Houston-based artist Bret Shirley's art is wonderful to stare at. I often find myself diving deep into his work with admiration, curiosity, and imagination. His work is also wonderful to consider, too. Behind each of his stunning pieces is an intentional fascination of history's relationship with symbolism, capitalism, and international trade. Once I met Shirley in person last winter, I knew I wanted to ask him for an interview. This past June, I had the opportunity to visit his Garden Oaks studio to learn more about his big thinking process, scientific materials, and what's up next for him. Read on to become dazzled.
CG: Thank you so much for letting me visit you at your studio! I enjoyed the drive out. You are definitely not the only artist I know who works outside the loop. I wonder, do you benefit working away from the center of the city? What are your thoughts on working outside of the loop?
BS: I don't think the geography of where my studio is has any inherent benefit, but being a little farther away from the city center definitely affords me much cheaper rent. When I moved to my current studio in January of 2016, I was looking for a few months for something closer to downtown Houston, where I had been working previously. Everything I was finding was either too large, too expensive or a CrossFit gym, so I resigned myself to maybe going a little farther away to find what I need. I also think I realized that my studio is my place of work, it doesn't necessarily benefit from being amongst a lot of distractions, at least not if I'm sacrificing functionality. I would love to be able to walk from my house to my studio, or be closer to places I hang out, but not at the cost of having to work out of a smaller, less functional studio. I went from a 250 square foot space, with neighbors and roommates, to a 2000 square foot space where I can do whatever I want. It's definitely had an effect on the way I work now.
CG: I think your work is lovely. I go from imagining them as different planet surfaces to topographic landscapes to crystallized geographic maps. Can you tell us how you create these paintings? It seems like a scientific process.
BS: The crystal paintings are made through very specific processes, though the science involved doesn't go any further than basic, middle school sciences. It's basically a process of a bath of solution depositing excess mineral on a surface, in this case, canvas. There are specific concentrations of mineral solutions that I've found work best for certain results. This all sounds really boring and regimented but in reality, I'm just making stuff up as I go in the studio. But then recording the results and moving on from there to make it work.
CG: You called a step of the process "the bath." Can you explain this part of the treatment?
BS: If you were to see crystal paintings in the process they just look like a tub of liquid. I lay canvases flat, seal them into a plastic lined reservoir, then pour a mineral solution on them and let nature do its thing. So the canvases are literally sitting in a mineral bath.
CG: What minerals or chemicals do you use to create certain colors?
BS: In the time that I've been making the crystal works, I've experimented with a number of minerals, many of which I found to be either too unstable and unpredictable, or just too dangerous to work with. I've stuck with a few main ones that I use, and branch out to other minerals from time to time. The primary ones I use are potassium alum sulfate, chrome alum, copper sulfate, and potassium ferricyanide. Alum and chrome alum have the same crystal structure so they'll actually bond together to make another color. Alum is clear on its own and chrome alum is dark purple, almost black. When mixed together they can make a sort of amethyst color. Potassium ferricyanide is almost a dead ringer for ruby. Copper sulfate makes a super deep blue or blue green. I've been mixing incompatible minerals lately to get some more unpredictable effects. That's been a lot of fun, sort of having to re-learn how to do this all over again.
CG: You grow the crystals on top of the canvas. Do you control the growth? Is it spontaneous? Do you allow yourself room for a surprise? What works best for you?
BS: While the crystals are the result of a completely natural process, I've learned ways to push the growth in directions I want. The temperatures, how much solution, and at what angle the reservoir is sitting are all ways I influence the size or accumulation of the crystals. I'll also use a different metal leaf as the base to get certain results. Gold and silver don't oxidize as much as copper, brass or aluminum and that changes some the colors. Like I said earlier, I'm always experimenting and trying to get new results, so there's definitely an element of surprise every time I make a new piece.
CG: You didn't study painting and there technically isn't a lot of hand use in the work itself. What would you call these living pieces if they aren't paintings?
BS: That's actually a question I've thought deeply about since I started making this work. When I first began making the crystal paintings I wasn't comfortable with calling them paintings, but I wasn't sure why and I didn't know what else to call them because they definitely read as paintings. I started to think about other paintings made with alternative media, and why if they weren't made out of paint, were they allowed to be called paintings? Then it hit me that I was asking why something was "allowed" to be called a painting. I was putting painting on this holy, unreachable (to me at least) level. This thing that you had to have so much respect for that you shouldn't ever even think about being part of it.
I went to a pretty pedigreed art school and while I value what I learned there, I also now understand that they existed this hierarchy and system there that is pervasive and damaging in the art world. At school, a bunch of 20-year-olds already deciding who can be taken seriously and who can't ... before they're even making any work. It was mind boggling. I was a photo major, and while I moved toward sculpture late in school, it was clear to me that painting was off limits to all but the most academic painting majors. I know this all sounds like the self-absorbed tantrum of a kid who got to attend a great school, and it probably is, but that sort of attitude kept me, and I assume a few others from making the best work we could. Once I realized all that I said ~ fuck it ~ these are paintings. They look like paintings, they function as paintings, people call them paintings. They're paintings. Now the question is how to keep them from just being another painting? Haha, art is crazy.
CG: I enjoyed this question you brought up: "When did symbolism become more valuable than functionality? For example, when did the decorative necklace become more important than the hammer?" People assigning abstract symbols power. Can you elaborate on this?
BS: Yeah totally. That question has been present in my art making for a long time, and it's one that I really can't answer. I guess that's why I'm still addressing it. The hammer and necklace example, while imperfect, I think illustrates the question. Without the hammer, you couldn't build shelter, break rock or bone for structures. You would die, but at some point, humans stopped thinking about basic objects as valuable. It's almost as if the more necessary for successful survival, the less valuable something becomes. I think this all has to do with power structures between humans. Survival of the fittest at one point stopped meaning the strongest or fastest or most adept at killing prey and building shelter. It evolved to mean the best at control. The fittest are the ones who can get the strongest and fastest to kill prey for them, the best builder to build them shelter. That's where symbols come in. Gold is a pretty useless metal. It's soft, heavy, and has a fairly low melting point. But it's also beautiful, and seemingly rare. It's a symbol of status, an indicator of control, and because of that, it has great value. That whole idea is interesting to me, and I think it's so translatable to contemporary times.
Late capitalism and ancient living deity cultures are shockingly close systems. The crystal paintings directly address this. They're pleasant, if not outright enjoyable to look at. But they're symbols, or more appropriately they're facsimiles of symbols of power. The crystal paintings can look like a wall of diamonds or an excavated section of an amethyst cave, but ultimately they're just copies or recreations of those things. We could go on forever about this, and how the art economies themselves are great indicators of hollow wealth and value. Man, I hope that makes sense. That question is always with me and I think maybe it's been there so long that I have way too many paths to take when talking about it.
CG: You pointed out that you typically do not make art about yourself. What topics, ideas, and concepts inspire you? Can you name any examples?
BS: I feel like I don't make work about myself, but a few others I've talked to seem to disagree. It's hard for me to pin down exactly what drives some of the ideas I work with, but I do know that the more work I make the more I see a few binding ties to it. My last solo show was called "New World" and dealt heavily with some abstracted ideas taken from the history of the Americas. More specifically, the history of the conquests of the Americas south of the United States border. That show had a number of paintings that were shapes of silver leaf and automotive paint on extremely dark backgrounds. I think most people saw the shapes as pure abstractions, but really they were tracings of banana leaves. There was also a stack of banana leaves acting as a pedestal, with a sculpture of crystals and cast coconuts resting atop it. These items, banana leaves, coconuts, along with sculptures of sugarcane, gold, and silver all represented to me resources that drove the rise of European (and American) capitalism in Central and South America. Each one of these resources led to and relied upon on slavery, wealth disparity and outright massacre of both bodies and culture, all to benefit a foreign system that would just move on when it was no longer profitable.
It's not a story exclusive to those places, but I think maybe because I'm in Houston, surrounded by so many people of Central or South American ancestry that its one that is both present and compelling to me. To bring this around to making art about one's self, that very reason of why I was interested in working with those objects symbols is what makes the work a bit autobiographical. My studio is in a heavily Central American neighborhood, in largely Hispanic city. I buy all the banana leaves, sugarcane and what not at the market across the street from my studio. Latin America's story isn't mine, nor is it mine to define, but the story of being present in my environment is mine, and I think that does make the work at least a little about myself.
CG: When we visited, you mentioned the idea of setting up a project space inside your studio. Is this something you're still interested in and what kind of art would you like to showcase?
BS: Oh yeah, I'm actually working on that right now. It's called BS Projects. Take from that what you will. There's a small room at the front of my studio that I don't use regularly. It mostly just acts as overflow storage when I'm being lazy. I thought about renting it out to another artist but realized I didn't want a full-time roommate, so I figured I'd at least show some people's work in it. It's nothing special, just the lobby of the business that used to be there. My wife and I are partnering on it, both in putting in labor and finding artists we'd like to show. We both agree that we'd like to provide opportunities to artists who don't have much or any of a presence in Houston. Young, emerging artists, or people who have maybe taken a break from making art because life happened are who we want to work with.
After I finished school I didn't make much work. At least not anything that I intended to show anyone. I was playing in bands, and that fulfilled most of the creative outlet needs, but I still had this hang up about not making visual art. That went on for years. I would put a small piece in big group shows or benefit auctions, but I wasn't making work coherent enough to be a real body. At one point a friend of mine who was running an emerging gallery asked me if I wanted to do a show. I was a little hesitant and he just gave me a date. That got me thinking and working hard to put together something that was more than a collection of disparate works, to mount a show. We feel like since we have the resource, we sort of have an obligation to provide something like that to other artists. We want the shows to be fun, but address real issues we're interested in. Plus, we'll probably be grilling hot dogs and serving some boozy cocktails at the openings.
CG: What are your plans for the future? Any shows to look out for?
BS: Right now I've been focusing a good deal of energy on trying to get BS Projects up and running in time for the fall season, but I've also been making work in the studio. There are a couple group shows I'm in over the next few months, and possibly a solo show in Mexico City, at a friend's space. I've also been working on some large scale sculptures utilizing waste from art institutions, namely crates that usually just get thrown away after a show travels. I'm applying for a few institutional grants and shows for that. Even when I don't have a defined show on the horizon, I manage to spend at least 30 hours a week in the studio. Sometimes just sitting at my desk, staring at a piece of paper is what I need to get me to the next step.