BRIAN ALFRED was born in 1974 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1997 from Pennsylvania State University and his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1999 from Yale University.Brian Alfred lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Interview with Brian Alfred
Questions by Emily Burns
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat about your work and recent projects. Congrats on the recent showing of your animation Chromacity at Art Basel in Miami. The projection was 7,000-square-feet on the exterior wall of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, Florida. Is that the largest projection of your work at this point? What is it like to have your work in such a highly visible, publicized space, in such a big way?
Thanks. Yeah, I suppose that’s the biggest I have ever had my animations projected. I love having the work in public places. There’s such a different feel and reaction to it than in the gallery. I’m so happy when my work is able to reach beyond the gallery-goer and to the person on the street who may not be intending to see art during their day. I’ve been fortunate enough to show the animations in places like Times Square, Eventi Plaza, Sundance and even on buildings in Australia. To me, it’s very exciting for my work to be seen in such diverse places.
When did you start making animations?
I started a couple years out of grad school. After I got my first laptop, I started messing around with Photoshop and Illustrator to sketch for the paintings. The animations were born out of that process.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist? How did find that path?
Not professionally, but I always loved drawing and painting. Once I started hanging out around the BFA Painting studios at Penn State in undergrad, I think that’s where I
caught the bug.
What was your early work like? How did you begin to make work in the way you do now?
Well, when I was a kid I was trying to paint like Sargent—in school I was making abstract paintings built off of fractals. Then at Skowhegan I decided to paint what I was interested in the world around me. Kind of like Ukiyo-E, what these images of our world say about us as a people.
In your progress as an artist, where do the collages fit in? Were they previous to your acrylic paintings or concurrent? Did the collage process have an effect on your work stylistically?
Collage came when I first moved to NYC. I had no studio for a couple months and it was the only way I could work. It was very similar to the way I draw on the computer and made prints in school. I took an architectural approach to building the images with layers.
Can you give us some insight into your process? Are you working from photographs primarily, sketches, or more? In the case of photos, are you always taking them yourself/visiting these locations or are they sourced from elsewhere?
All of the above. I use everything. Most of my work is from photos I take, images I find online, things I imagine and a combination of all these things. It’s pretty diverse and depends on what I’m working on conceptually. I usually have an idea about a group of work that I come across while traveling or something that strikes me on the news or something I encounter in my day to day. I made a vow after school that I want to be able to paint anything, anyone, anytime. I think I’ve stuck to that.
What are some of your primary source materials or resources?
The Internet, my photos, the world around me.
How have digital tools such as Adobe Illustrator affected your work? When did you first start integrating them into your process?
Right after grad school, when I first got a computer. I wanted a way to quickly change colors in the drawing instead of having to do that over and over in large parts of the painting. I think it’s just become a part of the process like other tools, i.e., ruler pencil, tape, etc. It did lead me to animation which is now a major part of my work.
Your paintings range drastically in scale. I was lucky enough to see the the series of 12 x 9 inch paintings in your solo show In Praise of Shadows at Ameringer McEnery Yohe in 2016. What is the difference in the smaller paintings vs. the larger paintings, both in the actual process of making them and your experience of making them?
For a long time I only painted large-scale. I only started working small in the late 2000’s. I like the small scale because of its intimacy. What you lack in physical scale and power, you gain in intricacy and intimacy. I do think it’s harder to make a great small painting than a big one. For the In Praise show, I liked the rhythmic repetition of the small scale. It created a uniform relationship to the way the viewer sees the painting, therefore concentrating more on the image, hopefully.
Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on surface? Many of your paintings are distinctly different whether viewed up-close or from a distance. I am curious about how you relate to the experience of that effect.
I have always seen my paintings as having a built-up surface. Even though they are very shallow adjustments in depth, to me that’s significant. I like that they look relatively flat from afar, but there’s a reward when you get up close. There are all these little moments of the hand and process visible. It just takes a viewer who cares to focus in a bit.
Many of your paintings contain tiny hidden gems that can fly under the radar if the viewer isn’t looking for them. Are these moments thought-out conceptually or visually in the process of creating a painting? Do you have an idea and then construct the image from that, or do you see visual stimuli and then progress from there?
They’re almost always planned out or intentional. I live for the little moments. That’s what makes art so special to me. You can lose yourself in the little moments. There’s no clock ticking and it’s really a medium that is perfectly attuned to those little subtleties. I do work off of certain things that happen in the process, but overall I orchestrate more than improvise which kills me because I’m more of an Ornette Coleman guy than a Paul Whiteman guy.
As a painter, what are some of the most important components of a studio space for you? Or, what could you not work without, or that significantly impacts your studio time?
Hmm, good question. It’s so personal and related to everyone’s individual process. I need a coffee machine, good music, a computer, art supplies and a white wall. I think that’s ground zero.
My favorite painting might be Mcd’s. When I first saw this painting, it struck me that more of your work might be totally imagined, rather than strictly from life. I’m not sure why I didn’t question it before. This made all of your work seem so much more mysterious. How often are your compositions total constructions vs. from real life?
Not sure, but my gut says 50/50. I did that McDonald’s painting from imagination and two weeks later there was a bombing of a McDonald’s in Singapore, I believe. The real stuff could easily be imagined and the imagined usually comes to real life at some point. For good or for bad.
Also, do you divide your studio space or time up for different types of work? (Painting vs. animation, etc.)
I do. I have different spots where I like to paint and times when I like to collage and situations where I go into animation wormholes. It all depends on my life at the time and what I want/need at that point.
Do you feel that it’s necessary to get into a particular headspace while in the studio? If so, how do you get there? Do you need to work for long, interrupted blocks of time?
I have a son. Long uninterrupted sessions are few and far between. I trained myself to work when and however I can in any circumstance. It’s a useful skill.
Do you work in a structured, regimented way with a plan or are you more carefree about your time in the studio?
It’s pretty planned. Again, with my situation, I need to be organized and pointed in my work time.
This might seem like a silly question for anyone who knows you, but what do you listen to while you work? Is this important to you?
So many different kinds of music. I love music and it’s a must while I work. Podcasts on the road, music in the studio. Trap to Jazz to Salsa to High Life, if it’s good, I listen.
If you were stuck in a dark cave for ten years and could only bring 5 records with you, what would you bring?
Wow, brutal question. My first thought is, something upbeat, it’s gonna be a bummer in that cave. Second thought, something I won’t get too sick of. I’m going to have to think more about this one.
You created the podcast Sound & Vision in 2016, a podcast where you chat with artists and musicians about the creative process. What was the initial impetus to begin the podcast and how did the idea develop?
I felt like there really weren’t a lot of options for casual conversations with artists out there. It’s usually more rigid when you hear artists talk. I do a bunch of studio visits and always enjoy talking to friends. I figured, why not record them?
How did you get started and what were some of the initial challenges? Was it something you put off for a while or did you jump right in?
I took a year to research it. I figured if I am going to do it, I should do it right. I just needed to familiarize myself with the process of getting it hosted on platforms. I was lucky to have a wise, experienced friend to give me advice.
What keeps you interested in recording episodes? What are your favorite aspects of recording them?
The artists for sure. Each one is so different and I love seeing their shows/studios and spending time talking about their life.
You live in Brooklyn, but teach in central PA—does this frequent and systematic division of time and location have an effect on your work?
I don’t think it affects the content much. I do think it helps me concentrate on things at specific times.
Can you talk about your relationship with Japan? When did you first start traveling there, and has this relationship affected your work?
My wife is Japanese and so my extended family of 17 years is Japanese. I started traveling there in the early 2000’s. I have always loved Japanese prints and the aesthetics and sensibilities of Japan. I think that aesthetic has had a major effect on my work.
You juggle a lot of interests and responsibilities, including being a dad, teaching a full course load, curating exhibitions, recording the podcast, making work and exhibiting, playing music, and more. Besides coffee, what are your secrets to keeping up with everything? Do you use the best to-do list app of all time?
I just use iCal. That saves me. I am an incredible unorganized and scattered person in my heart, I have just trained myself to be better at being on top of things. Having a child forces that on you. I do drink plenty of coffee and I also credit exercise and soccer for keeping me energetic. If I don’t play, I feel lethargic and slow.
What is your relationship with time?
We’ve had a falling out. We’re not on speaking terms as it’s moving too fast for me.
Could you list a few of the artists that you look at the most often or have most influenced your work?
Hiroshige, Hokusai, Thomas Demand, Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Yayoi Kusama, Picasso, Ruscha, Warhol just to name a few. I look at everyone to be honest.
Are there any books/essays/poems/films/music/etc. that have had a profound effect on you?
I remember having the collected poems of Shelley when I was a student and reading it meant a lot to me. I think more so in that I was reading it than the poems themselves. I read a lot of David Foster Wallace when I was younger and I really loved those books. Most of the reading that affects me these days is news and articles
What is one piece of advice from your past that helped you, or something that you would pass on to artists who are just getting started now?
It’s from my experience coaching youth soccer, but it applies:
Ten Things That Take Zero Talent:
1. Being on Time
2. Work Ethic
4. Body Language
8. Taking Criticism
9. Doing Extra
10. Being Prepared
After you graduated from Yale, did you move to New York right away? Is living in the city important to your success as an artist, and is it still important for artists? Can having a footprint in the city have the same impact as living there 24/7?
After Yale was Skowhegan, then a pickup truck to Queens. It was a direct route. I think being in the city can only help you make connections and create community. It’s possible to do it outside the city, but I think it’s more difficult.
What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
I really loved Byron Kim’s show at James Cohan Gallery.
Last question: Are you really a mathematical genius?
Who told you that lie?
Any other exciting upcoming exhibitions or projects?
About to hit episode 50 of Sound & Vision. It’s really gaining it’s audience which is great. Loving it. A solo show in Tokyo later this year and a NYC solo at Ameringer in the Spring. Some other really cool stuff in the works as well.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat!
Thanks for the questions and a big shout to Maake.
To find out more about Brian and his work, check out his website.