Operation FizZ! A Painting Expedition 2012
G.D. How is your work pushing the envelope of painting? How does your practice differ to other painters?
G.B. My painting is three dimensional and doesn’t involve a support. My early works involved peeling paint skins off objects and then re-welding them together so they are like soft hollow chrysalis’s. I’ve since made works that explore non-aesthetic qualities of paint, like warmth, shelter, flexibility, sound, and pressure. My most recent kinetic paintings involve my own version of action painting, where I’ve made a suite of action objects out of paint that have been tested in nature. Skiing over icy terrain, propelling myself through the water with diving flippers, and grinding the asphalt with some skateboard wheels, all this equipment being composed from paint. If you think about it Jackson Pollock freed things up by eradicating the brush. I’m pursuing my own type of freedom through eradicating the support.
G.D. Do you see yourself as a painter, sculpture, performance artist or madman?
G.B. Hahaha, hard to say mate, hard to say. Initially I always maintained that I was a painter, as my goal was to develop the genre of painting as art-form. But these days I quite like the idea of sitting in that indefinable territory.
G.D. Who’s your audience?
G.B. Everyone really, but I suppose people over the age of about sixty might struggle with it (laughs). I’ve always made art with the idea that a seven year old kid could get into it just as much as a fine art critic. Multiple entry points, where there’s an initial simplicity, and then all the complexities expand outward from there. Kind of like a big bang reaction.
G.D. Can you tell me about your artistic influences?
G.B. The main influences for me have been Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana, all the heavyweights of abstract expressionism. I’ve always been in awe of the frenetic energy of Pollock’s work, and standing in front of ‘Blue Poles’ at the Australian National Art Museum in Canberra was a primal sort of experience. I accidentally set the security alarm off three times by getting too close inspecting all the detail! Luckily the security guard seemed to be half asleep. But it was the energy and freedom that Pollock captured through his action painting that directly inspired my Kinetic paint works for this Operation FizZ! show. Not only the movement and energy captured through using my paint equipment, but also the gestural trails that get left in the terrain as the pieces erode underneath me.
G.D. Great, how about these other ‘heavyweights’ of abstract expressionism you mentioned. Their work differs somewhat to Pollock’s. How have they inspired you?
G.B. Well I think collectively they all made their own totally unique contribution to something new. And they all tapped in to a new spatial experience. With Rothko you can feel an infinite depth as you slip though the surface into his engulfing fields of colour. And with Fontana he literally stabbed through the surface to open up a new form of space within the picture plane. Making my recent 3D kinetic paintings I’m diving, gliding, floating, and grinding through space in my own way. Not outer space, just the normal space around us. That would be awesome though, might have to hit up Richard Branson with a proposal for some sort of space mission. Imagine painting in space, liquid globules colliding and bouncing off the walls inside the shuttle. I’d definitely pack my flippers as well, that would be awesome! The first artist in residence in the Virgin Galactic!
G.D. You’re a funny guy, do you see humour as an integral part of your work?
G.B. Yeah it’s definitely an important part of my work. I’ve always thought of making art that would be a release for the viewer, something that could make them momentarily forget about the stress’s in their life and the daily grind. And a bit of humour can instantly relax people and just make the work a fun and enjoyable experience.
G.D. Your paint skin works to date have rendered inherently active objects inactive. With a painting expedition you have done the opposite and activated objects to a point where they fall apart which you described to me in a previous interview as a glorious meltdown, could you talk a little more about this. Are you deliberately subverting your own process?
G.B. Don’t know, haha! I’ve always liked working with objects that have an active component to them. My earlier paint skin sculptures were designed to collapse naturally into their own comfortable equilibriums. A relaxation from their former selves. With my recent expedition works it’s a different sort of process, but they do find their own comfortable equilibrium at the end as they erode and breakdown. The expedition works are designed to break down, and a mangled gooey aesthetic is the envisioned result at the end.
G.D. You literally get into the paint in this new body of work, you are an integral and active part of it, how has this body of work allowed you to take your engagement with painting to the next level?
G.B. Yeah I spose my paint skin suit was a bridging work between my earlier paint skin sculptures and the recent kinetic works. Being inside that suit and seeing the flexible response of the paint skin against my body was a brilliant feeling. The idea of my body being entwined with a painting was a tantalising thought, and this naturally led to the vision of propelling myself through a liquid realm with some diving flippers made out of paint etc. Working in this way my body is at one with the painting and also at one with nature too. The works are not just static images which sit inside a frame on the wall. They are organic freeform entities that have connected with the rhythms of nature.
G.D. The work included in Operation FizZ! differs to your previous paint skin works in that after all your efforts to construct the objects they could have and in some instances have been destroyed in the process of performance. How do you feel about this inherent aspect of the inevitable deconstruction in this body of work?
G.B. The damage in the works definitely shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing, where I think it positively charges the works with a thumping current. The pieces were all designed to test the medium of house paint in a new way, and take it right to that threshold where it starts to break apart. All the pieces looked great before I tested them in the field, and I made sure I got a lot of pre-footage documenting them before use, but I think the fractured and eroded appearance at the end is an aesthetic and conceptual enhancement. And not knowing quite how the equipment would breakdown was half of the thrill. I think the finished works in there half dead half alive state capture the ‘fizz’ from the event. And it is personally very satisfying to look at the pieces and see the abrasion, which recalls the joy and fun I had on the day.
G.D. Being in the great outdoors was an integral part of the painting expedition, how do see the painting expedition as being about engagement with landscapes? Is this Glenn Burrell painting en plein air?
G.B. Haha, yeah my recent work is definitely a play on the old French Impressionist’s painting ‘en plein air’. I’ve always maintained that my works are live free form entities, removed from the support and breathing with the air around us. So getting outside and having my flexible objects connect with the landscape was a nice development for me. Feeling my ski’s slide over the snow, and feeling that greasy feel as I locked up my brakes and collected skids with my bike tyres was a unique experience. Seeing the painterly trails left in my wake documented the encounter that had taken place.
G.D. How do you think being at Tylee Cottage influenced the work you produced for the exhibition? Did being in Wanganui encourage you to explore landscapes that you previously hadn’t encountered?
G.B. While at Tylee I was doing early morning bike rides with artist, Peter Ireland and was soaking up all the landscape the Whanganui region had to offer. There were some ponds out in Okoia and also Lake Wiritoa that were covered in a brilliant red millweed which instantly set the scene of where I wanted to launch my inflatable boat. Also being able to see both Mt Taranaki and Mt Ruapehu in the distance from a new focal point was special. I’d gaze out over the landscape at these distant cones and think a lot about my upcoming ski expeditions, the anticipation of the event. It was definitely great being able to see both those mountains at once, within the same glance, while actually making the ski’s at Tylee. Also the wide smooth footpath down St John’s hill seemed tailor made for my skateboard descent.
G.D. How did you go about selecting the sites for the expedition, tell me about the significance of the sites that you chose, ie what was it like going home to Taranaki?
G.B. Well I’m a passionate landscape man, and with each performance I was wanting to capture a specifically different landscape setting. Most of the locations are quite isolated, to place the emphasis on me connecting with nature with my paint objects. I also wanted to utilize landscapes that to me had a bit of an exotic fantastical feel to them. The fluted sastrugi up on the Tukino Ski Field, the crimson Red Rocks near Island Bay in Wellington, and the azure waters out at Cape Palliser in the Wairarapa. The Car Tyre Session up on the Tukino Ski Access Route on Ruapehu was a brilliant setting for that performance. It’s like a windswept moonscape up there, very desolate and it borders the army training ground which just adds to the unforgiving feel. Seeing my neon green tyre set against this stark landscape heightened the feel of it being a foreign object. Plus the soft grit underfoot aided my cause in providing just the right amount of cushioning to support my tyre as I drove.
G.D. You’ve come a long way from covering a banana in paint and producing your first paint skin work, how do you feel about your journey so far and where to next?
G.B. Yeah I’m really pleased with how my works have progressed, as I’ve made a point of testing myself in a new way with each new project I do. The goal has always been to extract a new piece of magic out of the material, and investigate things from a new conceptual viewpoint. The outcomes were unknown with a lot of my expedition objects, but I’m really happy with the results and how each work informs something new that I can investigate. There could be a few new kinetic works on the cards as that is where I have arrived to date, but there could be a complete change of tact also.
G.D. Filming the legs of the expedition and creating photographic stills was an essential part of documenting the whole process, how do you think these elements work in the exhibition and are film and photography areas that you would like to explore further?
G.B. I really like the relationship between the video and action shots when shown alongside the remains of the object in the gallery. It’s a nice way of working, having the 3 elements combine, and it’s something I’m keen to develop further. You can refer back and forward between the elements and capture the beginnings of the event to the aftermath. The idea was to present this journey, and present the viewer with a multisensory experience, an insight of what I felt and saw when I was performing the events.
G.D. These works are painstakingly complex to create, requiring patience and time but with the painting expedition you’ve also discussed the physical toll these works took on you, tell me about that?
G.B. Yeah all the works took quite a long time to make, as I was finding my way with all of them really. You can’t just go the library and get a book out on how to make a boat out of paint. So everything took longer than expected to make as I worked through various problems. I had one bike tyre that derailed on me 3 times in the studio before I could actually get it out on the road. And then in the first test it derailed while riding after 30metres. I re-welded it at a later date and managed to capture 3 glorious skids with it before it derailed again for good. Those were some well earned skids I can tell you. The other 4 bike tyres I made all performed really well and had very good resilience. It was interesting how the yellow tyre gave me so many probs, but it was brilliant footage when it did derail mid-skid. The other thing was the weight component of all the objects. You know how heavy a 10litre pail of paint is. So a lot of the objects I made were pretty heavy to lug around while I was testing them in the field. I remember the ski expeditions were pretty energy sapping lugging the ski’s around, but the results were golden.
G.D. How do you feel about the exhibition now it’s installed in the Gallery?
G.B. I’m very happy with ehh. The Sarjeant is such a great space, and it’s great to see the idea’s out of my head and realised in the gallery. It’s nice to see the video, photo’s and sculptural elements combining to form the whole. I’m proud of what I set out to do and what I have achieved.
G.D. The boat was your most ambitious and risky work made for the exhibition and a beautiful object and painted landscape in itself, how did you feel about floating the boat as you were pretty concerned about its survival?
G.B. The boat was a real behemoth to create, and despite trying my best to minimize weight in the design it was very heavy and awkward to manoeuvre. Aesthetically it was probably my most pleasing work to date, and with the work involved to make it and its fragility, I had grave concerns about taking it out on the water. But at the same time I was wanting to achieve my dream of floating on a membrane of paint. A salvage operation was looking like a very real possibility after half my internal bracing collapsed while loading the boat into the van the night before, and then half of what was left caved in as we unloaded it at the water’s edge in Whanganui. By this stage I was beyond worry and I propped it up as best I could and took it out on the water anyway. I got her floating and waded out to waist deep water, but just as I was contemplating how to get into it, my mate Brandon Sayring yelled out that I was losing the back, and then it was all over. I then did everything in my power to drag it back to shore and up out of the water. Despite a full immersion we managed to pull it up out of the water in one piece which was impressive.
G.D. You talked very eloquently about Rothko’s work in reference to the boat performance, tell me a bit about that and did Lake Wiritoa live up to expectations as a site?
G.B. Yeah the whole boat concept was partly inspired by Rothko’s floating hovering colour fields. Standing in front of a Rothko you can feel yourself being immersed though the surface into a floating weightless environment. So it was this type of experience which inspired my idea of floating on a membrane of paint. With my boat sinking this dream is still unrealised, but before it sank, there would have been about 40 seconds of float time where it was suspended on a film of water on its own, and this was beautiful to see. Even just pushing it around on the water was an awesome feeling, seeing it hover on its own in waist deep water was brilliant in itself, and gives me a few good ideas for the next voyage! Lake Wiritoa definitely had the goods as far as aesthetics goes, a visually stunning place with the red millweed and also great ease of access for launching de-flatable boats.
G.D. The bicycle wheels, brake pads and skateboard, were all supported by ‘hardware’, talk to me about the relationship between the painted and practical components of these pieces?
G.B. Yeah I had my 100% pure paint objects, such as my ski’s, gumboots, flippers, and boat, and then I also had another strain of idea’s which involved fitting solid paint wheels onto a car, bicycle and skateboard. It was a way of being able to incorporate some extra action sport performances that had real potential with the specific breakdown of the tyres themselves. With these works there was also the new challenge of whether the mechanical contraption would accept these foreign objects. Would the regular orbit of a wheel accept a lumpy irregular paint tyre? One of my visions of this Painting Expedition was that it was like cartoon plasticity meeting the real world, and I think the use of a real car, and real bicycle fitted with wobbly unorthodox components is a great juxtaposition. Essentially when I was riding my bicycle and skateboard, and driving my car it was all about the anticipation of that spongy ride underfoot. And I knew there would be more loaded pressure on these pieces as they are fitted onto an actual car for instance, so I was eager to see how the paint would perform or get crushed under this pressure.
G.D. The skiing legs of the expedition were particularly impressive, how did you feel they went?
G.B. My best case scenario with the skiing was that a, I’d be able to actually ski on them, b, the underneath of the skis would erode against the ice and leave painterly trails, and c, was that it would be beautiful sunny weather. All three elements came together and worked awesomely, and the fruju trails that did emerge were a dream come true. The underneath of the ski’s looked great too, like a weatherboard house that has been sanded back to reveal various generations of colour. My longest complete ski run would have been about eighty metres, and I was over the moon with that. They had been bending like bananas in the studio, so it was a relief that my theory of the ski’s stiffening once they were on snow worked out and I got some solid runs out of them. One ski of each pair did break in half midway through the afternoon as the cold may have stiffened them too much, so I had to duct tape them together and do all the filming from the side of the good ski. It was interesting, before I ventured up the mountain people would say ‘how are you going to turn’ and I’d say well that’s asking a bit much. And then they’d say ‘how are you going to stop? And I’d say stopping is the least of my concerns, I’m doing everything in my power to get the things going in the first place!
G.D. Talk to me a little bit about leaving marks in the field, ie with the paint trails left by the skis, bicycle and skateboard wheels?
G.B. The paint objects were a bit like living brushes, creating gestural marks as a bi-product of using the equipment. Having the works themselves erode and then leave a visible trail as they were breaking down was icing on the cake really. It was a great sight, and the prospect of this mark making was just another way of having fun while out in the field testing my components.