Burning Down The House: An Interview With Brandi Twilley On “The Living Room”

by Emily Colucci on August 10, 2016 Interview

Brandi Twilley, Fire and Fall Painting, 2016, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent's Daughters)

Brandi Twilley, Fire and Fall Painting, 2016, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent’s Daughters)

Brandi Twilley: The Living Room
Sargent’s Daughters
179 East Broadway, New York, NY
On view until August 26, 2016

How accurate are the precious memories of our childhood homes? And what happens when those memories are all that’s left after the home is irreversibly destroyed?

Artist Brandi Twilley attempts to answer these questions through a series of ten paintings in her current solo exhibition The Living Room at Sargent’s Daughters. Her paintings painstakingly document an estimated six year progression of the living room in her childhood home. This spans the room’s water damage and a fire, which burned the house to the ground in 1999 when she was 16-years old.

The three paintings of the fire itself are startlingly bright and violent. This provides a marked and shocking contrast to the dim, TV-lit living room seen in the rest of the works. And yet, with strewn cups, plates of food and trash surrounding the space, the living room seemed to succumb to ruin even before the fire demolished it beyond recognition.

Despite the detritus, there remains a palpable sense of family and care in the paintings. Take, for example, Christmas Tree, which, as the name suggests, represents the warm glow of a multicolored string of lights wrapped around the family’s tree. While no figures appear in the works, members of Twilley’s family are still present through childlike objects such as a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper.

With her inclusion of vague and unrecognizable objects, Twilley’s paintings also represent the limit of our memories, as well as the drive to capture them through any means necessary. I spoke with Twilley over email about how she recreated her childhood living room from memory, her choice to focus on the one room and what it felt like to paint an unquestionably personal and traumatic event.

The ten paintings in The Living Room trace the trajectory of your childhood living room before, during and after a fire that destroyed the house in 1999. What initially inspired you to look back to the many stages of your childhood living room?

The paintings are actually all images of the interior before the fire–except, of course, the ones on fire. It’s a common and understandable point of confusion about the paintings since the interior was pretty rundown by the time the fire happened.

What started these paintings was the realization that aspects of the house were creeping into my work. I made a painting in grad school that had wood paneling in the background like the kind that was in my house growing up. I was also doing paintings of piles of trash. In the summer after I graduated, it occurred to me to just try to make an actual image of the interior. That was five years ago so it ended up being harder than I thought. I have always had dreams about the house, though, and in a way, I feel like I always knew I would come back to it as a subject.

Brandi Twilley, Christmas Tree, 2015, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent's Daughters)

Brandi Twilley, Christmas Tree, 2015, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent’s Daughters)

You created the works primarily from memory, as well as Google searches and some surviving Polaroids. What was your process reconstructing the living room?

The paintings were mostly unplanned. This was important, because it allowed me to remember things as I painted and add them or totally rework an image. I collected lots of images from Google to reference and also painted from my imagination. I searched for references if I needed them. Working this way also resulted in a number of failed paintings, but I needed to make them this way. I tried building a model of the room and other strategies, but just working out of my head was the most generative. I tried to follow what felt familiar and real to me as the paintings developed.

The paintings in The Living Room made me consider the importance of interiors in our lives–something that I think goes frequently unnoticed. Why did you choose the living room specifically rather than another room in the house?

The living room was the part of the house that everyone spent the most time in–eating, sleeping, watching TV, and playing Nintendo–so it seemed like the most important room to paint. Another thing I should say is that in the last year living in the house when I was 16, I started making pastel drawings of it. But I never made it to drawing the living room. That was going to be my next project but the place burned down just when I was getting to it. In some ways, these paintings are an attempt to resolve that unfinished project.

Brandi Twilley, The Living Room- Night, 2015, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent's Daughters)

Brandi Twilley, The Living Room- Night, 2015, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent’s Daughters)

While there aren’t any figures in the paintings, the room still exudes a palpable human presence. A lot of this comes from details in the paintings such as the Ninja Turtles bedspread, Lisa Frank imagery or the Christmas tree…

I liked placing a plate of half-eaten food on the bed or deciding what would be on TV in the paintings. The Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper with dolphins and Ninja Turtles sleeping bag are things I remember specifically. Other things I know could have been there. For me, these objects kept my interest going while working and it was fun to think about what would have been happening on the particular day that the paintings represent.

Looking at the paintings, I also thought about the imperfection of memory and the surrealism that is inherent in these gaps. What is the role of memory in your work?

It was a slow process of remembering. Some things I never managed to remember and I left them unclear. The scale and shape of things in the paintings were always shifting. I have firm memories of what the room felt like and what the light seemed to do and I followed that. Working from memory resulted in a lot of strangeness that I tried to resolve the best I could, but I also accepted that these were going to be weird versions of reality and nothing like a painting made from life. I also thought it was interesting the way working from my head resulted in painting the exact same high-top sneaker in several paintings.

Brandi Twilley, Fire and TV, 2016, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent's Daughters)

Brandi Twilley, Fire and TV, 2016, oil on canvas (Courtesy the artist and Sargent’s Daughters)

I’m also interested in the style of the paintings themselves, which seem to have a blurred quality that reflects the haziness of memories. They also have a cinematic aesthetic that reminds me of David Lynch’s (certainly no stranger to representations of memory himself) lingering shots of interiors in Lost Highway. What influenced the style of your paintings in The Living Room?

I do love David Lynch. For these paintings, I thought about photographs, particularly the film photographs that are the record of everything that happened during the time I was growing up. These photos are often blurry, distorted and have too much or not enough of one color or another. It was my way of painting pretend documents and creating the photos that I wish I had although these paintings aren’t photo-realistic at all. I also liked being able to let some things just be blobs or disintegrate into the paint layers and have it be okay. I used drawing as a way to feel my through the image quite a bit. The landscape format of the rectangle I chose ended up being very similar to a flat screen shape, linking them to the present and the window we are used to.

It goes without saying that a fire is a traumatic event, particularly in a childhood home. Plus, it appears as if the home was already in disrepair even before. Was it difficult to return to this moment in your and your family’s life or did it provide some sort of reconciliation?

I would say that it was difficult and it was a reconciliation. For a while, working on these, I questioned whether it was a mentally healthy thing to paint them and to spend so much time in this place again. It was worth it to make them though, because I feel like I have reclaimed a part of my life that I had no record of.

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