Brett Walker

April 28, 2010

Brett Walker is a San Franisco based artist whose brain tickling self-portraits, sculptures, and videos have appeared in galleries and publications all over the USA. Today, contributor Spencer Young speaks with him about art, beards, and his affection for the color orange.


SY: Which did you acquire first in your orange uniform: sunglasses, beard, or underwear? And did it inform the rest of the getup or has it always existed as an artistic trinity?

BW: I’ve had the beard for some time. Then the underwear was given to me, and I found the sunglasses at a truck stop somewhere east of the Bay Area. It never really manifested as one outfit until I had the sunglasses. The color orange and those items of clothing are really just another piece in a long line of personal costumes and disguises I’ve maintained over the years while doing certain projects. You can see different pieces of work I’ve made, and see links between outfits and types of characterizations and personas I’ve created. I don’t think of them as uniforms or anything that is intentionally created; most of those different pieces of attire are items I wear on a daily basis.

In fact, I was just finishing having lunch with a friend the other day, and I was getting on my bicycle outside of the restaurant, and a random passer-by asked to take my picture. I had a pair of women’s designer sunglasses on, and in the basket on the front of my bicycle I had a gold painted ceramic squirrel statue and a copy of an old rock record on vinyl. Sometimes art just happens.

SY: Would Brett Walker still be Brett Walker without the beard? How has that crimped curtain helped shape your artistic practice?

BW: It’s definitely added something to the persona of Brett Walker, but again, like the clothing and such, I am not trying to create anything intentional. Shaving’s a pain, and my beard looks pretty decent, so I just let it go. People remember me, or know of me because I am so easy to remember, because I have this huge red beard. I would definitely much rather be remembered for the art practice I maintain than the color of my underwear or the size of my hair package; however, those elements have become a very prominent part of what I do as an artist.


SY: Your video performance work has a spontaneous nature—i.e. you walking onto set and odd balling it out as though on a whim—but most your work also seems conceptually motivated and executed. How much is premeditated versus improvised? If it’s a healthy mixture of both, how does this seesaw function?

BW: Almost all of the work I make, in fact, with the exception of a few random pieces, everything is very thought out and deliberated upon. I usually begin with the title of the piece or a basic one-line summary of the piece, and then I draw it out or story board it, and usually it sits and ferments in my head for sometime before I actually get around to making it. In this manner, most of the editing is done before the work actually gets made, so when I do get around to making something, I can just go and do exactly what I know needs to be done to realize the piece. I think formally my work suffers sometimes, because I don’t feel the need to do anything more than what is necessary to articulate the concept.

That said, while everything is fairly well planned and thought out, I typically have no idea what it will actually look like when finished. There are a lot of things that I just allow to happen, and I have to accept the fact that they are now elements in the work. For instance, I used to have my friend Ben film a lot of the video pieces for me. Ben had no real knowledge of art making before he met me. I just had a video piece in my head I wanted to make; I drew out a crude storyboard, and explained it all to him, and then just put the camera in his hand and told him to roll tape. His filming was amazing and I went on to have him film a few other pieces for me afterwards. I don’t think this piece is on my site, but I can toss it up there, it’s called “40 Feet of Bread.” I made it in France, my wife was a translator for a group of students and Ben was one of the students. The piece was very conceptually thought out, but realized in a very improvised manner. I suppose when you think about it, with a lot of things I do, I don’t know exactly how things are going to pan out no matter how far through I think them.

SY: Is there a thread that runs through your art practice—an idea or aesthetic that you’re attempting to create or bring to life—or are your projects a result of fancy and curiousity?

BW: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my work functioning as if it was a novel about my life. I am interested in creating a broad narrative that deals with different aspects of my life, the roles I take on (common laborer, husband/provider/father, artist) and how I am able to memorialize all these different things into formal art contexts. Early on I realized there wasn’t a need to create anything, because life itself was interesting enough. All I had to do was receive it and present it in a way that was meaningful to me and maybe caused people to pause and reflect on their own life through the scope of my work. I don’t have any overt political statement or concern; I am a slightly rotund, Caucasian dude from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. I am married to my wife Kathleen and we have a daughter named Elanor. I’ve made coffee for a living since I was 18 and that’s currently how my family survives in San Francisco. I don’t work with colored pencils or textiles or ceramics. I don’t really view my work as anything more than the sum of all these things.


SY: With unlimited resources (yes, including money) what would your next piece be?

BW: I don’t even know where I’d begin. I have stacks of drawings and sketches and notes for work to make, and it’s largely time and money that prevents me from making the work. I have an entire suite of work dealing with commercially printed t-shirts that I am dying to make. I’ve screen-printed my own shirts before in the past, but I would like all of these to be done professionally, it’s going to be a slow process to get them going.

I am also working on a body of work that deals with the concept of the cowboy and his relationship to contemporary men; this work would largely be some sort of a sculpture or installation piece. I wrote a proposal for the work and sent it to a residency out in Nevada somewhere; I am waiting to hear back. If I don’t get in, I’ll just go ahead and start making the work.

I also have a significantly older body of work called “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow.” A few of these pieces are more or less finished and you can see them on my site, (“It Was All Just A Pipe Dream Anyway, Right?” and “The Transporter”). However, there are about two pieces left that I haven’t completed, and I really just need a large gallery space, or solo show to fully realize the work. One piece is a plant watering system built from a dehumidifier to water and grow carrots in the gallery space.

I’ve been talking a lot about these individual bodies of work, but the thread that really binds my book together are the photos and videos I make. I have a pretty long list of photographic images to make. The process of photography and, even more so, video work, is easier to make for me. I have the processes for shooting, processing and printing already figured out so I can typically make them much quicker in comparison to some of the more installation-based projects. I have at least 10-15 images to make right now, and I usually make one to two photographs a week, during a period of studious working. The only thing that would make the photo work easier would be the ability to print and mount my work more quickly, as each photograph costs close to 300 bucks to make and often times I don’t get a good print of the images made for some time after I initially shot it.

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