Farrell Brickhouse: Counter – Punching with Paint

I have been following Farrell Brickhouse’s work since 2014, when he showed his work at Life on Mars in Bushwick. You do not just “view” Brickhouse’s paintings, you experience them on a deeply intimate level. He unabashadly talks about painting in relation to “soul” and “subconscience”. As a painter who can show an outstanding body of work which convincingly resurects these modernist notions from oblivion, he also freshens these notions for the next generation of artists. Farrell Brickhouse graciously conducted with me the following interview.

Farrell Brickhouse Rear Studio,  photo courtesy of the artist

AS: You teach at the School of Visual Arts. How do you think these 2 practices – artist / educator inform each other?

Farrell Brickhouse: It’s a privilege to share one’s hard won experience, to be in a dialogue with young people and to feel relevant. It is a vibrant part of my life. Teaching over the years at SVA has demanded verbalizing what is not quantifiable, I’ve learned somewhat the ability to articulate the passion of making. It has required me to stay current and organize art history into something vital and useful to students in their own evolving practice beyond names, dates and movements. I also get to paint with them which is something special since most of my art making is a solitary endeavor. I also have my SVA Waste Paint Painting Series where students deposit their left- over paint on a single canvas instead of throwing it away and after a Semester of that I bring it home and continue. It has produced some good paintings and is a great playful teaching device about the fluidity of paint and pushing stuff around.

Farrell Brickhouse, Lovers Lane, 2014, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches,  photo courtesy of the artist

AS: How do you see your work in an art historical context?

Farrell Brickhouse: I come out of this persistent line of painterly romantic story tellers that weaves its presence through art history and human expression. The “Pendulum” has swung again recently and the acceptance of painterly story- telling and a bearing witness has rejuvenated my career. I hope we can continue where it won’t be a matter of choosing an ascendant form but there will be numerous forms of worthy pursuit. Just make it good. There is in Contemporary Art an excitement – I see my concerns expressed in young artists, and old ‘friends’ continue to be this living inspiration.

One idea I’ve had lately is that as trust in elites erodes, we turn to rumor and myth. Popular culture is full of super heroes and goblins. I see in Goya’s evolution his bearing witness to the profound changes to his society. I see in my own work an attempt to find an imagery that can speak to these times full of mythic and monstrous forms.

AS: Can you tell me about a typical day in your studio? – e.g., your process, source material, genesis of work (examples from images you would like to include)

Farrell Brickhouse: “Work comes from work.” There is a process to working, of starting somewhere and then building on that, like a counter- puncher. Put up something and then move it from there, trusting that I know what I want or don’t, as I see it before me. Patti Smith sung about losing control to gain control, understanding one’s intentions, not being afraid to make mistakes, looking for what one doesn’t know, painting to see what one knows – all those things that apply to any creative process. I feel once I am fully immersed in “studio- time” I can approach a fugue- like state, where things seem destined – it’s as if I am discovering, not making, where I have complete access to what I know yet being beyond my own knowledge. At the deepest level, it’s about recognizing what is “true” as it is happening and satisfying one’s soul that what is being done is worthy.

Lately I’ve gotten very good at gathering images that I feel I need to inform my next moves. I make these assemblages on the studio computer and take a screen shot so I don’t have to hunt the individual files again. I also always draw, even for a few minutes to ask “ what if “. Often that’s enough info to allow me to act. Taking photos at certain moments also allows me to see the work anew – unseen events become evident and offer ways forward. I also bring new works into my rear studio and set them amongst older paintings. Like bringing a new friend to a party of old ones, things often become immediately apparent as the novelty fades and one’s subjective vision is re-informed.

Farrell Brickhouse, Hands Tell, 2015, oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Can you describe briefly how you started your art career – school, beginnings in the art world, influences. Could you talk about significant turning points in your art career, lets start with successes?

Farrell Brickhouse: I went to Queens College at New York City University and there made a commitment to making art despite the turbulent times of the late 60’s. Artists as diverse as Charles Cajori, Gabriel Laderman, Ilya Bolotowsky, Richard Serra and Judy Pfaff were teaching there. At that time the lines between abstraction and figuration were still sharply defined and defended. After I graduated I went fishing for a few years out of Montauk. In the mid- 70’s I settled in what was to become Tribeca.

Artists organized their own shows in the storefronts that were all but abandoned in downtown New York City at the time, much like what has happened throughout artists’ communities in Brooklyn and elsewhere the last few years. There was a wonderful dealer named Julian Preto, who took note of me. He would somehow acquire some of the more spectacular spaces downtown and many noted artists would show their outsized works while their uptown shows were running. Julian provided a meeting place for very young and more mature artists to have breakfast on a Sunday morning and to hang their work side by side. Robert Ryman, Al Held, Dorothea Rockburne. and Mike Goldberg were some of the regulars at Julian’s. The Senior critic for the NY Times, John Russell, came to Julian’s to review the big guys and championed my work. From there I worked with Max Protech Gallery in the early 80’s.

AS: And “failures”?

Farrell Brickhouse: There were two “failures” that worked to my advantage in the long run. One was not being able to keep up with the demands for “product” when I was with Max Protetch. I was in my early 30’s and everything was selling. At one point I had no time to live with what I was doing or learn from it – it all just went out the door. I decided that was not why I was an artist and left the gallery. I spent about 5 years just painting for myself without any due dates. It allowed my art to deepen and for me to produce a body of work I was proud of. I found Pamela Auchincloss Gallery by 1988 and had a wonderful run with her.

The second “failure”, or turn of fortune, was when she closed in the mid- 90’s as Post Modernism came into favor. Painterly painting was out and so was I. I used the decade to do anything I wanted since virtually no one was paying any attention. The rise of the internet, particularly Facebook, and a turn to a more pluralistic art world has given me an unexpected return to showing and sharing my work. Again, that time “off” allowed me to be able to mount shows out of a body of work particularly with John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY and then Michael David’s Life on Mars gallery in Bushwick, NY.

Farrell Brickhouse, Stapleton Rainbow, 2010, 20 × 16 inches, Oil, mixed media on canvas, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: How has the art world changed from your perspective?

Farrell Brickhouse: I wasn’t saddled with a huge monetary debt coming out of college, housing was cheap – I paid $300 a month for an illegal 1200 sq. ft. loft space downtown NYC with no heat or hot water. There were the “Loft Wars” which most folks are unaware transpired. Many of the casualties of that very nasty eviction event in Manhattan migrated to Brooklyn and elsewhere, creating those artists’ communities by the early 80’s.

There was a more casual approach by galleries in viewing new work, more accessibility for a young artist. There was a feeling there would be a place for you if you but stuck with it. I think the pressures on young artists influence their art practice. Many young artists I know are forced to move every few years due to rent increases. We are a too smart species and it seems everything gets formulaic and commodified and it is difficult to hold onto our initial vision. I think many young artists are living the life, meeting and greeting, getting out in the world, I do often wonder who I would be, growing up in these times.

Farrell Brickhouse, Strong Men # 4, 2015, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 Inches (part of the SVA Waste Paint Painting Series), photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Experiencing your paintings takes me as close to “living in the moment” as it gets. What’s your take on the notion of “time” in your work?

Farrell Brickhouse: I’ll take that as a compliment and a lovely thing to say Etty, thank you. In 1902 Yeats wrote:

”A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

I love that notion Whislter used in defense of his work against the critic Ruskin- that it took his whole life to get to that afternoon in the studio throwing paint. DeKooning noted we no longer have that sense of eternity in our work, but a glimpse. I feel and hope that my imagery is somehow embedded in human consciousness, these shared eternal forms as Jung described, but their rendering is a flicker in time, about to change – the light catching an arm or brow for just that moment.

Farrell Brickhouse, Old Man Push-Up dream II, 2010, oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches, photo courtesy of the artist
Farrell Brickhouse, Healer III for Dana, 2014, oil on canvas, 12x 16 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In a Brooklyn Rail review a few years ago Jason Stopa described your paintings as “some of the most intimate paintings of our time.”  I concur. Can you relate to the idea of intimacy in your painting?

Farrell Brickhouse: I appreciated that Review by Jason, it’s important when the writing states so well what you hope is there in the work and is quite beyond your own articulating. The question may be what to paint, but just as importantly is the how. There is something so alive and sensuous about paint, this colored mush of ground minerals and oil. It is meant for rendering the human, what it is to be alive the wonder and terror of this world. It is such a privilege to be in a position to ponder and pursue these questions, to see what we have to share.For an artist painting allows the chance to get close to feeling alive in the fullest and most lasting way. For me – why would it be anything less than an intimate vulnerable expression?

Farrell Brickhouse, Styx 3, 2017, oil, glitter on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, photo courtesy of the artist
Farrell Brickhouse, Feral Blue- 2018, oil, glitter on canvas, 16 x 16 inches. photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What are you currently working on- future projects you would like to share?

Farrell Brickhouse: I just put up this current Project Room show at David and Schweitzer Contemporary. I was slated to have a one- person this Spring 2018, but after talking with Michael David we agreed to move that to the Fall of 2018 which gives me the time I needed. I always try to be in a position to select a show out of a body of work rather that working for a due date and Michael understands this very well. I continue to exhibit with John Davis in both his wonderful Carriage House and main gallery in Hudson, NY; and I am invited to participate in upcoming group shows here and abroad.

I am in one of those moments where I feel I am figuring something out, putting together and having access to things that I have wanted in my art. I keep being amazed at how things keep unfolding in my practice. I have a series of works on paper that are in a looping dialogue with my painting, informing one another.

farrell brickhouse at life on mars 2014 photo courtesy of Etty Yaniv