An Interview with Brian Belott: Frustrating Expectations

by Irena Jurek on June 27, 2017 · 1 comment Interview

Brian Belott at Gavin Brown

Brian Belott at Gavin Brown

Brian Belott admits that he’s “anything but subtle.” The artist has carved out a reputation for creating exuberant over the top spectacles wherever he goes. Known for his wildly uninhibited paintings that vibrate with movement and motion, Belott also courts chance and accident in his hilarious, absurdist performances.

Belott’s latest project at Gavin Brown’s Harlem outpost expands on his 2015 show at 247365, (discussed with AFC’s Paddy Johnson here)— and is a multi-faceted homage to Rhoda Kellogg, a little known children’s art pioneer. Her obsessive studies innovated child psychology and contributed to the formation of the Montessori method of teaching that places its emphasis on teaching children based on their own individual interests and skills. By collecting over a million examples of children’s art over the course of her lifetime, Kellogg discovered that universal patterns and developmental stages emerge in all children’s art from around the world.

The sprawling, rambunctious exhibit comes to life in three parts. For the first part, Belott hand-picked approximately 300 pieces of children’s art from the Rhoda Kellogg International Children’s Art Collection, which is the first time that such a large portion of the collection has been shown to the public. The second layer features 50 paintings that Belott recreated on canvas, based off of Children’s paintings, and drawings. The third aspect of the exhibition; is an actual children’s art classroom that’s channeling Kellogg’s own approach, which allows children from around New York City to make art based on their own interests and instincts with very little interference or guidance from adults.

I had a chance to sit down with Belott to discuss the show, the impact of children’s art on modernism, as well as his own lifelong obsession with children’s art that mirrors Kellogg’s.

Irena Jurek: When you set out to create the exhibition, did you anticipate it being so complex from the beginning?

Brian Belott: I didn’t want to make a polite show. My aim was to create this dense, overlapping nexus of children’s art. It all started with my devotional copies of children’s paintings, which led to my interest in the wallpaper, the Rhoda Kellogg collection, the soundtrack from the found recordings, and then finally the outreach to the Ps1s in the local communities, and having work made on site.

IJ: When did you first start working with children’s art?

BB: I’ve always been interested in it. My parents saved a really big chunk of my own childhood art; I have around a couple hundred examples. When I first went to Cooper Union, I tried to dig this stuff up and copy it myself, but I found that to be a little loaded, because it was coming from my own psyche as a kid. When I finished my schooling at SVA, I found some garbage bags of children’s art on the street in the Lower East Side, and ended up making an entire series based off of it.

IJ: What would you say fueled your fascination with childhood art?

BB: Children’s art has always been a thread running through my production. It has to do with the nature of children, and their exuberance, overflowing of excitement, as well as their innocence. That unpretentious way of experiencing the world excites me. In school I was trying to figure out how to tap into that spazzy zone.

IJ: So in a way, your interest in children’s art has to do with the mentality of children.

BB: Absolutely. We still have ways into tapping into that mentality. When you wake up in the morning with an incredible amount of energy, and it’s almost spastic, like you’re bouncing off the wall! Maybe you have your first cup of coffee and you feel like a kid. When you make a crank phone call to a friend and leave a crazy message! Even going on vacation creates a different strata; the first day of vacation is jam-packed with excitement, because you’ve cut all strings to responsibility. You’re not thinking about limitations, you’re just thinking of soaring into a world of no expectations and pleasure.

Brian Belott at Gavin Brown

Brian Belott at Gavin Brown

IJ: The modernists were also in pursuit of that childlike freedom and lack of self-consciousness that you’re talking about.

BB:  One of the most outspoken authorities on children’s art was Picasso. What’s funny is that his work never really became that childlike.

IJ: Definitely. He had that one quote on how it took him his whole life to draw like a child; meanwhile he was knocking off Ingres!

BB: It really doesn’t make any sense. Picasso was seasoned by a group of writers like Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein. He was so good at those zingers, and there’s no doubt he picked up steam from that milieu.

IJ: How did you come across the Rhoda Kellogg collection?

BB: When I was working for Donald Baechler, I came across one of her [Kellogg’s] books in his immense collection of books on children’s art. A great deal of the book was dedicated to scribbling and the early developmental stages of children’s art. Her contribution led to so much writing on the psychology of children and their first marks made. From there I started to find the rest of her books, and there were these incredible books on drawing, where she collected drawings from around the world. She was going around to multiple classrooms, obviously in communication with a whole string of teachers. It was really important for her to make the sample a large one.

That’s especially true when she focused on these early developmental stages of children’s drawing, you know, right after dribbling saliva, they’re scribbling and finger painting.  Her colleagues weren’t interested in these stages of development. They thought it was nonsense. What she found out was that before we get socialized, that every kid is essentially making identical drawings from around the world. Before we are socialized we are part of the same family.

Joseph Campbell was interested in comparing hero stories and myths—in finding a common thread between Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Rhoda was doing something identical through studying messy art making made by two to three year olds.

IJ: So through her studies she also discovered these implied shaped that are universal?

BB: Yes, through the act of scribbling, as the young human hand goes over the surface of the paper repeatedly, the drawing begins looking like a mish mosh or a web. What she started to see is that the arms like making squares, triangles, or mandalas. So what she pulled out of this gobbledy gook is implied shapes. Not only do you see our universal similarities in these examples, but you also see the beginnings of language emerging from children’s scribbles.

IJ: So essentially this is something that’s intrinsic and universal to human development?

BB: It comes directly from the motor skills of a human.

IJ: Aside from showing three hundred examples from the Rhoda Kellogg collection, you’ve also copied 50 children’s paintings, which you describe as being devotional.

BB: I actually returned to making copies of kid’s art while I was on vacation in Vermont in 2014. Having had all my responsibilities put on pause for a moment, I decided to make the copies once again. I love doing copies because it’s smooth sailing; you have everything laid out for you, it’s a matter of translating that onto another surface and thinking about the composition and its parts in relation to its colors. Once I started making these copies, I couldn’t stop.

IJ: You mentioned before that your colleagues were wondering why you weren’t riffing off of these paintings and using them as a springboard to make a different type of painting.

BB: Yes, and I wasn’t interested in doing that. I wanted to humbly make a copy. Quite a few people told me that I should blow up the scale, which would signal to the viewer that art had been made and something had been transformed. If you see a five or six foot painting done in a child’s style, you’re probably going to think that an adult did it, because of the materials children usually work with and the materials that are normally at their disposal. I wasn’t interested in any of the solutions that the holy white cube insist we do.

IJ: Another parallel seems to emerge between Rhoda’s colleagues’ reactions to her work, and your own colleagues’ reactions to your work. Stepping outside of accepted convention can often make people uncomfortable.

BB: I’m stubborn and I don’t want to do what’s expected of me. This should be a trait in all artists. At some point in their production, they should dig their heels and do the opposite of what’s expected of them.  Essentially any good joke or story is about frustrating expectations.

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