Selfish Media Archeology: In the Studio with Craig Drennen

Craig Drennen, Dramatis Personae, 2010 | Oil and alkyd on canvas, 72 x 80 inches. Installation view from Craig Drennen: Timon of Athenssamsøn, Boston.

Currently an artist in residency at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and recently named a Dean at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Craig Drennen has a jocular manner and earnest articulation that made for a cheerful studio visit. For the last several years, Drennen has taken vaguely-familiar staged cultural artifacts (the Supergirl movie from the 1980s, Shakespeare's most obscure play Timon of Athens, or David Robbins' Talent) and built challenging hyperreal canvases that invite the audience to reconsider the nature of representation. Our conversation, and more images, after the jump.   —Paul Boshears, Atlanta contributor

Drennen in his studio. Photos: Paul Boshears

PB: You've stated that these are ideal subjects because they have this empty bandwidth which you can use to communicate. It sounds like you're saying they are hollowed-out. Is it a fair description to suggest that you're doing something like media archaeology?
CD: I think that's a good way to phrase it, only I'm probably a little more selfish than most archaeologists.... Because, it's not that I'm trying to resuscitate the thing that I am exploring, which is the biggest part of archaeology, you know?

My approach is really two-fold. For one, that these things are “hollowed-out” as you say, it's like inhabiting an abandoned millworks. It allows me a structure such that when I start my work it already has this structure in place and intact. In this way, I'm not making work that is just about my own subjectivity. When you see a Matisse, you have to somewhat enter the world of Matisse. The same for Cézanne or really any of those folks in that Modernist model. And I'm not building a monument to myself in that way. That's the first part; it really solves a problem for me in that I have never really been comfortable building work around my own subjectivity. Mind you, it's still present.

The other part, and here sometimes people laugh at me for saying this, but.... I don't really have a lot of places where I can extend an olive branch to viewers because I'm really just making work that fulfills my expectations of what the piece should accomplish. But the fact that everyone has heard of Supergirl  (they may have only heard of it and not know much about it), people may not know Timon of Athens, but they've at least heard of Shakespeare it becomes this common area between us. In this way, they can enter into the conversation feeling a little more... welcome.

TOP: Studio shot. Photo: Paul Boshears. BOTTOM: Craig Drennen, Helen Slater as Super Girl (front), 2005 | Oil on paper on canvas, 15 x 50 inches. Courtesy the artist and samsøn, Boston.

I've seen others use the term “irony” when discussing your Supergirl series. But I don't think I see anything ironic about what you're doing.
Yeah, I'm with you on this. I don't enter into these things ironically. It's totally sincere. I don't think that my work is ironic because there's not that wink to a presumed audience. To be ironic you have to already have in mind an audience and then give them this nudge, [as if] to say, “Okay, you understand I don't believe this stuff either.”

Part of what I think short circuits that ironic gesture is that there is always this technical problem that I face. Like in this beast here where I am trying to paint this record. I always have a technical difficulty in every piece, something that is so hard that I don't even think I am going to be able to do it. When trying to accomplish something like this I think it's really hard to be ironic.

So then maybe the word ought to be “generous,” you're generous with your audience. You're not forcing the audience into being a particular kind of audience. Instead there is this piece of information out there in the world that you and the audience can share.
Yeah, I assume that we are in this world and we all share something, we all have experiences. And I don't think that it's successful when artists are eager to please.

I didn't even realize that in your painting you hadn't simply shellacked a record onto the canvas. I didn't realize that you'd painted it there.
It's not that I am opposed to collage or assemblage, but until they make an adhesive that can withstand five centuries, this is my solution. I want to stay relevant; I don't want the relevance of the work to be diminished because things start to fall off, like a broken plate. I worked at the Guggenheim, among other places, and you could pull out a Max Ernst piece from the mid 1930s, and it's as if its radioactive half-life has already passed. Because all the objects he attached are deadened, and fallen apart and so on. Whereas I look at a Vermeer or Zurbarán, and I still feel challenged by them. I feel a crisp slap of the glove when looking at a Baroque painting.

I want it to look effortless, not labored over. My hope is that the effect of these items, not necessarily the performative aspect―well, maybe that's not true. The technical challenge is interesting to me. I feel pulled toward that. I want to solve an impossible problem, if I can.

I think it's generous to the audience. I find it rewarding to come to terms with a work that I might have glossed over initially and now I have to deal with this whole other painting. Not only is the canvas that I'm looking at transformed but I myself have changed in realizing my deficient perception of the world I thought I had all sussed-out.
One of the things that I people sometimes pick up on, but not readily, is the role of acting in my work. I fully believe that painters can learn a lot from actors. You just don't hear people say that. If Natalie Portman walks out on stage in a play, the audience members know that that's Natalie Portman, the Oscar-winning actress now acting in this play in front of us as this other character. Our brains can handle those two different things that are happening. When this dawned on me, it legitimized representation for me. Sure, anyone can figure out that this is paint, but it's also paint pretending to be something and then pretending to be something else. Your brain can handle that.

And it goes against the whole Modernist notion of being true to materials and being self-referential and all that. That was the tradition I was coming out of, like monochrome painting. Monochrome was the most precious painting for me because it was true to [the] materials; it was flat and had this beautiful surface. But the audience can handle more than that.

TOP: Installation view from Craig Drennen: Timon of Athenssamsøn, Boston. BOTTOM: Untitled (Masquer: Clegg & Guttman), 2010 | Ink, acrylic, oil, enamel, aluminum foil, cigarettes on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy samsøn, Boston.

This might seem like a out-of-left-field kind of question, but is there a politics one can derive from this representation you're talking about? Part of the critique of representative politics was that it substituted one person's political will for another person's.
Definitely. I think that representation, especially for the first half of the 20th centurymaybe longer was this powerful, seductive way of thinking. It was used by Fascists to create these majestic images of―a full ideological image from top to bottom―civilization as it ought to be. But I don't think that representation is going to be as powerful as all that. We live in an age when potentially every citizen is going to be able to present an image of themselves on something like YouTube. Every citizen has some power to represent. Even in the 1980s with the supposedly smartest “pictures generation.” Even those folks were talking about representation in this new and extraordinarily sophisticated way, but it's still like Voodoo for folks.

For example, I recreated on canvas the images from David Robbins' Talent which originally came out in 1986. And in my recreation on canvas I treated the images like they were a dessert plate. I had what looked like icing on there, I put cigarette butts out in that and so on, as though people were smoking and enjoying themselves and instead of doing it on a plate they were doing it on a painting.

I've had smart people ― people that exhibit and write about art and are well-known ― come up to me and say, “Oh, that's Gretchen Bender, how could you do that to Gretchen?” as if I have a Voodoo doll of Gretchen Bender and it somehow hurts her if I alter a representation of her. So I think that representation has never been exactly as it's been described. I think that people's everyday intuition about representation is that it's, effectively, Voodoo.

Still afraid of having their souls taken by the camera.
I think so. Especially with portraiture. I do believe that representation can be, and often is, a power relationship, that's where the politicizing comes in. But when I did the Supergirl series I tried to avoid recreating logos―I did it once and I still regret it―but rather I basically am recreating only my own hand in those. Instinctively, I don't mind doing representational work of the things that I have made.

Paul Boshears is a cultural critic based in Atlanta.

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