I met Brian Reed in 2012 at an opening of Chair and the Maiden (CATM) Chelsea at their former space on the corner of 22nd Street and 10th Avenue. His reputation preceded him as being provocative and making powerful art. Enjoying relative success and being written up in The New York Times, it all came as a surprise and a bold move when Brian decided to take up residencies outside of the USA. Last winter, Brian came back from his two year stint in China and I pumped him for insights on why a New York City artist would decide to conquer the world? A studio visit here in Manhattan where we spoke at length and spent time just sharing our views about this impossible and crazy galaxy we orbited in – THE ART WORLD – was a rare treat indeed. What made him seek to further his artistic career beyond the confines of New York City? Let’s allow Brian Reed to take us along into his journey as an artist that is home grown but now he’s got an eye to the vast world before him. Come fly with us on a first class interview.
ARTE F– USE: Working abroad in Mexico and China is certainly adventurous. Did the culture shock fuel you to be more creative with your work?
Brian Reed: It’s always been a dream of mine to travel to far away places and imagine how my life would appear in these fantastical cross-cultural stories. I never thought I’d live out this dream being an artist, chronicling my day-to-day life as a pictorial anthropologist. My times working abroad are as wonderful as they were terrifying. I would definitely describe my experiences as epic adventures. China particular was huge in opening my eyes to ways of life and culture that were so foreign to my own life. I had so many ideas about what I was going to create, how was I going to organize and construct a campaign for my project, and the first day, all those carefully thought-out plans completely changed. I was supposed to be in China for three months, I’ve been here for two years. The difficulties and the unexpected really fueled what and how I built the two exhibition collections, Lotus Desert and Lotus Waters. From the scarcity of supplies to the rudimentary working conditions combined with the inspirations from the environment of living in small villages really determined the outcome of these two special exhibitions. I feel my works capture the practical and metaphorical complexities I faced during my journey and those qualities have an authenticity and historical value of what it’s like to be a foreigner investigating, creating and exhibiting abroad.
AF: You have enjoyed relative success here in New York so why did you venture out across the oceans and another continent?
BR: I miss the conveniences of New York City and the countless cultural activities. New York contains so many wonderful creative outlets and creative people, and I am a part of that community because I still have my studio and apartment in Manhattan. I had-have a great life in NYC and my success personally and professionally only propelled me to go further. For my art practice, examining cultures plays an important role for me now. In the past, my interest in cultures was confined to studies at university courses, culture centers, from my friends and their diverse communities in New York, and I would visit places of interest around the world adding to my creative practice. I feel so fortunate to have the successes and achievements in my young career in New York City and other places throughout the US, so in 2012, I made the choice to be more present in culture. I become a more active artist engaging my ideas beyond gallery or museum exhibitions with activities, crossovers, and forums. I wanted to participate in the world I admired from afar, so I found residencies and opportunities in other countries and just took a giant leap of hope.
AF: Viewing your work, it definitely pays homage to the culture and myths of the country you use as subjects. Does the deep respect and study help in making it easy for the subject molded into your own interpretation?
BR: Artist seek inspiration from so many places and have a long history of looking at different cultures to add meaning and value to their ideas and creations. It was a struggle to earn respect and understanding for what I was doing with my art practice. Being a white guy from central Appalachia coming from a community with a Christian background didn’t make me the most credentialed candidate to do the work and investigation I was interested in. I encountered many critics; one of my earliest and harshest critics was Holly Block, now the director of the school of art at Virginia Common Wealth University. I enrolled in an artist residence program in 2008 at VCU and its purpose was to evaluate, design and then help guide artists to create career paths that fit their art practice. Holly always challenged my authenticity, with the premises; I would never really know what it’s like to be from other places, I could never share other people’s perspectives or identities. To better communicate my ideas and to address these criticisms, I built a method that involved: research, experience, and participation. My research involved taking university classes from scholars, learning language, talking with community members about their traditions. By traveling and living in different parts of the world, I created unique experiences that informed my works of art and created stories and perspective that was new and interesting. In many of my exhibitions and projects, I ask a question that engage the community, and create action art that involves the community participation. Many of these approaches allow me to create special and unique perspectives to create and share my art.
AF: Recall the very first object that fascinated you and that you drew. Have you always known that you are an artist by heart?
BR: I think my mom still has many of my 4-year-old drawings of sharks and dinosaurs. When I travel to a new place, I’m often drawn to simple, overlooked objects. Often I see meaning in the mundane. Part of what I want to do as an artist is to teach people to see and create meaning all around them.
I never thought I’d be a visual artist. When I was younger, I wanted to be a physicist or a politician or a pianist. Destiny played a big role in creating a path that would lead me to be a visual artist. My life and the events that shape it are as colorful as my works of art.
AFL What is real fulfillment for you in terms of your artistic career?
BR: I think I’m now doing what makes me happy. Living abroad to create art and experiences that are active and present in people’s lives around the world is really special. The process is always pushing me to grow, understanding new things and also to share what I know, it is a great feeling to know you’re useful. My work gives me purpose and I get to meet so many new people and create stories together. I hope I can refine my process better so I can take out some of the logistical complications and have more resources to better engage and participate in more opportunities around the world.
AF: New York is a tough town to break in and challenges that don’t kill makes one stronger. Has that helped you thicken your skin to really confirm the path you took as an artist?
BR: My path as an artist is so off script as I think many artists’ stories are. I think the stories of artist’s lives are fascinating for me. I often read about the journey and look at the moments that really directed and informed artists.
After organizing projects and exhibitions in remote locations around the globe, I think organizing in New York City is like a Disneyland vacation. When I came to New York City, I didn’t know anyone in the art world. Coming from a small rural farm in West Virginia, I felt lucky to have the one or two friends in the city. I started my career with a paintbrush and a lot of hope. I think I have a determined character, one that always sees a solution, and that was very helpful. New York in the beginning was extremely difficult. I think New York has a lot of unnecessary drama and people that can waste your time. The art world and all the careers involved have a lot of glamour and panache around them. It can attract many people with agendas that can really be harmful to young artists. After living in New work for eight years, I can easily sift through people and organizations that you want to involve in your life. I am proud to involve my life with you Oscar, Jamie and Max and the members of ARTE F– USE. I’ve known you guys for 6 or 7 years now, and I always feel happy and at home together.
AF: You integrate naked forms into your installations at times. What is it about nudity that attracts you? Is skin the best canvas there is?
BR: The human body is beautiful and a curious thing. Every time you see someone naked for the first time, there is always so much to admire and discover. For my art, I work with the human body in forms of performance and action art. I think many of my works of art have a spirit. I wanted to convey this idea by having models be spirits, deities or priests involved in a ritual performance. I wanted people to know that my installations and events were sacred, special and a new way to experience the power of art. I pick models based on their history, how the person makes me feel. I am very careful to place them with works or art that have a similar character. I want people to interact and connect with my art on many levels; I feel people can connect with other people in a way that is unique and special. In my exhibitions, I choreograph sensation to affect the viewer in ways they can’t describe, but they feel strongly.
AF: Will you see yourself doing more international residencies abroad and yet keep New York City as a home base? Can you speculate how many more years of globetrotting are on your horizon?
BR: I understand more and more my art practice and I see my investigations and explorations abroad as part of a life long commitment. The world is vast in its abundance of meaning. I can’t wait to put my pencil to paper and capture the meanings I see and feel around the world.
I hope New York City can continue to be a place that allows creativity to flourish. I think there is no other place in the world like New York. You combine so many disciplines of art, business, and the melting pot of communities of people together that it creates such a special place to live, create, and exhibit works, that I’ll always consider it my base. My only hope is that at least in the art world, New York can be more open to young talent and ideas. There is so much great new material and ideas by unknown artists out there, it’s time they get some oxygen to grow.
AF: In your personal opinion, where is the direction of art going? Are artist supposed to look out from themselves and turn to a global eye? Or does it really matter and remain true to one’s self?
BR: I try to be as informed as anyone can be about politics, the currents and trends in business and culture, however from my experiences, artists should remain true to themselves. Nothing can overcome the spirit of determination to bring into this world something new and unique. People can have such a rich heritage of meaning and expression if they choose to see it and do something about it. I feel like so lucky to be creating huge exhibitions and have a global appeal. My answer was to become a member of the global community, and transform my identity and art practice accordingly. I still believe each artist should be true to his or her purpose.
AF: If Brian Reed could take a break from art and totally chill out, where in the world would you be?
BR: Well, right now as I finish this interview, I am taking a break for two weeks. I just completed three simultaneous museum shows, in three cities, three museums, in two countries. I am on a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean with terrible sunburn, reflecting on life having just turned 30 a few days ago. It’s really hard for me to take a break. I am always thinking, gathering materials, planning and sowing the seeds of opportunities for years in the future…. I have another show in Shanghai this September and then an exhibition in Mexico City in November, so this August, I am looking forward to coming back to my mom’s farm in West Virginia and spending time with my dog Eli and just chilling out. West Virginia and the farm I grew up on are so much a part of me; It’s always a place I feel is a home for me.
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There you have it fellow sojourners of art. Home is where the heart is and the stamp of approval you need in your passport is to be TRUE to yourself. There are way too many myths and legends in this art universe. We’re just mere mortals and the Art Gods will keep rolling the dice. We hope you enjoyed your flight with us and wherever your destination may take you, kindly have a safe trip! Please be careful when removing your baggage from the overhead bin as items may have shifted during the flight. (I always dreamed of being a flight attendant. Coffee? Tea? or Me?)
Brian Reed currently resides and works in China but keeps his home & studio in New York City . Traveling all over the world to explore and continue to create his art, he has his show “Pictorial Anthropology” at the Himalayas Museum of Art Shanghai Zendai Zhujiajiao Branch (quite a long one and say it five times consecutively if you can.)
Visit the museum site: http://www.himalayasart.cn/?cat=35&lang=en
You can also view more in this YouTube video link:
His recent press coverage from the Global Times:
The fabulous jacket on Brian is the collaboration between Brian Reed’s art and designer Gale Tsui. For more information about the world and work of Brian Reed, visit his website: www.brianmichaelreed.com
Interview in the friendly skies by: Oscar A. Laluyan
Photo images courtesy of the artist Brian Michael Reed