Interview: Brian Booth Craig
While in Rome last summer, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with figurative sculptor Brian Booth Craig to discover more about his work and methodology. Read on to discover how it was for him starting out as a sculptor, his opinion on the contemporary art scene, and his approach to his current series of female figures.
M: How would you describe the kind of work you do?
B: I would say contemporary figurative sculpture that utilizes fidelity of the model but with an imaginative quality.
So in other words the technique I use is working from life, but I don’t constrain myself to any kind of narrative that’s outside of its source. So all of the narrative components are internal to the figure. I’m not interested in repeating classical tropes or narrative tropes. I’m really more interested in getting my inspiration from the direct observation and interaction with an individual. I don’t trust words like realism or particularly classicism. I think it’s a fraught word. And people use it quite frequently in describing my work, but I don’t think it’s very accurate. So: contemporary figuration is probably the best way to describe it. And I work in bronze and I work from life, but then I also do make up quite a few things from my experience working from life with the model.
M: So you work in bronze and you sculpt originally in oil-based clay. What is the reason for using plastiline?
B: Well, because I’m such a busy person working on multiple things at a time, it’s more practical. And plastiline is actually quite useful for the kind of thing that I’m doing right now because I’m working at half-scale. And so you don’t have to worry about things drying and cracking, little pieces falling off. It’s a very plastic material. Calling it an oil-based clay is kind of a misnomer - it’s more like a malleable wax. People can get confused when they start working with a material like plastiline because they think it should perform like water-based clay and they’re using the wrong analogy. The plasticity of water-based clay is dependent on its moisture content whereas the plasticity of plastiline is based on the temperature. The proper analogy would be wax.
M: What made you become a sculptor? Was there a decisive moment in time when you thought ‘This is it!’
B: I wouldn’t say one moment, but it was fairly quickly decided. I’d been making art since I was very young. But once I got to college – as soon as I took a sculpture class I knew. It was easy, it made sense to me. I had been drawing and painting up to that point, which also felt fairly natural.
But there’s something about the challenge of making sculpture that appealed to me. And the openness of it. It’s not really constrained by any particular format. So for example, painting is generally within a prescribed format. The materials are prescribed: paint. Painting is paint. Sculpture is anything, it could be anything. It literally could be anything. So that appealed to me, and the technical challenge appealed to me. And I found it a fairly natural choice.
M: Your very first initial experience sculpting: what was that like for you? What was going on inside your head - were you frustrated or did it always feel easy?
B: I think it gets more frustrating the more you do it. I mean, now it’s easy. But when I first experienced doing it, it was just addictive. It was purely addictive. It wasn’t until I’d been doing it for a little while that I got frustrated. Because what happens is your taste outpaces your ability, right? You start to see all of the things that were wrong that you didn’t see before. Yeah, so the first experience was just pure addiction.
M: Do you feel that your perception on what it means to be a sculptor has changed since when you began?
B: My perceptions of what it meant to be an artist at a younger age was much more romantic. You’d have this inspired idea, you’d wake up in the middle of the night, you’d write it down, and then you’d start creating it. And then you realize, that it’s kind of like that Seinfeld episode where he wakes up in the middle of the night and he writes down a joke and he can’t remember it. And then at the very end he remembers it and is like, ‘oh, that wasn’t a very good joke.’ It’s more like that, when you’re young. But the reality is that the best inspiration comes from the activity, from the act of making. The meaning comes through making, not the other way around. You don’t have this profound meaning that you’ve discovered in life and then you’re going to tell everybody about it. Really, you’re just seeking out the right questions to ask throughout the process and I think that’s the biggest shift in terms of my understanding of what it meant to be an artist.
M: Do you feel that this is a good time to be a figurative artist?
B: I think we’re in a very exciting time for representational art. The current situation in art history is a rather unique and interesting one. So much has shifted in terms of our intellectual thought about what it means to be human, but also what it means to be an artist.
A lot of people bemoan the state of the art world today and I think they need to shut up and get to work, because the reality is that we don’t have the kind of constraints that somebody had 100, 200 years ago.
People who want to romanticize the past, or alternatively dismiss the past are either being historically naïve or being historically arrogant. I think we live in a fairly interesting and unique period in history because we don’t have to accept the narratives of the past but we can accept some of the questions that they were asking through those narratives and then find a new way of talking about it. The sort of romanticization of the past to think they had it so good…it’s easy to say in retrospect. I don’t think they would have said that back then.
I’m not saying that our world is all roses, it’s not. But when was it ever? Never. It’s never been that way. There’s a lot about the market that’s kind of depressing in terms of the way in which the art market is driving success. But I try not to focus on that. That’s the gallery’s job. My job is to do the work and that I’m doing work that a dealer and collectors and critics are thinking about. Not everybody has to like it. It’ll take care of itself. Was it Jerry Saltz that said that every artist, all they need is one gallery, one critic and three collectors?. Something like that. I don’t know if I totally agree with his math on that, but the principle is true. To be honest I think this is one of the best times in human history to be an artist, period.
M: Can you describe the first 10 minutes of beginning a new work. What’s the first thing that you’re doing?
B: The first thing I’m doing is just looking. I’ll just be interacting with the model, or sketching. Make notes. And the sketching is more for notation. Like, okay that was an interesting idea, let me sketch that down and go to the next one. Just so you don’t forget it because you can cycle through a thousand poses in a day if you’re really fast. But generally it doesn’t take that long.
M: And do you direct the models, or do you let them do their own kind of thing?
B: Both. It’s more of a conversation back and forth. I’ll just kind of watch them move and if I see something interesting I’ll say ‘stop, that’s interesting.’ My presumption with each new interaction I have is that they’re going to be bringing information that I can never conceive, both in terms of their biology but also their personality and thoughts. So the best ideas are always the ones that just come out of that, back and forth.
M: So how do you end up deciding on the final pose?
B: Sometimes I do it and then I adapt it as I go. That’s one of the things I like about the smaller scale - the armatures are flexible so I can change it in the middle of the pose. If I get another idea I can just bend it and make it different. I think the moment when it’s fixed is when I stopped moving things. I like to remain in that state of flux for a long time, where I’m constantly pushing things around a lot and then suddenly it snaps together and then, ‘okay it’s kind of finished.’ For me, as soon as that all snaps into place, like it all locks into place, I have to finish it really quick because I get bored really fast after that.
M: That’s the fun part.
B: The composition. The discovery.
M: Can you tell me about the finishing process?
B: I mean it’s necessary and I’m very disciplined at doing it. There are a couple of ways in thinking about the way in which you manipulate the material: You can eliminate all facture, meaning the way in which your hand interacts with the material. So Rodin he obviously left the impression that his hand was in the work. So you can either eliminate that or you can make that in the forefront of the subject matter. And then there’s everything in between. In eliminating it, what you’ve done is you’ve taken the maker out of the implication of what it’s communicating. But if you put it at the forefront like Rodin, the sensuality of his hand is part of the subject matter. You’re applying his presence in the view of the object.
So what I’m trying to do is something in between those two streams. I don’t eliminate entirely the process by which it’s made. You could decode that process if you looked at them closely enough. But my literal fingerprint isn’t always there. What I’m more interested in is the implication of my gaze. That you could imply my staring at the person. If I over polish them and eliminate the sensuality of it, then you’re no longer thinking about me as a person looking at it. But if I leave too much of my fingerprint, now you’re thinking about my caress on it.
M: So do you ever enlarge or reduce your pieces?
B: No, so far I haven’t, but I probably will in the future. Generally the enlargement is just a procedural thing, because I can sketch in clay really quick – in a couple of hours, I have a whole pose. The next day I can make the armature and get the clay built up so it’s about being efficient - instead of having the model stand there for 3 hours while I put clay on, I can have a sketch locked out, I know the pose, build the armature, put the clay on. And she comes in, clay’s all there, and then I start moving it around.
M: How will you deal with the facture if you are enlarging something in the future?
B: If I were to enlarge I would go back and I would do the work. So there would still be the mark of my tool, my decision-making would be apparent in the surface and the forms. Because I’m trying to balance that mark-making and the way in which the subject is staring back at the viewer and engaging the viewer as if the viewer is me. The viewer becomes my proxy. It’s like tricking people into being a voyeur and a guilty party. So that’s why I’m trying to balance between those two poles where the willed form that I created in the clay still retains an element there, but primarily it’s about engagement. It’s about the viewer and the subject.
M: So that’s what you are interested in showing with your female figures?
B: Yeah, the current series that’s what I’m trying to do. The male artist/female model relationship is a historically and politically complicated relationship. It’s very difficult to look at certain artworks, for me at least, from the 19th century without feeling like cringing a little bit at the power structure playing out. So I want to challenge that a little bit. In other words: the easy thing to do would be to shrink away from it and say ‘well this isn’t appropriate for the male depiction of a female.’ But on the other hand, it’s also the very reason to do it. Somehow I have to contextualize the male gaze within the contemporary society that hopefully recognizes female agency agency. And that challenge for me is a fascinating one. That’s the line of inquiry that I’m pursuing.
M: Right, so instead of side-stepping it, just truly address it head-on?
B: Yeah, address it. In other words: it is about the gaze of desire being confronted and challenged. It’s not about objectification. I’m not validating it. I’m just saying, that’s what’s going on. You can’t deny those basic primal human instincts exist and hopefully we’re getting back to a little bit of a balance in western culture toward feminine agency and power. To me, that’s a fascinating thing that I’m both not denying my masculinity and yet I’m recognizing my assertion of female equality. It’s a tough place to be as a western male artist. And yet I think it’s worthy of investigation.
Having said that, maybe I’ll be doing male nudes again soon. I don’t know. But the tendency for me if I’m going to do a male nude is that I’m going to project my own maleness into it. Because it becomes a proxy for me. Whereas with the female, I can’t do that.
We are in a unique place in human history where there have been advances made on behalf of women, because of women’s assertion, and yet at the same time, there is still a residue of a patriarchal dominance. Whether I like it or not, I’m a white male living in this society and I want to sort of think about that, I’m interested in that.
M: And you want to present that line of inquiry to your viewers?
B: Right. I want the figures to be seen as sexually aware, but not sexually available. They are aware of their sexuality, they’re aware of their desirability, but yet they’re not just languid female objects for possession. It’s a negotiation rather than an imposition. That’s what I’m hoping to pursue. I don’t believe I’m providing answers in making art, I don’t think that’s the way it is. All I’m doing is confronting this set of thoughts that I have about the procedure and in doing so, hopefully, people will think about it as well. Or think about something along those lines. I don’t think art answers questions, it asks questions.
M: Are there any important factors in the environment of your creative process? A particular music or a certain kind of light that you require in your studio?
B: I can work pretty much anywhere. Conditions for me are more that the model has to be comfortable. If they’re not comfortable with what I’ve set up, then it never works. Like I want them to feel like they have control. That’s the number one thing, if they don’t feel that, then I’m in trouble.
M: Right, so they are more like a collaborator.
B: Yeah, if they don’t feel like they’re collaborating in the process, then I’m working against all of my interests. Other than that, I’m pretty adaptable. I can work under quite diverse conditions. Things like music - I get so focused when I’m working, I almost don’t even notice.
The only thing I don’t do is in those early stages of modelling where I’m really interacting and figuring out an idea with the model – I can never ever listen to things like podcasts or news, none of that stuff. But in later stages when I’m finishing a piece, I can’t do without it. Because at that point, I’m like, ‘I’m just going to shoot myself.’ Because it’s tedious, you know?
Then when I get to the bronze work I’m back to silence or background music. That might be the one condition that I’m kind of sensitive to, not having that kind of interruption when I’m in the surface stages of the creative process. Otherwise I’m pretty flexible.
M: Who are your 3 of your favourite artists?
B: That’s an impossible question. That’s so hard! I mean there are people that fascinate me. Anish Kapoor is one guy that is endlessly fascinating to me as a contemporary artist. Picasso will always be somebody that I’m just amazed by. Louise Bourgeois is somebody who I think is unique, brilliant and bridging the gap between psychology, sensuality and object-making. There’s Rodin, who also has a similar quality to him. Michelangelo also has that quality.
There are so many people whose work I like, that I find interesting. But they’re not all sculptors, there are people in other fields - like Charlie Chaplin. The way he recreated himself and created a persona that was separate from who he was, but became him. Like Bob Dylan, same thing.
And then there’s the ancient Greeks who will always fascinate me. You can name five guys from the ancient high classical period who basically invented the pattern for most of western art for 1500 years. And it’s amazing to me that they had that effect. And the original work, not the Roman copies, is so full of life and physicality. So I like that kind of work. That’s why I see a resonance between Louise Bourgeois and Rodin and Michelangelo. You can see a thread going through all four of them.
I said Anish Kapoor, but there are other contemporary artists who I love. Robert Graham was a big influence on me. When I was in university he was the one figurative sculptor I could look at and say, ‘oh this guy – you can actually do it and make it as an artist.’ I held onto that and he was a big influence on me, in that way. I think there’s a similarity between what he’s doing and what I’m doing.
But three artists? That’s impossible.
M: Final question: What’s your advice for people who are just starting on the sculpting path?
B: To find a process that allows them to put their own sensibilities into it and it connects to the questions that they have about what it means to make art and be human.
My advice would not be about going to a particular school or learning a particular technique. I took one figure modelling class in my life, that’s it. I would say to representational sculptors that there’s no technique that’s going to make you an artist. It’s really going to be more about finding a language that’s appropriate for the things that you want to say, or the things that you want to pursue. That’s it! I mean, it could be anything. Don’t think that you’re going to find any particular technique that’s going to work for you just as well as it worked for somebody else.
And be open to the possibility that what you assumed you like isn’t going to be the very thing you end up doing. Find something that you’re interested in thinking about, and asking questions about through art-making.
See Brian Booth Craig’s work at www.brianboothcraig.com