Now Featuring Brandon Walls Olsen
San Francisco artist Brandon Walls Olsen has an expanded practice centered on color and shape. His paintings are small, detailed and unselfconsciously wonky. We talked about how painting became the center of his practice, and how honesty and persistence underpin the materials and aesthetics of his work.
MH: Can you talk about your background before you started to focus on the way you’ve been painting in recent years? I’m curious about how your sculptural work has led you to the painting practice you have now.
BWO: I always initially describe myself as an artist, and when asked for specifics, will say that I make paintings, and that I make work in other forms that is idea-based and usually driven by some sort of specific opportunity. There are currently these two fairly distinct modes, whereas in the past everything was kind of blurred.
My background is primarily in painting, and I’ve always thought about my projects, at least at some stage, through the terms and concerns of that medium. But my definition of painting is an expansive one, or maybe I don’t really define that outer limit. In the past, my paintings were frequently a mix of wood, textiles, crafts, and found objects. The focus was mostly on color and shape, but considering the media and dimensionality, they would probably be better described as assemblage, sculpture, or installation.
I spent a lot of time at home or in the studio just making stuff. I was invested in the process, but I didn’t feel like I had to be that excited about the immediate results because these parts would be just small elements that would eventually accumulate into larger works down the line. I often dissected and recycled older pieces. The completed artworks were a display of the work itself. Time and space made this type of practice possible.
At a certain point, my work became somewhat overwhelmingly expansive. In grad school, my studio was packed with materials, tools, and ongoing projects. During the summer between the two years of school, I was going to travel to two short-term studio situations, and had to develop some way to work that was much more compact and focused. I decided to prepare some small plywood panels, and put together a bunch of tupperware containers of latex house paint, and planned to try to make a bunch of small paintings that would just be paintings in stricter sense than typical for me. I enjoyed the scale and directness, and have continued on with them. The set of paintings reproduced for the LPP prints are in this same basic vein, just a bit more dense and skillful than the initial ones.
MH: How do you select the surface (and shape) of your paintings? The finished work is really intricate, but the outlines remind me that they’re unusual objects, as well as images. They remind me of tiles in this sense.
BWO: I get a full sheet of thin plywood, and I use a jigsaw to cut it up into pieces that are in the neighborhood of a square foot. I try not be too fussy with the shapes. They’re supposed to be vaguely rectangular, but a bit rough and wonky. There will be a bunch of chips out of the edges, I sand them a bit and then apply many coats of latex house paint so that the edges soften.
The result for me is a surface that is more object-like than a typical painting surface. They help me feel like I’m still connecting to sculpture. They’re very much handmade, but they also feel like discarded scraps or found objects. Tiles are a good reference. I remember thinking of them as plates early on. They’re small and intimate. They have unique qualities which can help me begin the first steps in the painting process.
MH: How do you develop a color palette? I’m reminded of earlier work of yours that included specific found objects that served as a sort of cultural and color-based marker of a certain time period and a certain domestic space.
BWO: The set for the LPP prints is unusual in that they were intended as a group with the same small color palette, and that there’s some intentional color blending. The paint I use is acrylic-based latex house paint. I have a relatively limited selection of colors, and I use the colors straight without mixing them. The paints are all “mis-tint” colors that I’ve picked out from the usually drab selection. I like the idea that they’re colors that somebody thought they wanted, and then rejected for some reason. They’re already mixed, but they’re also off somehow. I do think of the paints as being a little like found objects themselves. I approach the painting like a puzzle, trying to make the colors coherent and palatable through their composition.
I think the colors area inherently domestic because of their source. Although I’m selective with my choices, they’re coming from a fairly limited range that our culture is currently producing for the interiors or exteriors of their homes. The colors are usually a little muted, and I think this sometimes makes them feel as though they’re from a different vintage. Of course, in many of my paintings these colors are being juxtaposed in a way that you won’t usually find applied to architecture. But the elaborately painted details of San Francisco Victorians are some pretty good inspiration.
MH: What’s your relationship to signs and symbols? Looking back at your paintings I noticed a cloverleaf, a stair pattern, chevrons. But overall these marks carry the same weight as figures that read as totally abstract.
BWO: It’s my hope that the more familiar shapes aren’t overbearing and don’t read as intending to legible or that the painting is supposed to be able to be read. My goal is to make entirely abstract work. For me, these symbols are often just kind of things I happen to run into.
Symbols exist because they’re simple or good design. They’re familiar and we want to recognize them, and I guess make them as well, at least when I’m out of ideas. I don’t have a repository of marks or shapes, and I don’t make sketches or generally prepare for my paintings.
Honestly, I feel really uncreative with what I’m producing most of the time. I try to just live with that, though. Because what I want is to find myself in a hole, or to create problems that I have to work through. I enjoy painting because of its editability. I don’t have to make the most exciting decision at every stage. I can try something, be very willing to fail, and then maybe try to revert or allow it to lead me to a new place that I wouldn’t have imagined.
My painting process is very step-by-step, happening in incremental layers or tasks. I want this process and struggle to come through in the final painting, and not for it to be a direct one-shot kind of thing. It’s not about a brilliant design or virtuosic application. I like logics that are confused or break down. I want the more recognizable signs and symbols to play the same role as the other little bit that’s sitting to its side that might be truly unique.
MH: Can you tell me about how you install your paintings, especially in terms of dealing with a series?
BWO: This is probably the thing about these paintings that is both the most troublesome and enjoyable. I want my paintings to do things that normal paintings don’t do. In most cases when they’ve gone out into the world, there’s something unusual about their display. They’ve sat horizontally on top of small vintage melamine cups on the floor, they’ve hung from their corners with bows of tangled yarn, and they’ve been butted up against one another in long rows.
Currently, I feel the paintings have gotten a little more complex, dense, and frankly better, so I’m trying to display them on the wall in a more usual manner, since they’re probably relatively unusual themselves.
MH: Can you talk about where the sense of modesty comes from in your work? I’m thinking not only of scale in your recent paintings, but of the interest in wanted-then-unwanted paint, and creating the good-enough rectangle. I suspect in part it’s your personality, but also an interest in the object-hood of the less-than perfect thing, with making-do as a generative starting point. What are your thoughts?
BWO: Well, I like your thoughts. I think that a big part of making a successful artwork or being a successful artist is self-confidence. Working on a particular piece, or working through a stage of one’s art-life or non-art-life as an artist can feel very uncertain and sometimes incredibly difficult. I think the only way that one manages to maintain and progress is by having this confidence.
Personally, this confidence comes from honesty in the work. I make the things I make, and they’re mine. Sometimes I see some work by another artist that I like and that relates somehow to my own, and it might feel like it does all the things I wish my own work could do. I feel a little bit jealous and I wonder why can’t I just make that? Hopefully when that type of thought passes, I realize that my own work, whatever it is, must already be doing all these things itself. At least I think it can and will, if it’s honest.
MH: Who are some artists whose work excites you these days?
BWO: I try to see as many local gallery shows as possible, especially painting-oriented exhibitions. Although there isn’t much that I see that I love or that I feel my work relates to, I think it’s important to take it in and see the scope and scale of the art world around me. I hope that I’m making something that is somehow somewhat unique.
So instead of searching for the things I like, I sometimes feel like I’m trying to figure out what it is that I don’t want to make and how not to make it. I had a professor that suggested we go to the record store to get inspiration from album covers and vintage posters. I think records, houses, and random things on the street are more direct inspiration for me than looking toward other artists. But some of the artists that I feel the strongest relationship to, and make me feel like what I’m doing might make sense are Richard Tuttle, Ray Johnson, Jonathan Lasker, and Vincent Fecteau.
On a more personal level, I’ve got to follow my friend Maja Ruznic’s work for a long time, and have been excited about her recent paintings, the scale and paint handling, and especially their color pallets. And I really appreciate the experimentation in Mia Christopher’s paintings.