Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Art Space Talk: Brian Hoover

Brian Hoover was born in Pennsylvania and received initial undergraduate training in art at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He went on to receive a BFA in Fine Art from Kutztown University in 1988 and then earned an MFA in Printmaking/ Painting from the State University of New York in 1990.
From 1990-1995 he taught foundation art classes at the Harrisburg Area Community College, in Harrisburg PA. In 1995 he accepted a teaching position at Southern Utah University which is where he teaches Painting and Printmaking today. Brians highly detailed and symbolic work is exhibited nationally and is part of many private and public collections throughout the United States.
Girl with Fantastic Hat VIII (How the West Was Won), Oil on Canvas, 24" x 18"

Brian Sherwin: Brian, you are a professor at Southern Utah University. Can you tell us about your academic philosophy? What do you expect from students? Can you tell us about the art program?

Brian Hoover: The last thing I want to do as a professor is create a class full of little Brian Hoovers. One is more than enough. I’ve always asserted to my students that art is a form of language and painting is in essence, "visual poetry". I’m also convinced that poetics can not be taught- only encouraged.

I have participated in academic programs that prioritized "concept" and I’ve witnessed programs that were very "skill oriented". I think each extreme does a disservice to the student. I’ve always tried to balance my classes with a strong underpinning of traditional skills while encouraging students to research, explore and eventually discover their own artistic voice.
Traditional academic skills are part of the grammar of the language. To ignore them will only limit what a student can communicate. Overemphasizing craft or skill seems to produce only technicians… like playing scales on a piano ad infinitum. Eventually the goal is to make music. Its hard, maybe impossible, not to instill some of your artistic biases on students, but that comes with any mentor/student relationship.
Death & the Flowers, Oil on Canvas, 20" x 16"

BS: How do you find balance between your academic career and your personal art?

BH: I know many artists who teach and just as many who make a living from selling their work in galleries. I’ve dabbled in both. In each case, the demands can stifle creativity. Short of being independently wealthy, I’m not sure there is an ideal situation for an artist who must earn a living. However, teaching is a natural extension of my own creative process and when you have a roomful of motivated students the relationship can be very symbiotic (when they’re not so motivated I refer to them as "energy vampires").

Balance usually occurs when I’m being very regimental about studio time (usually in the mornings before my afternoon classes). Even when that regiment is broken because of academic responsibilities, having large blocks of time off (summers and winter break) makes up for that lost time.

BS: Brian, you have stated that your work revolves around dreams, myth, and spirituality. Can you go into further detail about these themes and why you have embraced them in your work?

BH: Joseph Campbell wrote "All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other." I want to believe that. It has become somewhat of a mantra. I think it’s the bigness of that idea. Perhaps the infinite really exists in all of us. Infinity seems like a great place to look for ideas...and an ideal place to get lost.

BS: Would you say that you explore yourself with your work? Or is it more of an exploration of our collective thoughts in regards to these themes?

BH: Both. "Myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth". Some of my dreams and dream imagery have struck a chord with a few collectors. According to Campbell, that at least puts me in the company of a few like-minded people and perhaps the collective thoughts of society. But many of my dreams are very personal; my own memories and experiences. I never set out to illustrate a particular dream.
"Death and the Flowers" (image above) is a painting that comes closest. It was inspired by a dream I had when I was only 5 or 6 years old. In the dream, I saw a row of flowers and lollipops, all of which had faces. Every one of them had different emotional expressions, but some were obviously dead, with little x’s where their eyes should be. I remember being horrified by the fact that I ate lollipops and here were a few that were suffering some major consequences. I imagine the dream was brought on by some developmental stage where a child becomes more sympathetic to the feelings of others… but to this day when I see M&M’s talking on TV, it gives me an uneasy feeling.
"Death and the Flowers" is not a literal interpretation of the dream, like most of my paintings, they are like dreams themselves – layered and out of context. This, I imagine confuses many who view my paintings. I think most of my private, disconnected works are about "exploring myself" as you suggested or as Campbell describes as "an adventure in the dark forest".
The Lovers, Oil on Canvas, 20" x 16"

BS: One could say that your work reflects the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Does his work, Man and His Symbols for example, influence your art? Or would you say the psychological direction of your work is more focused on aspects of the psyche that have yet to be explored? Aspects that are unique to you as an individual-- the exploration of your own mind...

BH: I have had several dreams that I am walking in a large gallery or museum and I am amazed at the art that I see on the walls. The work is strikingly new, complex, beautifully designed and skillfully painted. When I awake I realize that the dozen or so pieces I’ve dreamt about don’t exist... or at least in waking reality. Within moments, the memory of the paintings and their specific details slip further and further into the ether (in spite of the fact that I try to scribble down the basic ideas or images in my dream diary).
Jung suggested that those who are able to clearly tap into that rich vein of the unconscious are called geniuses. I have been accused of being many things, but never genius. However, there are geniuses or those who have had flashes of genius based on their ability to tap into that vein. I’d like to believe we all have that potential. Faith? Samuel Taylor Coleridge supposedly wrote "Kubla Kahn-A Vision in a Dream" (albeit opium inspired) in such a state.
I’m not claiming to be an oracle or a seer, but I have experienced many dreams that have suggested that there is something far bigger than anything I can imagine in my waking state. The unknown and the unknowable and the vastness of even the known universe give me hope that there is a god. My sense of spirituality is comforted by the fact that although infinitesimal, I am part of it.

On a side note: I’m also a self-declared agnostic zealot, one who is amazed at the arrogance of both devout believers and devout atheists.

BS: You have stated that you are not interested in the current trend of dealing with global issues, politics, and esoteric aesthetics with art. Why are you not interested in these issues? Would you say that you are looking for a more 'pure' art? One that goes beyond the fears and concerns of today?

BH: Not sure what pure art is, but I suspect like pornography, I’d know it if I saw it. I wouldn’t say that my paintings are disconnected from the fears and concerns of today either. And its not that I am uninterested in global issues or politics, all too much, the older I get, the more I find myself engaged in politics... alas. It’s probably because of my myopic vision that I have dismissed these topics as mundane.
I was educated in the 80’s with modernism and postmodernism the topic of most critiques and seminars. (Has it changed?) I was always in some other camp… or more, alone in my journey through the dark forest. It doesn’t help that every time I see a celebrated NEA or likewise sponsored artist, they still seem to be rehashing some form of aesthetic that was revolutionary when Duchamp first made his anti-statements… revisited in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s’ 90’s…. To me it seems too easy.
I’ve lived as an artist in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and now Utah… never in any so-called cultural hubs, but I’ve try to keep abreast of what’s going on in the major urban centers. However, I continue to see so many artists constantly checking the wind for the whimsical and capricious changes in fashion and trend… and for so long the flavor of the month has been politics and esoteric aesthetics. I guess that alone has created a bit of discord with the subject.

You mention my statement concerning esoteric aesthetics, which I would define loosely as: aesthetics derived from over education, a penchant for sipping lattes and a need to separate oneself from the Thomas-Kincaid-loving masses. I think Odd Nerdrum’s musings on Kitsch are right on the money. In spite of my somewhat traditional approach to image making I do embrace Modernism. Without it I would not be able to make the art I do. However, I’m equally mystified by the other extreme. Movements like that want to see Modernism pay for its crimes against the European Academies. Seems I’m always somewhere in between. If I had the technical skills of Bouguereau and the innovation of Duchamp, I’d be one step closer to self-actualization.
Girl with Fantastic Hat I, Oil with Gold Leaf on Board, 20" x 16"

BS: Brian, tell us more about your process. I understand that you spill or splash liquefied paint onto the surface of a canvas and from that the image builds from your mind... can you go into further detail about this and why you embrace this practice?

BH: This technique first emerged while a student in Michael Hollihan’s beginning lithography class at The Cleveland Institute of Art in 1984 (where are you Michael?). He had high expectations and very little tolerance for visual cliché’… which is all I had to offer as a freshman in his class. I found that making puddles in the tusche washes on the litho stones yielded many interesting and unexpected interpretations. I was inspired by Paul Wunderlich’s early erotic works using the same method. This was the beginning of exploring imagery through accident.
It progressed to gouache paintings in my undergraduate and then oils in my post graduate research. I am still exploring the splash method in both printmaking and painting today.
To recap my artist statement: I begin a painting by spilling and splashing liquefied paint onto the surface of a canvas; not unlike an abstract expressionist would. After the paint dries I begin to ARorschach@ images that my subconscious sees in the abstract puddles of paint. I then try to render in a more traditional manner- without completely disturbing the freshness of the spill- a representational narrative that often equals the strangeness and absurdity of dreams. Beauty, levity and horror are often combined in what I hope to be a seductive if not disturbing image.
Surrealists like Max Ernst used similar approaches. I even read somewhere that Da Vinci used to make color studies from the puddles of viscous human fluids found in the streets and sewers of Florence . It’s human to make order out of chaos and very self-revealing to do so.

BS: Would you say that Andre Breton and the surrealists are an influence on your practice?

BH: I’ve always tried to disassociate myself with surrealism, although that’s changing. I guess it might have something to do with the modernist mentality that there was something slightly sophomoric about the movement. I was enamored by Dali in high school but found his weird-for-weird-sake approach to marketing disillusioning. I guess I came to doubt the sincerity of most surrealists after that. Talk about being over educated.
However, Max Ernst, Remedious Varo and Yves Tanguy will always hold a fascination in spite of my Modernist brainwashing. I’m beginning to realize that there is a subculture of really fascinating contemporary work being produced in Surrealism’s camp. However, I still claim a flag in the camp belonging to the European Symbolists; Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Edward Burne-Jones and Fernand Khnopff… my real heroes.

BS: Can you tell us more about the symbolism behind your work?

BH: Only what I have already stated. I’m a sucker for narrative. I’m attracted to images that tell strange and exotic stories. I’m an escapist. I find most of life very mundane, but have had some experiences that suggest otherwise. I choose to explore those experiences. I love the craft of illusionistic painting. I love the flatness and paint-for-paint’s-sake of Modernism. I like finding order in chaos. I search to find a private myth in my dreams but I hope that some of my myths find their way into the public dream.

BS: Brian, what are you working on at this time? Also, will you be involved with any exhibits in 2008?

BH: I just finished a one-semester sabbatical. That gave me the luxury of exploring some ideas that were on the peripheral. I discovered a very old sketch that I made of two riders- one male, one female- on elephants. I made the doodle when my wife and I first moved from Pennsylvania to Utah 13 years ago. There are some elephants in our history…
I also just finished reading (guilty pleasure) "Lisey’s Story" by Stephen King. Among other things and foremost, it’s about love and marriage. Somewhere in the book (I’m looking for the exact quote) he says something like "every marriage has two hearts – one light, one dark". That describes my marriage, me being the dark one. I’m equally attracted to the purely formal aspect of contrasting light and dark shapes. If this series takes off, it will not start with the serendipitous splash method and I am initially thinking that it may take the form of B&W intaglios.

I just dismantled an exhibition at the Museum Gallery on the campus of Northern Arizona University , in Flagstaff AZ. The exhibition was titled "Mythical Object Redux" it was the second time I exhibited with ceramist Susan Harris.

In August of 2008 I will be showing again with Susan at the Sears Gallery in St. George , UT.
Woman Scorned, Oil on Board, 16" x 20"

BS: What advice do you have for art students?

BH: Be cool. Stay in school. If that doesn’t work, than I would say that art is a highly competitive field that is inundated with thousands of artists. If you are considering another career, even if it’s just a small consideration, than perhaps you should not go into art. You can always paint on Sundays.
Art is more about tenacity than talent but know your craft well- the larger your vocabulary- the more you’ll be able to communicate.
Grades/Shmades. Grades mean nothing. Focus on your portfolio. It’s OK to judge your performance with the other students in your class but realize your real competition is other artists who have been working professionally for years.

Be a hungry looker. You are defined by your heroes. Always be seeking out new work and new artists.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

BH: I had a discussion with a fellow painter once and the question arose "If you were the last person on earth, would you still paint?" I require my students to write an artist statement but I also ask them to respond to this question as well. I think that many are shocked when I tell them that my answer would be no.
I’ve never been an artist that entirely paints for myself. To me it’s about ego and exploring my psyche but it’s also about saying I was here, I lived, and I experienced these thoughts. If I couldn’t share them, I doubt I would cloister myself in my studio and paint my strange, highly detailed images with a 00 brush like I do, knowing nobody would ever see them but me. If I were to continue to make art, it would be more plausible that I would learn to operate large earth moving equipment so I could create earthworks that could be seen from space. So, as much as I am currently involved in exploring dreams, myth and spirituality, I think the impetuous for me to make art really breaks down to a need for me to say "I was here".
You can learn more about Brian Hoover by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Diana Moses Botkin said...

Interesting stuff. You got me to wondering if I would paint if there was no audience. I think I would have to, on some level. However, being able to share the work with an audience is part of the creative process, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Great paintings. How do I link to this guy on MyArtSpace? Or am i just a total spacehead? I can't see how to do that ...