Hovey Brock: Crazy River

In Dialogue with Hovey Brock

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Hovey Brock at work on Crazy River, 2019, acrylic on panel, 30” x 40,” a work from his Crazy River series.

Hovey Brock’s current paintings are part of Crazy River, a larger project he has been developing since 2017. The paintings are based on his life-long relationship to the West Branch of the Neversink, which runs between Ulster and Sullivan counties in New York state. The project also includes text and videos, drawing on the artist’s experience and stories about the West Branch and the western Catskill mountains handed down through his family.

Tell me a bit about yourself and how did you start your Crazy River project?

I went to college with ambitions to become a fiction writer, but in my freshman year I took a painting class. I became obsessed with its processes and history. Since then, I have always traded off between painting and writing. In the last five years, the writing has taken a more personal turn with the Crazy River project, which yokes writing with painting to address the theme of climate grief.

Tell me more about this project.

I have had the good fortune to grow up on the West Branch of the Neversink, a beautiful stream in upstate New York legendary among fly fishermen. The Lenape, its original inhabitants, had called the river nkëchehòsi sipu, which means “crazy river,” due to its frequent flash floods. I gave that name to my project in part to honor what the Lenape had lost to the European settlers. “Crazy River” also captured the cascade of feelings with my first experience of climate grief. What triggered that epiphany was a freak event: a pair of “100-year” floods on the West Branch that took place back-to-back in 2011 and 2012. The devastation appalled me, with vegetation stripped from the banks, all stream life scoured away, and garbage everywhere. It dawned on me that climate change was responsible, and, with its acceleration, flooding would become more frequent and more destructive. Close on the heels of that realization came the climate grief, which I felt as a torrent of emotions: confusion, anger, fear, guilt and more. My work in this project has been an on-going response to that experience.

You are a painter. How do you see the role of painting in this project?

The act of painting has led me into states of mind very different from ordinary awareness. My takeaway from these incidents is that language and culture, while essential as the foundations for civilization, also act as screens that hide the reality that humanity is a fragment embedded in a gigantic whole that includes all living things and the inanimate world. My painting process includes the use of templates made from screens that include a word or phrase, applied in multiple layers, imitating how language and culture obscure this greater reality. The words come from my autobiographical writing practice which focuses on addressing climate change and grief. Sometimes, the templates get so many applications of paint the words become obscured. I like the idea of exhausting language to arrive at a new understanding. The painting below carries the name, partially obscured, of a wetland area in the West Branch valley.

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Jones Flats, 2020, acrylic on panel, 30” x 40”

You are also a writer. You say that the writing in this project explores three types of time, mirroring the paintings. Can you elaborate on that?

The three types of time I address in both the painting and the writing deal with memory, history, and geologic time. Memory entails my limited recollections of my past and my family’s, augmented by the narratives that I heard growing up. History refers to the narratives and counter-narratives enshrined in my cultural heritage. Geologic time has timelines rather than narratives, recording events devoid of human drama. All these perspectives intersect and contradict each other in my work.

You also reference Veering: A Theory of Literature by Nicholas Royle. What is the gist of this theory and how is it related to your project?

In his book Dark Ecology, Tim Morton singles out Veering: A Theory of Literature as a big influence. Veering’s challenging thesis emphasizes discontinuity over continuity in analyzing all forms of creative writing—novels, poems, plays, etc. Normally, when we extract meaning from literature, we try to forge a coherent whole. Royle stands this principle on its head by focusing on the gaps, the jumps, the inconsistencies in the authors he studies, to show how these events generate their own kind of meaning. Morton makes the point that wrapping our heads around the climate crisis entails just this kind of discontinuous thinking, where the intimate personal, the contested historical, and the vast geological realities all coexist.

What would you like us to take away from Crazy River?

Read my essay Crazier River in Appalachia Journal, and then take a look at my Crazy River paintings. These show how climate grief pulled the rug out from under me, forcing a new art practice and activism. Has climate grief changed you? What will you do about it?


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A Golden Spike for the Anthropocene, 2021, acrylic on panel, 30” x 40”

All photo courtesy of the artist

Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017