Brian Donnelly interview • liz rice mccray
This month we had the pleasure of interviewing visual artist Brian Donnelly about his detailed, eye-burning portraits, somewhat toxic studio and burn-the-face “turpentine cocktail.” Thank you Brian Donnelly for taking the time to answer our questions.
Ok, let’s start. Will you please introduce yourself to our reader?
I’m a visual artist living and working in Toronto, Canada. I embrace unorthodox, often counter-intuitive techniques in order to explore the conceptual boundaries of portraiture.
When asked, “What do you do?” how do you answer?
Visual artist. It’s a little ambiguous, but I find “artist” too loaded a term and “painter” too narrow to describe my practice. While painting is my first love, the amount of study I’ve put into disintegration and distortion of the medium puts me a little left of center. “Visual artist with a predisposition for painting and subsequently destroying things” just sounds long-winded.
Haha, so “visual artist with a predisposition for painting and subsequently destroying things.” With that description will you tell us about your creative process and your “turpentine cocktail?”
My process is slow and meticulous. While it requires patience to paint the individual hairs in a man’s beard, I find myself in a deep calm when I have to consider detail. It’s a bit like meditation for me. Of course the last stage of this work is to spray it with a mixture of turpentine and hand sanitizer and watch it fall apart. This step is fast and aggressive, so there isn’t much time to consider it in the moment. If anything, I find that this is the necessary balance to the slow and meticulous.
How are the fumes? Any hazards of the trade?
Most people wouldn’t know but oil painting is hazardous to begin with. The amount of solvent and glazing medium fumes one gets exposed accumulates in the body. A number of the paints I use are derived from metals like lead, nickel and cadmium, which also build up in the body and can have tremendous impact on health. By turning turpentine into an airborne mist, my studio is basically a poison cloud.
I’ve converted part of my space into a ventilated spray booth to lighten the load. This keeps the turps in isolation so I can continue to work on other projects after spraying. My respirator mask is a very important part of my practice, along with safety goggles and nitrile gloves.
I will remember that line, “the turps in isolation…” Your portraits are amazing, the technique is remarkable, and I imagine it must be hard sometimes (maybe sad) to distort the detail of your painting after it takes so long to complete?
Working hard to create only to turn around and watch it melt away in moments takes a bit of adjustment. The very idea runs counter to what logic would dictate. But this is part of what art is for me, being illogical or paradoxical to feel out the boundaries of art making: how it is defined, redefined or devalued and the triangular relationship between myself, my work and the viewer. I still find it difficult to let go, but connecting with those feelings is very much a part of my work. No pain no gain, as they say.
What is the process you use to conceptualize a piece, refine it, “test it,” etcetera, so you do not get part way through a painting and discover, “this is not working”?
In terms of the solvent portraits, I spent months trying to figure out how I was going to get the paint to run off the canvas just the way I wanted. It was a trial and error process using all manner of solvent combinations against all manner of surfaces, keeping my findings in a notebook. It was a little “mad science” in my studio for a while. By the time I got to the easel I knew enough about what was going to happen to predict the outcome.
You made a perfect “turpentine cocktail,” so for our reader who wants to see more of your visual art, where can they check it out?
If you’re in Portland you can always swing by Stephanie Chefas Projects, www.stephaniechefas.com. She is also curating the third installment of her Platinum Blend exhibition at Modern Eden Gallery (www.moderneden.com) in San Francisco in January, in which I’ll be including a new piece. Indianapolis Art Center will be exhibiting a few pieces in February at their portrait exhibition “About Face.”
Otherwise I try to keep www.briandonnelly.org and my Instagram (@bbbriandonnelly) up to date.
Any final words you’d like to share?
I really hope these aren’t my final words.
Gosh, I hope not too!