Craig Drennen

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IMG_1007-500x375BURNAWAY paid a visit to the studio of Craig Drennen, located in the Arts Exchange building, as he was preparing for his current show at Samson Projects in Boston [October 31-December 13; reception and performance on November 7]. Always erudite and witty, and often dripping with irony, the Georgia State University assistant professor schooled us on Shakespeare’s perhaps most obscure play, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and basketball.

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Craig Drennen: [Turning down the thumping beats emanating from his small stereo] I love Riff Raff, secretly. James Franco did a shameless impression in Spring Breakers.

Stephanie Cash: I saw that but thought he was just a generic rapper.

CD: Well, he’s acting like Riff Raff, so much, in fact, that Riff Raff sued him. But I don’t think he won …

Jacquelyn O’Callaghan: I wouldn’t be surprised if Riff Raff thought, “Wow, he can do me better than I can do me.”

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New works, some unfinished, in Drennen’s “Poet” series.

SC: So, he’s helping you get ready for your show in Boston?

CD: Yes, at Samson. [Closing his studio door.] There’s a theatrical company and director next door that have been selling off a lot of props, so a lot of people have been coming in … can you hear me if I talk normal? Do you have to transcribe this?

JO: Yeah, maybe.

CD: Oh, cruel. I’ll make sure I have a lot of awkward pauses and drift off.

SC: He’s really easy to transcribe, actually.

CD: Or just make up something better. So, yes, the show opens up November 11 at Samson Gallery in Boston. It’s my third solo show with them.

SC: Is it all new work—all basketball related?

CD: Two were shown at MOCA GA earlier this year, but that seems like a thousand years ago. They’re all 2014 pieces, and I’ll be doing a performance at the opening.

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Portrait heads from Drennen’s “Awful” performances.

SC: What will that be like?

CD: That’s what all these heads are on the radiator [gesturing to a row of four self-portrait heads]. I wear a head of me … I mean, I can give as much background info as you need. But the short version is that I’m going down the list of characters in this play by Shakespeare [Timon of Athens] that’s considered his weakest moment. So, for every character, I do something different. The performances are dedicated to a character in the play who is a very mean-spirited philosopher who humiliates people in public with his superior wit. So I thought that that piece should be performance based. Normally, I draw and paint and occasionally do an edition of multiples. But it’s really drawing and painting that’s the core for me.

For the performances, I play a Courtney Love song called “Awful” over and over again, as if on loop, all under slightly different conditions, different instruments, and so forth. That way, each performance is a little bit different. I just keep playing it. So, it’s a way of me being “awful” in public. Those are air quotes, transcriber. Drennen smirked, in parentheses.

SC: See, he helps.

JO: I’ll need that.

CD: So, these always take place at an art event. I did one at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York. That was the first one. It was in 2011. I’ve done it at Flux here in Atlanta. I did it at my show at Florida Mining in Jacksonville earlier this year. And, I’ll have the biggest, bestest one in Boston.

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View of Craig Drennen’s studio.

SC: [Gesturing to the masks.] These are all you, supposedly?

CD: Yeah.

SC: They don’t look like you.

CD: That’s alright.

SC: That one kind of does.

CD: Well, it’s funny—initially, in terms of the aesthetic, I kind of liked the idea of a homecoming float or small town parade aesthetic. But, for this one, I kind of decided to step it up to maybe even the level of a college mascot. So, I’ve been drilling out new eyeholes and air holes—it gets very hot inside those heads. When the performance is over, I’ll date the forehead and put it on the wall as a very eccentric form of painting. It’s acrylic on papier-mâché.

SC: Tell me more about the Shakespeare play. Why do you use this structure, this kind of narrative framework?

CD: It has been a useful catalyst for me. Shakespeare’s reputation and my reputation are in a state of asymmetry. That’s a good line. Many people know him, a tiny group of people know me. But, as this continues, then I’ll slowly take over something that Shakespeare left behind. There will be a time, presumably, where this play will be associated more with me than with him. So it becomes a quiet intervention into the canon.

SC: I’d never heard of this Shakespeare play until you …

CD: No one does. It’s not taught. It was never produced in his lifetime. As I go through the list of characters, it kind of acts like a prop for me. All the references are contemporary. For instance, the first character in the play is Poet, who just says “hello” to everybody. For all of these pieces [pointing to his basketball paintings], that was the catalyst for me—using this found literary structure to say, “alright, what’s super friendly?” I live over near Philips Arena, so I always see “Hello, welcome to Atlanta, home of the Atlanta Hawks.” So I decided to use the vernacular language and value system of sports to say “hello” to everyone who comes to see these pieces. All the Poet pieces say “hello” in various degrees of loudness, or friendliness, or colorfulness.

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Hello from Hawks, 2014; oil, alkyd, spray paint, pencil, crayon on canvas, 78 by 64 inches.

SC: Why basketball?

CD: Well, again, I wanted to use the vernacular language of sports. Of all the sports available, I used to be somewhat of a basketball player back in the day.

JO: What position?

CD: Well, I’m glad you asked—power forward. You say that as if you may have played the game.

JO: I was point guard. But then I had a growth spurt …

CD: You got repositioned after that?

JO: No, no, then I just quit.

SC: Is this like the last second on the clock? [Pointing at the number “24” painted on a small canvas above a larger one.]

CD: Just the opposite. It’s the first 24-second clock, which was instituted into the pro-game in 1953. It was used to speed up the game and make it more television-friendly. Because, prior to that, you’d have games where the score was like 10 to 14. Then, folks rightly said, “this is crazy, we need to speed this up.”

SC: They should do that with baseball.

CD: Yeah, I fully agree. But, for me, it’s sort of a mental, again, catalyst. For me, that feeling of getting the fresh 24 is like a renewed excitement, adrenaline burst, and all that, which I was feeling just about the painting. For me, it’s like the act of painting getting a fresh start. I just want to rejuvenate and try things that I have never tried before.

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Works from the “Painter” (on wall) and “The Maskers” series (propped against wall), and two limited edition boxes to be filled with examples of Drennen’s Timon of Athens characters to date.

SC: You said you were needing that, that you were burning out?

CD: I felt like I had gone through a couple years of the character “Painter” and another character “Several Servants,” which are all on paper; the smiling face pieces are the servants. Usually they have some kind of evidence of their servitude, like the aluminum foil used for their nose or the sponges. They all have mismatched face-parts, which I think of as being lower class, like people whose silverware doesn’t match, and the cups and bowls and plates don’t match. Their eternal smile indicates a “good” servant. Having worked in various levels of servitude throughout my life.

SC: What character is this series?

CD: “Painter.” All the ones with the Xs are “Painter.” They are an abbreviated history of drawing and painting: graphite, acrylic, oil, alkyd, and spray paint. There are references to photography, references to its own materiality.

SC: You’ve also got trompe l’oeil, gestural, hard-edged … You’re covering a stylsitic range, as well.

CD: I guess so. They don’t seem that terribly different to me.

SC: Do you ever apply objects to the surface?

CD: Almost never. I think that painters are very skeptical of me and conceptual artists feel like I’m a little too decadent for them. So I’m always kind of in-between places, but, I will say, I had almost zero technical instruction. Whatever the next thing is that I want to do, I’ll just try to learn how to do whatever that next thing is. Like, learning how to paint the Polaroid, the gesture lines, the accumulation of marks, or whatever it is.

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Studio view of “Servants” works, at left, and Awful signage.

The acting part is really important to me. That’s why, when I listen to actors or acting coaches, the idea of going on stage and doing three or four different characters, like in a one-person show, with different accents, different backstory, different everything, and having them all be believable —I think that’s extraordinary. That’s what I try to get paint to do. For me, to get the gestural part to be believable is a challenge. To get the representational part to be believable, that’s a challenge, to get the decorative part to feel natural … all these things are challenges that are more acting than painting. So it’s not really about any sort of binary of, like, abstraction and representation; it’s about acting.

SC: Are you the actor? Or is the paint the actor?

CD: Me and the paint, we hold hands, gently, on stage. It’s not always paint, so I guess it is me more than the material. But again, there is photography in it and there’s sculpture. These boxes I’m making [pointing to wood boxes on floor] are an edition of works on paper that I will fill up soon.

SC: An edition of how many?

CD: Two and an artist proof. They will all be works on paper and be an example of all the characters I’ve done so far, which has been ten. So, with each box, you’ll get the ten first characters. Then, when I have ten more characters from now, I’ll do a second. In the future, I’ll like to get a print shop to do a real edition of 10 to 15. But since I’m handmaking everything, two and a proof is a lot.

JO: Does your interest in acting transfer over to this fascination with sports?

CD: I’m not a huge fan of sports. I don’t really participate in that culture. I do think that with acting and sports and art, there’s repetition. And usually repetition happens in isolation before you’re ready to sort of go public with whatever you’re doing.

SC: That’s like the 10,000-hour thing, and what Hope [Cohn] was getting at with her “Score” exhibition, right? She included artists dealing with sports and drew a comparison with the kind of repetition and practice that artists and athletes do.

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Paint-covered basketballs.

CD: Oh, right! I think so. I think that came out of the curatorial talk on symposium day. I was happy to be in the show. I felt that my relationship to sports was not like the other artists, because most of those, I think, were sort of intimately, more sincerely involved in some ways, whereas I did it in junior high. But I like how sports sort of welcome you into a new town, which is kind of absurd but beautiful. I take great solace in absurd things. So, to have a big piece just telling you “hello”—it has three descriptive systems: numbers, language, and an image, all with lackadaisical abstraction backdrop. I have a variety of all the different basketballs that have been used professionally—the NBA, the ABA, the WNBA, which is the orange and white ball. Go Dream—love them.

Hello WNBA, 2014; oil and alkyd on canvas, 46 by 30 inches.
Hello WNBA, 2014; oil and alkyd on canvas, 46 by 30 inches.

SC: Who?

CD: It’s our team!

SC: The women’s NBA team in Atlanta?

CD: Yes! They are amazing.

SC: You’re more into sports than you know.

CD: Well, I live in close proximity to it.

SC: What’s your next character? Do you know?

CD: Well, usually I can just be one character ahead. I don’t have the whole project planned out in advance. I prefer to be intuitive and a little anxious about what’s next and how to solve the problem. I don’t have anyone definitely selected. I still have a lot of challenges with Poet. Although, if I had to guess, it would probably be the character Three Strangers. It’s a minor character; it’s just in the stage directions, like “exit Three Strangers.”

SC: How do you decide when you’re finished with a character?

CD: That’s an interesting question. I can return to them if I feel like it. I haven’t really done that yet. If a character starts to feel repetitive to me, then I’ll say, “okay, it’s time to retire it and move on.” Well, let me backtrack. I was going to say, if it wasn’t recording … My geek status is probably so secure that nothing I say will alter it. So, do you remember Erasmus of Rotterdam? The great humanist thinker-philosopher?

The reason I say that is because one of his books, On Copiousness [1512], was used in school throughout Europe. He believed that the true sign of intelligence wasn’t necessarily logic or memorizing data; it was being able to say something as many different ways as possible. He had an assignment that he would give his students where he’d make them pretend they were going to send a thank you letter. They would do it. Then he’d say, “Okay, now send a thank you letter to someone who is older than you and who you don’t know.” Then, “ a thank you letter to someone who is older than you who you haven’t met but who knew your father.” Then, he would keep going until there would be over 100 variations of how to say “thank you.” He believed that that was a sign of intelligence —mental agility, to intuitively have empathy for the situation and who your recipient is. I think there is something amazing about that.

And so, whenever I’m well into a character, if I start to feel that little itch that says, “I’ve already made thirty or forty pieces, maybe that’s enough,” I’ll then hear Erasmus of Rotterdam in the back of my head saying, “Oh really? That’s all you got? You’re subtlety isn’t agile enough to make fifty more?” The answer is “yes,” but I’ll come back to him later.

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SC: I see you have a copy of Timon right here.

CD: This is a book about the play. I get books about the play and I get copies of the play itself. I have two shelves on my bookshelf at home where one is just copies of Timon of Athens—all different eras, different publishers—and the other is books about Timon of Athens.

SC: Why that particular play?

CD: The fact that it was the weak spot in Shakespeare’s output. He never even claimed it to be one of his plays. It wasn’t until 1623, seven years after his death, that it was counted as one of his plays.

I was never comfortable being an artist whose work is a testament to my own subjectivity. I really like having something already out in the world where I and the audience can come together. I don’t approach it with a full state of knowledge. I don’t pretend that or assume that. I think the audience has heard of Shakespeare but not Timon of Athens. So, both of us—me and the audience—are arriving at a meeting place, and kind of a complicated one.

SC: It is. Because it makes me feel like I really need to know about the play to understand your work. But, I don’t.

CD: You really don’t. In fact, it will be of no use. I promise you.

SC: Because each body of work is inspired by a different character that represents something?

Perennial Properties

CD: Yes. That’s why my exhibition titles are always so particular. I’ve had “Mistresses, Apemantus, and Flattering Lords” as the name of a show. I’ve had “Painter and Servants,” which was the name of the show I had in Amsterdam [in 2013].

SC: And those titles sound cryptic but are very literal; those are your characters.

CD: As a viewer of art, I’m very attracted to Minimalism and the Minimalist tradition. So, that Minimalist way of describing things—like Carl Andre, 144 Copper Squares.

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Craig Drennen, Servant 7, 2013; graphite, ink, acrylic, oil, alkyd, silverpoint on canvas, 17 by 17 inches.
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Craig Drennen, Painter 11c, 2011; graphite, spray paint, acrylic, oil, alkyd, on paper, 24 by 24 inches. (Photo: courtesy Saltworks)

SC: But if you don’t know the play, you don’t know that they’re characters’ names.

CD: It’s like if you don’t know the history of Europe, but then you go to the Louvre and look at The Surrender of Cornwallis, The Burial of Agamemnon … I think that most people walk the earth not knowing. This notion that you’re supposed to be designing a TV commercial, delivering information quickly and efficiently to the largest number of people as possible—I’m so far removed from that. I think it’s kind of poisonous for an artist, actually.

SC: Why?

CD: Because you’re encouraged to over-manage the response of viewers who you can’t possibly know. Even TV commercials, advertising firms—who spend so much money on research, polls, and so on—still get it wrong. Anyone who says that they know who their audience is is either lying or delusional. Because the person who might have the most interesting thing to say about my work—place it in its historic context and so on—might still be a toddler right now, and then they will grow up, have their career, have their life. Then they will come to the work and be like, “oh, this is what Drennen was doing … Why didn’t you guys see it? Let me necessitate his career!” [Sarcastic laugh.] But I’m serious about that. There is no way to know, and it just seems terribly limiting to me.

SC: What is the name of your Boston show?

CD: It is “Poet and Awful.” It will have nine Poet pieces and the “Awful” performance.

JO: You said that you’re going to put the dates on the [Craig] head after the performance, right?

CD: Yes, because I only use the heads one time.

JO: Will you mount it up somewhere, like some sort of effigy?

CD: Yes. It will go on the wall. I can show you [pointing to images on computer screen]. See, it’s on the platform with the text “Awful” behind it.

SC: Is that you playing?

Drennen performing Awful at Socrates Scultpture Park in New York, 2012.
Drennen performing Awful at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, 2012.

CD: It’s not. With the indoor performances, I have someone else play. [Clicks to next photo.] There’s me at Socrates Sculpture Park for the first one. That’s an electric guitar with a portable amp.

SC: Do you really play guitar?

CD: I play one song, which again is about skill acquisition. I had never actually played a musical instrument before, and I said, “Okay, I need to do this.” So, I learned this one song. There were some metal heads in Brooklyn that I used to know when I lived in New York, and I went up and stayed with them until I learned this song. It wasn’t quite as difficult as I thought it would be. I don’t know what all the hubbub is about … [all laugh]. It’s like three notes. The open E tuning was crucial to my success.

SC: I don’t even know what that means.

CD: I didn’t either until like two days before this performance.

SC: What are “The Maskers” works about? Where did you get the photos?

CD: They’ve been shown at Saltworks here in Atlanta and at P.P.O.W. in New York. They’re from a David Robbins piece from 1986 called Talent. That was in the Whitney’s “Image World” show in 1988, which is where I scanned the images from. Since they were all the pictures generation, appropriation artists, I thought, “that’s fair game for me to appropriate them.” They know the rules, if anybody on earth does. But, it’s been interesting watching this one in operation because it’s still paint, but I wanted these characters—The Maskers—who only appear in a banquet scene and so I wanted that banquet, wedding reception kind of feel.

SC: Yeah, it looks like cake frosting.

CD: I wanted to treat the image like it was a dessert plate. Everyone is having a good time—some are smoking, everyone is having their cake. It’s funny though, because when I showed these at P.P.O.W., there were people at the opening who said, “Oh, how could you do that to Jenny Holzer? She’s so nice.” It was very funny. My response was: “I didn’t do anything to Jenny Holzer. I put some fake cake icing on a print made from a book from a show by David Robbins.”

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Everyone talks about the failures of modernism but I don’t think that people are talking about the failures of postmodernism enough. Because here is the most savvy group of picture-theory-image artists that has ever walked the earth, and it has still collapsed back to voodoo, as if I’m poking a picture of Jenny Holzer and that’s hurting her. I take solace in that. It’s like nothing worked. Postmodernism didn’t work.

I mean you go back to those early Craig Owens essays when he was at Art in America and everything that I remember in my early 20s that was going on in the art world, how rigorous it was and how it was going to change things forever… I don’t think it did.