STRIVING TO MAKE THE UNBELIEVABLE BELIEVABLE
A Spotlite on Painter CALEB BROWN
By Tyler Malone
Caleb Brown paints cultural allegories, incorporating surreal elements into his near-photorealistic paintings. There is a delicate balance–or is it an uneasy tension?–between these two disparate components, between the seeming unreality of the scenes he conjures up and the convincing reality of their rendering. As influenced by modern technology, media culture, music mash-ups, and internet memes, as he is by the painters he looks to for inspiration, Brown is creating in his canvases a universe adjacent to our own–one that is structured by its own mythos–but whose truths speak to our world, to our reality, to our present time.
As he attempts to explore the complexities of existence in contemporary life through his own idiosyncratic tropology, he is, in his own words, “striving to make the unbelievable believable,” and converting believers all along the way.
Tyler Malone: What drew you to the art world? When did you know you wanted to become an artist?
Caleb Brown: I’ve spent my time drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure at what age I became aware of the possibility of being a professional artist, but once I did I don’t think that it ever really occurred to me that I would be anything else. While I’m equally attracted to film and music, I’ve always been drawn to painting as my mode of creative communication. Also, I’m kind of an introvert and have a touch of the hermetical impulse that’s shared by all realist painters.
TM: Who are some of your favorite artists?
CB: Some of my favorite painters are El Greco, Velasquez, Goya–anything Spanish really–as well as Rembrandt, de Kooning, and Bacon. If I were to throw in some contemporary painters would have to include Cecily Brown and Neo Rauch.
I’m often asked if my work is inspired by the Surrealist painters (of whom Dali and Magritte are some of my favorites from an early age). While I admit that I’ve adopted some of their visual aesthetic, I would say that my current work is more informed by the Netherlandish painters of the 15th century such as Rogier Van der Weyden and Robert Campin. Their ability to create completely convincing yet supernatural realities in which their patrons existed alongside angels and demons is astounding. I strive in my own work to create worlds as persuasive and fantastical as theirs.
TM: You’ve mentioned that a lot of your biggest inspiration doesn’t come from other art, but from music and internet culture? Could you tell me some of these influences, and explain how they inform your work?
CB: The first musician that I specifically remember influencing my work was Fela Kuti. He wrote songs about colonialism and political oppression, but they would take the form of long afro-beat dance anthems. I was always blown away by his ability to marry the joy of music with the tragedy of life in a way that was both jarring and natural. I’ve been trying for years to echo that balance of fear and humor, joy and terror, in my own paintings.
My more recent musical inspirations have come from mash-up artists. These contemporary musicians have begun to push audio collage to such an extent that they become both music-criticism as well as original pieces of art in their own rite, using the entire canon of pop-music as their palette. I see the same thing happening in internet meme culture in which found images are being pieced together and distorted en mass in order express a myriad of ideas (admittedly mostly crude or absurd). I think that what started as joke e-mails and LOLCats is developing into a new visual culture of unfettered digital appropriation and communication.
I try to employ a similar aesthetic by fleshing out my concepts using found digital imagery, however I take the elastic and ephemeral digital collages and translate them into the physical and permanent medium of oil-paint. I guess that I’m trying to marry the emerging modes of digital visual expression with classical composition and materials in order to make paintings that are not only about the modern world, but also of the modern world.
TM: Your paintings often have surreal subject matter–such as sharks being dropped from jetplanes–but these unlikely images are painted in near-photorealistic fashion. Is there a balance that you are attempting to strike between the seeming unreality of the scenes you create and the reality of the rendering?
CB: One of the main focuses of my work is the tension of composing the most ridiculous and unbelievable scenarios and painting them in the most controlled and convincing way, striving to make the unbelievable believable. I’m always trying to balance those two extremes while pushing them further and further apart.
TM: How do you come up with the ideas for your paintings? Where do these scenes germinate?
CB: My paintings usually begin by marrying particular conceptual themes (such as the unnatural redefinition of our relationships to nature, the unfathomable and unstoppable forces of global economic and environmental change, etc.) with compositional ideas which usually confine the viewer into very particular positions in relation to the space of the paintings…and then I usually add some of my favorite animals. Once I find a combination of these visual and conceptual elements that I find successful, I repeat them several times in order to construct an increasingly persuasive reality.
TM: You have several reoccuring motifs and have created a world all your own that we get a glimpse of from painting to painting, when did you start to formulate this mythic almost-real alternative reality in which the scenes you depict take place?
CB: After several failed attempts to paint about the contemporary world through more conventional avenues (a kind of ridiculous goal in and of itself, to describe the current world using an ancient art-form), I decided that the best way for me to successfully communicate my concepts was to create a kind of alternate future world in which I explode my concepts into their most extreme and overt manifestation. My hope is that by repeating and building on these motifs I can create a believable world that conveys some truths about (or at least my perceptions of) our own world by distorting and magnifying it.
TM: In addition to your own paintings, you also work with and for Jeff Koons. How did that come about? And what is it you do for him?
CB: I was hired by Jeff Koons as an artist assistant on the strength of my portfolio of paintings (not a very interesting story). I work alongside other artists to assist in the production of Jeff’s artwork, specifically his large-scale photo-based paintings.
TM: Does the painting you do for him have anything to do with your own painting? Does the one inform the other? Or are they completely separate for you?
CB: While my own work doesn’t share much conceptually or formally with Koons’, my work definitely benefits from my constantly being immersed in the production of art (both intellectually and in terms of process and painting facility). I benefit not only from working for Jeff, but from working alongside my many coworkers who are all artists in their own rite.
Caleb Brown is an artist born in Washington State where he was raised and started drawing and painting at a very young age. Caleb attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA where he earned a Bachelor of Arts with a studio art major. He continued his education at Boston University from which he was awarded a Master of Fine Arts in painting in 2007. Caleb currently lives and works in New York City.
Caleb Brown interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Brett Moses
Design by Jillian Mercado
Caleb Brown, Photography by Brett Moses
Artwork by Caleb Brown