An Interview with Artist and Gallerist Brent Birnbaum in the Rockaways, New York
Born in Dallas, Texas the artist and gallerist Brent Birnbaum now lives in Rockaway Beach, New York. After completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Texas, he then earned a Master of Fine Arts in New York and continues to draw from Art History. As described in an interview with MoMa PS1, “I make work to reengage the viewer with popular culture from a critical and unexpected perspective.” Moving between different mediums, his work has also been met with critical acclaim in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review and on Artnet.com. As well as making art, Brent is also the founder of the destination gallery Topless, which was formed on Rockaway Beach as part of its restoration after Hurricane Sandy.
Collecting an archive of found materials, Brent expands what are traditionally considered to be art materials by repurposing the obsolete objects, which he finds on Ebay.com or Craigslist.com. Across his oeuvre, we can trace his interest in consumer culture, design and notions of private space, especially as he engages with Marcel Duchamp’s legacy of the readymade object. Brent’s notable projects include Never Say Goodbye with No Longer Empty, Low Blow at Stux Gallery, a show at Marianne Boesky Gallery and his recent solo exhibition Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester at Denny Gallery on the Lower East Side this summer.
Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester was made up of 45 faux-woodgrain fridges stacked into 16 totemic towers, the result of five years spent collecting the objects from around America. They appear to be almost natural forms, but also reference the apartment buildings that New York is famous for, because you can open the doors and find unique spaces decorated with wallpaper, fabrics, and miniature furniture. Brent declared in a New York Times review, “I like the fact that you’re technically breaking the rules when you’re touching the art, so I wanted there to be some type of reward when you open them,” Birnbaum says. “It’s like you’re opening up a little secret.”
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your path as an artist?
There were two. I took a trip to New York during my undergraduate studies for interior design. Half of my family are New Yorkers, so I was going at least every other year. On this particular trip I met a model called Summer when I went clubbing with some cousins. We spent some time together and then lost touch - this was pre-Internet. Nonetheless, I was so impressed by her dropping out of school in Florida to follow her dream of modeling in New York. I returned to school in Texas with experiential evidence that following your dreams was something people did, and it seemed quite simple. After 12 years of living in New York, it's funny to think that it wasn’t the museums or galleries that influenced me back then, but a woman.
Around the same time I was also reading POPism: The Warhol Sixties, which was first published in 1980. Warhol talks about his perspective on pop culture. His words resonated with me like a God coming into my life from an unknown void. The thoughts I’d had towards objects most of my life were now closer to validation than confusion. I’ve always saved objects and seen potential in them to say something beyond their inherent design. Manipulating them has always been more interesting to me. Growing up in Texas I was sheltered so I thought my interest in space and objects meant I should be an interior designer and get a 9-5 job. But, by the time I finished my undergraduate degree in that field, I knew it wasn't for me.
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
I usually have around 15 ideas floating around at different frequencies between my head and notes on my iPhone. When I finish a project, the next best idea rises to the top. I question where I will have to push myself the most, and when I actually need to build something to further understand the idea in my head, and what idea will be the most interesting or provoking to an audience.
What piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered for?
I’d rather be considered influential for my path as an artist than remembered for one work. I have visions of what I feel I must carry out in my lifetime. I just make what makes sense to me, and if people care, that’s helpful, because I’d rather have this career than any other.
What is your greatest indulgence in life?
I live a pretty clean life these days. I’m down to tons of coffee, pints of ice cream, and Netflix. But succumbing to the pleasures of surfing when there are waves in my neighborhood (Rockaway Beach) is the most disruptive activity for my working life. I’ll surf for hours in the morning, work a little in the studio, and then have a primal need to get back into the water before sunset. Before I discovered surfing in New York City, a 10-hour studio day was easy.
If you could work within a past art movement, which would it be?
Good question. In many ways, artists still work within past art movements whether they are pushing away from it, or obviously influenced by it. But if I had to choose one, I would have thrived at the beginning of DADA!
How would you define beauty in 140 characters or less?
Beauty is what makes you feel like you have a soul.
Do you have a favourite photograph or painting, which inspires you?
I’m more inspired by buildings, objects and light. If I have to pick one 2-D work though, a Picasso painting has always “touched my soul” called Girl Before a Mirror, 1932.
What is your favourite art gallery in New York and why?
Naturally I would say the gallery that represents me, which is Denny Gallery. I love both the staff and the other artists they show. If I had to name one more it would be Ramiken Crucible. They also consistently show great work that is both refreshing and inspiring.
What do you wish every child were taught?
That they can do whatever they want with their life.
Can you tell us about founding your gallery Topless, Rockaway Beach?
I moved to the beach at the beginning of 2013. It wasn't for the surf, but because I found the creative energy in Brooklyn to be sucking my soul, not inspiring it. I would have been late to the party in Berlin, and the Rockaways were just starting to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. I’d been going there for years as I was drawn to the vast, open meditative spaces. Now that feeling was mixed with what I considered to be a new version of the wild west and the raw energy was very inspiring to me. A year after the storm, people were still not back in their storefronts, so I wanted to help rebuild my community and give the artists I believed in an opportunity. I found a partner and by the summer of 2014, our gallery Topless was open for business.
Which artist of the past would you most like to meet?
Jason Rhoades or Donald Judd. Neither has been gone for long, but they have had the biggest influence on my work.
Do you interact with the digital world/technology in your work?
My work exists primarily because of Craigslist, but eBay is a runner-up. However, the digital-age doesn’t interest me, and I've never been on Facebook or Instagram. Someday, I'd like to be more off the grid with only a home phone and an employee writing my emails.
Have you ever had a moment when you questioned your career entirely?
Another great question. I haven't questioned by career entirely, but I can get sidetracked. After I completed a 9-room, 90-foot sculpture at a museum in Europe, I felt like many of my goals had been met. I’d been writing music a lot leading up to that show and once it was up, I decided I wanted to make an album next. I came up with my musician name, bought the domain name (and I’m not telling you the name!) and even recorded some beats on garage band while flying back home to New York - I'm still interested in pursuing this as an extension of my performance practice. My lyrics are absurd and brazen, similar to my sculpture material choices. The sounds I imagine would be collages of sound. After a little time passed though, it seemed like making an installation out of treadmills was my next best move. The eleven treadmills are always turned on, making a lot of sound.
Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
Dennis Rodman, because he’s ridiculous and we are both from Dallas, Texas.
Why do you make and receive studio visits?
To keep my career going.
What visual references do you draw upon in your work?
It depends on the project, but most recently with my refrigerator installation, I was thinking about minimalism as well as the buildings in New York City and the representation of nature.
What is your daily routine when working?
In the morning, I drink a French Press whilst writing a few notes to myself and making a gratitude list. I’ll read the New York Times and parts of different books I have going. Then, I’ll answer texts I ignored from the night before and my emails. By noon I’m always in the studio and I will stay until 10pm or 11pm if I’m busy (this sounds pretty stale compared to the romance of surfing.)
What advice would you give to a young artist following in your steps?
Get to know yourself. Build up your life and interests outside of your studio practice as well. Find your own voice that doesn’t reference another artist. Your career can be long, so create a solid foundation in all aspects of your life to support it.
Do you find that New York’s art scene inspires or influences your art?
Not anymore. After 8 years of hustling to see every show, I’ve retired into my own head as an artist. Occasionally, I’ll read about a show I feel motivated to see and head into the dreaded Manhattan. Most recently I saw The Keeper at the New Museum and Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeles was actually very inspiring.
Why do you love what you do?
It keeps me amused.
Read more about Topless gallery at www.rockawaytopless.com.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.