A Conversation: Joe Bradley and Sebastian Blanck

Fall 2007

Joe Bradley: These cut-out paintings have a different quality of light than your older canvases.  Is that one LA?  Is that a palm tree in the background?

Sebastian Blanck: That’s South Carolina, but it’s evening light. And since they’re in acrylic…

JB: These are acrylic?

SB: Yeah. I always painted with oil paint until this series – but oils aren’t immediate enough for these paintings. I need to see the color relationships that I am creating as I lay down the shapes.  Acrylic only takes a few minutes to dry, if I were using oils I would have to wait at least a week before each piece dried, which is too impractical. It is exciting how a change of material can open up new opportunities. For example, I started using some neon pinks and reds that are not available in oils. They add a bit more intensity.

JB: I think it’s wonderful. Everyone always says oil paint is more luminous, but I think it’s a little dingy.

SB: (laughs) I always felt that oil paints were more serious. I guess that is a hangover from art school. But really, you just need to use the material that is best for your work.

I am breaking up the image like a puzzle and then painting each piece individually.   This removes the issue of transitioning from one color to the next.  The pieces of canvas make it so that I can paint one thing solidly and not worry about how I’m dealing with the edges because the edges are fixed.  Once all the pieces are painted I glue them to a second canvas with a dramatic colored ground.  The ground provides unity for the image.

JB: It sort of gives it the quality of being lit from behind, like a light box.

SB: One of things that started to frustrate me about my last body of work was that I wasn’t using drawing.  In these new paintings I am drawing but in an indirect way – which is to say that instead of making definitive calligraphic marks, it is the space between each shape that make the drawing happen.

JB: Yeah, there’s almost a print like quality to them. So what was the impulse behind this shift, as far as how you make these things?

SB:  I felt that the shower series had run their course.  After a long period of struggling with what to make next, I went back to a technique that I used in college and started making the paper cut-outs.  The first piece in the new series was a study of Isca (my wife) lying in bed wearing shorts.  I was excited by the idea that I could take any picture and put it into this system, process it.  The subject matter opened up tremendously.  I expanded the project by enlarging the image and making them in linen.

JB: The shower series had such specific criteria.

SB:  The cut-outs have rules too, I just replaced the old rules with new ones, and the result is something very different.  As with the showers, there are many steps in the process of making the work that I follow.  There is always work to be done tomorrow.

JB: It’s weird. I think about that in my own work. You sort of unconsciously give yourself these funny assignments and they are usually something that you need in your life.

SB: Basically all art is a funny assignment, you know, none of it is really necessary.

JB: Bite your tongue!

SB: (Laughs)

JB: So the shower series was extremely intimate, but I don’t feel like a voyeur looking at these new paintings – I feel like I’m being invited into a situation that is very intimate in your life.

SB: That’s good.

JB: Not literally like, this is my wife in the shower, but it’s like it happens inside your life and it’s a quiet moment. These are a little bit more…

SB: Family friendly?

JB: I was wondering that about your work. It seems very much like you keep your subject matter close to home: your friends, your wife… there is a modesty that I enjoy in your work.   You’re painting intimate portraits of loved ones.  A lot of contemporary portraiture is mediated in some way, like Elizabeth Payton or John Currin who is really ironic.

SB: I definitely don’t want to deal with irony. I think irony in art can be funny and useful, but for me it’s not a necessary tactic.

JB: I’ve always thought that you have a goofy sense of humor – which you don’t seem to utilize in your paintings.  Not to say that there aren’t light hearted moments, but I sense that there is a kind of reverence, like this is a holy place for you. Maybe that’s a little overblown.

SB: I see what you’re saying… I find that can also be said about the music that I write.  In making art and music I tap into emotions and thoughts that people might not suspect I had if they only hung out with me joking around at bar. Painting and song writing are slow so I tend to be more contemplative.  I don’t avoid humour in studio, it is just not present in the way you might expect.  If I could make a really funny painting I would.

JB: It’s difficult to do.

SB: It is! You manage to pull it off.

JB: I try.

SB: Your stuff certainly has a sense of humour, but I see a serious side as well. One piece from your recent show at Canada gallery seemed very politically minded to me. I don’t know if I am reading too much into it or not, as the language is so simplified, but by having those iconic colours (red, white and blue) together and then having one leg cropped I immediately thought of a wounded solider or even a wounded country.

JB: I think that’s one of the special things about painting and art making is that you can have conflicting emotional content. Something can be tragic and humorous and stupid and serious all at the same time.  I’ve used that colour scheme more then once and sometimes it backfired.

SB: You mean you had protesters?

JB: No (laughs). I exhibited a similar piece in France and it was read as the French flag. It just doesn’t mean the same thing in that context.

JB: Do you have any memorable formative experiences as far as the first paintings that inspired you? Did you go to museums and that sort of thing?

SB:  I loved and often visited the Rodin sculptures at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum – but figurative sculpture in contemporary art seemed an impossible endeavour.  I fell in love with French painting after I really examined Degas and realised he was painting more then ballerinas. Degas’ paintings depict performances. The derby, the opera, the ballet – he is an audience member rather than a participant. His work led me to discover Bonnard and Vuillard who are less cold and calculating than Degas.  I remember seeing a Vuillard painting on Christmas break of my freshman year of college (also at the Met) and knowing it was the type of painting I wanted to make.  It was domestic, but not a genre painting.  It depicted people related to his life, just like Bonnard’s paintings do. I didn’t want to separate myself from painting. I wanted to be a part of it even if I wasn’t in the image.

JB: Is that a challenge? When you paint those who are dear to you, does it concern you that your viewer isn’t familiar with your subjects? Are you worried people won’t be interested because these people are unknown to them?

SB: Although it is true that I focus on painting the people in my life, it is important to note that the people in these painting are artists, musicians, and filmmakers.  There is a rich history of painting artists.  Also, although I am painting portraits, I am equally concerned with the surroundings and the fracturing of the image. The subject matter, the material and the process are one. I hope that by dissecting the technique, and examining the surface, viewers feel an attachment to the person or people in the picture.

I think I best capture my wife, Isca, in these paintings.  I am very proud of the one where she is in profile.  She has such a beautiful profile.  It provides a strong contour in the middle of that painting that grounds the whole image.  A profile is more flat then a face seen from straight on, so it looks very natural using this technique.  I feel like that is one of the best images of Isca that I’ve ever made, and I’ve made a lot.

JB: That makes perfect sense.

Sebastian Blanck is an artist based in New York.  He has had solo exhibitions of his paintings in New York City, California, Colorado, Italy and Sweden.  In 2007 Blanck released a CD of four songs titled “I Blame Baltimore.” 

Joe Bradley is an artist based in New York.  He has had solo exhibitions of his work in New York City, California, Germany and England. He is the singer of the band “Cheeseburger” who released their self-titled debut in 2007 on Kemado Records.