Interview: Brandi Twilley and life in the studio

Brandi Twilley, Manhattan Skyline, 2020, oil on Canvas, 16 x 20 inches

Contributed by Caroline Wells Chandler/ I met Brandi Twilley back in 2008 when we started graduate school together at Yale. Both Southerners and eager for a change of scenery, we became fast friends. For over a decade we have talked extensively about art and creating a sustainable life around making work in NYC. This interview about her current show, “No Living,” at Sargent’s Daughters is one of many conversations.

“No Living,” installation view at Sargent’s Daughters

CWC: What is it like having an art show in the middle of a global pandemic?  What has life been like for you since March?

BT: It’s been kind of sad to have a show during a pandemic to be honest. I missed having an opening where I could see everyone and celebrate. I’ve been kind of out of touch with many friends for the last few years too so it just feels like so many layers of removal and isolation. Still I’ve gotten wonderful thoughtful messages about the show and a few Zoom sessions that I’m very grateful for.

Brandi Twilley and Caroline Wells Chandler masking it up at Sargent’s Daughters

Since April I’ve been living in Syracuse, New York with my significant other. For a while I was too disoriented to be productive but eventually I got going painting again. I have really good light and few distractions. I have more time to work since I am not commuting to teach. For me, quarantine is actually giving me a much needed break from everything.

CWC: One of the first things I notice about these paintings is the scale.  These paintings are smaller than the works in your first two shows at Sargent’s Daughters.  Why this change?

BT: I tend to suffer from painting megalomania. All paintings would be ten feet tall and every series would have hundreds of works if I never had any limitations. It’s for the best that I do. My working space is smaller, the gallery is smaller, and the subject itself is smaller. It’s just me living in my studio, sleeping, watching the news on my laptop, painting, having insomnia, checking my phone etc. The series I made prior to this, of my house that burnt down, was epic. Those paintings were about a place I lived for 16 years with my whole family. These painting are more modest scale and are simply about my solitary life during my first six years living this strange life-style of squatting in a studio.

“No Living,” installation view at Sargent’s Daughters

CWC: You have an exciting wall of canvas sketches in this exhibition.  Can you discuss that presentation decision?  Do you have favorites?

BT: I started making the canvas sketches three years ago when I knew it was time to get deeply lost again making my work. I cut up my failed paintings and made these sketches on those scraps of canvas. They’ve been really helpful for me to immediately begin translating thoughts and images into paint. I never thought I would show them, but during the months the show was postponed I realized they should go in. I thought it seemed appropriate to include paintings that are private, unpolished, and immediate since it’s a show about my studio.

Brandi Twilley, Peeing, 2019, oil on unstretched canvas, 10.75 x 7.5 inches

My favorites are my rat self-portrait and the one of me peeing. I had forgotten I’d made the rat portrait, but knew it had to be in the show when I rediscovered it.  The one of me peeing by my easel seems so essential to the subject. Living in a studio is gross and there’s no way to hang on to illusions when that’s going on.

CWC: Your paintings have always dealt with issues of class.  How do you see this intersectional issue informing your work? 

BT: I couldn’t separate issues of class from my work if I tried. I make work about my life and my class is always going to be clear in every aspect of the images. If I was making paintings about a middle or upper class existence then all the signifiers of class would be there, but it wouldn’t be so central in the sense of it being anything unusual. It’s unusual to see images of a house that’s full of trash and nearly dilapidated but inhabited by a family. It’s an unusual life style to live in a studio. To be honest, my motivations for painting these things isn’t to drive awareness about issues of class. I’m simply painting the things that I care about and that interest me. At the same time, I do take it seriously that the paintings might also provide some understanding about class.

It’s taken me probably the last decade to have perspective on class in my work. It took me a while to see clearly that I wanted to avoid such things as poverty porn, like a national geographic photo essay or making a big cruel joke of it like Harmony Korine. I also find it fascinating that the way I paint, with all the detail and time I put into things, is specifically tied to a lower class appreciation of labor and skill. The labor of making – or not making – is a huge issue of class in the New York art world. Those who get their hands dirty, those who clock in to make things for others, those who don’t – it’s a whole fascinating ecosystem that my work also can never be separated from.

“No Living,” installation view at Sargent’s Daughters
“No Living,” installation view at Sargent’s Daughters

CWC: Can you talk about the role of dreams and memory in your practice?

BT: Paying attention to dreams has always been an important part of making paintings for me. In this current series there are a few images based on the reoccurring nightmare that I had of the landlord walking in on me asleep in my studio. I also had pleasant dreams about my beach combing hobby of walking along the beach at Coney Island or the East River and discovering amazing shards of pottery. I realized at that time that I was piecing together the past from broken bits in the paintings of the house I grew up in in a similar way. Working from memory is similar to working from dreams. Both are impossible to make concrete forms from, but the emotional content is often the most vivid and the thing to strive to recreate.

Brandi Twilley, Washing My Hair, 2019, oil on canvas, 14 x 26 inches

CWC: Whenever I think of your work I immediately think of light and then the color blue.  What is your relationship to light and the color blue?  How do you think of these elements in your work?

BT: The light is everything in these paintings.  The light is what gives life to inanimate things in a room. It makes them have a temperature, a time of day, a season, and a mood. The light is often the thing I remember that makes a place real to me.

The color blue is many things to me. It’s light from a television or a laptop, it’s all the blues Picasso used to make the Blue Period paintings that I loved when I first started painting. It’s also the color that all early digital photos were tinged with. It’s a soothing, but melancholy nocturnal color. I’m aware it’s a cliché at times. In these paintings it’s mixed with the grayscale of the white walls and gray floors of the studio and makes them feel just a little colder.

CWC: Which artists are you looking at right now?  Have you read any interesting books or binged on any intriguing shows since quarantine?

BT: I love Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work. I’ve recently discovered R. Crumb and I still think about and look at Otto Dix often. That’s a really strange assortment, but that is who is in my head at the moment. I am currently reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison grew up in Oklahoma too and there’s a familiarity to the settings in the story even though it’s not specifically set there. I’m glad I’m finally reading it. It’s incredible.

Brandi Twilley, Rat Self Portrait, 2017, oil on unstretched canvas 6.5 x 9.5 inches

CWC: What advice do you have for artists at this unusual moment?

BT: I think many artists are facing a complete destabilization of their lives and are having to reevaluate everything. Maybe they are unemployed or have to give up on the city for now. So while I am doing okay, teaching online, and enjoying more painting time I know that’s not what’s going on for everyone. I’d say hang in there. At difficult points I’ve asked myself whether I’d regret making my work even if no one ever sees it or cares about it and it just goes to the landfill museum or the thrift store collection. The answer is always I don’t regret making my work even if often it just gets rolled up in my closet. It’s still meaningful to me. It’s hard to be filled with the optimism to create when the world is a dumpster fire as it is now. I feel like I’m making my paintings as a way to cope and have some kind of routine these days. Also, be sure to make an effort not to be too isolated. I’m trying to do Zoom studio visits as a way to deal with that.

Brandi Twilley: No Living,” Sargent’s Daughters, 179 East Broadway, New York, NY. Through September 13, 2020.

Artist’s bio (from the gallery website): Brandi Twilley (b. 1982, Oklahoma City, OK) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.  She received her MFA from Yale University, New Haven, CT in 2011 and has recently exhibited at Zero Gallery, Milan, Italy; The Museum of Sex, New York, NY and Kate Werble Gallery, New York, NY. This is her third solo exhibition at Sargent’s Daughters. Her work has been reviewed in The New York Times, ARTFORUM, ARTnews, The Art Newspaper, The New Yorker, Artnet News, Time Out, The Observer, and Hyperallergic, among other publications. She is represented by Sargent’s Daughters.

About the author: Caroline Wells Chandler is a Bronx based artist.

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Caroline Wells Chandler and the in-between

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