Transforming common materials

“My studio practice often fuses common household materials and ordinary life activities with semi-exotic art textures, supplies and procedures. I mix forms of art and life with emotional and ideological premises that culminate in artifacts that seem to find solace in concrete irreverence.”

Brett Reif is influenced by Arte Povera and specializes in non-traditional media wall work, sculpture and installation. His use of common household materials, surfaces and objects along with raw, natural objects to create drawings, paintings, reliefs, sculptures and installations, nurtures home materials to embody our stress, conflict, hope and fear.

Beige Plop 2015, 32.5” x 23” x 24”, Tile, mixed media

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Brett Reif: I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana.  I’ve moved around the states a bit, North Carolina, New York, Missouri and Kansas.  I’ve made art since I was a child and could never really stop.  I had great teachers in high school and college who inspired me to see art as a meaningful life-pursuit and see teaching art as a way to cultivate originality in others.  I travelled across Europe at nineteen and I saw first-hand the indelible and profound influence art has on culture.  I’ve made and taught art ever since.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

BR: Over the years, I’ve used a wide range of materials, subjects and imagery.  Transforming common materials to engage the imagination and creativity of the viewer is a persistent theme.  Using ordinary materials and surfaces, stuff people wouldn’t traditionally associate with fine art, allows me to infuse those materials with new possibilities.  Using basic household materials and surfaces like wallpaper and tile has captured my imagination lately, although, I’ve used everything from automotive grease, shrink wrap, electrical tape, deep fried objects and paintings, and much more.

Themes beyond the material/process include elemental imagery like water & smoke.  Concepts around deterioration and a layered palimpsest of surfaces are persistent in my paintings.  Juxtapositions of man and nature frequent my sculpture, reliefs and installations. In my sculpture, the figure always seems to be lurking. Issues of the environment, especially with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina along with material recycling and reuse are important to my studio practice.

Spillover XS, white study 2015, 13” x 28”, Tile, wallpaper, mixed media

RB: Your work is highly influenced by the Arte Povera movement of 1960s Italy, which was noted for its artists’ use of raw, unsophisticated urban materials. What was it about this movement that inspired you?

BR: I believe in the power of common stuff.  I loved Arte Povera as a young viewer and still do to this day.  To see artists like Jannis Kounellis present, coal, lead, furniture, fabric or meat as art material was very exciting for me as a young viewer.  I began to see all stuff, not just traditional art materials as fodder for creativity.  In fact, to get a viewer to see ordinary objects or materials as expressive matter is a creative objective.  Most interesting to me is that this creative engagement is a way that artists can transfer some of their creative power to the viewers.  Imagine a viewer leaving the museum or gallery and seeing some benign material like a pile of sticks on the side of the road or a bin of spools in their garage and as opposed to discarding it in their mind as garbage or empty of purpose, they recognize this stuff as meaningful, filled with potential.  The world would be a much different place if the stuff we discard wasn’t garbage but merely in transition, waiting for its next incarnation.  And it’s not just the stuff we deem finished, but material that we have relegated to a specific purpose, what if that stuff wasn’t pigeonholed and could morph into an infinite number of alternate roles?  Perhaps that is the ultimate gift of art, like The Creation of Adam, the artist can transfer creative imagination to the viewer through art. Art Povera represents a world-view where all of the stuff of the world is filled with infinite possibility.

Spillover XS, Blue 2015, 48” x 48”, Tile, wallpaper, mixed media

RB: Can you say something about your working process when creating an artwork? What criteria do you use for choosing the material?

BR: Choosing the material revolves around trying to imbue ordinary stuff with beauty, dignity and freshness.  Of course, I look for opportunities to connect the material with form and imagery to tell a story. Using the household materials like tile and wallpaper allows me to activate materials that are a frequent part of the viewer’s world. In addition, I often look to undercut the expectations of a material as part of the transformation.  If the viewer expects a material like tile to be rigid, I want to soften it, if the viewer is conditioned to see a material as interior, I will treat it as weather worn.

Important to note, that my paintings aren’t on canvas.  Using household materials isn’t limited to the surface but constitutes the infrastructure of the work.  I use a lauan and foam surface for the paintings that mimics the wall structure of contemporary home construction.  In fact, all of my art is made out of contemporary construction materials and methods.  In this way, the art isn’t just preaching to a concept but practices what it preaches.  It’s important to me that the materials don’t pretend to represent an idea; they are the idea.

Endtrails, load 2014, 60” x 48” Tile, wallpaper, mixed media

As for process, I treat art-making as a physical act.  Like going for a run or yoga, it’s an exercise requiring body and mind.  The studio has many stages of process, some very different.  Like an actor, the artist has to play different roles depending on the process.  Carving the work and surfacing the work are two very different and significant procedures in my studio.  Carving is very physical and intense.  It requires me to be active and engaged and I work in spurts, like lifting weights.  The surfacing, like the tiling is very different, much more passive, requiring endurance and stamina.  Many of my studio actions are repetitive and ritualistic.  My tile process is highly rhythmic, patient and obsessive.  With that, I often work for hundreds of hours on a piece, and it can be daunting.  I treat the tiling like running a marathon or climbing a mountain.  You don’t finish the race or get to the summit with a step.  I try not to focus on where I’m going but where I am.  Music is always playing in the background.  Making in this way is a meditation.  I get to be transformed while the material is transformed.  As the piece concludes there is a euphoric sense of accomplishment and the material is no longer what it was, it’s something new, different.  What a rush!

Mustard Kink 2016, 29.5” x 42” x 10”, Tile, mixed media

RB: You have described your use of materials to be much like a poet who composes verse with words. Can you say more about this?

BR: Materials and objects are words for the sculptor.  I strive to use materials, objects or textures in unexpected ways in the manner that a poet uses words. I have always been inspired by poetry.  Of course, the overarching themes and meaning of a poem are inspirational.  The mechanics of poetry is nothing short of miraculous.  A poet can reintroduce a word this way or a phrase that way so a reader hears it new.  I find my mind elated by the freshness that a poet can achieve with words.  “I am large, I contain multitudes” is a sample from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  To turn the self into a vessel that can contain multitudes is a unique way of thinking about one’s being.  The language is contorted to Whitman’s expressive purpose.  I design to use materials, objects and textures in similar ways.  To recontextualize a material, to inspire, to tell a story, to move someone emotionally or intellectually using something that you can find in a bin at Habitat Restore is equally miraculous.

The Big Spill, no crying 2015, dimensions variable, Installation KU Art & Design Gallery
Tile, wallpaper, mixed media

RB: Can you say something about The Big Spill and Plop Series?

BR: The Big Spill was born out of an exhibition at the University of Kansas Art & Design Gallery in 2015.  The space was striking with shiny black floors.  Once I saw them, I knew that I wanted to do an installation that activated the floor.  I was dealing with many organic spill sculptures and I had an idea influenced by a milk spill on my kitchen floor.  If I could make the spill out of white tile, the spill would be made out of the material similar to many kitchen floors.  It’s a surreal juxtaposition.  Clocks make sense, melting candles make sense; however melting clocks don’t make sense.  A spill literally made out of floor is one of those playful juxtapositions, a shiny white floor spill on a shiny black floor that you can walk on.  Of course, there is no context for the spill, so it could be anything, a gallery accident, an environmental disaster, a melted sculpture, it’s a big spill but there shouldn’t be any crying over it.

The Plop Series was inspired by toothpaste on the bathroom counter.  I liked the idea of taking a common hard, rigid, geometric material like tile and making it ooze or goop or playfully sit in the space.  I also liked the idea of taking a household surface like colored tile, purchased at Home Depot or The Tile Shop and making it into an artistic sculptural accident.  Even better, when purchased and exhibited in the home, it would potentially respond to the materials of the home or even better, the accidents in the home.  The household stuff the home is made of could be activated by the presentation of art made out of its kin.

Exhibition view, Plops, Kinks & Spills, Weinberger Gallery, Kansas City MO 2017
lft. Pink Kink, 31” x 23” x 6” tile & mixed media
mid. American Spill, dimensions variable tile & mixed media
rt. Pale Blue Kink, 29” x 28” x 10” tile & mixed media

RB: How important is humour in your work and what role does it play?

BR: Very!  Effective transformation of materials in sculpture is like a good pun.  To make language shift from one context to another is amusing and entertaining.  It’s a gleeful little moment when the word you first heard or read, in an instant changes.  It’s like a trick, the more dramatic the shift, the more humorous the pun.  Incidentally, it’s the same with most comics and comedy.

Toxic Plop 2015, 27” x 38” x 28”, Tile, mixed media

Part of the transformation is in the material, while part of the transformation is in the shape of the sculpture or imagery in a painting, while part is in the presentation.  I look for ways to catch a viewer off guard by any means.  I smile when I see my work and I relish in the smiles of viewers.  Some works like Toxic Plop elicit laughter.  Guarded folks will tell me in hushed voices, “It looks like a pile of shit.”  I am tempted to let them know that the interpretation of art is more a reflection of the viewer than the artist, but… I don’t.  Of course I know it looks like shit, it’s a big plop shape.  My initial inspiration was a toothpaste pile on my bathroom sink, but with the tiled surface it could be any oozy substance. I like the idea of art idolizing a plop-like accident, similar to pop art idolizing ordinary banal objects like Oldenberg’s Shuttlecocks or Warhol’s Soup Cans.  We take ourselves too seriously sometimes.  Art can remind us that we can both “contain multitudes” and poop!  When I have exhibited multiple Plops in a space with The Big Spill, I often laugh at the thought that some giant ceramic pooping and pissing cat has defiled the gallery.

Cloudy 2013, 55” x 37” x 10”, Tile, drains, drain plugs, chain, mixed media

RB: Many of your paintings incorporate bathroom materials – drain plugs and chains, tiles – as well as distressed wallpaper. Can you say more about this?

BR: I first experimented with plugs and plumbing with tile forms in 2012.  I didn’t successfully add drains to a larger gallery piece till Cloudy, 2013.  I made the piece for a show in New Orleans called Bathworks at the Du Mois Gallery.  It was my first solo show in New Orleans and Cloudy was a post-Katrina nod, juxtaposing a cloud form out of white tile with drains, drain plugs and chains. When you light the piece in the gallery, the shadows of the chains hanging underneath look like rain streaks.  Given the destruction of the hurricane, there is an emboldened fear from locals that the water coming down just won’t drain away.  After that piece, I started using the drains copiously and playfully with various tiled works.  One of my favorites is Stem the Tide, lavender, 2015.  The chain from one drain plug connects to the drain plug of another in an adjacent painting.  I always thought of these drains as lovers, connected.

Stem the Tide, lavender 2015, 20” x 28”, Tile, wallpaper, mixed media

The wallpaper is surely influenced by my love of the old walls and surfaces of the French Quarter.  When you walk in historic cities, you can see the layers and layers of past on the surfaces.  Like a palimpsest you can read through to the layers of earlier structures.  I liked the idea of inverting it, taking the indoor media of wallpaper and give it external treatment.  In this surface preparation, layers and layers of wallpaper are glued down, then sanded obsessively to reveal organic mixtures of the layers.  I find this distressed surface to be a great canvas for painting with tile along with subtle apocalyptic overtones.

Tidings, bliss 2016, 18.5” x 16.5” x 4.5”, Tile, oyster shells, mixed media

RB: Your Tidings Series makes use of oyster shells positioned across mixed media pillows.  What is the significance of the oyster shells in these works?

BR: Tidings is a curious series.  To be honest, I’m not sure if I own the meaning of these, but rather that meaning lives in the shells alone.  I have been surrounded by oyster shells all my life.  Growing up in New Orleans, oyster shells are used as ground fillers and were strangely piled in unexpected places like driveways, alleys, beaches and even streets.  Of course we eat them and I love that too, but it’s the discarded shells that are gorgeous if you take the time to look.  Each shell is so unique, so organic and rich containing micro-constellations of color and texture.  However, my memory is clouded with a tinge of resentment.  These piles and piles of shells were discarded in my mind like the pictures I had seen of American Bison skulls in early American history.

Tidings, column 2016, 17.5” x 15.5” x 5”, Tile, oyster shells, mixed media

I wanted to present these shells as beautiful marks, like calligraphy on parchment.  The series was about arranging the shells as marks on a tile pillow with curled edges like paper.  Ironically, the pillows look more like beignets than parchment, colliding New Orleans’ symbols.  The arrangement of the shells is inspired by the colors, textures and shapes of the shells.  I didn’t try to speak for them; I tried to let the shells speak for themselves by giving them a space to flourish.  Ultimately, I thought of Tidings as both the oceanographic reference and the messenger.  Perhaps, those aren’t even that different.  “The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” Henry Miller.

Billow 2015, 38” x 28” x 29”, Tile, soffits, mixed media

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you hoping to communicate with your work?

BR: Anything, everything, something…

As a younger artist, I thought my art was about communicating my ideas.  I don’t see it that way anymore.  I have my ideas, I make stuff, then people have their ideas.  Hopefully, through that process something interesting happens.  I hope for some pleasure to be experienced and that a kind of shared beauty is processed.  If my choice of material and imagery allows a viewer to have some creative or imaginative experience beyond the gallery or museum, then I have done something good. If the viewer smiles because they saw some good art shit, that’s good too.

RB: What projects are you currently working on?

BR: I am working on a new series with broken tile, a nod to more traditional mosaic, mimicking drapery covering gold stuff. The Shroud Series is in the early stages.  I am also working on a commission akin to Tile Plume.

Tile Plume 2016, 57” x 23” x 7.5”, Tile, mixed media


Reif Studio, 2017


All images copyright and courtesy of Brett Reif

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