Craig Drennen discusses his current body of work, Timon of Athens, the power of abandoned cultural productions, and life in Atlanta.
Craig Drennen spends years on a body of work. Starting in 2008, he has focused on his eponymous series Timon of Athens, based Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Since moving to Atlanta this summer I’ve become acquainted with Drennen, and his dedicated practice, through a mutual friend. Drennen’s studio is housed in an outbuilding of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center as part of their Studio Artist Program. Recently we met to discuss the convergence of theater and painting in his work.
Rachel Reese How were you first introduced to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and how did you become so invested in this particular piece of literature?
Craig Drennen Well, by late 2007 I had finished up the Supergirl project that I’d been working on for about five and a half years. I’d had Timon of Athens on my mind for some time. I like starting my entire artistic process with something that culture produced but then abandoned—and I’m drawn to things that are both strong and weak simultaneously. Also, I’m curious about acting as it relates to art. Timon of Athens was a perfect subject. It was the worst play by the most idolized writer in the English language. I think I first heard about it in some used bookstore, and from then on it was always on my radar. Timon of Athens is a corrupted text of indeterminate history, with a dubious relationship to the respected canon, and questionable sources. That is to say, it perfectly mirrors my own position within the art world. (laughter)
RR Do you believe that Timon of Athens is simply poor writing by Shakespeare? What makes it so bad?
CD Most authorities believe that it was probably an abandoned draft that was tampered with by others.
RR Are you attracted to failure?
CD I’m not attracted to failure per se, but I do like to inhabit abandoned cultural productions. And cultural productions often get abandoned because they failed. Painters have been allowed—or even encouraged—to stare at a spot in nature to generate artwork, like Cezanne’s Mont St. Victoire for example. But I think it’s equally valid to stare at one spot in culture. That’s what I do. By selecting a location that has been abandoned and forgotten, it generally means that I’m the only one there!
RR Do you feel that allows you more working freedom or are you really tough on yourself?
CD Oh I don’t think the pressure is gone; I feel like it’s increased.
RR You started the Timon series in 2008. How would you say that the body of work has shifted or grown throughout the last five years? Can you point to external (personal/cultural/political) events that affect the direction?
CD I’ll answer the second part first. The binaries that I set up in the work—like best and worst, or internal and external, never become strictly either/or categories for me. It’s always internal and external to me; it’s always both.
I was using the cast of characters as a means to carve out a mental space where I had to be relentlessly creative. The first works in the project were the Mistresses. Each of the Mistress paintings included the oil painting of the anus hung in conjunction with the black line painted directly on the wall. The anus image seems likes it reveals something from the person who gives me their image, but maybe it doesn’t. The minimalist line seems like it offers up nothing, but maybe it does. That combination seemed like the only possible starting point at the time. Those pieces have an almost Neo-Geo level of control to them that’s loosened up a bit in the subsequent characters.
RR So through building the cast of characters you were able to establish a system for making this work?
CD Yes. The play’s dramatis personae allowed me a system of making work that pulls me out of my own ego. It’s not a Lewitt-type system where the outcome is determined; it’s an ongoing intuitive process. I started with the Mistress characters and I’ve been moving at random through the list, never thinking more than one character ahead. I remember being at a Paul Pfeiffer lecture a couple years ago where he said that the subject of sports was useful to him in that it allowed him access to things that were not sports. I understood what he meant perfectly. This play allows me to talk about things that are not the play.
RR That’s an interesting point to bring up—how artists resolve their own work by using another source’s predetermined process or established system. It’s probably similar to many other fields—theatre, sports, music, science—in that way.
Do you only work on one character in the dramatis personae at once, or do you have several different characters going on at the same time? Who are you focusing on now?
CD I work on one character at a time. It takes all of my concentration to get one new character off the ground. That’s not to say that one day I couldn’t work on multiple characters at once, but for now I don’t. I guess the one character who’s a wild card is Apemantus the philosopher. Since that one will be performative, I wait for performance venues—at least so far. Once I had set up my studio in Maine in summer 2011, I started working on Painter and continued for a year. When I made it to Maine again in 2012, I started working on Several Servants and I’m still working on that character. It’s been all Servants this fall.
RR What is your studio practice like?
CD I spend a lot of time in the studio. The rest of life organizes itself around that fact. I don’t fetishize the labor aspect of art making, but the processes I use do take some time. My studio in Atlanta is set up for drawing, painting, and light 3-D construction. In Maine it’s mostly drawing. I still identify as a painter, but sometimes the momentum of an idea moves me outside the practice of painting. In fact, I just had work returned from three exhibitions, and right at this moment my studio is full of photography.
RR How do you feel living in Atlanta has changed or influenced your practice?
CD I’ve grown very fond of Atlanta. It’s a good home base for me. Daily life is simpler here so I have more time to work and more space to work in—and there’s no substitute for that.
RR What function in the play do the Mistresses serve that led you to make the anus paintings? Are they sexually-charged characters?
CD They are no more important than any other characters, but they seem important to me because they were the first ones I did. In the play, the Mistresses are prostitutes to a general who only has a few lines. I wanted to create imagery for them that was sexualized without having gender. It seemed important to connect the painting to the wall more tightly, so from the very beginning I imagined the black lines painted on the wall. I was encouraged by the fact that the first people interested in this work were other artists. Nick Cave bought First Mistress in 2008. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that, but it was a great vote of confidence from an artist I respect.
RR Wow—I agree it’s more validating to have peers appreciate your work. Do you know how David Robbins responded to your Untitled (The Masquers) work based on his own Talent, 1986?
CD The Masquers are direct appropriations of Robbins’s Talent piece. I haven’t heard from him directly, but some friends of mine in Chicago told me he wasn’t crazy about me using his piece—and an image of it was featured in the New York Times review. I have great respect for Robbins and all of the artists in the original Talent. Since they were all “pictures theory” artists of one form or another, I thought they were fair game to be appropriated. They seemed like a perfect fit for the Masquers character—the perfect 18-part readymade. I treated images like they were dessert plates at a wedding reception, since the Masquers appear in one banquet scene in the play: there’s paint behaving like cake icing, and scraps of aluminum foil, and cigarette butts on the images.
When I showed those pieces at P.P.O.W. in New York in 2010, there were people at the opening who pulled me aside and said, “How could you do that to Jenny Holzer?” or “How could you do that to Gretchen Bender?” I let them know that I didn’t do anything to those people. I had put paint and materials onto a portrait image that I scanned from a book. That’s when I realized something: everyone can talk about the failures of modernism, but nobody wants to talk about the failures of postmodernism. Even after all of the theorizing over mechanical reproduction and image making, we still live in a world of voodoo. If I take a picture of young Cindy Sherman and smear paint on it, people cringe as if I was sticking pins into a Cindy Sherman voodoo doll. Images still can seem important and dangerous, and that has been the surprising subtext that’s emerged through this whole project.
RR Images still carry a lot of physical baggage—
CD This is what I’m learning. Or re-learning.
RR How do you find resolution between the physicality of your work (sculptural elements and exhibition/installation devices) and the technical language of painting? There is clearly a conversation with both and you are very aware of your decision-making, from the purposefulness of the paint application and stylistic choices to the specific installation devices. Do you see the gallery space as your theater?
CD I absolutely do see the exhibition as space a theatrical space. I’m not the first to say that, of course. I do like to imagine exhibitions as places where the characters physically come together for viewing. It is to my advantage to treat curators and gallery directors as genuine directors, and let them imagine presentation solutions. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very talented people, and they’ve presented my work in ways that were surprising and informative even to me.
RR Do you feel that you have a fan-based appreciation for your original subject matter? For example, you only saw Supergirl once, yet you worked through it conceptually for five years. Were you operating from memory? Is fandom an important aspect of your practice?
CD That’s an interesting question, and I think my answer has to be no. Part of fandom, it seems to me, is rooted in a fetishization of consumption. Fans are the ultimate consumers because they blend the loyalty of nationalism with their product choice. I’m not like that at all; I don’t approach Supergirl or Timon of Athens from a fan’s point of view. I approach them as places where something can be produced. That’s why I only needed to watch Supergirl once. I wasn’t really a fan of the film, I just needed to see it to scope out the boundaries. Since Timon is further away in time it feels more open to me. I feel like I have much more room to operate.
RR Can you talk about your Awful performances? Are you poking fun at yourself or your ego? It seems that in the Timon body of work you reference props, but in Awful you literally employ them.
CD My ego took a beating with those pieces! And I think ego does become both an engine and an obstacle for artists. The Awful pieces were based on a philosopher in the play I mentioned earlier who skewers the other characters with words. Since his position in the play was a public position, I thought this character should be performative.
I wanted to devise a contemporary equivalent to being so awful to the people around me. Then I remembered a Courtney Love song called “Awful” and thought I should play that song over and over in public. It was my way of being awful in public—I’m a simple man! As for the big head, it was initially a formal choice. I wanted people to be able to see the piece from a distance, so a bigger head would help with that. But when I first started performing wearing the heads, I realized what a great piece of social insulation it turned out to be. I’d never played guitar before, so it was difficult on every level. The Awful performances are the most obviously theatrical works I’ve done. I only use the heads once each, so I date them on the forehead after I’m done. Now I’m starting to imagine the heads themselves as a very eccentric form of painting. They are, after all, just acrylic on paper maché.
RR What do you have coming up?
CD I just finished up at the Miami art fairs with Saltworks gallery. In early 2013 I’ll be in some curated group exhibitions in Los Angeles and Ontario. And I’ve been talking to Samsøn gallery in Boston about another exhibition or project with them. Good things are coming.
Rachel Reese is an independent curator and arts writer. With her husband she produces Possible Press, a curated quarterly newsprint publication of artists’ writings, as well as Possible Projects, a storefront exhibition space. She is the Senior Editor of BURNAWAY magazine.