Briana McLaurin: Unlearning Portraiture 

Briana McLaurin in front of her painting titled, Hope, Love, and What Else…?, 2020, Oil, pencil, and sharpie on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Photo courtesy of the artist

Briana McLaurin takes on an intimate subject matter in her large scale oil paintings, as her practice primarily consists of painting her family members. Her vibrant portraits serve as a tribute to her own experiences and upbringing, while creating a relatable narrative that celebrates African American presence. The honesty and value of family are extremely present in McLaurin’s recent body of work, where she reflects on her relationships with loved ones by depicting intimate snapshots of domesticity.

Some of the titles and the domestic interiors in your pieces indicate your connection to the people you depict. Tell me about the significance of your figures and how that contributes to your autobiographical hand, which feels extremely present in your work.

One of the goals that I keep in mind as I work is to create the painting that I want to see—to build the narrative, the arc, the main characters, side characters, setting, etc., to commemorate the world that I can relate to. As a result, the figures in my paintings are my family members. My work celebrates family and African American presence.

Briana McLaurin, Round a Melody, 2021, Oil and Glitter on Canvas, 72 x 60 in, Photo courtesy of the artist

You make the objects and surfaces in your pieces feel just as important as the figures which occupy the space. This especially stands out to me in your three recent paintings Round a Memory (The Artists), Round a Harmony, and Round a Melody, which each contain a still life of disheveled beauty supplies. How do you think about the relationship between figure, object, and space when building a composition and narrative?

As someone who is primarily interested in portraiture, I had to force myself to unlearn what constitutes a portrait. I began to think about still lifes and interior spaces as conveying as much personal information—if not more—as would a figure. I’d say to myself, “You’re creating one painting filled with multiple portraits,” those portraits being figures, objects, and the spaces that they occupy. In my most recent work, Round a Memory (The Artists), Round a Harmony, and Round a Melody, the disheveled beauty supplies function as symbols of my sisters’ busy lives as hair and makeup artists. The goal as I paint and create a narrative is for every aspect in the scene to provide a different element to the subject that I am portraying.

Briana McLaurin, Round a Memory (The Artists), 2021, Oil and Glitter on Canvas, 72 x 60 in, Photo courtesy of the artist

In Round a Memory (The Artists) the objects that catch my eye are the pink dollhouse and the stack of board games and first aid kit illuminated by the lamp, maybe because they feel relatable to my own memory of childhood and domestic space. What role does memory play in your work? Do you use other references such as photography, art history, or pop culture?

Memory plays an essential role in my work. When I think about memory, I think about time, which is something that I often consider as I create. Whether subconscious or not, I think pretty much all of my work is based on a memory. My old self-portraits are snapshots of my younger self, reminding me what I looked like at that time, what my hair situation was, my body, and even my painting techniques. What makes a piece of art even more intimate, I believe, is a shared memory; when you can look at someone else’s painting and identify relatable objects that make you think about your own history. This idea of a shared memory is something that I often keep in mind as I paint.

I usually refer to photographs that I take myself, photos of people and architecture. In terms of art history, I often look at color and composition. One of the things that made me fall in love with painting in the first place was studying work created during or around the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Jacob Lawrence played a major role in the way that I would view color and shapes. Beauford Delaney inspired me to think about my brush strokes differently and really emphasize them in my paintings. Regarding pop culture, I’ll sometimes throw in little references if it makes sense to the narrative, mostly something small and identifiable like the board games.

Briana McLaurin, Round a Harmony, 2021, Oil and Glitter on Canvas, 72 x 72 in, Photo courtesy of the artist

One of the things I’ve enjoyed while watching you work over the past couple years is your use of color, especially in the skintones of your figures. How important is this technique to the subject of your work and how has your approach to color as material and form changed or grown over time?

I have a very strange relationship with color that I believe I will always be navigating. On the one hand, it forces me to stop and focus on my subjects until I see the various colors composed on their skin. And on the other hand, it forces me to not look at the subjects at all and just paint the colors that I want to see. I think when it comes to my work and my process, color is a very meticulous technique. Something as simple as changing the color of the walls would have a huge impact on the entire piece. Something as miniscule as adding a small red object will change the image completely. My approach to color has definitely changed over time in that it is now a lot more patient. I think, during my process, I kind of had to learn how to not only see the colors but listen to them as well. I had to ask myself, “what is this yellow ochre next to this burnt umber telling you?” or “why isn’t this blue-grey working with this yellow-green?” I’ve had multiple epiphanies that have helped me figure out what was going wrong or right with my painting based on the color alone.

Briana McLaurin, Working Title, 2020, Oil on Canvas, 12 x 9 in, Photo courtesy of the artist

Your work also emphasizes texture and conveys intimacy through the lushness of the fabrics you depict. Can you talk about this in relation to your Coat Series?

So, my Coat Series was the first time where I sort of intentionally began to emphasize texture. I’ve done it a few times in my paintings in the past but I went into this series knowing that I wanted to play around with it. These four paintings are inspired by portraits of myself and my sisters, all of us wearing coats with different fabrics. The paintings became even more personal as I assigned different brushes to each piece in order to set them apart and build the texture differently. I had to think of new ways to achieve the thickness everytime. In Untitled (Coat Series I), the texture in the fur on the hood was made up of old dried pieces of oil paint that I collected. This was different from that of Untitled (Coat Series III) in which I used a flat brush to apply thick layers of paint in various directions.

Briana McLaurin, Untitled (Coat Series III), 2019, Oil on Canvas, 40 x 30 in, Photo courtesy of the artist

Your paintings feel extremely personal but also specific to this time period in your life. What are you working on now and what do you envision for your future work?

Right now, I am starting a body of work that engages the viewers, one in which the subjects and the audience play a part in the scene. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about viewers’ role in a painting and how the subjects can interact with them. I am playing around with gaze even more, where the audience can view the setting that the figures occupy and in turn, the figures can view ours; where we can see something that they have yet to see in their environment and vise-versa. I’ve been playing around with more shadows lately, some of which belong to those in the painting and some of which are implied, belonging to the viewers.

Briana McLaurin (b. 1998, New Jersey) lives and works in New York, NY. She holds a BA in Fine Arts from Mason Gross School of Art and Design at Rutgers University. McLaurin has a solo exhibition online at Thierry Goldberg gallery and has participated in group exhibitions at Mason Gross Galleries, New Brunswick, NJ, and Brick and Mortar Gallery, Easton, PA.

Lauren Krasnoff is an artist and writer based in Guttenberg, NJ. Lauren has participated in group exhibitions at the Newark Museum of Art and Mason Gross Galleries, New Brunswick, NJ.