Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 9" x 12", 2020
A couple of months ago I came across this wonderfully succinct Edward Hopper quip: “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” I only recently learned who the quote is attributed to, but it’s one that I’ve heard variations on over the years, used by artists and teachers to make the point that painting is its own language. Painting exists to help artists say something visually, and the paint in turn helps to shape the understanding of what is being said. Ground pigments on a flat surface can clarify meaning, but they can just as easily muddy and obscure it. In the right hands, however, this is where things get interesting.
I don’t actually see the influence of Hopper in Brenden Clenaghen’s work (not at all), but I do love how Clenaghen's colors and shapes are frequently unnameable. In fact, when I’m in front of one of his paintings I often find that I'm not sure what I’m looking at. I just know that in my head words are momentarily silenced and I am able to privilege a visual experience. Whereas one of Hopper’s paintings might clearly and literally illustrate a moment of quiet contemplation, one of Clenaghen’s will suggest fragments of daily life while never fully confirming my suspicions about what is being depicted. He hints and implies but resists the obvious, a quality that I admire in his small but densely packed canvases.
Below are images of Brenden Clenaghen’s work as well as a short interview that was conducted via email. The studio visit took place prior to the regional form of quarantine that currently exists in Portland, Oregon, but we still performed the awkward dance of trying to stay six feet apart. It was not easy.
Brenden Clenaghen in his studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Tell me about your early days as a student and an artist. What were you interested in? Who influenced you?
My early (teen) visual influences were tied to music scenes I was involved with. I played in bands and produced drawings for various local 'zines in the early 80's. Artists I looked to from this time included Pushead, Raymond Pettibon and Winston Smith. Additionally, I was looking at 60's "psychedelic" poster artists. In 1986 I moved to San Francisco to attend SFAI and becme interested in Bay Area Figuration, various strains of Expressionism, Performance/Video Art and George Kuchar (in particular G.K.'s video diaries).
Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 14" x 11", 2020 and a corner of the studio.
S-F: When we spoke at your studio you mentioned that you sometimes work on paintings for years before calling them done. Can you talk about your process and how time plays a part in it?
BC: I start many paintings at a time. At the beginning I work quickly to get information on all of the surfaces. Sometimes there are reference sketches, and sometimes I paint whatever comes to mind. Moving forward there is a lot of adding, editing and restructuring. I’m looking for something surprising or unknown, living with the paintings for extended periods allows for that. Also, the types of surfaces that are a byproduct of so much editing produce a physicality I value in the work.
Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 11" x 12.5", 2020
"The tactile surfaces suggest various types of corporeality, maybe promoting physical responses to the work: can you feel this dry, rough wall? are you touching your leg?"
S-F: Your surfaces are tactile and your imagery is fragmented. Talk about that.
BC: A lot of the work presents bodies existing in, and responding to, various structures. The tactile surfaces suggest various types of corporeality, maybe promoting physical responses to the work: can you feel this dry, rough wall? are you touching your leg? I think of things falling apart, being dismantled, folding in on themselves and then being remade in different ways. Some of these paintings seem like depictions of an in-between state within that imagined process. This in-between space, to me, is one of intimacy, raw self-regard, privacy, meditation, escape etc.--someplace where definitions are slippery. I resist claiming my work is about anything--it’s not a novel, it’s not hard research. It is a personal response to visual culture, and my life, and materials, and the history of painting and being alone in a studio, or a bathtub. There is meaning, but I hope it is in a state of flux.
Untitled, oil on linen, 12" x 9", 2020
S-F: You’ve been working as something of an outsider to the Portland art scene for years. How has that impacted how you think about larger trends in art and what it means to make a painting?
BC: I’d say I’ve just not shown in a while. I teach. I’ll show up to events. I still talk to art pals. A friend of ours recently introduced me to someone as an “underground” painter, and I loved it. The idea that one could be mythologized for not participating has a romantic appeal. And obviously I’ve not grown past my teen punk self. I’m always looking and thinking about paintings, of now, of then. The biggest impact has been not exhibiting, and what type of headspace that surplus of time -and lack of audience- presents. The work will be shown at some point, though.
Untitled, oil on linen,12" x 11", 2020
Untitled, oil on linen, 12" x 12", 2020
S-F: How do your color relationships develop and how do you arrive at a final decision?
BC: The color develops through editing, just trying things out. But the decisions are driven by thinking about color in its various modes (iconic, as signifier, naturalistic, phenomenological, etc.) and how these might intermingle. The color should describe a type of lighting situation, vibrate in a particular way and/or be of questionable taste.
Untitled Work in Progress, oil and pastel on linen, 13" x 12", 2020
"The color should describe a type of lighting situation, vibrate in a particular way and/ or be of questionable taste."
A detail and a portrait of the artist.
S-F: Whose work are you looking at and what kind of an influence do you think it’s having on you?
BC: Very recently, I’ve been thinking about Maria Lasnig, Bonnard, Forrest Bess, early 90s hip-hop producers, 70s body art etc. But I have greedy eyes and look at a lot of things, paintings and other. Every move in the studio has a link to something. It’s a favorite part of the process to see what appears and think about sources, and what stays and what goes.
Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 9" x 12", 2020
SF: Tell me how teaching and parenting have influenced your artwork.
BC: Teaching keeps me in the pocket: thinking and talking about the essential components of painting/making, with students, on a regular basis. Plus, consistently being around people who are producing such a wide array of responses to the world around them, often in very fresh ways, is an incredible experience. Parenting seems to have made the work more personal, intimate and domestically oriented. Broader cultural concerns have a way of falling away when faced with the chaos, beauty and immediate concerns of being a parent. My children make me laugh, a lot.
S-F: What’s next for you?
BC: More painting. More teaching. A show on the horizon.
Below are some earlier works by Brenden Clenaghen, and you can see even a bit more on instagram: @brendenclenaghen.
Untitled, oil on linen, 12 x 9", 2020
One Between Nothing, oil on linen, 11"x 13", 2012
Amplifying , oil on linen17" x 16", 2012
Follow Blind, oil, acrylic, plastisol PVC and joint compound on panel,
16" x 24", 2008