Ohio Interviews: Painter John Brosio

Ohio Interviews


How old are you?

"John," oil on canvas, 2004
“John,” oil on canvas, 2004

I’m 46.

I want to know if you possibly see yourself as part of the “Transrealism” movement as detailed here.

Wow. I had not yet heard the term “Transrealism” but I would definitely say that my sensibilities are right in the middle of it.

And very appropriately they mention the transitional work of Phillip K. Dick whose book, VALIS, is a favorite of mine by far.

"State of the Union," oil on canvas, 2011
“State of the Union,” oil on canvas, 2011

Transrealism challenges barriers, it seems, that need to be challenged because they are really not even there to begin with. Even The Aeneid is neither fantasy nor wholly real. Neither is it completely allegorical. How did things get so splintered since? And in the article here, it still suggests a distinction that might itself be too strong.

For example, the author states, “So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man,” but that is only how such a story will appear on the surface. The thing with Transrealism is that the flying saucers show up because of a pertinence that is very palpable and necessary to what the author is trying to deal with in the first place. It is not a “candied” reality so much as it might be a more accurate depiction of where we already live with our concerns. One HUGE mistake being made now by artists is that they are perceiving something going on but fail to understand it. So what you get is something like – “there are folks walking down the street exCEPPPPPT there’s a giant whatever hanging around.” It’s not like that. Its main ingredient is pertinence. And other ingredients could include stupidity and discomfort. It is not escapist – in fact it is almost directly INescapist!

There is a lot of bad art out there right now by folks who are trying hard to be weird. Boring art – like Hunger Games.

"Two Earthlings," oil on canvas, 1998
“Two Earthlings,” oil on canvas, 1998

Harlan Ellison is a huge proponent of Transrealism, I think. And here is an article wherein he directly confronts the failure of “authorities” to locate seriousness and gravity in their need to dismiss, anoint, and categorize.

"Jerks," oil on canvas, 2012
“Jerks,” oil on canvas, 2012

Amy, PLEASE go see Birdman with Michael Keaton. It definitely applies to Transrealism. Big time. You will have so much fun with it if you have not already seen it! Hollywood still does not get it for the most part; what appeals to the fans. Christopher Nolan seems somewhat close but he’s hit and miss. Even Lord of the Rings fell short of its gravity and no one has yet made a good Dracula film. That story [Dracula] needs to be very uncomfortable to work. It is misogynistic, insecure, deals with male impotence, questions Civilization, upholds Civilization, and introduces a monster (transreal?!) to examine these things. People, men and women both, would walk out of the theater after a serious Dracula film feeling ashamed, seduced, and humbled. THAT is the flick I want to see and it is not that hard to do.

I will! How did you get started in painting?

I could always draw and had wanted to work in movie special effects since seeing The Wizard of Oz as a child. Star Wars, of course, cemented this aspiration.  To that end I planned to attend the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA – a great school for such things – but my father had serious reservations about my desire to focus that early in life.  He called it a “commuter school” and insisted that I go to a four year college.  So I went to UC Davis, a school with a great art program, and close to where I wanted to work in San Rafael, CA…  And in the process of taking art classes and trying to bolster my portfolio, painting […] won me over, really. I spent five years at Davis but did not consider art as an end in itself until my Junior year.

"Afterschool," oil on canvas,   2013
“Afterschool,” oil on canvas, 2013

Can you tell us a bit about your working habits: where is your studio, how often do you paint, what is a typical work day like? 

I have a little working space near Chinatown, CA.  And I like to work three days in a row it seems, brush to canvas, and then come up for air.  On that fourth day I’ll try to plan something else, get perspective on things, and then go back in for another three day cycle.  That is ideal.  Hell if it ever works out that way but in some way or another I work on art every day.  And that could involve building a model, doing research, taking notes.  But a typical day is coffee and some drawing or painting right out of the gate.  Then an errand or two and some exercise before starting in earnest at the easel for several hours.

I love that you were an intern at the Creature Shop at Industrial Light and Magic. Please tell us about that experience and how you think it has informed your work. 

The experience was wonderful.  Some truly great, talented people up there. Academy Award winners.  But the biggest way in which my work was informed was by being accepted in the first place.  The competition in the end was pretty intense and to get a nod of approval of any kind from Lucasfilm had much to do with telling me to “keep going” with what I was doing.  It removed a whole quanta of doubt, if that makes sense.  And one thing that was great to see was the amount of work.  Things do not get easier at that level and all of the zipping around of spaceships we see in the movies has nothing to do at all with the energies that go into crafting the imagery.  The only thing that surprised me, the only downer, was the disconnect at times between the “ideas” people and the “crafting” people.

"The Last Taco Stand," oil on board, 2013
“The Last Taco Stand,” oil on board, 2013

What was it like being a student of Wayne Thiebaud? What did you learn from him?

When I first went to Davis I had only recently heard of Thiebaud.  But he was a representational painter and I was working representationally.  But when I finally got a class with him it was as if he gave words to all of the unnamed concerns I had been pursuing for years.  And on just the second day of class he did a small painting from start to finish and I can remember thinking that “even a child could do it.”  To some degree the way I paint is informed still by that one day.  But I learned “how” to paint from Thiebaud as it relates to the tools and execution.  And there was another teacher up there named David Hollowell who was no less an influence in his insistence on my appreciation of space itself. Both of those men pushed things like the notion of form as content, orchestration, and execution as content, etc. in ways that were completely new to me.

Do you have a group of peers you work with? Who do you ask for feedback on your work?

Yes and no.  I know other artists, of course.  And when they come over to see anything in progress I will of course ask questions.  Even to the point of asking, “is this painting worth doing?”  But making good art is so difficult that they are always so supportive of the effort.  But more than anything I ask my fiancee, Linda.  She loves art but comes very much from the outside.  If I ask her about a particular painting or drawing I won’t get some erudite diatribe. She will be blunt to the point of distress but say things like, “move that building further to the left.”

And I have found that she is just about always right.  I think David Mamet wrote something at some point about the audience being the smartest participant in an artistic endeavor and I think of that when I ask her advice.

Dinosaurs Eating CEO, oil on canvas, 2013
Dinosaurs Eating CEO, oil on canvas, 2013

Do you read contemporary art magazines or do you have any favorite writers about art?

Robert Hughes, big time. I love Robert Hughes.  And more recently, Dave Hickey. I don’t really take in a lot of the art magazines though.  Just now and again.  I will occasionally pick one up to see what is going on or who is buying space.

How do you think of your imagery, that is, how would you characterize it? What makes you know that you are going after the “right” image when you are working? Are there any other great painters (Old Masters?) you are inspired by? You are working exclusively in oil, right?

Hmmm. For me, I don’t think I really see much of a distinction between realism and surrealism in my inquiry. I mean, there is matter and mass in our existence, bills and buildings. But we all walk around with other things, different things in our heads while we tend to such things. So we are all carrying around considerations that may never apply to anything in our lives as far as “realism” is concerned. And yet I am not thinking that either. I do however feel that any successful image serves to codify all of existence in one way or another – whether it be Manet’s asparagus on a surface or Bruegel’s Triumph of Death: both of those paintings quietly succeed in that way, at least as far as I’m concerned. So how would I characterize my imagery? I’d say that is about as honest as I can get with where I’m going.

Little Girl with Bats. oil on canvas, 2012
Little Girl with Bats. oil on canvas, 2012

As far as what “guides” me or makes me feel as if I am on the right track it is definitely the relationships – content relating to content, color to color, shape to shape, light to dark, notion to notion, big to small, etc. Those relationships have each a mood or sound to them that serves to guide me.

And yes, I do work almost exclusively in oil. And it is not any kind of fanatic devotion on my part, just something that works. I do pastel, acrylic, some sculpture – but, to paraphrase DeKooning, one life time is not enough time to get even one of those “right.”

But speaking of painters – when I was much younger there were just the big ones, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt. With time I learned of Sargent, Monet, Turner, etc. We all know who those folks are and they are undeniably amazing and inspirational. But with any experience or time spent with art there comes to be a kind of froth of artists in my experience, folks who come in and out of consideration depending on where we are at the time. So, among artists you may or may not have heard of I draw inspiration from Jacob van Ruisdael, Joan Brown, Elmer Bischoff, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Luc Tuymans, Justin Mortimer, Wayne Thiebaud, and Wally Hedrick. But if you were to ask me this same question again in a few months there could easily be some alterations. I think most artists would agree with that.


John Brosio‘s Dinosaurs Eating CEO and Little Girl with Bats will be on display in a group show at Indiana University in January called “Slow Hand.” His work is represented by Arcadia Contemporary in New York. See more of his work here.