AB: Tell me about what you are working on right now.
HB: What I am working on right now is a body of work for thesis. Should I go deeper?
AB: Yea, I think you should.
HB: I had kind of gotten confused on where to go next so I started thinking about the idea of identity and thought about the idea of the identity of the southern white male. I was reading a lot of books about Latino/a and African American artists and decided to confront my own identity. Which I didn’t see a lot of. Most of the art you see is New York or Los Angeles…especially in the bigger named publications like Art in America, Art Forum, things like that. I wanted to focus on Southern Art. The Box Gallery show I did focused on a small town. I focused on how small towns worked and eventually started to think about the guys I was raised around. I got into the idea of myself, the things that I deal with and the things the people in my hometown deal with, healthcare, dentists…everything is not the greatest there. The biggest joke in the town is that if you go to the hospital they are just going to give you some antibiotics and a z pack then send you on your way, kind of like the old joke about Robitussin being a cure all. I wanted to focus in on that identity, with the addictions and obesity. A part of it is dedicated to trashiness, unhealthiness, beer, soda, and eating too much. I had been working on a series called Da Boiz, it was focused on big alpha male guys, convicts, rednecks… etc. Then I took them through a demasculization process, watercoloring them with bright colors and putting Cute Boi and Sexy Boi behind them. Then I took it further with faces either from my memory or photos of southern men. From looking at cigarettes in their mouths, bad teeth, mullets, angry stares, I came up with the term Alpha Redneck, which I thought was funny. When I was growing up everything I did; clothing, hairstyle, music, the idea of going to college, etc. was made fun of and still is, so I wanted to take the power back and make fun of them. It is a humorous jab but then again I’ve noticed there are layers to it so on the front end yea its humorous, but its also kind of sad that people live like that. There is a sadness at least for me that they don’t want more. A lot of people are like yea they’re happy where they are, which goes back to ignorance is bliss. but people drop like flies at 40, cancer, obesity, heart problems etc. A lot of them can’t afford it. Then there’s the nihilistic outlook of all I got is my muscles and then I’m gonna die so fuck it. When James Luna came through I was asking him how he deals with people not understanding his art and he said that’s just something you have to deal with…do you want people to understand all of your art, because its not going to happen. There are certain aspects of Native American culture that only Native Americans are going to understand. There are aspects of that in this. There are probably people in the north who would look at this and laugh at it, then move on. Where people from the south would get more from it. So I like that multi-layered approach and I’ve always liked to have social commentary mixed with humor.
AB: You said something about how it is dual. In one sense you are dealing with who you are. This is who you are because it is where you came from, so you are creating this work to kind of combat that. Yet you are also making this work to take power back because you have now established yourself as someone who is different. I know you have said before how when you go home you are met with people who don’t understand why you are doing what you are doing, or they make fun of you.
HB: Its a bit of an exorcism. Its like an exorcism for all of my anger towards these people, but its home, and its comfortable. There is also a lot of anger and resentment that needs to come out, and yea its all these years that I’ve dealt with why are wasting your time? Even just recently going home and being met with oh yea you are graduating soon… real world is coming. There has never been a moment where I have felt respected for what I am doing. However its not woe is me. Its never been woe is me. Its more like I’m going to prove myself. I’m going to prove you wrong.
AB: Well yea and you are also fortunate to be in a position where you are able to go to college…get a masters degree.
HB: Oh yea. There are a lot of regrets I have in life about how I couldn’t save friends. People I grew up with in elementary school. There are a lot of people in elementary school that I wonder if I could have kept them off drugs or kept them in school… kept them from fucking up their life… ending up in jail. If it wasn’t for my dad and my uncle… my uncle sent all the music and art. My dad pushed me to think and to work, he wasn’t approving of what I went to school for but he still supported me. I appreciate that a lot. That’s why when I teach I am here to help because if I can do it I want to help others do it as well.
AB: Yea Absolutely.
I know you just mentioned accessibility a while ago. Is that really important to you?
HB: That has always been a thing for me. I hear so many different ideas about my work. You can’t expect everyone to understand what you are doing. Its just impossible. If somebody is making art about race somebody is not going to understand it, if somebody is making queer art somebody is not going to understand it because they’ve never been in that situation. Then you wonder if people like it just because everybody else does. That’s one of the hardest parts about being an artist, until you start selling stuff, then you don’t give a shit. (laughs) I mean that’s what I’ve heard. What I hope is that when someone walks in they get something from it. That’s what I get from southern people, they laugh at it and say that reminds me of so and so. Then some people go well all you are doing is making fun of them. Some don’t care about the content but love how detailed I am with my carving. If they hate it, I hope they absolutely hate it. I don’t want people to walk in and go meh. (laughs)
AB: Well I don’t think anyone wants that.
HB: Yea if you don’t like it, fucking hate it. If you like it I’m glad.
AB: It seems though that you are kind of keeping things light, in a sense. I have heard you talk a lot about people having problems with drugs or going to prison. While in your work you are dealing a lot with beer, or over eating, or these sayings that are about ignorance. Yet I have never seen you do anything about hard core drugs or anything like that.
HB: I guess for me there are personal things that have happened in my life that I don’t want to get near. I mean number one I don’t ever want to get too personal because I feel that when I get too personal in my art it knocks a lot of people out of it. I never want to do that. With my uncles death for example, I tried to make a piece about it and I couldn’t. It might be my own issue but when I deal with the thought of my friends who have ended up with those problems it seems too serious for me to deal with in my art. I may not be serious enough to deal with it in the right way.
AB: Yea, and to be respectful maybe, to those people…
HB: Yea and to be respectful, and also just thinking too much about those times in my life really fucks me up. My uncle wasn’t on drugs, he had health issues. However the things that happened to my friends are always in the back of my head. I think every person has things that they want to deal with but can’t.
AB: It’s too close.
HB: Yea its too close and it would have to be very serious.I don’t feel that that is my kind of art.
AB: Yea well humor is clearly very important to you, and I think that’s what makes it so accessible.
HB: I think it does until you hit a mark with somebody. I’ve made art in the past that some have labeled immature. No matter what you do its going to piss someone off. I can’t say I don’t like that aspect of it. Some people don’t like that I misspell words. I mean Flannery O’Conner did it the best to me, and Faulkner…two great writers. Its like come to where I’m from.
AB: Speaking of where you are from, what do the people from your home town think about your work? Do they find it funny, are they offended? Do you even show it to them?
HB: The only person I’ve ever really shown my work to is my dad and he always says, “well there you go making fun of rednecks again.”
AB: So you haven’t shown your friends from your hometown?
HB: Oh yea, I have. They are busy with their own lives and they just go “oh cool.” Well I do have one friend there who I talk to about art and politics. He was saying that he doesn’t get art and finds it pretentious but when he looks at mine he understands it. He said its like Gummo and I can relate to it. I’m all for people who don’t look at art to find humor in my work. Also being compared to Gummo is great.
AB: So you mentioned these very detailed carvings. Obviously the work that you are making is so labor intensive.
HB: (laughs) I cry at night.
AB: Yea, I am sure you do. I am wondering what is the significance of the meticulous nature of this in your concept? Why does it have to be so carefully carved? Why not just make a cut out painting?
HB: For me once I hit printmaking that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve always loved printmaking. I want to stay close to that. We didn’t have a press big enough to make the prints I wanted to do, so I started making woodcuts and jigsawing them out. There are very few people that I see do that. I can’t lie and say that I’m not doing it because no one else is really in that market. Once I started doing more I liked the idea of pushing the idea of a print into a sculptural field. Then people say its not sculpture, fine. Then what is it? Is it a painting? I like that aspect of it. I’ve always been attracted to small details, building up lines… There is always a new way to carve. I am attracted to that. Also its just zen. I can listen to albums and get lost in my own head. It makes you a lot closer to you work. You develop an attachment to it. I’ve noticed when I’m carving I think about what I’m doing. I start to think about the concept. Things jump out at me. Its cheap material, woodworking and carving, everyone thinks of that as a hillbilly southern thing.
AB: Well you are going against that. I think the fact that these are so beautifully and lovingly carved out creates an interesting contrast to these cheap phrases. The Craftsmanship initially draws you in. Then these delicately carved pieces have this image that references the idea of cheap, fast, carelessness, etc. I think if you got rid of that and just started painting it would be a whole different thing.
HB: Yea you are right and now that you said that I have had people ask me that before. When I first got here somebody said it amazes me how much time you spend carving the goofiest shit.
AB: Yea that’s what makes it so interesting. It makes you want to pay attention. It makes us pause and pay close attention to these silly things that we normally wouldn’t think twice about.
HB: That used to be a part of my statement. Whats funny though is that I have been trying to get looser.
AB: You can’t be loose. Nothing about that will ever look loose. Its so meticulous.
HB: I can’t get away from it.
AB: I think that is what makes your work stand apart.
HB: That and the rednecks (laughs).
AB: How long have you lived in Memphis now?
HB: Probably since mid July 2013.
AB: Do you think you’d be making the same work if you hadn’t moved here? I mean do you think your move out of that environment affected your work?
HB: No not at all. I think moving to Memphis completely changed my art. Number one being the fact that I wanted to start making large woodblocks. My last semester at ULM I made a ton of tiny work. Coming over here and working with Greely affected my work. It just hit me to make cut outs. From there I was able to make large blocks.
AB: Well besides just scale, do you think the concepts of your work have changed too?
HB: I think I’ve matured a lot. When I came out of ULM I had this idea that I was going to be seriously political. Over time it just melted away. Being around certain people I realized that that’s not my field. That is one of the greatest things about being here is having artists thrown at me from Beth, Greely, Richard, and Coriana. I am just constantly getting shown all these different aspects. I finally realized that humor can be art. I stuck with it and then being able to do that solo show was a big deal for me.
AB: In the Box Gallery?
HB: Yea. There is a lot of freedom up here. I liked that I met a lot of southern people who were southern artists and making work close to mine. Looking up and seeing Greely, Tad, and Dwayne dealing with humor. It was like holy shit there are other people who are making similar stuff, who are southern, and who make humorous art. So it was like fuck it I’m going to do it too. I don’t have to be serious all the time.
Also the opportunities. It pisses me off when people act like there’s nothing here. Go to where I went to undergrad. For a long time the only way you could get a show there is getting a piece in the student show. There were no opportunities. You didn’t even know how to submit to shows, you had to figure it out. That area loves safe art. There is a lot of shit here that would never be in a gallery there.
AB: That is surprising in a town that has an undergraduate and graduate art program.
HB: They’ve gutted the art program. I was the last print-maker. (laughs) Yea our last print-maker was that guy.
AB: How has teaching affected your work?
HB: A lot of influence comes from teaching, and having to look up certain things. You have a student who wants to make abstract art and you haven’t looked at that in a long time. You learn so much. Down the road there are things I want to try because of artists my teachers have shown me.
AB: So what is next? Do you feel like this body of work will continue or are you on to something else?
HB: I have a body of work planned that’s a mash up of the watercolors I was doing and the blocks.
AB: So it will be a continuation.
HB: Yea it will be these two bodies of work connecting. Installation is a big thing that came to me in this school. I love installation and I can’t get away from it. I am going to keep working on that. I finally realized that installation doesn’t just mean that you have an area and you just fill it with shit. An installation can also be just having stuff on the wall. Also trying to find a job so I don’t starve.
AB: What are your goals in that department? What would you ideally like to be doing?
HB: Well teach one class and get paid 300,000 dollars.
AB: (Laughs) Ok realistically what would you like to be doing?
HB: I would love to get a job out of the gate. I mean who wouldn’t?
AB: So teaching is your primary goal?
HB: Oh yea, there’s a lot of people who don’t want to teach. I mean I would hate to get a job hanging art in a gallery.
AB: (Laughs) Sooo you don’t want Greg’s job?
HB: No I mean I don’t care where I go I would just love to have enough money to have a place in the city and a place in the country. I mean in realistic terms I would like to have a place and a studio. Even if its a studio in a school. Eventually I would like to be in a nice area with a good art scene, a house, and a studio. I like teaching. I am all for it. I think I would like to have a diverse selection of classes though. I think its tiring to teach just one subject. Then you are limited to teaching just one thing.
AB: How have you felt about your time here in Memphis and the Memphis Art Community?
HB: I think its picked up substantially. It was an eye opener to come here. When I first came in I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know shit. It has taken time to get used to coming from a smaller area to a bigger area. I mean I really like it because Memphis feels like a big city but its also like a small town. No matter where I am at I could run in to someone and I am not surprised. I think in terms of the art community I have really enjoyed it. I have made a lot of friends, mentors, and connections. I really enjoy the galleries. Lauren Kennedy with South Fork, the one here at U of M, Joel at Rhodes, David Lusk, all those… Crosstown. I think the opportunity that Crosstown gives people is great.
AB: Yea, I think Crosstown is a game changer.
HB: I mean that is awesome. I mean now with the residency program, there are so many opportunities that are popping up. I mean if I got offered a job here I would stay in a heart beat. I think its picking up. I think there’s the possibility of being an artist here and still becoming nationally known. I think a lot of southern places are picking up. The north, east coast, west coast dominated the art scene. Then the southern states were this bubble. For the longest time northern and northeast, north coast etc didn’t go in the southern bubble and the south didn’t leave the south. There is a trickling effect much more now.
AB: I think a lot of that has to do with the internet. Now it seems like location isn’t as important as it used to be.
HB: Yea but I think the south is starting to pick up. I would like to go up north and live there. At least for a little while. If I ended up in New Orleans or Memphis I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Well maybe in New Orleans because I would have to keep myself from getting fat. I think Memphis has been great in terms of opportunities. Before I came here I never knew what performance art was, I didn’t know a lot. Sculpture where I grew up was just steel. I have seen so much art that has opened my mind up. I’ve seen art I never thought I would. I mean Red Grooms, Josef Albers, Jenny Holzer, and Marisol. That blew my mind. I mean even from people in town, Tad, Joel, Greely.. Then coming to this MFA program and meeting you guys. It was like holy shit I am friends with artists. Then its weird because its like damn these people grew up in big cities. Then its funny because they come here because they want to live in small area and I came here because I wanted to live in a big city. I think the only negative in the community is the certain divisions it has. I mean in any community you are going to have people that think this should be this way or that way or art should be this way. I think its been awesome though. I’ve had the opportunity to have some great art shows, I’ve met some super talented people, and I’ve met great students and awesome professors. Like I said I would have no problem staying here if they’d give me a job…hint hint. I think there should be more affordable steak houses.
AB: Ok, so that is key.
HB: I think there should be more Popeyes between the distance of school and my house. But no, I have really enjoyed my time here.
AB: Well I am glad you came here.
HB: Hopefully somebody has liked my art.
AB: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you want to talk about?
HB: Umm how much you look up to me? I don’t know usually everybody’s like what would you say to god…name your top five musicians…
AB: Well I am not going to make you do that.
See more of his work here: http://holtbrasher.weebly.com/