Philip Brou is a wildly talented painter based in South Portland, Maine. He is Associate Professor of Painting and Program Chair of Foundation at the Maine College of Art.
S.B. When I sit with one of your most recent paintings, Transparent Eyeball, I find myself struck by the similarity between this piece and my personal thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan. There is something about the pixelated military shorts, the hefty presence of the white man, the ogre’s mask (which I read as both monster and “mask” in its most simplistic form) and the triangular shape of the trash bag/hood that takes me there.
Could you please talk a little about what this image signifies for you, delving into the minutiae and how you’ve coded the work in its detail to explore much broader concepts?
P.B. Yes, I am always happy to delve into minutiae.
I used myself as a model for this painting and am depicted at life size. I am shown topless, wearing camouflage pants with my underwear slightly exposed. The pants were bought from a military surplus store and used to evoke ideas of militarization, invisibility, and predator/prey relationships. Also, given that the type of camouflage chosen is pixelated, they serve as a sort of analogue glitching of Self. Covering my head is a latex cyclops mask. There is a transparent trash bag that covers this mask and part of my upper torso. I used myself as a model in order to examine the ego, the “I,” and the eye. It is a carefully arranged setup that is simultaneously strange, a little menacing, and willfully pathetic.
The use of the cyclops mask is rooted in my ongoing interest in the story of Polyphemus, the cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. In order to complete the photo-shoot, I needed to put myself in a position of literal blindness, as it was impossible to see from beneath the layers. This blinding is similar to the fate of Polyphemus. I also viewed my two actual eyes as being replaced by the eye on the mask and the eye of the camera—almost facing one another to create a space of reflection.
The title, Transparent Eyeball, is from the following quote found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature: “Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing.”
All images are political and paintings are a meaningful form of nonviolent resistance. Your saying that the piece brought up thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan is certainly embedded in the work. I want to be clear that I do not support white supremacy. I am horrified by the reach and power of racism in our culture. Furthermore, I am aware of the oppressive and problematic history of classical figuration, a history whose headwaters can be traced to ancient Greece, to the times of Zeuxis and Homer. I am also cognizant of my position as a white, cisgender, heteronormative, middle class, male painter whose family is from Mississippi.
I believe whiteness is most dangerous when it remains invisible, when it functions as an underlying and insidious way to manifest and maintain power within culture. Part of my aim in this painting is to make whiteness and ego visible. Some of the inspiration for this work comes from Philip Guston’s Klansmen paintings and his use of dark, self-deprecating humor. I was also inspired by David Hammons’s In the Hood, one of the twentieth century’s most powerful works of portraiture. Lastly, I am inspired by Herman Melville’s interrogation of whiteness in Moby Dick.
With all of this in mind, I hope this painting can function as a depiction of whiteness and an undoing of the archetype of the white male, conqueror/hero, the archetype of Odysseus, in the moment before it—like a white whale or a Klansman—slips beneath the water or a hood. In this respect the painting operates as both a masking and unmasking.
S.B. It’s like we’re viewing whiteness’ unconscious made manifest.
You reference these epic, larger-than-life characters and stories—Odysseus, Polyphemus, Moby Dick. The knowledge that you photographed yourself to create Transparent Eyeball takes it into another conceptual realm. You are using your own whiteness to unmask the monster that is white power, which could be seen as heroic.
The laborious process also seems almost religious or spiritual—a deliberate act of unraveling the ego and facing demons, a practice many tackle through meditation or prayer. Your way is so tangible. Do you consider this to be a process of self-evolution as much as it is an act of making art? Can you see a level of heroism in your efforts?
P.B. When I was about eight-years old, my mother taught me how to embroider and sew. I have loved the act of constructing forms or images stitch by stitch and think this has had a significant impact on my painting. There is certainly something prayer-like and meditative involved in making them, but I would characterize this as an activity driven by matter more than spirit. It is secular. By this I mean it is about being attentive to the material of paint, and everything happening right in front of me, rather than striving for any sort of spiritual transcendence.
This relates to your question about a level of heroism in the work. I am very suspicious of the value placed on the archetype of the hero. I am less interested in Odysseus than I am in his invented alter-ego Nemo (which translates to meaning Nobody). I hope this comes through in my painting process. It is very slow and methodical. I have been working to eliminate the gesture, historically a vehicle for conveying painterly heroics, in favor of developing a process that is sensitive to the particular. I focus on and devise methods to depict, say, the way light hits a stray thread hanging out of a seam on a pair of pants in order to recognize that this could mean something.
S.B. How did you arrive at the idea of the transparent garbage bag?
P.B. Many of the decisions I make in the studio begin as small things I notice. In the case of the trash bag, I noticed the bags used to keep dust off of mannequins, which served as models for previous paintings. I saw how beautifully the plastic distorted and camouflaged the colors and forms of the mannequins. I also realized I could simultaneously see what was on, under and reflected from the environment around the surface of the bag. These ideas were balanced by the commonplace, lowbrow nature of a trash bag, as well as things like the pun on the slur ‘white trash’ and the connection to the quote by Emerson.
This then opened into studio questions about what type of bag to use. Trash bags come in many sizes, colors, and thicknesses. There are types with drawstrings and types without. There are types with woven textures meant to expand for large loads and types extruded as flat sheets. After some shopping and experimentation, I chose to use Hefty’s 30-gallon, 0.8 mil, scent free, clear, large, drawstring trash bag. The thickness and clarity of this particular bag produced the optical effects I wanted and the blue of the drawstring felt like a waterline.
S.B. I’d like to touch briefly on one more recent work, which will be on view as part of the University of New England Art Gallery’s exhibition House of the Soul, curated by Hilary Irons and running through June 14th. Lost is a small painting of a statuette of St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of the lost.
What strikes me about Lost is the feeling that St. Anthony has turned away from the viewer. Can you speak a bit about how this work relates to Transparent Eyeball, and share the significance of St. Anthony’s position, facing away from us?
P.B. So much of Homer’s Odyssey deals with the idea of being lost. My use of the statuette of St. Anthony of Padua arose from a desire to connect Homeric, pre-Christian ideas to those within Christianity. I am not presenting any sort of advocacy for a particular belief system; but rather, want the work to function as a type of meditation on, and maybe a privileging of, being lost. The position of the statuette, with its back to the viewer and in opposition to the conventional frontality of portraiture, could be read as abandonment, or an introverted look inward, or a mirroring of the position of the viewer as their body faces the wall to see the painting, or even as a gesture of masking. I owe Hilary Irons credit for one of my favorite parts of this composition. During a studio visit she pointed out, with her inimitable ability to notice connections, that the triangular form of St. Anthony’s hood and vestments closely matched the triangular top of the trash bag in Transparent Eyeball.
Image at top: Philip Brou, Transparent Eyeball, oil on iinen, 46 x 29 in.