Maelstrom: An Interview With Brendan Monroe
by Jacob van Loon
Blobography, an exhibition of Brendan Monroe’s ceramic sculptures, recently concluded at Heath Ceramics in Los Angeles. A fetching, carefully considered myriad of contrasting glazes adorn his small-to-mid scale figurative work — planes of textural, swirling color that look like they were skimmed off the gaseous planets and their moons. The androgynous, eponymous blobs the exhibition consisted of are one of a few key aesthetic components that tie Brendan’s proprietary universe together. The sculptures paired intricately with his wall-hung graphic illustrations, along with a subdued grey-and-white mural. All of Monroe’s work bears a charming otherworldliness, yet there remained a latent basis of visual familiarity in both landscapes and figures in the new work exhibited at Heath.
Blobography was only one of Monroe’s many ventures he took on in 2014. Becoming a fan of his work in 2010 after initially seeing his work online, I contacted him in January this year for an interview. Our email correspondence stretched from March to November. In that extended time, it was startling to see how many places both he and his art ended up over the year. As a result, the following transcript is non-linear and pairs follow-up commentary with initial questions. In the spaces between our direct communications, it was both a pleasure and an inspiration to follow the progress over his well-established network. With the experience wrought from these various projects Brendan championed came a rapid yet nuanced maturity in his art that began with the fluid characteristic of his line and carried through to the tactility of his dimensional pieces.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in Oakland with Jalapeño (cat) and Evah (wife). I like to keep daily life in a more or less small geographic area and then branch out once in a while all over the place. I drink a lot of coffee throughout the day and like walking around in areas with lots of trees.
What is Jalapeño doing right now?
He’s napping now on the rocking chair. He naps a lot.
You’re a California native. Would you have it any other way?
I do value the place I was raised. I wonder how much of shaping a person comes from a place mixed with other people. So, I could have it other ways, but I’m grateful for what I did have. I like warm places, and organized places.
Left to right: Jalapeño, Brendan. Photo by Evah
Your work is concerned with living organisms, which simultaneously realize the maximal and the microscopic. You have some academic background in the sciences, which at some point turned into graphic design and now drawing, painting, and sculpture. Why did it become important for you to analyze these subjects through your work?
I’ve gone through a few phases of trying to find out why it’s important to make art and why it’s important to show it. Some art is made with a very strong concentration on communicating ideas. I don’t think that my thinking falls into that category very easily. For me it’s more important to tell subtle stories. I think the main goal with the work is figuring out how I fit in the world and what my interests are have a lot to do with that. That’s where the science has worked it’s way in. It’s a way for me to look at a big part of life around me that isn’t always related to art.
A lot of eyes were watching the group at Pow! Wow! Hawaii and Taiwan this year, where you contributed murals—Hawaii being on the heels of the artist residency you took with Joshua Tree National Park. As someone influenced by natural landscapes, experiences like these must be invaluable.
Yes, and they were very different from each other in terms of experiencing working environments. Joshua Tree was very introspective and quiet. I used it as a temporary removal from most things in a society type environment. They give a cabin to one artist at a time. It’s completely off the grid, with no cell reception. I had a walkie talkie for emergencies, but I’d have to walk down the dirt road about 100 yards before it would work. I did most of my online communication via the phone after a mile-and-a-half drive. It was extremely quiet and time was only sort of relative. It was a hands-off type residency and I think that it gave me a lot of material to work with. I went intending to make one short comic, but it looks like I’ll have two books. One story based and one observation based.
Pow! Wow! Hawaii was also an amazing experience. I stayed in a house with about 35 artists and we commuted to work in Honolulu every day in big rental vans. I was surprised at how social the actual painting of a public mural could be. Everyday people who walked by would just stop by, chat and talk about Pow Wow and art, even if they didn’t follow art on a regular basis. I’m pretty fairly new at painting large walls like that and all the other artists were also very helpful with advice. Everyone was happy to share tips and tricks. It was a good challenge and an invaluable learning experience. The whole thing was like being welcomed into the most generous of family get-togethers to all work on one giant project. It’s like barn raising, but more festive.
Brendan Monroe x Glenn Barr mural for Pow! Wow! Hawaii (Honolulu). 2014. Photo credit: Artist
The Pow! Wow! Taiwan group was a few of the same people plus a good amount of new ones. I also was able to collaborate with a local artist in Taiwan. My wife was born in Taiwan, so in some ways it felt a little more familiar than Hawaii while still being very much a foreign country.
Brendan Monroe x Candy Bird mural for Pow! Wow! Taiwan (Taipei). 2014. Photography credit: Artist
The [mural] collaboration on the Taiwan wall was in a little more integrated than the Hawaii wall. In Hawaii, we worked side by side, then mixed in the middle and in Taiwan we took turns on the lift over different parts of the wall, but always overlapping and reworking. As a country Taiwan generally is not as open to street art, but in our experience there was still a good community of participants and press who were very much interested in the work being made for festival.
The artworks done at Pow Wow! changed the visual landscape, and you mentioned the project might have a higher social function. Is that type of community input and awareness important for all art/artists to realize?
Yes and no. It’s good to have some community feedback as any kind of maker of objects, design, or art. Sometimes it’s also good to have less — it can be nice to work months in the studio as well without any direct feedback. I think I’m somewhere in the middle, I like to be involved once in a while with the community and other times I like to stay in the studio. Collaborations with a community are usually helpful for me when I’m able to participate in them. They help build a practice that’s well-rounded and are usually rewarding in an inspirational way too.
How does completing a public arts project feel in comparison to just going out and tagging?
When I was younger I was into tagging a bit. I was always more into the piecing side of things. After a while I just wanted to do bigger and more refined letters. Usually I stuck to the under bridge stuff, where I could go in the day and spend time on things. At Pow! Wow! I approached the wall completely differently because I now have much more experience painting with a brush. So I started with rollers, then brushes, then spray paint and finally back to brushes for finishing up. I took a little time to figure out what tool was the best one for me to use to achieve the results I wanted on the wall.
One of the reasons I like to collaborate is that it takes you out of your comfort zone. It’s easy to get caught up in work by myself in the studio, but collaborating involves a different problem solving process. In the finished piece is usually yields nice surprises that neither artist would have expected from the beginning. There’s a lot that happens when mixing multiple intuitions on a project.
I initially discovered your work online. The social media coverage of Pow! Wow! was remarkably thorough, which spoke to the generation of artists represented there. A lot of the artists also have their own extensive media networks, including you. How much do your social networking outlets play into your professional career?
It’s very important and I think it can also be a little deceptive. It’s beneficial and rewarding to be a part of any network, online, offline, friends and family. It’s inspiring. To get your work out in front of people in any way possible is a very good thing. Though, it can be a little tricky when feedback leans heavily on what an artist chooses to make. Of course it’s a good thing to have good and bad feedback, but it’s also important to stay inventive and constantly challenged. That’s how the work gets to the point where people begin to like it in the first place. That’s not the end; it’s the start, or the very long difficult middle part. Having a challenge in the long run will produce better work.
Earlier this year, you had a table with your wife Evah at the Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair, and have released a good amount of publications on your own. Where does the interest in book/magazine format come from and why did you decide to pursue that format for the work released within those volumes?
I’ve been making zines for a while now. I think it started in school because there was a lot of emphasis on the sketchbook and I was watching guys ahead of me like Souther Salazar. He was making these really packed and colorful zines with handmade elements. I was also looking at a lot of books by artists who I admired and fantasizing about having my own book one day. The zine format was something very approachable and simple. It allowed me to spread my work very easily and cheaply though the world. I started walking into local bookstores around LA and selling them my zines. Then people would actually buy them, and later be introduced to my paintings and sculptures. It was and still is a great way to put the work out there in the world.
Cover illustration for Islands No. 2.
Evah is a busy working artist as well. How did you meet, and how has your relationship affected your work?
We met after finishing school when we were both starting up as artists in Los Angeles. We influence each other’s work in a lot of ways. We both bounce back ideas and alternative perspectives on work. It’s good and sometimes not good. It’s helpful to have someone who’s trusted and has been with you for so long giving you input. It’s means that we’re very much together in our work, even though we are creating it individually.
With the efficiencies that come with utilizing the zine format, there are also some inherent technical aspects depending on the type of production that could be viewed as restrictive. The use of color and scale comes to mind, which is fairly extensive in your painted and sculpted work. How do your tendencies play into or against creating a zine?
I think when I have a range of tools and mediums available, I try and go about using them with a similar energy and rhythm. With zines it’s like using another tool, but it’s with xeroxes, scissors, ink, white out and tape. The thing takes shape within it’s parameters, then it’s polished and honed in on as best I can with the means for it’s future production as a zine or small book. I don’t think limitations are a bad thing, they’re more like a guide and something to push against if necessary.
Between the exhibitions, the public arts projects, the sculptures, the paintings, the drawings, the editioned prints, and the publications you offer, you’ve partnered with companies to release your work implemented on everyday objects. Was it always a consideration for you to give the broader audience a chance to connect with your work? Does maintaining a diverse catalog affect how you work?
I’ve always wanted to make more things what is possible for me to do on my own. Partnering with a company to produce things is fun and a good way to reach more of an audience. With each project there are considerations that always have to be worked with. For example, if I wanted to make a coffee table, I’d work around size and functionality. In the best situations the lessons working with limitations and design in mind will cross back over to the visual flat paintings and dimensional sculptures. I like the cross over of ideas and finding new uses those ideas can be applied to.
Wave Illustration, implemented on an array of product released by Product Etc. in conjunction with Pow! Wow! Hawaii. 2014
You bounce between 2-D and 3-D work but maintain a unified aesthetic, and explore some of the same ideas between paper, ceramic, and wood. Does it all start with drawing?
Initially it just starts with a feeling for a concept. Drawing is the first and easiest way to make note of that. Once the drawing is there, it can be turned into form or image. Recently I started using oven-baked polymer clay to make small maquettes of sculptures. In a way those are also loose note-taking forms, similar to drawings. I think when the ideas for things are strong and can be executed somewhat accurately, then the 2-D and 3-D go well together. It’s not always that easy, though, sometimes there are 2-D and 3-D pieces that end up going in the wrong direction. Most people don’t see those.
Interior illustration spread in Blobography zine.
Spending time chasing the wrong idea can have a wide range of impact.
A few bad days is not so hard to turn around; a few bad weeks is much more difficult. Most of the time when it comes to finding the right direction with a new piece, it happens in the first 25% of the process. By that time, the wrong way can usually be identified easy enough and then it can be scrapped or reworked completely. It’s more difficult when the process has to be further along to know this. With wood sculpture, there’s a lot of structural work in the first half of making a piece and it’s easier to spend a long time before seeing much of a result or glimpse of the end product. So for those things it’s better to plan as much as possible. In the end a lot of it comes down to if the right mood or feeling is coming across in a natural way, without forcing or being awkward.
What’s in the works for you going into 2015?
Right now there could be a lot or very little planned. I would like to have some time to make paintings without thinking of what exhibition they’ll be going to. I’d also like to work on a comic narrative I’ve had to set aside for a while. There is not much set in stone at this point, but I hope to expand on this year’s work and do some bigger more involved projects.
Not a week ago, Brendan and Evah had a table at the East Bay Zine Fest, drafting off the studio sales they independently launched online. Brendan can be found at his own website, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. He is currently represented by Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, California, and Galerie, L.J. in Paris, France. A genuine thanks to Brendan for sticking this out.
Masthead image: Ripple. Ink and gouache on paper.