmmakers have always been trying to do.

Craig: [00:21:36] It feels like there's a part of your practice that's kind of intentionally counterintuitive, right? And I don't know if you're familiar with the American show "Seinfeld" that ran here 25 years ago, but there was a character named George whose life was a mess and no decisions ever turned out right. And so one day he decides to do the opposite of his intuition in every decision, and he winds up getting the job and getting the hot girl and turns his life around. And and so, you know, I know in your work, the least popular color is green. And so you're like, "I'll start using green. If female nudes sell the most, I'll paint old men. If people like beautiful things, I'll paint their grotesque. If expressionists make things in an hour, I'll take a year". Can you kind of talk about that proclivity to swim upstream? I mean, did that come from the conversations that you were referencing there at Goldsmiths with Michael Craig Martin, or were you looking to stand out or are you just countercultural deep at heart?

Glenn: [00:22:43] Well, I come just after a generation, which is punk, I suppose, and that did have a huge impact on culture, the idea of the counterculture, of the awkward person in society, the outsider, the somebody that was always embattled against mainstream culture. It was very deep-rooted. But again, you find that in in writing and art right throughout the 20th century, the idea of the outsider artist, it's nothing new. It just has just presents itself as different names, different ideas. So, yeah, the idea of the outsider is very important to my work. And that sort of...I think also I have a fascination with outsider artists, artists who didn't go to art school, who didn't go through the whole system of supposedly understanding culture, and maybe people who sit mentally slightly outside of the mainstream as well, they can't quite cope with contemporary society because of various issues they might have and some of the wonderful creations that they create. And they yeah, I have a great sympathy for people who can't quite fit in because fundamentally I think all of us somewhere have that notion that we don't quite fit in. It's actually normal to feel like you're not normal. And I'm trying to get to that part of the person who feels, "Ah, there's somebody else like me, there's somebody else who feels with somebody else, who feels outside of culture who's never quite going to succeed". And yeah, I' quote a little bit from Walt Whitman, I'm sort of I'm "making paintings for the vanquished and the slain for the people who didn't win".

Craig: [00:24:55] Can you talk about the Browne collection? So you've recently opened up, I guess we would call it a museum for your collection of your work, not only of the work that you own of other artists, but your own work. And so I have I guess I have a number of questions. You know, first is how much of your own work have you held on to?

Glenn: [00:25:23] Not as much as I should have, but enough to show. I would like to tell every young artist, keep your best paintings. Whenever you can keep a painting, try to. Because you will find in the future that not only do you have that painting to refer to and go, "Ah, I did this, this and this" and I can learn lessons from my older paintings, which having a reproduction or looking at your own picture in a photograph doesn't quite tell you all the information you need to know in order to learn those lessons very often. Having the actual work changes it. But not only that, maybe you want to put on an exhibition in the future and borrowing work from collectors if it's sold, for instance, can be quite difficult, both in terms of transporting the work and then the collector allowing you to take the risk of lending the painting because paintings get damaged when they get loaned, sometimes, hopefully not too often, but so whereas if I own it, they spend most of their time going out on loan around the world to different exhibitions. So it just allows me access to the paintings and it allows other people to have greater access to the paintings if I maintain ownership of them.

Craig: [00:26:48] But, you know, it is a little complicated for artists, because growing your career involves having to sell that work. Right? And both as a means of supporting yourself, but also establishing the value of your work in the "art market". But let me ask you, do you think of an artist could make a living without selling any of their work, do you think they would keep it all?

Glenn: [00:27:18] I would. Well, would I? I'm not...I mean, what I fundamentally want is other people to be able to see my work. It's why I opened this collection, because I just felt that art is an act of communication. I really feel art is communication. It's not self expression. I'm not trying to express myself. I'm trying to communicate with other people. There's a subtle difference between the two. But in order to communicate, you do need people to see your work. Obviously, if you express yourself, you don't need anybody to see it because that's not the point of it. You've expressed yourself on the canvas and then that's the end of the story. You've got rid of that anxiety you might have had. It's almost like the painting becomes an enema. It's a way of getting rid of all of the shit in your life. So sorry to be gross about it, but that's not the way I treat art. Art is a means of communicating ideas, notions, sensibilities, politics to other people. And therefore, I want them to be able to see the work. And that's why I open this space so people could actually see them and not misunderstand what they look like when they looked online and thought, I make the little paintings. They don't print, they don't translate very well to being online unfortunately, I wish they did, but it's just part of the process.

Craig: [00:28:54] So your work, just by the nature of your process, has a very curatorial aspect to it and what you've chosen, how you've chosen to change it paints a picture of who you are and when you self-reflect on that whole body of work installed together, you know, for example, there in the Brown Collection, are you able to step back and gain insight on who you are as an artist and a person? Do you have an impression of yourself?

Glenn: [00:29:27] That's about the most difficult thing to do, to have an impression of yourself. I would love to be able to walk in and look around this collection of work as if I hadn't seen it before because it would teach me so much and it would be so helpful. But it's so difficult to get rid of all of the memories of you making the work where the work's being exhibited, the reasons why you made the work, all the inside knowledge which the public don't have. And I want to be able to get all that out of my head. All of the information I have and just look at it as a stranger because it's the only way I can gauge whether the paintings are any good or not. And so I continually try to do battle to try and forget the ideas I had when I made the work and just look at them afresh. So, no, I don't have a very good understanding of who I am as a person, but I try to get better at doing it because it's really important to try and judge yourself from a distance.

Craig: [00:30:31] Yeah, it probably wasn't really fair question. I mean, it goes back to the allegory of Plato's cave, right? I mean, I don't think any of us are quite able to step that far out of it, but maybe that's when we recruit people off the street who have no preconceptions and just kind of follow them around and and pick their brain. Right? So let's talk about this body of work. Is it already up at Gagosian? "We'll Keep On Dancing Until We Pay the Rent". When does that show start?

Glenn: [00:31:00] It opens on the 8th of November. Yeah. So it's taken me two years to make these this group of work. That's pretty much normal amount of time for me to make an exhibition. And it has...there'll be eight or nine paintings in the show. So again, I make. For five six paintings a year on average. They're very slow and laborious to make, but I try my damnedest to be as quick as possible. Most of them are quite large paintings and they're all based on drawings, which is different from the last show I did in New York, where all the paintings are based on paintings. Many of them have multiple images in them as well. They have multiple heads, for instance, and so are different ways of looking at the work. You're not quite sure what you're looking at. They're quite surreal. Mostly portraits, one landscape and one tree, which the tree is sort of like a portrait as well.

Craig: [00:32:09] So it's similar to the work you did with, what was it, five or six years ago where you were kind of working from Rembrandts. But, you know, here it's not just that mark making where you're building the form with these individual marks. There's also're adopting this color palette like you normally do with the paintings. When I started thinking about the individual strokes, it's just painful to think of how much time you spend on these paintings.

Glenn: [00:32:42] Painful doesn't sound good.

Craig: [00:32:45] I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make it sound that way.

Glenn: [00:32:49] They...Yeah, it's not supposed to be painful. It's supposed to be enjoyable to them. But having said that, I do like the paintings to be a little bit of like the grit in the oyster. It's the thing that makes the annoying thing that makes the pearl grow is what's important. And that takes time. But it has to be an irritant to some degree because my paintings in equal measure have sort of lovely colors, but also awful rotten colors in them. They have forms which you can consider to be beautiful and poetic, but also quite grotesque. And I like them to be slightly between. And so a lot of the figures within the portraits in the paintings are sometimes looking up to the sky, looking to the heavens, looking for inspiration, or sometimes looking down at the ground rather forlorn or melancholy. I suppose there'd be sort of shoegaze musicians if that's what they were. And there's meant to be a rather sort of operatic, emotive quality about the work. It's life on steroids, I suppose - that it's normality that's heightened emotionally. Color-wise the brushstrokes within the work aren't even real brushstrokes that artificial brushstrokes, as you say, that aren't done with a quick gesture of blush. They're made with lots of tiniest brushstrokes and soft glazing and painting to create the effect of the brushstroke. And often these brushstrokes appear to be flying around the canvas as if the figure is starting to disintegrate and the form change and manipulate.

Craig: [00:34:49] Well, I mean, there's nothing about the viewing experience that's painful. I was I was just concerned about your well being, you know, you hear the stories about Michelangelo spending, you know, five years on his back with his arm extended over his head and trying to do the Sistine Chapel. And, you know, I'm concerned about whether you're experiencing joint pain like carpal tunnel or shoulder problems from the sheer number of marks you're making day after day for years to create this immensely detailed body of work, right?

Glenn: [00:35:21] I'm quite lucky because I'm ambidextrous to some degree, and I can actually paint I can share the load a little bit on my wrists and my hands are fine. But it's quite important I think, the work has this slightly bonkers look about it because I think...we like...the most famous story in art history of an artist is Van Gogh's story and the idea of him cutting his ear off A) because he was mad or B) because he was been eating oil paints or just he's inherited this madness. But everybody loves this romantic ideal of the tortured artist. And I'm playing that game to some degree as well of being the tortured artist. And yeah, I think I like the idea of good paintings being hard won. They should look like there was a struggle and a mighty struggle to produce them, because I think that that makes them feel vital and engaging and energetic in an operatic sense. Maybe.

Craig: [00:36:41] Well, Glenn, I really appreciate your time today. And again, the the show that's coming up at Gagosian is "We'll Keep On Dancing Until We Pay the Rent". And that's going to be at Gagosian's location on 24th Street in New York. I wish you all the best. And I certainly want to say thank you for you taking time out of your day to to talk with me about your work and engage with me as a viewer.

Glenn: [00:37:11] Well, thank you very much. Thank you for asking me. It's been a pleasure.

Craig: [00:37:20] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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