Steve Brudniak is an Austin-based artist who creates assemblage sculpture. His work http://stevebrudniak.com/ is intriguing and loaded with insight and historical references that actually work together somehow to make it contemporary. I spent a good bit of time talking with Steve about art, the art world and life in general. He’s got a lot of interesting things to say…
“… Art speak is really just a kind of intellectual cool, another way of excluding … and cool has always been based on the fear of being left out. This strangely 21st century need for art to be so academic is a hard one to break through, no one wants to be anti-intellectual … abandoning art speak or conceptualism is NOT a dumbing down move …”
MICHAEL: Hello Steve, Your work is very intriguing. Assemblage Sculpture. This implies that you use found objects that you repurpose and remodel and give new life as art. The objects are no longer practical, but they do serve a purpose. No? What's the deal here?
STEVE: The deal is Michael, you are correct! The objects I use are taken out of their practical world and recruited into mine, which is almost entirely impractical. They are surreal, conceptual, symbolic, stimulating, hopefully, but not very utilitarian. Objects are often disassembled, modified, cut and shaped to match or fit a space or theme in the final piece. If you look at the work of most assemblage artists, the found articles remain whole and identifiable, often collaged as in the work of Picasso or Braque and later Joseph Cornell with his famous boxes. Some artists use everyday things to create whimsical robots, animals, vehicles etc., but usually the components are still distinct.
MICHAEL: And so, how is your approach different?
STEVE: I think my approach differs in that I combine elements to become believably homogenous, new contrivances. They morph into machines, ritual devices, altars, etc., that one would have to scrutinize closely to recognize the individual parts. Even then, I try to collect and use unusual and hard to identify artifacts.
Since I began, I’ve been more interested in completing a vision than in the novelty or fascination of using found materials. I don’t limit the work to objects either. I also incorporate hardware, raw wood, stone, plastic and metal etc., as well as phenomenal elements: electrical plasma, lights, motors, magnetic fluid, human blood … whatever it takes to make that affecting, interesting thing I have in my head. Cast off items are just another art supply.
Modifying something that is fairly complex or unusual as opposed to creating some complicated, weird thing from scratch is the big advantage; I don’t have to grind my own lens or cast an iron frame for example. That makes things easy in a way, but on the other hand, meticulously matching unrelated components together in often ‘algebraic’ ways can take enormous effort and annexing scientific elements adds another whole layer to the lasagna. The works take months and up to a year to complete.
And that is the deal!
MICHAEL: Human blood? Hopefully, for your own safety, it's your own. What's that about?
STEVE: Indeed, blood from humans. In 1999, I did a small edition of 10 with my own blood, but completed more elaborate pieces with the blood of some friends and family, people who have had a profound effect on my life, my own saints if you will. The idea came from the reliquaries found in various religious traditions, notably the Catholic Church and in Buddhism. A reliquary is generally anything deemed sacred which has been ensconced or framed and usually displayed in a church or temple. A bone fragment from a saint, a scrap of cloth from some holy person’s garment, the blood of a saint, etc.
STEVE: The blood of St. Janurius is a particular relic owned by the Vatican wherein the blood of the saint is kept in a glass bulb within a sealed glass container and is said to spontaneously liquefy at certain points in history.
In my reliquaries, the blood is sealed within a thin space between sheets of glass and framed in a variety of ways, often framed in ancient looking tile. They are mounted flush to the wall (like much of my work) and so become a part of any architecture they inhabit, like relics in a church often are.
There is a good blood story in my book, The Science of Surrealism – Assemblage Sculpture of Steve Brudniak. 17 years later … at present, I am finishing another edition of 12 small blood reliquaries commissioned by Game Entrepreneur/Explorer/Astronaut, Richard Garriott.
MICHAEL: You know Steve, the typical viewer might find paintings challenging enough, but your work is on a whole other level in terms of how people perceive and accept (or not) contemporary art. What do you think about this?
STEVE: Michael, I’m going to take this as a compliment. I think if you refer to the “typical viewer” as the not-so-deeply-initiated-into-the-contemporary-art-world type, then yes, they may find it challenging, not because they don’t find it interesting or moving even, but because they are trying to make sense of it and cannot. They have never seen anything like it. ‘My God! There are sparks coming out of it!’ Or, ‘Is it a machine or is it art and what the hell does it do?’
I often merely get 'What is it?' Well, it’s something I made to fascinate and move your spirit and mind with. And like a painting, it’s done on a visceral and visual level. I try to create beauty, but in maybe a more unordinary and possibly more conceptual way.
MICHAEL: I understand.
STEVE: I think the one little lesson I’d love to impart on them is that the work need not make sense. If it affects you and you are emotionally drawn to the work then that is enough and that may be the best a work can do in many cases. Understanding the motives and the concept can and often does bring about more levels of engagement, but like a sunset, good art needs no explanation. If you had never seen a sunset you might react as that typical viewer: “What the hell is that? I don’t know, but wow!”
I’ve found that most people in this category may be challenged, but will like the work and will spend a lot of time oohing and aahing over it and if I’m around, asking a lot of questions about what and how and why.
STEVE: Now, if you refer to the more initiated “typical” contemporary art viewer, then you get a different reason for the work being challenging because they are caught in this place where craft and any kind of formal content and beauty is rarely accepted as valid.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
STEVE: I’m talking about a percentage of postmodern academia, curators, collectors, critics etc. There is a snobbism in that part of the art world that says if the work has, well, too much work in it, then it is a product of labor and not of the mind. The appreciation of the concept over the implementation is where they find validity.
Unfortunately, the acceptance of both in an artwork has lost appreciation steadily over the last 50 years. This is why we see piles of what-not covered in animal fat in the middle of the gallery in places like New York. And this is what I discuss in depth in an article you published of mine a while back, so I would refer your readers there so I don’t bore them to death with my anxious rant.
MICHAEL: You're also an actor which tells me you're a creative person through and through. Where do you think your creativity comes from? Why do you create? Is there a connection between acting and sculpture?
STEVE: On the deepest level, I think it comes from the urge to be at peace. Don’t get me wrong, the driving forces and often the act of creating can be very wrenching, but in busying oneself with solving the puzzle of creating something out of nothing with no guide book, it’s very stilling.
It's because of the simple reason that one is living in the moment. The outside factors that hack at our peace of mind, which usually live in the future, and sometimes the past, are quelled. I’m too absorbed to worry.
As a kid, I was an incessant Lego builder and I also wrote screenplays and began shooting film as an adolescent and never stopped. Watching other people’s creations to me was far less fulfilling than the act of making something. So much so, that I spend almost all of my time making something. Refining a film role, or making a sculpture (lately). And as a creativity addict - and I think there is such a thing - I have discovered that if I don’t keep myself busy making stuff, I get depressed and anxious. I was a musician for years and ran a recording studio, producing and engineering, I love creative writing - even technical writing - gardening, home construction and fixing and building things for my friends. These are my sheep dog instincts. You have to call me in three times for dinner and I might hold my pee half the day cause I don’t wanna stop to go! It’s also why I’m up until 4 a.m. on most nights.
STEVE: As far as a connection between acting and sculpture goes, yes. There is. And again, it is for exactly the same reasons above. I would point out though that there is a different kind of satisfaction derived in working with a team of people who have a common goal as in film and music as opposed to the solitary work of a sculptor brooding away in his den. With a band for instance, all the members are connected rhythmically and experiencing the thrills of performance as one unit. Each member draws from the others and feeds them back with their best rendition and translation of what they have been given. There’s nothing like that kind of instant satisfaction either. No waiting around, the art is happening now.
And film on even another level is a slow, meticulous process. You are handing over faith to the expertise of a large number of players, each of whom is particularly gifted in a certain field and in the end, often a long time off, we see something that if done well brings enormous satisfaction. I shot a film last night. I remember the moment the other actor and myself were nailing it finally, the camera was rolling, lights and sound were adjusted perfectly and 20 people were watching and all praying for the moment to be perfect. I can hardly describe the thrill.
Which brings me to another level, a more base level - I’m all about levels here - the ego gets fed and a feeling of self worth is generated. “Wow, I did that and people love it!” It feels great. No doubt about it. Is it a selfish urge? All are in the end. But so what? Everyone benefits!
MICHAEL: You're in Austin, Texas. I only hear great things about Austin. What's so great about it? Obviously, it's a big music town, but is contemporary art also big there?
STEVE: Austin is a fantastic city. I’m hoping fewer people will figure this out as a lot of the charm here has disappeared because of the recent influx of people, so I’m going to “slack” as we say here on answering that first part.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
STEVE: That said, Austin is probably one of the most creative places on earth. So many people here are doing something expressive. Every other person you meet here is a musician, writing a screenplay, painting or teaching yoga etc. I think the difference between Austin and other large creative centers is connected to the lack of pretention you find here. Austinites, from my experience, are creative for the sheer joy of creating. That humbleness is a double-edged sword however. People here are not generally ambitious and so their careers are kept local. You don’t feel a competitive spirit in the arts here at all. Were not promoting ourselves and that’s fine, but the world is missing out on some beautiful stuff.
STEVE: I may have made a career mistake moving here from Houston where I was represented by one of the top galleries and collected by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and major collectors there. I suppose I have sacrificed career to an extent for lifestyle.
A second factor, and again it may have some of the same roots in modesty, is that there is a definite lack of high-end support from the collector community and that’s specific to visual arts of course. People are buying art, but its work in lower price ranges and not really as collectors, but merely as lovers of art. So you don’t have the attention of the art magazines and fairs etc., because any artists able to sell work out of blue chip galleries in New York or London would starve here. As a result, there are few famous art names in Austin despite being the 11th largest city in the U.S. and one of the most liberal and well-read cities in the world.
Austin has also suffered from several sad art museum debacles over the years, which leave us with a university museum (The Blanton at UT) and a fractured, contemporary art “museum” that still has no permanent building (The Contemporary Austin, formerly The Austin Museum of Art).
Let’s not forget that this oasis of liberal culture is also surrounded by Texas, with a long string of less than cultured governors who have blessed us with a less than world class reputation.
MICHAEL: I still think the art community remains very insular and quiet like mice. To me, this is not advancing the cause of contemporary art. What do you think?
STEVE: Well, if you are referring to the artist community, I think there is a fear of speaking up. There are a lot of talented artists who are afraid of standing up to the monster that the contemporary art institution has become. The notion of rebellion that was fresh in the 20’s and in the 70’s for instance has now become the stale establishment … as if challenging the system were a new idea.
So what we have are artists trained by schools and encouraged by curators to make the “challenging” trash art we keep seeing. Artists with technical skill are, as we spoke about earlier, cast aside as worker bees and non-thinkers. Concept is only a part of interesting art. It can’t be the only thing.
And to stand up and say so is a scary thing. I think artists often don’t trust themselves to say the right thing around a purely conceptual thinking crowd. Real artists are busy making art. Not talking about it. Shouldn’t I be in my studio working now? LOL.
But yes, it’s time to stand up when the opportunity is available and not be afraid to talk about what you know. Art is a personal culture, a personal philosophy and a personal way of thinking. You should be the expert in what you do, not some curator or critic. One shouldn’t be afraid to talk about one’s own expertise.
MICHAEL: Creating sculpture, making movies or music and writing books ... those are such dicey things. You never know how or even if people will respond to those things. So why do it? Isn't it safer to forge a career in computer science, medicine or business?
STEVE: One of my mottos has always been “Work to live. Don’t live to work.” That is, assuming you are doing a tedious job for the man. That motto can be reversed if you love what you do!
I’ve just always felt that what you occupy yourself with should be what makes you happy. I was a part of the general workforce from the time I was 16 washing dishes until I was about 23 and working in the graphic arts industry as a technician. Around that time, I was also a musician and running Victorian recording studio. I was able to scrape by working for myself then and even remember the day I quit my corporate job and was out ‘til the sun came up recording a live show. We watched as the cars were beginning to fill the freeways at 6 a.m. The feeling that I wasn’t doing that any more was wonderful. I could never go back to doing anything even for tremendous amounts of money that I didn’t enjoy as an occupation.
I would much rather starve doing what I love. Making art and film can be lucrative and both have been for me at times and both are some of the hardest work I have ever done as well. Grueling in fact quite often, but I love what I do. For someone else, “forging a career in computer science, medicine or business,” is perfect as long as they love what they do. I also think if you love your work enough, you will be successful at it. Much of the art, music and film world is populated with those who are seeking fame and don’t care so much for the craft and that I think usually ends up in disappointment and a boring job down the road.
MICHAEL: There are millions of artists out there who've created great work that has never sold. Some of it hasn't even been seen. Isn't this distressing? What can we do about this? I feel like this is a big societal problem.
STEVE: It is distressing. For artists who have passion, creating the work is itself the reward, but at the same time, we also make art as a way to affect people and it’s a sad thing for everyone when good work never sees the light of day, and extra sad for those who depend on selling to make a living.
I was exhibiting a lot in the 1980’s and 90’s and selling a good bit, but as the trends toward conceptualism and, for lack of a better phrase, “Anti-craft movement” have grown, it has become harder for me as well. My work is a sort of modern art that never had the chance to get made back when modern art was popular. I see it as modern art with a postmodern media and concept. But there is no category for that kind of thing, so the establishment ignores it.
Sadly, if you don’t stay on the self-promotion game, it can be very difficult. Many great artists are just not cut out to push their work and to schmooze and make connections. Personally, I have been doing it for 35 years at the expense of making the work and after my book was published, which itself killed a good year, I decided to just take a break from all the promo. You can burn yourself out after that long.
MICHAEL: I understand.
STEVE: I believe the solution, and I’m only talking about contemporary fine art here, is for a dialogue about the following, to go viral somehow: The need for art to have to appear to be “stretching the boundaries” even though it really rarely does any more, has driven out anything that is based in long experimentation or has come from technique or skill or ideas that have been honed for some time.
The “fly by night” nature of contemporary art is killing it. As I said in the “Saving Beauty” article …Today, a skill, a technique, a form cannot remain relevant and contemporary, even when new mastery or ingenuity is shown. A movement used to be left to simmer, to soak up the spices in the pot, to refine … not even named until fully burning itself out…
I think if artists can keep this thought in mind when conversations arise or when writing and not live in fear of being put down for standing up, then we will see a return to appreciation of art that is great and not just “cutting edge.” And to be optimistic, it already is happening, I think it’s just taken a while for people to wake up to it and to stop trying to be something they really are not. Fear once again has controlled a population. It’s all part of evolution. Even this has to pass.
MICHAEL: Do you think the Internet will continue to help?
STEVE: I put a lot of faith in the Internet as a savior of man. As dubious as that sounds I believe it’s true. Again, it's part of what I believe is probably standard evolution in the universe in places similar to ours. I see evolution as bringing us through a perpetual refinement of homeostasis and that has accelerated in the last hundred years because of technology.
Yes we have learned how to inflict huge amounts of mayhem with our new toys, but with advanced communication, we have also been able to keep widespread check on the world, each other, and our leaders. The trend, however slight, is toward peace and harmony. Think in terms of black and gender equality over the last 40 years or the huge spontaneous internet fueled protests erupting all over the world, changes in things like conscious farming and the reaction to world hunger and health. Like toddlers, we still hit each other with our new toys, but I think society is moving out of a sort of adolescent phase now. Hip and cool are fading into good and healthy. Music has already grown out of the “only this is cool” stage; everyone listens to everything, old and new. Fashion has followed.
MICHAEL: Hmm, that’s interesting.
STEVE: Contemporary art is dragging ass however. Art speak is really just a kind of intellectual cool, another way of excluding and cool has always been based on the fear of being left out. This strangely 21st century need for art to be so academic is a hard one to break through, no one wants to be anti-intellectual, it’s like the recent political argument “Do you want immigrants coming into this country to steal your job?” No wait no not that!
Abandoning art speak or conceptualism is not a dumbing down move. Art is poetic, beautiful, spiritual, requiring no verbal language. That’s a hard proclamation to get buzzing. But the Internet and other forms of communication are what will spread that word eventually.
Evolution has one distinct direction that is pretty amazing: Toward the better. The big bang spewed out dust and there evolved thinking beings that move on and off the planet building and using electronic brains that are smarter than their own. You chuck a wad of dirt out there and see if it becomes billions of galaxies teeming with life.
MICHAEL: You're not in New York, Los Angeles or London. Are those cities still the centers of the art world? Can artists be successful and live elsewhere?
STEVE: That’s a tough one. There’s more competition in the large art centers, but more opportunity of course. I think it can be done, but it requires some extra traveling and contact and having the time, money and energy to keep up.
I have sent my book out to a lot of curators and galleries, but I still believe people need to see the work in person for the real connection to be made and actually meeting collectors and curators is by far the best way to get them interested, assuming the work is there to see too. So yes, in short, it helps to be in Berlin, London, New York or Tokyo.
If an artist can get something to go viral on line, I think that might be another way. I have seen some things in the vein of what I do, usually interesting kinetic stuff that ends up getting hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. I have to admit, I am truly clueless as to how that works. I’m not boasting here, but I know some of the videos I have posted of my work are just as, or more interesting, but I may only get something like 300 views at most. Instagram? Man I don’t know. Any advice? Ha!
I’d love to have a show in London, Prague, Berlin or maybe Paris. A good European show might give an artist a boost if the work is out of the scope of the norm there. I think being the guy from “over there” can have an added effect on interest levels. Finding a good enough space that will take a chance on shipping and an outsider is another story. Time to do more research when the time permits, I guess.
MICHAEL: Finally Steve, contemporary art pales in comparison to things like sports or entertainment when it comes to public engagement so what's the point? Could it not ultimately be a waste of time?
STEVE: It’s never a waste of time to the artist who derives spiritual nutrition from it, but we’ve been there already.
The nature of fine art is that it strives for something different than pop culture, in terms of depth and meaning and skill and whatever makes it unprecedented. I think much entertainment and even sports can be included in the scope of art - even fine contemporary art.
Aside from its influence on main line culture, I don’t think fine art needs an excuse for not being as big as the NFL or HBO. Just as stamp collecting, chess or Kyudo Zen Archery don’t. These things are rare and when found are beautiful, secret worlds apart from the Disney party … like having a lover who isn’t a television supermodel. She’s yours and it’s intimate and secret and wonderful.
It’s an aspect of life that isn’t automatically accessible, maybe harder to digest, challenging, moving, inspiring, uncommon and enlightening. And what makes it special and gives it a place in society is that it can be impressive at the very least to those who don’t understand it, revered and something sacred to those who do, and is a moment of realization and enlightenment for those who find it. Or am I wrong?
MICHAEL: I think you’re right. Thanks Steve. Great chat.
STEVE: My absolute pleasure Michael. Thanks for the opportunity.
Check out Steve Brudniak at http://stevebrudniak.com/.