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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
All images copyright and courtesy of Brett Reif
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