The work of Oakland-based artist, Brendan Monroe, is in constant motion. For a recent mural in Cleveland, Ohio, for example, Monroe re-imagined the undulating waves of an upside down sea. In a painting for an exhibition at Heath Ceramics, he reinterpreted the meandering waters of a flood. “I like to imagine what I make has some kind of logic and study to it, like the flow of water over a landscape,” Monroe told The Hundreds. “It has a form and a reason for doing what it does because of motion and gravity.”
But Monroe’s work is in motion in another way too: His art, which once focused on the human figure, is now centered on abstract shapes and forms. Few figures appear at all, and if they do materialize, they are depicted as faceless silhouettes. “I realized that while making art, it could change, evolve, and grow,” Monroe explains. “Once you have a core then everything around it can be built on or adjusted; it’s just a constant thing to be worked on.” In the following interview with The Hundreds, Monroe discusses this evolution, his focus on shape and form, and his greatest challenges as an artist.
Brendan Monroe’s mural at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park.
ZIO: Why did you decide to become an artist?
BRENDAN MONROE: At some point while in community college, I was shown that being an artist could be a career. I never thought it was possible before that. First, the idea was that you could be a graphic designer and make a living—that led to meeting illustrators, so I followed that path. Eventually, it just turned into what it is today, which is hard to put a name on. I’m an artist, visually-centered, and I work on all kinds of things.
How does science influence or play a role in your work?
Science used to be more directly prominent in my work just because biology and chemistry were interests of mine when I was younger. Now, my work is less immediately related, but I like to think about the world with a question of reason and explanation for things. So with art, I like to imagine what I make has some kind of logic and study to it, like the flow of water over a landscape for example. It has a form and a reason for doing what it does because of motion and gravity.
In the past several years, your work has changed a lot—the figures became faceless, and now there are fewer and fewer figures and more of a focus on movement and flow. How/why did that evolution happen?
I’m glad you noticed that. Yeah, I’d say I realized that while making art, it could change, evolve, and grow. Once you have a core, then everything around it can be built on or adjusted—it’s just a constant thing to be worked on. That’s why art-making can be so challenging and interesting for so long. Anyway, lately the work has become much more focused on the abstract landscapes. In older work, I always had characters and figures in the landscapes, but I don’t think the backgrounds were really potent enough to stand alone. I tried many times, but when characters were added, there was a story of their lives or the mystery of who they were that was the focus [of] each piece. Their abstract landscape was where they lived. Now my focus, even with the remaining characters, is on shape and form; what’s left is more a gesture or an anonymous stand-in for creatures that used to have facial expressions. And the remaining backgrounds have more dimensional form and carry their own abstract personality with them too.
A mural by Brendan Monroe in West Oakland.
“I think the satisfying part is just bringing them into existence.”
Are the ceramics you make creatures from the landscapes you paint? Or are they from their own separate world?
Everything I make is part of the same world. There is no delineation between places or scenes. I try not to think about where anything might actually belong. I just make it—figure, object, landscape—all together or separate. I think the satisfying part is just bringing them into existence.
A collaboration between Brendan Monroe and his wife Evah Fan for Pow! Wow! Long Beach. Photo by Brandon Shigeta.
Are you familiar with Ken Price? I love his work, and I’m reminded a bit of your work when I look at some of his paintings and blob sculptures. Has he influenced your work at all? What other artists have been inspirations?
Ken Price’s work is pretty amazing. There’s a thing that he and some other artists do that I think is difficult for me and something I admire so much in their work. They can concentrate so much on the abstract qualities of a form and make anything representational nearly disappear completely. But they’re able to keep that tiny sliver of suggestion in the work so that it’s made more human and relatable to the person viewing it. I love that. I try for that too, but it’s a difficult line for me to balance on. Martin Puryear is another one I admire and is good at this. Henrique Oliveira can do this too, but more with space and his crazy installations.
Why are your murals black and white but your other work (some paintings and sculptures) is in color?
At this point, it’s just easier to make the murals in black and white. I do have black and white drawings also, so they come out of those. I started making black and white work with comics a long time ago, and slowly it’s led to these abstract drawings, then the murals. I do want to do some color mural work as well, I just haven’t found the place yet to experiment with it and give it a try. I’ve actually been thinking about how to make murals in ceramic too.
Part of Brendan Monroe’s 2 part Raised By Wolves collaboration.
What has been your greatest artistic challenge?
There’s two big ones. One is figuring out what to make. Sounds easy, but having something I was really interested in communicating or making was a difficult one for me. Having a something interesting to myself was hard to do, and I think it still is hard. Second and one I love is using the material the right way. So, like a painting on canvas, mural on wall, ceramic or wood sculpture—they all have different personalities. They all require a different mindset while working and all have different solutions to problems that come up while making stuff. I like this and I think it actually is part of creativity that changes that outcome significantly, but it’s also overlooked a little. People think you just choose a material, but really you feel it and adjust with it as you work. It’s a good challenge.
Do you have any exhibitions coming up?
My next show is in January at Curator’s Cube in Tokyo. I’m pretty excited about it, but things are just starting to take shape. It’ll be my first solo show in Japan, and have mostly ceramics and drawings.