The Center Cannot Hold: Paintings and Drawings by Brooke Pickett / by Brooke Pickett

Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans

June 25-September 25, 2011

An interview with Amy Mackie

Amy Mackie:  Why are you a painter and when did you start painting?  

Brooke Pickett:  Another question might be: why does anyone still paint? The art world has discussed the ‘death’ of painting since before I was born. And I spent most of my time working towards my MFA asking the same question: Why do we paint? And an even more difficult question: What makes a good painting? Maybe it’s all I know; but nothing moves me more than standing in front of a Philip Guston painting at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I was in college when I drove to the Menil Collection to meet Agnes Martin for her opening. I was late, and missed her, but it was the first time I stood in front of a Rothko painting. And a de Kooning. It was religious for me. Perhaps I paint because it’s so damn hard to do and that when we see them in galleries and museums we have to respect the fact that we still try to do it. Painting is one of the oldest forms of communication—essentially pushing mud around with a stick. I’m not doing anything much different.  I think I started painting in my junior year of college.  

AM:  Did you have any interest in art making before then? What exactly steered you towards painting?  

BP:  I was a literature major—so I guess I’m a late bloomer....  Though I always made things, nothing formal, like a painting. It was more like working with clay, or assembling things. I thought I wanted to be a writer for a long time; I wrote a very embarrassing screenplay when I was in the 5th grade. When I printed the whole thing out, it filled a box from the department store.  

AM:  Are there any artists in particular that have been important to your development as an artist?

BP:  The first will always be Philip Guston. I watched a video made with him in his studio. A professor of mine had a copy, and I guess it was one of twelve copies, so he wouldn’t let us borrow it. We had to watch it in his office. In the documentary Guston says, “there is always potential in not knowing where you are going.” This phrase has stayed with me, and is always true. As soon as you start to plan something—or you think you know the answer—it’s dead. I also look at Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings almost weekly at this point. I also really like Raoul de Keyser’s paintings quite a lot. One thing I have always liked about Amy Sillman’s paintings is that she never tries to tie things up in a neat bow. They are a mix of drawing and painting: always on the verge of falling apart. I’d like to think my paintings sometimes do the same.

AM:  Abstract painting has historically been dominated by men, though of course certain women such as Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Grace Hartigan managed to make names for themselves. Are there any particular female artists that have inspired you?

BP: I’ve learned more about being an artist from Louise Bourgeois than I have from any single artist. With her fabric pieces and drawings, she taught me that it was ok to be delicate and feminine, and to expose oneself in that way. But at the same time be almost violently strong and independent. I read once that she was the only artist that Robert Storr was nervous to interview. She was fearless.

AM:  During one of our first conversations you mentioned the work of Jessica Stockholder Though she is well known for her sculptural installation, she was originally trained as a painter. What about her work appeals to you?  

BP:  Jessica Stockholder’s installations are paintings that fill a room. I learn just as much from her about painting as I do anything else. I like her process, a lot. Where a painter might go looking for the perfect cobalt hue to paint a rectangle, she goes and buys an igloo cooler and cuts the lid off.  

AM:  Why do you work in such a large format?

BP:  I’ve gotten a little more sensible about that. They aren’t 10 feet anymore. I used to reference Solomon Burke here. His words and songs can be almost pitifully soulful, but his voice is what gives the song strength. As sad as a single painting may be, sometimes the size of the canvas and the handling of the paint are stronger than the sadness. I look at the quilts from Gee’s Bend often. Firstly, because they are amazing abstract paintings to me. But even more importantly because I admire how these women would sew heartbreak and sorrow into something of such beauty. But at the same time, it wasn’t just about beauty; the quilts were shelter and warmth. My paintings serve a not so dissimilar service to me—I make paintings whose size and heaviness creates a sensation of permanence for me. I make paintings of broken things, but I make them too heavy to break.

AM:  Can you talk about your process when first start making a painting?

BP:  It usually starts with an object that I make or find. Right now it’s usually something I find. And usually it’s broken. My work isn’t so much about making it whole again, as it is about saving or preserving it.And then the battle becomes how to make a painting about saving something when you have to be willing to destroy it. Faulkner wrote that you have to be willing to rob your mother for a decent story, and the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth several old ladies. But more importantly he wrote that an artist “must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever.” In other words, I cannot be afraid to destroy whatever it is that I saved.

AM:  You were born in Shreveport, LA, but you haven’t lived in Louisiana for some time now. Why did you decide to return move to New Orleans? How has it affected your painting?

BP:  Coming soon....... I used to be kind of obsessed with Southern identities. When I was in school in NY state, I read everything I could about southern painters, writers, everything. I was so tired of being thought of as a ‘southern’ or ‘regional’ painter. But at the same time, I was curious about what that meant and how it affected my work. I knew it affected my aesthetic. And I knew that my relationship and attachment to place and time was unique to being Southern. History is in our bones.  At the same time, though history is as important here as it is anywhere else in the world, time is different. We understand the fragility of life, and live in it. There isn’t a whole lot of planning here. Maybe we live or plan for the day, maybe the week, but not next month. And I think that it’s a healthy way to live. I also believe in living in a city where everyone has a costume closet.  

AM:  Is there a connection between your paintings and drawings?

BP:  The content is the same, but the drawings are like thoughts and the paintings are like temper tantrums.  

AM:  Can you talk about the relationship between the content and the titles of your paintings?

BP:  It varies. It is never a title created specifically for one painting. One example is from reading an in-flight manual about emergency landings. It discussed ‘bracing positions’ and ‘flotation devices’ and I thought- perfect- and both titles are in this show.