I have been an admirer of Brian Rego’s Paintings for many years. I have always been drawn to the sensitivity of his work, managing to capture both the specificity of feeling as well as the underlying formal harmonies of his subjects. It was a great pleasure to be able to ask Brian a series of questions, which he answered in a wonderfully articulate and inspiring way. I want to thank him for being so generous with his time.
We Did This to Ourselves, 2016, oil on board, 8″ x 12″
GB: Can you talk about a painting breakthrough you’ve had along the way, where something clicked and you experienced an “ah-ha!” moment?
BR: The “ah-ha!” moment. I love those moments, and I have had quite a few of them in the last 10 years. They have mostly been small, but incredibly significant. By the way, I would like to say that almost every important finding was within an unsuspecting place, or person, or set of circumstances. For example, I have four children, and they have inadvertently given more to my work than they have taken from it. This has been surprising to me. There was one moment (or a set of sequential moments) in particular, from 2010 – 2012, that changed the way I thought about reading and making paintings, and looking. I was introduced to Stanley Lewis by my colleague when I was working as an adjunct professor at USC. It was a unique situation because he received letters and paintings from Stanley, and we would talk about them, the ideas they presented. We listened to Stanley teach through recorded lectures, looked at paintings referenced through his talks. One day I was driving down a street that had rows of trees on either side, when all of a sudden I could not just see, but feel the expansion of the trees by sensing the expansion of the space between them. That was a big “ah-ha!” moment for me. It was the tipping of the first domino. Stanley introduced a different way of thinking and seeing, which really was about being. I couldn’t remain the same and expect to see something different; I had to change the way I thought about everything around me. This altered my relationship to my surroundings, and eventually the way I made paintings.
There was another time, about a year later, when shortly before entering the university where I taught, I happened to look behind me and for a moment I saw a window in a building shift in scale and tilt in axis. I saw this happen because of another form that was approaching it in space, a branch of a tree, though it had not yet reached it. The contact and all of the results of that contact, were implied. And yet I saw the affect of that contact, like two magnets moving one another by their opposing forces. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I began referring to specific instances like that under the broader term, “spatial influence.” I see weird stuff like that happen but I do not know how to paint it yet.
Rest, 2017, oil on board, 16″ x 20″
GB: The figure has been populating your landscapes in really interesting and unexpected ways. Can you talk about the role they play in the paintings?
BR: I would say the figure in my work isn’t really about the figure in a literal sense, but what the figure brings to the psychology of an image, or how it can humanize a space. I would like to talk about Morandi for a moment because I think he does this in his work. He brings the figure into his paintings through his objects. The objects in his still life paintings are humanized by the viewer, but only because the viewer first senses what Morandi sensed while he painted them. Morandi has taught me that representing humanity in painting has less to do with the form being represented and more with how it is represented, and mostly with who is representing it. For a while I tried to paint the the presence of the figure in my landscapes without the figure. But I wasn’t able to do it because I didn’t understand my connection to the forms I painted.
GB: Do you have any influences outside of painting that inform your work?
BR: I would like to start with a generalized position and move to one that is more specific. First, I would say that everything informs my work. If I am open to what is around me, taking in all I can on multiple levels, through my senses, I can collect a rich storehouse of material. And it’s just life. I remember when my undergraduate painting professor told me one day to “paint your life, just paint your life”. It remains to this day some of the best advice I have ever received. So if I am to paint my life, then what becomes important to me is how I live it. This is where my spiritual life comes into play and is critical for my work because the closer I draw near to God the more human I become.
As a side note, I will tell you that having children brings a lot of life into living. And by that I mean chaos. But it is rich and surprising, and demands great struggle. Yet as it does, precious things are revealed about humanity, about life and death, about love. It all makes its way into the work.
Baptism, 2016, oil on board, 7″ x 9″
GB: What does a typical day painting in (or out of) your studio look like?
BR: When I paint outdoors I find everything happening at once, so I respond to what I see with a sense of urgency and I try not to think too much about it. I look for larger spatial constructs as a way to enter the painting. I do not allow myself to know how to paint something beforehand, but I learn to do it in the moment as I paint it. After working on location, I bring the painting into the studio to see if it has anything to offer. I normally paint in a series of spurts throughout the week. These sessions last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours. I normally have 8 to 15 paintings up and around me in the studio, the others are put away for another time. Sometimes a painting can be resolved in a couple weeks, most times it takes months or years. I find that the resolution of an image comes when it comes and I cannot rush the process. This is very different from the 8 to 10 hour work days I used to put into painting in grad school. However, I find that this suits me. I tend to be analytical and slow in my thinking, so I need time and distance from the moves I make in the paintings. This way when I paint, I just paint; I don’t think. I pay attention to the demands of the image and try to advance it until I do not know what to do. When I see something that could happen in the painting but hasn’t yet, I will wait and spend time learning how to see it in my mind. Once I see it I can paint it.
GB: What is your primary concern when beginning a painting?
BR: It is important to me that I am present and open to the subject. If I am too much in my head, or have concerns about other responsibilities and pressures in my life, even about painting, I can’t paint. So I work at looking. I am not trying to discover anything specific about the subject, but to become immersed by the magnitude of what is around me. I find that the first hour of painting is crude because while it provides me the chance to establish an awareness of the subject, I have no idea how to develop the form of the image.
Man Stealing Fruit, 2016, oil on board, 18″ x 13″
GB: Do you have any strategies for opening up a painting that gets stuck?
BR: I am not sure if the painting ever gets stuck, but I certainly do. The painting is in the process of getting resolved, I am figuring out how to do it. When I am stuck in a painting it is most likely for two reasons: 1. I have arrived at a premature solution, or 2. I am in the midst of providing a solution I do not yet understand. In the former, I will destroy what I hold most precious about the painting to find all of a sudden I have a lot more freedom to work. I lose something of value, but it is insignificant if it means that the whole painting can be gained. There are no guarantees. In the latter, I will wait it out and not force a solution. I like to work on multiple paintings simultaneously, and at some point if I become more perceptive I may see a solution when the painting reveals itself. I enjoy the struggle of this process but the painting leaves me partially satisfied. The solutions I arrive at are never quite the solutions I want.
GB: Can you talk about the importance of the surface of your paintings, and how paint application comes into play?
BR: I relate to space more physically than illusionistically. I can sense the way form moves through space and how space itself, as a transparent volume or an invisible solid, moves. The density of the paint application is a sensual response to that movement. I once heard someone say that a painting is an accumulation of moments, and I relate to it that way. So the physicality of the painting’s surface ends up being an accumulated form that represents the body of the image.
Bed, 2016, oil on board, 14″ x 17″
GB: What is your most indispensable artist monograph?
BR: It is impossible to choose just one, but I would say that the Catalogue from the Morandi Museum is one of my top choices. What Morandi does with his still life objects Velazquez does with his heads. They both cultivated a profound level of empathy for the forms they painted.
Starter Home, 2015-2016, oil on board, 8″ x 10″
GB: Are there any materials or tools you can’t live without?
BR: I have this leather visor that I use when painting. It belonged to my father, someone who always supported me.
GB: What do you have coming up in the future? Any shows, events, or lectures?
BR: Some upcoming events:
July 29th – August 5th: Art New England Landscape Painting Class at Bennington College, Bennington, VT.
October 6th – Artist Lecture at the Beverly Street Studio School, Staunton, VA.
October 6th – 8th: Painting Workshop at the Beverly Street Studio School in Staunton, VA.
I am also planning for a show at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY from Oct. 14 – Nov. 5, this year. I am very excited about that.
Cut Through, 2017, oil on canvas, 8″ x 10″