An artist’s story: Patrick Brennan

Patrick Brennan

Contributed by Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein / Earlier this year, painter Patrick Brennan had a show at the artist-run gallery Essex Flowers. The title, “Drifter,” referred to the previous year of his life, when he gave up his studio in Greenpoint to spend time in England, Ohio, and Bahrain. He also made frequent trips to upstate New York, where his partner Lydia McCarthy is a tenured professor at Alfred University. Just before the show opened, we met at his Bushwick apartment and talked about his travels. He’s an open-hearted conversationalist, and, as we talked, he surprised me by mentioning that he might be leaving New York. “I’ve lived in this same apartment for 17 years,” he said, “That’s the entire time I’ve been in New York. It might be nice to have a change.”

Patrick Brennan, installation view of “Drifter” at Essex Flowers

Brennan grew up in working-class Syracuse, and over the past seventeen years he has become a well-liked and respected member of the New York art community. His work has been included in numerous group exhibitions, and he has had solo shows at Halsey McKay Gallery and Romer Young (San Francisco) as well as Essex Flowers. Brennan’s tentative notion was to move upstate and buy a house with McCarthy. Somewhat to my surprise – he’s 43, and is a fairly well-established painter – he had also applied to grad school.

 When he first moved to New York, Brennan took a job managing an art supply store in Williamsburg. There he met many artists, both as customers and co-workers. In conversation he learned about materials, how other people used them, and what it meant to have a studio practice. Today Brennan’s paintings investigate the way diverse media interact and flow, which he says he learned from working at the art supply store. Back then, he also pondered fundamental questions: How do I make a painting? What is a painting made of? What materials can I use besides paint?

Patrick Brennan
Patrick Brennan in his studio

He’s answered some of those questions, but he still persistently resists stagnation. While he nearly always uses acrylic paint, he draws on a wide range of exotic materials for guest-starring roles. These might include swatches of silk, glitter, popsicle sticks, or even other paintings attached to the surfaces. The paintings are playful, inventive, clumsy, goofy, flat. The shapes are sometimes sharply angled, sometimes squiggly. The scale is generally mid-sized, maybe 48 x 60 inches, the canvas stretched over a deep frame. Straightforward and pared down, Brennan’s style can look naïve, but improvisational is perhaps the more apt adjective. He’s like a chef throwing incongruous ingredients into the pot, tasting as he goes along, to see what happens. He doesn’t value technical wizardry or meticulous craftsmanship. Sometimes the result is great; other times it’s crap. He eschews recognizable signs and symbols in favor of washes, pools, blobs, and geometric patterns.

It was by way of studio visits cultivated at the art store that Brennan really learned to talk about his work. Eventually, Amy Sillman, one of the artists he met at the shop, offered him a job as her assistant. He also worked for Erik Parker and Blake Rayne, among others. The experience, he says, “amplified my own studio work, inspiring me.” He learned about how professional artists lived. “Running errands, priming canvases, watching artists live their lives” taught Brennan how to take art seriously, and how to organize a productive, working studio. Working for artists who had gallery representation also afforded him the chance to work closely with galleries, where he started picking up extra jobs.

Customarily, this is a stage of an artist’s professional life marked by uncertainty about whether it will be sustainable. For the next seven years, Brennan worked at Nicole Klagsbrun’s gallery in Chelsea, a small operation where he wore many hats: gallery attendant, installer, janitor. It was an important time for him. He witnessed, up close, how paintings go from an artist’s mind, to the walls of the studio, to a gallery, and finally to collectors. He also saw how curators coax shows from ideas, and then nurture them into events. And he connected with even more artists, he was “putting on ten shows a year, installing the work, going in between the gallery and artists’ studios.” Matthew Day Jackson, Adam McEwen, Mika Rottenberg, and John Giorno were all supportive early on. Klagsbrun was generous, too, placing his work in some of her shows. In time, she invited Brennan himself to curate two shows.

The opportunity to curate opened still more doors. Brennan organized shows at other spaces, using the network of people he had met through his job at Nicole Klagsbrun. Curating was a great way to showcase his aesthetic, meet like-minded people, and discover venues at which to show his own work. In 2013, he and a group of friends started Essex Flowers as an artist-run space. He had also become a proficient art handler, and put these skills to practical use as a freelancer. At the same time, his profile in the New York painting world had grown. At Alfred University, he was invited to have his own exhibitions, curate others, and give visiting artist lectures, and then to teach drawing and painting. Brennan found that he loved teaching, which led him to pursue more adjunct work in the New York area. He soon realized that an MFA – generally the terminal degree for art professors – would help him get better teaching gigs, the better to subsidize and maintain his art practice.

In July, Brennan will be out of New York City. In the fall, he’ll start his MFA at Cornell. But he will remain a member of Essex Flowers, which will bring him back into the city on a regular basis. In “Drifter”there were over 100 paintings. They were tiny compared with his earlier work, under one foot square. This was because he had been moving around so much that he needed to make something portable. He had never hung a show of his own work that had so many elements, and was a little uncomfortable about having abandoned his trademark calculated obscurity in favor of recognizable signs like cartoon roads, moons, mountains, and suns. A little paradoxically, what might have unsettled or at least surprised him was the hard-earned viability of his life as an artist. He’ll get used to it.

About the author: Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein is an artist and writer raised in St. Paul, MN, who now lives in Brooklyn, NY. 

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