Interview with Dawn Brennan: The Way of a Woman

Dawn Brennan

Last Friday, I attended the reception for Chicago artist Dawn Brennan at ARC Gallery, presenting her new series of figurative paintings. Familiar with her genre of the heroic male narrative, often in natural settings, I was impressed with this break-out show, depicting the female protagonist displaying the power of a woman.

ArtStyle: Before we discuss your current work, I want to get a little background information on your painting process. First, how did you choose your characters for your male series and was there always a direct relationship to the male form and nature?

Dawn Brennan (DB): I was always concerned with the “jerry-built” nature of idealization. I guess I started out with men because they were more removed from me — the mysterious other. I started out painting this short, fat guy who was a friend of my husband’s, and I’d put him in idealized landscapes just for the incongruity. I’d always thought of my backgrounds as landscapes, not nature. So now I’m trying to figure out what the difference is. I like your idea of my backgrounds as nature. Relating men to nature in one way runs counter to the Western tradition that equates women with nature and men with culture.

My love became that of a woman
My love became that of a woman for a man, but the man became a king
Courtesy of the Artist

If you watch the scene in Solomon and Sheba, which inspired this painting, it starts to become a game to see how long Yule Brynner can hold that stare while the actress clings and cries all around him. Yule Brynner does a lot of that in all his movies. So why do I enjoy watching him do that? This sounds pretty ridiculous, but I’m fascinated with stasis, especially ancient Egyptian art, but also the stasis you see in Cezanne paintings. Maybe it’s a stand-in for death. Anyway, that stasis Yule maintains represents to me a kind of distant god-like perfection that the woman is trying to grab hold of but doesn’t have a chance of getting. It’s a “human condition” thing.

ArtStyle: Your paintings seem very process-based with a large-scale combination of nature and narrative figures. Could you tell me how you would begin a painting and then proceed until it was finished?

DB: The older paintings took a long time to do. I’d just start painting very directly — no “great masters” grisaille or anything like that. I got stuck on one and let it sit for years. Then I figured out what I wanted to do with the background, and finished it through the Open Studio Program with the Dept. of Cultural Affairs. I’m very literal-minded, and I just want to paint what things look like, so I do that until the painting stops bugging me. That old painting took years to complete, but my recent ones I did in weeks. I’ll tell you one thing: I’ll never paint that big again. I guess I just wanted to see if I could do something bigger than life size.

King and Queen of Egypt
The King and Queen of Egypt. Courtesy of the Artist.

I guess I can’t stay away from big and over-the-top. I’m fascinated with Victor Mature’s mug, and the rest of the painting just followed along. Again, I’m really into ancient Egyptian art — its stasis and idealization. But this painting is the complete opposite. For a reference photo, I used a grainy, small, distorted picture I took of the TV as it was playing the movie — a moment caught so quickly that movement is blurred. And I painted it that way. I also wanted to capture the pomposity of Hollywood at that time — the way it took itself so seriously in the completely fantasized depiction of historical people and events, the artificiality of all that.

ArtStyle: Could you tell me why you switched from the rough John Wayne male to the 1950s femme fatale as the hero(ine) of your paintings?

DB: I don’t see it as that much of a switch. I just cook up a justification for what I’ve done after I’ve done it. I was into watching these 1950s and 1960s Hollywood spectacles, when Gina Lollobrigida delivers that line, “The way of a woman is simple; it is always to follow the way of a man.” It got me thinking about searching for things in the wrong way. When I was doing John Wayne, someone asked me why I didn’t do someone cool like James Dean. There’s nothing to say about James Dean besides that he’s totally cool. There's no conflict or contradiction or stupidity, which, I guess, is what I think is interesting. The female characters in these movies are so confused. From a contemporary standpoint they’re compelling, but not at all politically correct, which can also be said about John Wayne.

I Have Stood
I Have Stood in the Burning Light of Gods Own Presence
Courtesy of the Artist

Charlton Heston is another authoritarian Hollywood ideal male besides John Wayne that I like watching. I think it’s his self-righteousness. This is one of a series I’d like to do of scenes depicting women looking up like puppies at their godlike and unattainable lovers. I guess I wanted to show an ambiguity about God and the man in this picture — the need for us to have sermons delivered to us where it doesn’t matter what or who the sermon is about, so long as it sounds good and holy.

ArtStyle: The titles seem to play an important part in giving a role to the characters in your paintings. Do you have a theme made up for each title before creating the painting?

DB: No. As I said, I’m totally literal-minded. I’d be watching a movie, and at a particularly absurd moment in the film, I decide that’s what I want to paint. Sometimes the title I use is a line delivered by the person or to the person depicted in the painting. But I guess what attracts me to a particular part in a film is when desire for something truly important is being expressed, but the moment is enshrouded in delusion, either by the character in the film or by the world view of the film itself.

ArtStyle: How do you identify with the femme fatale in this new series?

DB: I can't speak for all women, but of course there’s the wishful fantasy of looking that good. But the characters in my paintings are, despite their beauty, deluded like anyone else — a Hollywood fantasy defines their reality: who they are, what they want, and what they can do. I’m sorry to say that I can all too easily identify with that. Current American culture is so limited and rigid, so completely ruled by consumerism that it distorts everyone’s reality.

Worship Whatever Gods
Worship Whatever Gods You Want So Long As I Can Worship You
Courtesy of the Artist

This is a moment of intense and smoldering desire, but the “video line” cuts across the characters and disfigures them.

ArtStyle: Your painting technique seems to have changed in this new series. In previous works, everything seemed to have to be “well painted” or filled in from observation, exact color changes, flesh tones, and lighting. These paintings have a character flesh tone, are thinly painted and some even include smears. How did you create these changes and did you feel they were necessary for this specific series of Hollywood movies?

DB: Well, you know how I'm kind of literal-minded? I’ve learned to work with it. If I want to get looser and freer, I have had to take steps to force myself into it. That means intentionally taking careless, grainy, or blurred reference photos and responding to how they appear. Giacometti said he was interested in the appearance of things, the way they appear in the world. The more I draw or paint “realistically,” the more I’m able to see how unrealistically the world behaves.

ArtStyle: There is a consistency in your color schemes. Did you work on all the paintings simultaneously or did you start with one and worked on it until it was completed?

DB: I had 10 of them all going at once, and did them in less than six months. That’s new for me, and I liked it a lot. I think they did end up with some of that Technicolor quality of the original movies.

Continue To Teach Me
Continue To Teach Me. Courtesy of the Artist.

I just like the absurdity of the moment in the movie. The Queen of Sheba asks Solomon to teach her wisdom, but the line is so ponderous. It’s a beautiful example of the traditional fundamentalist Christian idea that men relate directly to God and women relate to God indirectly through men.

ArtStyle: What is a day like in your studio? Could you describe your process in terms of what gets you going and how long you work at a time?

DB: I can be a wretched procrastinator, but on this series I worked like a squirrel. When I wasn’t teaching I’d paint, early in the morning or late at night; I would paint 3 hours, break, and paint another 3 hours when I thought I only had energy for another 20 minutes. The deadline for the show was what kept me going. I had to paint fast and that loosened me up. The Illinois Arts Council gave me a little money for materials and promotion — it would have been pretty embarrassing to have had to give the money back because I didn’t get enough paintings together for the show. Notice I didn't say “finish” the show. I want to continue this 1950s Hollywood theme.

“The Way of a Woman” is on view at ARC Gallery’s new location, 832 W. Superior until June 23rd.

For more of Dawn Brennan’s artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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