Artist/performer/filmmaker Brent Green is known for the raw beauty and poetic power in his animations, performances, and art installations. For instance, as an artist in residence at the Park Avenue Armory from the fall of 2015 to early 2016, Green performed at the venue’s “Under Construction Series” animated works-in-progress with a live band. Later on that year, Green provided video projections and music for the first portion of “Empathy School/Love Story,” Aaron Landsman’s theater diptych of monologues at the Abrons Art Center, where the audience were seated on stage. We started our conversation when we first met at his superb recent installation exhibit at Andrew Edlin Gallery.
AS: Brent, you are a writer, visual artist, filmmaker, performer, and musician. Do you see any of these interests as more central in your work?
Brent Green: Oh, not really. When you boil it down, I’m better at film probably because that’s where all those things lock into each other. A really well made movie’s like an old car- all the parts look amazing. The engine sounds gorgeous. There’s old Buick and Studebaker hood ornaments I’d hang on my wall. Chock full of memories, nostalgia, perfect mechanical workings, a radio is a magnificent thing all by itself. A film piles those things together, decides where to start, where to pull over or if you break down in the middle, if you fly off a cliff or come home quietly to your family.
AS: Has that impetus changed over the years?
Brent Green: When I was a young man, I was making work to try and create something beautiful out of the shitty things around me. It was kind of an obsessive anti-social prayer – for there to be beauty and good in the world. So now that I’m less nuts and depressed, I make work to create something new and beautiful, things that make people think that the possibilities in the world are just a little bigger than what they had imagined before.
AS: You are an autodidact (a prodigious one if I may say). Tell me a bit about your art genesis – lets start with your films (milestones that most impacted your art and you as artist).
Brent Green: I’d never drawn before I was 22, when I started making animations to deal with the fact that my writing and music felt like they were missing something. I wasn’t sure what was missing, but I believed that if instead of just writing a story I could create the whole room – what it sounded like, looked like, what the focus of the eye was – then it would really be what I had in my mind. I was flailing before I tried to cobble every sense into one cohesive thing. Then, it seemed to work. At 25, I got a Creative Capital grant, and suddenly I was exposed to a lot more of the world.
AS: What artists are you looking at (or listening to) – in any artform that comes to mind?
Brent Green: Well, I’ve been super busy and my mind doesn’t work if I don’t read, so I’m into really short plays right now. This morning I read “Krapp’s Last Tape” by Beckett and Albee’s “The Sandbox.”
There’s so much incredible art being made right now. I’ve seen Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience maybe 35 times, and erupted in spontaneous cheers at different points every single time. It’s a gorgeous example of both a beautiful thing in troubled times and the need for beautiful things in troubled times.
I think Eva O’Leary is the current Hunter S. Thompson- an incredibly strange and talented artist who is getting access to the most American of places with the backing and platform of great mainstream publications.
Sadie Schiffman-Eller is a brilliant young animator making work about the even-darker-than-you’d-think sperm donation world. Her stuff is moving, thought provoking and hilarious.
That’s three young artists looking at the world on fire around them with a very clear eye.
If Marilynne Robinson told me to jump off a bridge, I might do it. I’d be very curious what’s under that bridge she wants me to see in such a hurry.
AS: I was first introduced to your installation work at Andrew Edlin Gallery in LES. Tell me a bit about your sculptural work – what gets you started, some clues about your process, and how does sound / music play into it?
Brent Green: For those pieces (the violin dresses in particular), I was listening to a lot of Penderecki’s string stuff. I wanted my studio to sound like that- like thunder out of metal clouds. So, I built versions of those dresses and had them spin on motors all day in my studio. It was wonderful. Melodies would emerge, and gradually change over the hours as strings went in and out of tune.
AS: What can you tell me about your process of creating a film? I am fascinated by the way you fuse documentary with fantasy in all your films. Let’s take for example “Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then,” your feature length stop-action film based on the true story of Leonard Wood and the incredible house he built for his sick wife in Louisville Ky?
Brent Green: I think part of that is that I really don’t care about the details. A good documentarian would want to know what Lincoln ate before going to Ford’s Theater. If it makes me laugh picturing him behind the White House chasing vultures off a donkey carcass (or whatever) – I’ll just go with that. I’m pretty sure it makes no difference what Lincoln ate that day. Similarly, I don’t care how Leonard and Mary Wood met for “Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then.” It just matters that they did, and they fell in love.
I like true stories, but no one would mistake me for a journalist.
AS: Your films resonate with intense intimacy. Watching them feels almost voyeuristic – whether you narrate a moving love poem to your wife or portray an obsessed creator who devotes all his creative powers to build a house as a “healing machine” for his beloved wife (even fifteen years after her death). You make us aware of the wonder in the utmost mundane. Is this on your mind?
Brent Green: I do lay in bed listening to my wife’s heart. And I suspect, or at least hope, everyone has a person they love as much as I love Kate.
A couple days ago, I was repairing some leaks on our roof – I was up there in a rainstorm, figuring out what was going wrong and, ultimately, just replacing a bunch of our roof. I’d been really sick recently – had Lyme Disease and then got pneumonia a bunch of times in the fallout of that. I was thinking how much more in common I had with the rain than the roof.
I also have plenty in common with the roof… We can be patched and repaired for a while, but ultimately, we just fall apart, spread willy-nilly. The best we can hope for is we’ve sheltered the people we love.
The places our minds wander to, spurred by even the most mundane things, is magic. I think it’s the one thing that makes me believe humanity is not a computer simulation.
AS: When I watched the film, it occurred to me that the necessity of building a healing house out of love for a dying wife echoes the necessity of any artistic creation. Along these lines I later read that in her New York Times review of the film Rachel Saltz saw Leonard’s house as a metaphor for your own moviemaking process. How do you see that?
Brent Green: I agree with that, yes. It felt very literally true at the time. The health care debate was raging then (over the initial developments of ObamaCare). People I loved were sick and not being treated, or getting treated before a full diagnosis, which was a gift from generous doctors, so they wouldn’t have a pre-existing condition. A friend of mine committed suicide after racking up untenable medical debts. You remember that was (maybe still is?) a frequent thing? People would commit suicide when they felt they were too much of a financial burden on their loved ones.
And even if health care truly becomes a compassionate system, there will be the awful inequalities of capitalism, of greed, of young men and women being asked to do horrific things in war. It will always be hard to feel very alone, or to watch someone you love get sick, or disappear suddenly.
With art, you hope to say – even in its most mundane circumstances, the world is wild, constantly exploding and rubber-banding back into place. Full of wonder. You want people to stick around and want to make the world more beautiful for the people around them.
AS: Saul Ostrow wrote in his introduction to your interview for Art in America (2011) that you work in the vain of artist as mythmaker, as teller of tall tales. Do you agree with him? What is your take on that?
Brent Green: I think we live in a time where rules abound. People want scripts, and stories and art to follow a particular structure, to be made of similar materials. I have no interest in the whims of my time. I suspect my disregard for all that garbage is what makes my tales seem tall.
AS: Saul Ostrow also said in that introduction that you focus on characters tragically consumed by their obsessions, due to their imperfect understanding of themselves and the ways of the world. Can you talk about this in relation for some characters in your films?
Brent Green: Doesn’t that describe everyone?
I don’t say that glibly.
We all have completely imperfect understandings. Either a person gets consumed by their obsessions, tragically (I think it always ends tragically… I think…), and feverishly works away trying to build their specific world around them till they drop dead from the effort, or a person gets consumed by the obsessions of their society and gets eaten alive and rotten from within by consumerism and fear-mongering. Might as well go down trying desperately to make something you think is beautiful.
AS: Animation and film are inherently about time. For me your stop-action technique, pace and narration create a particularly strong sense of temporality. For example, “Carlin” (7½ minutes, 2007) tells the story of your Aunt’s slow demise at age 35 from diabetes in your family home. I am curious to know what made you chose stop-action and how does this particular homemade feel serve your ideas?
Brent Green: I tried to train chickens to shoot it live-action, but chickens can’t be trained. So, stop motion it was. I got some dead chickens and ran wires through them, so they’d stay in place when I moved them.
Animation with real things is so strange. It has a wonderful effect, like Brecht’s “Alienation Effect” – that lets the viewer simultaneously be drawn into the emotional aspect of the film while retaining enough distance that you still think your own thoughts, that you’re not 100% swept into the film’s world. It makes your brain light up more akin to reading than typical movie-watching.