Brian Belott makes deliriously seductive paintings. Using the reverse-glass technique, he builds glitzy, and sometimes gritty, grids that sparkle and twinkle and trick the eye because of their reflectiveness, changing color depending on where and when you look at them. When he invited me over to his studio in Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn, just across from Prospect Park, about a month ago, he had a number of new ones on hand, and with his typical mischievousness, he had recently begun embedding patterned girls’ socks and Silly-Bandz within those sumptuous grids.
But those paintings are just one part of his multifarious art practice, which hops nimbly across mediums. He’s amassed thousands of found photographs and arranged them into moving and hilarious books, choreographed manic and inventive dances and performances, made supremely messy, sensual wet-on-wet paintings (some stacked with food), recorded sound pieces from answering-machine tapes and records, invented languages, and produced at least one certified madcap video masterpiece, for which he lit his hair on fire (he tells that good, long story below).
During our visit, Belott called YouTube a “collager’s paradise,” a phrase that also perfectly fits his art, which is animated by both Matisse and the Marx Brothers, and involves collecting, cutting, slicing, and dicing existing material into a range of new forms, proffering a relentless, freewheeling, and often mysterious joie de vivre. He’s throwing the best party in town, and he wants you to be there. He has a great new joke, and he wants you to hear it. He has a story that’s going to blow your mind. Listen. You’re going to be glad you did.
Belott is also, literally speaking, a great talker, and this conversation is edited and condensed from our visit, which was done as he prepared for “A Goosh Noosh,” his upcoming show at Zürcher Studio in New York, opening September 18, 2012. We started out talking about those ridiculously beautiful reverse-glass grids. —Andrew Russeth, August 15, 2012
AR : When did you start with the reverse-glass process ?
BB : Around ’98 or ’99. I’m a Jersey native, but my parents moved down to Florida. I’m a crazy junk-store person. When I was down there, I found this small basic painting of flowers. I flipped out about its light source, coming from crumbled tinfoil. Its lifeblood is tinfoil. It immediately hit me, “Whoa, I could build a whole painting style around tinfoil and the fact that it’s collaged.” It’s not painted on the glass, it’s crumbled behind the glass.
Whose work were you interested in before ?
Matisse was one of my favorites and Van Gogh, because their color is so out of control. But I was also aware that, as much as I loved these guys, I couldn’t redo them. There was no way to redo that color and stuff like that. I thought I could start to examine this less-examined field of color with the reverse-glass painting. The colors change as you move. It’s a completely different painting. It also changes during the day. It changes with the shirt you’re wearing. All these factors, it’s chameleon-ing with its environment, its time of day, the person standing in front of it, what the walls are painted. All of this sort of stuff I was really excited about and only occurred because of the reverse-glass process.
What kind of work were you making before then in the ‘90s ?
I was making very sloppy paintings. I’d mix coffee cups filled to the brim with oil paint. Normally people have them just on palettes. It was awesome. I was taking marshmallows or packing materials or children’s food and dipping them into paint and then placing them on top of canvas. I didn’t even bother opening the canvas packaging, to kind of hint that this was a new approach toward painting. Mice ate all the original ones because I didn’t cure them so I remade them. I was also using lots of kids’ school materials and that’s where my pearlescent colors started to come in, and neon. I liked these mini-sized canvases because I saw them as petri dishes. I could just plop different materials on different ones. There were ones covered with jellybeans, with rocks, with shoelaces.
What was the atmosphere like for painting then ?
I was at SVA at the time, when installation and political art were so big and painting was proclaimed dead. When I got out of school I was pretty annoyed that I loved painting so much and that no one was interested in it. People were more interested in videos and making movies. My attitude was, “No, I’m going to make paintings, and I’m going to make you turn your head because I’m putting weird shit on there, and it’s going to be celebratory and strange,” and so that’s been my motto the whole time. That’s why reverse-glass painting was perfect. It’s strange.
It’s a different way to get at painting.
I want something that immediately hits you. And you can be like, “What is that strange flickering thing, or that goopy messed up—what the fuck is that ?”
The new glass paintings with the socks are a real shift. The original grids you were making seemed so immediately, almost effortlessly beautiful.
Yeah, and I distrust that so that’s why I’m bringing in something to interrupt it with the socks. I went and I bought, on Flatbush, girls’ socks so that they would have more fun patterns on them, more colors, more things to riff off of. I’m always working out polar opposites, and am really interested in mash-ups and schizophrenia. I just feel it isn’t a party until the opposite shows up, you know ?
So the opposition here is between elegant grids and the everyday, these socks.
The original idea was to combine Agnes Martin and Liberace and to try to make beautiful minimal paintings but make them with this glitzy material through the reverse-glass medium. The shininess made me develop a palette that was pearlescent, shiny and reflective, very similar to Jeff Koons’s work. You see yourself in it. I was interested in clashing those two things. I started feeling that Agnes Martin is such an ascetic, and was so much about barely saying anything, almost like going, “Poof,” and like sending this puff slowly through the air to the viewer and then being elated. It’s so delicate. I was getting into something very, very Christmas or very decorative. So I wanted to counter that preciousness. It isn’t the preciousness of Agnes Martin. It’s the preciousness of Liberace—I wanted to counter that preciousness that was coming about, and that’s why the socks came up.
And now you have these new ones where it looks like a mass of reflective material is consuming the grid.
It’s a device similar to the sock in that it was something to interrupt the grid. I was here one night, and I was just thinking it would be cool to have some kind of shrub or landmass or cloud mass that’s interrupting the rigidity and normalcy of the grid. First I put these Silly-Bandz, these wristbands for kids and I cut them up. They’re normally in the shape of animals or letters. So I cut them up and put them here and fill in the gaps with glitter glue. Then I cut up these sheets of reflective material to make the cloud formations or landmasses and build the grid around it.
I’m just going crazy in the sense that I’m doing all of these different things, and I really don’t know what will be the end result. I like to do a couple versions, until I figure out which one had more resonance for whatever reasons. I just do a couple of takes like a jazz dude would do.
Where did you get these frames ?
They’re from junk stores, yard sales, that sort of thing. Also a frame store right around where I work on 27th Street. I’m building this palette of glitterati and pearlescence, so I go toward pearlescent frames. Shiny frames with grooves pick up the light. When I find a random frame in the junk stores, I like to work backwards, matching the art to the frame.
Where do your names come from ?
I want to call this silver one Refrigerator[points to a shiny, silver painting on the wall], but it might be little bit literal. I think these would be great in a 1940s doctor’s office because of all the buffed aluminum and metal and stainless steel—that’s what it reminds me of. The naming is a real, real awesome thing, and it’s also like a nightmare because a name can come perfectly towards you and it can name what you want them to know, or by naming something, it can go bad, or be over determined.
That’s a super reflective one. How do you photograph them ?
For a lot of professional photographers, reflection is an enemy to copying flat work. This is a reflection monster, and their immediate reaction is to put up a black cloth behind it. But if you put a black cloth behind it, you take away all of the pyrotechnics. You literally pull the cord on the Christmas lights.
In terms of the reflectiveness, Koons has a very specific idea about what it means, the viewer being able to self-actualize and so forth. What do you want it to do ?
If you think about why people like to watch rippling water, they’re watching a surface constantly shifting and changing, and it’s that flickering that is kind of like a pocket watch slowly going back and forth like it’s used in hypnotism. So I think what’s operating in paintings like this is that someone is slowly lulled and brought into a moment of hypnotism through the always ever-changing flickering light.
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist ?
A group of influences. You know, certain kids are interested in animals or other kids or running down a field with other kids. I was interested in things, obsessed with things. I collected arrowheads, old marbles, lighters, pocket watches, old radios, postcards, old photos, shells, rocks, cigar boxes, old tins, anything that was made out of brass, and the list goes on and on, and it was since I was young. My father loved old antiques and going to junk stores so I went with him. I became obsessed with these objects from another time. I remember one thing I was obsessed with this woman’s compact. It was this amazing, circular, copper compact. It was Deco so it was from the ’20s and ’30s. It was poured, translucent pink enamel over metal, which I love.
It sounds so beautiful.
Oh, I was obsessed. I was literally put in a trance. That has a direct correlation to this body of paintings.
You grew up in Jersey. What was that like ? Were you around art ?
I grew up in East Orange on Park Avenue, and both my grandfathers were doctors, general practitioners. I lived above one grandfather’s office, and the first floor of the house that I lived in was a waiting room for my grandfather’s office, which reminds me of that silver painting. Thomas Edison lived down the street. So Thomas Edison was the—now I consider him an evil wizard, but back then he was “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” When he came to the Oranges he invented the phonograph. His persuasiveness dominated everything.
How so ?
My grandfathers were obsessed with him. He brought us our modern world, a superhuman guy who came in and used logic and science and gave us light bulbs, and so my grandparents were obsessed with him. Everyone in the town was obsessed. It was like living down the street from Elvis, but even bigger. He dominated in such a way that my father was obsessed with him, obsessed, and had to be stopped in the ’50s, as a kid, because he would sign his homework "Thomas Edison." I did the same thing. I was that obsessed. When I was young I would play chemist. I was obsessed with this idea of invention and making something and the mad scientist. And so a lot of my kids’ drawings were of this, of tables, of bubbling beakers, of all these other weird things.
Anyhow, I was precocious in the sense that, before chemistry, I learned all of the elements and became obsessed with it and talking to my grandparents and stuff. It all came to a screeching halt when I finally had to take chemistry class and I realized I wasn’t that good at chemistry, and I didn’t have a knack for math.
My parents were also very persuasive. My father is an artist and was a commercial photographer and collected all sorts of things. He’s also a loud-mouth entertainer. My mother always pushed me toward the arts, and her family was filled with loud-mouthed entertainers ! And then when I realized that I wasn’t going to be a chemist, I realized that the alchemic idea of transforming base materials into fine art was essentially where I was going to go.
What were you interested in at that time you first realized you’d be an artist ?
When I was in high school I loved Dadaism. I went bonkers over it. The idea that now comedy could be something that transforms material into art. When I was 10, even before I understood who they were, I became obsessed with the Marx Brothers. I think in fourth or fifth grade, I was down at the Jersey Shore and I saw, I think, A Night at the Opera, and I was blown away. I still don’t get all the tightly packed Jewish jokes that are all wrapped like an onion in there, but I was pulled in like a strange tractor beam. Why ? Maybe it’s the impulse, if people are playing a serious game of chess, to make the chess pieces fly all over the place. That’s what I found in Dadaism in high school. Tristan Tzara. “Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and upset people.” I was like, “Yeah !” Even today I’m still constantly reminded of when I try to go for information on the Internet and it bites me, or I try to go to TV and it bites me. And I realize everybody’s lying. Guess what ? The only truth is this fucking joke that I’m about to serve to you. So the only truth is Dadasim. It was also interesting to get involved with because you’re trying to make something pretty, but then what about trying to destroy something ? That is another valid way of working. That’s where the sock paintings go, or with the found photographs I use.
Which are amazing. When did you start buying those found photos ?
The color ones I started collecting maybe 12 years ago. But previous to that I was collecting lots and lots of old black-and-white. I was focusing on the ’20s and ’30s, when the people loosen up a little bit from the teens. I love those. I would look at them and just go off again in the same way that I’m talking about the flickering lights in the paintings, just going off somewhere. That’s what a painting is, a window off, even if the painting is just bringing you off into your own window.
When did they start becoming books ?
I started doing that in 2000 when I moved to New York City. I was in Greenpoint and right down the street was a great junkstore that opened the floodgates of photos for me to look through and so I went there three times a day looking. As I kept looking and looking, I realized there are these archetypes that came up of what a photographer would photograph, like photographs of bouquets—whether the bouquet was there because of your wedding or Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day.
Then there were certain recurring situations, like people on the phone. Well, if you’re on the phone, and someone else has a camera, they’re like, "I’m going to take a photo of you !" And it becomes a devilish moment. Same thing with someone sleeping. Tons of photos of people sleeping. So there are these moments of why someone picks up a camera that were coming up. I was looking through thousands upon thousands upon thousands of these photos. And it became obvious what I wanted to collect—birthday cakes, people in their cars, people putting groceries in their trunk, people taking photographs of the Christmas tree.
Why did you pick those things ? Some of them are celebratory and specific, but other ones seem really everyday and quotidian, like the groceries.
One, they came up a lot, and two, I was trying to honor the different impulses for regular, ordinary people to pick up a camera. I didn’t need to think about them. They thought on me, you understand ? This is why people pick up a camera, and they showed it to me. There’s the photograph of someone who loves the flower they just got and they try to get too close, so I have a million blurry photographs of flowers. Because they try to get more of the beauty ! How do you get more beauty in ? You get closer. You can’t get closer, so there’s a blurry thing.
So I became obsessed with all these things. And I love it because it’s about Charles Ives or Béla Bartók, bringing folk forms into this place, or Edward Steichan’s "The Family of Man" show at MoMA. Just making these books that look like the normal photograph albums you’d have in your house, but you open it up, and it’s the history of man, it’s everybody, and there they are. And then you go on this weird travel through photos.
What has the response been like ?
I spent over 10 years working on it, but it really never had any payoff in terms of people buying them. People loved it, people were mesmerized whenever I put it anywhere—when I would do slide shows, people would be obsessed. People are obsessed with people. I also started to believe that it’d become a little less interesting, maybe, just because that’s what everyone’s naturally doing all the time on the computer. Everybody is looking at everybody else. You’re looking at their vacations and their birthday cakes and their grandmothers and their sexy photos.
But what I find so interesting about the photos is that they’re discarded or lost, and they’re of very intimate things, sometimes even sexual.
A lot of times it happens because of some type of disaster. I found them coming from storage lockers so that means these people didn’t pay their monthly rent and the stuff went up for auction. Because of some change of events, they lost their stuff. Dude, I’m telling you, normal people take great photos.
Can you talk about your music and sound work a bit ?
In the late ‘90s I learned this music software called ACID, which allowed me to endlessly mix or collage audio. So the songs I was making were like musique concrète. Simultaneously, while collecting found photography, I was also collecting found amateur sound from thrift stores. This material was digitized and cut up and reassembled into songs. I did a whole group of songs made from answering-machine cassettes. I was a big contributor to WFMU’s found-audio program “The Audio Kitchen” hosted by the Professor.
Now that I have stopped working this way I have gotten into other musical projects. In 2008, I co-composed The Wordless Chorus. It was a choral work for 30 people, constructed from strange vocal experiments and popular songs. But most recently I preformed in the “Greater New York” show at PS1, and I conducted and sang in Apparent Wuzzup Fluid, a composition for chorus (spread throughout the audience) and four soloists. These choral compositions are heavily influenced by composers like Ives, György Ligeti, Meridith Monk, and Phil Minton.
And when did you start doing performance ?
It’s something that just always was. I was the class clown in school. When I was in summer Governor’s School in New Jersey during high school, there were all these different people. There were musicians, dancers, all sorts of things. I immediately started this collaboration with this one other guy, and we would do these performances. It was over four weeks. By the fourth week, I realized I could collage some people from the dance world and a couple people from the poetry world and a couple actors. And I got a tuba quartet, and I spread them over the audience, and it became this elaborate thing of multiple artists all flipping out at the same time.
That sounds amazing.
It became a massive collage and I became obsessed with that. When I started going out with Larissa [Velez], while she went to college for modern dance, we collaborated on all of these dances together. And the last large-scale dance piece we did was choreographed to Ives’s Fourth Symphony. It was exactly what I had done in Governor’s School, a combination of several different people all collaged together on stage. I co-wrote this in 1997, when I went back to New Jersey, and it’s all clips. I was obsessed with Brueghel and density, and so every sequence is clipped from something else. It started with the first warm-up you learned when you went to dance school, so what they’re watching at the beginning of the dance is their warm-up. We also took a wrestling warm-up from Bill T. Jones. We were taking stuff from Saturday Night Live, from Charlie Chaplin, from everywhere, from Mark Morris, from Bugsy Berkeley, rugby, cheerleading, Fred Astaire. We were really into Brueghel, this whole idea of the courtyard filled with all the different people. It was so much fun to work with a large group of people. That’s why I like what Ryan Trecartin is doing so much. We even sampled a dance that happened right before ours because it was an evening of four dances. So we just took a sequence of it. It’s like a chameleon. "You think I’m this, well, oh my God, I’m this now. Catch me if you can. Good luck !" And that’s what I like about artists who do different things. The “catch me if you can.”
The other thing I want to hear about is the hair burning video. That performance is insane. Where did that come from ?
Being the class clown is about doing the most absurd thing. For years now my hip is all kinds of screwed up. For me, in high school on through college, the coolest thing to do was fall on the floor. I loved hitting the floor. I would do it in public. I would do it on the train. It was my favorite gesture, and so I loved doing something that turned the world upside down very quickly.
Back in high school, I was involved in doing performances, and even though I don’t really like rock music, this one band wanted me to do rock music, so I learned "Great Balls of Fire." What I would do is douse my hands in rubbing alcohol and light them and wave my hands in front of the audience. Rubbing alcohol burns out quickly. It didn’t hurt, but it would flip people out. If I left it too long, and several times I did, it would burn, and I would get blisters. But for the most part you wave your hands and it goes out.
So from there, after making the dance piece with Larissa, we broke up, and I went back to New York again and I grew a massive beard as soon as 9/11 came. I was like, "I’m the enemy, watch this." Poof ! Someone told me I could light my beard on fire, and that’s what I did here. [Points at picture of a gallery announcement in which he has a huge beard.] And I used to light my beard on fire, and this was during the Abu Ghraib stuff. I just had a massive beard, and I wasn’t washing. It was a really crazy period, where I was really playing a really dirty character, like ODB or Rasputin. It’s obvious to me now that Joaquin Phoenix’s rap dirt-bag character was lifted from me.
Sure, but it’s also bullshit.
But it sounds like you were doing this with a sense of caricature.
Oh yeah, absolutely. There was a bit of that. But so when I cleaned up, and then YouTube hit, which I think is interesting because it’s like a library that is constructed through humanity, like my found photos in a certain way. It’s a collager’s paradise. When it first came out I was thinking, "Fuck this. I did this with my beard. I can set my head on fire, I know it." So I got the rubbing alcohol—and my hair used to be really, really thick and tall so I put the rubbing alcohol on and we just did it. And that was it. I would have it on fire and I would look at the camera. It became the ultimate wet dream for a get-your-attention YouTube video. And Annie [Pearlman] was like the perfect person to handle it, find the music, and cut it. She went to NYU for film, so it was a perfect collaboration between her and me. It’s about attention getting. It’s why Jimmy Hendrix set his guitar on fire. There is a specific lineage of me using fire, but I really don’t want to get burned, so I do it at choice moments.
What else are you working on these days ?
The other big aspect for me is making up fake languages and fake songs, and doing fake [Smithsonian] Folkways things, just doing weird vocal things. Ehehwhoawhoa. And doing different songs. So that’s what I’ve been working on for the past three years. A friend of mine, Billy, slept on the floor right here, and he wouldn’t get up, so I would come in and sing songs to him to wake him the fuck up. I would record them on a hand tape deck. And they were all fake Folkways. Aneaneaheah. I would also be a yodeler. I just recorded all of this stuff and that’s where all the performances have gone.
I feel like the last thing we should talk about is "A Goosh Noosh," the title of your show.
"A Goosh Noosh" came from the “Waking Up Billy” album. I love words, and I have a lot of friends who are writers and poets and some who are very close who showed me stuff. One of the most influential things I ever heard was James Joyce reading a couple pages from Finnegan’s Wake, and I became obsessed with it, and I memorized a lot of it, just based on sound. I’m obsessed with—I don’t know what the fuck it means, but I love the way it sounds. So anyhow, "A Goosh Noosh" came from that thing that I had mentioned about waking my friend up and making up fake languages. I think "Agoosh Noosh" has the sound of something religious.
In Fellini’s 8½, at one point he’s thinking about this point when he was young, and he was a kid living with a big Italian family. They’re trying to get to bed, and all of the sudden they wake up. There’s a painting of an old man, and they’re like, "Asa nisi masa, asa nisi masa, asa nisi masa.” You say “Asa nisi masa” three times and then the painting comes alive. "A Goosh Noosh." I hear it as a soothsaying. It sounds Indian or Portuguese. And I don’t want to explain this work. I don’t want to say like, "Glitterati !" or "Classy glass !" Fuck that shit. I don’t want to explain shit to you. You come in. I want to make a mystery.
"A Goosh Noosh."
"A Goosh Noosh," exactly. What the fuck is that ? I don’t know.