by Lauren Moya Ford
Lauren Moya Ford: What have you been up to during quarantine?
Bradley Kerl: Right as we were going into shelter in place lockdown mode, I was wrapping up the last painting or two for a show that was going to open at Art League here in Houston at the end of May. Of course that was cancelled and postponed, and it’s still a big question whether the show will ever happen. But I was already segueing into a mode that I normally go into after making work for a show, which is kind of clearing the air, detoxing, just doing works on paper, small drawings, little things, and not thinking too much about what I'm producing. So, I started this watercolor wall, and thankfully I had that to guide me as I transitioned from production for a big show to thinking about what’s next. Since then, all that stuff is turning into new bodies of work, new ideas. With the buffer of time, it’s nice to look at this wall and connect threads and pieces together with existing work and other ideas about future paintings. It’s been a real engine of activity these past few months.
LMF: So you really haven’t slowed down much at all.
BK: A little bit in the beginning. In March when things shut down here in Texas, I was in hunker down mode for a month or so. And then, my wife and kids and I went to my in-laws' house outside of town basically for the spring. So I finished teaching remotely from Sour Lake, Texas, and would get away a day or two a week if I was lucky and drive to the studio. It was about an hour from door to door, so it was fairly convenient in the grand scheme of things. It was good for my mental health to get away from the kids and the little bubble we had and take a break. I wasn’t making a ton of work, but I had this watercolor wall. So I knew I could come here and knock out three or four things really easily and quickly in one sitting, and that was super helpful mentally for me during that time. And now, that work has got a second life in that I can draw upon it and use those as the impetus for new things.
LMF: Is that typically how you work? You make smaller watercolors and pencil sketches and you take those to large scale, oil paintings?
BK: Yeah, it’s the easiest way I’ve come up with to process images or thoughts or memories into something quick and easy. There’s also not a lot of pressure when you’re doing that. Especially going from a giant oil painting that takes a month or two or however long to make; there’s a lot of pressure for me personally with that. So it’s nice to allow for a little play beforehand and then step back and be able to look at things. Even if it’s taking bits and pieces from a few things and combining them together, I have options and I can kind of see it on the wall.
LMF: It seems like the source material for your works comes from phone photos, collages, or even from classroom setups when you were teaching in the classroom. I want to know more about how play happens in this initial phase.
BK: It’s kind of anything goes, to a certain extent. Lately, there’s personal photographs from my travels and life. There’s also the work from classrooms where I’ve spent all this time setting up a still life, so I might as well use that or think about using that in the future, and some Instagram screenshots from people I follow of things that kind of look like a painting I would make or a painting I’ve made, or references to art history, like paintings that exist or come to mind when I see an image. I think I look for the potential for a painting. I just kind of have an eye for it. It’s being efficient, in a way. That’s how I think about it, at least: at any given point, I can be travelling around and find something that works. I like that surprise rather than really trying to force an issue or do the same thing over and over again. It’s nice, I’ve found, to be kind of open and receptive to the things that I’m drawn to.
LMF: Tell me about the process of moving your images from that initial scale, material, and media to the larger oil paintings. What changes and discoveries take place?
BK: It’s interesting because at the moment, I’m making these really small oil paintings that are kind of the equivalent size of the watercolors. And in my mind, I have an idea or an image, or a general sense about how that will look as a finished painting. It’s the impact that I want from it as a finished piece. I just know intuitively whether something is a big painting or a small painting. That’s part of it. And sometimes there will be a move from a collage to a series of watercolors to bigger paintings. That’s not always typical, but it’s a nice way to play with that, just poking around a little bit. The danger when I’ve done that in the past too rigidly, though, is that it does get a little bit like recreating something. And that’s not what I want. That’s where it’s just boring, I think. Now I’ve figured out ways to not get caught up in that trap when I move from, say, photograph to small watercolor to oil painting. But it’s always a challenge. It’s funny how that happens. Even now, I have to remind myself that I’m not trying to recreate this thing.
LMF: It seems to me that the way you do that is through the paint play that starts to happen in the oils: the textures, the different surfaces and effects you’re getting. Some feel hazy, some feel clunky, which adds interest.
BK: A lot of times, the driving factor in an image or a painting is creating a problem that I have to solve. That’s a huge driving force, whether it’s color, texture, or really nerdy painting things. It’s nice to set up a problem, or paint something that I don’t know how to paint, or like you said, paint something hazy next to something clunky, or try different combinations of things.
LMF: One of the themes that I notice in your work is the presence of greenery, especially greenery that’s not fully wild like bouquets, potted plants, and plant nurseries.
BK: You said it: they’re not exactly wild. It’s a funny urge that we have to have just enough nature, just enough untamed aspect of something, but not fully wild. It’s the artificiality of it. Even thinking about native versus non native plant species, like: that tree makes no sense in this scenario. It could be something very subtle like that. I equate it to painting in a way, where it’s completely false; it’s a facade. On one hand, it could be fully surface, or you could read further into it. But I’ve always loved that notion. Like having a fish tank inside: it’s just kind of a weird thing to do. But it’s also kind of soothing, and it’s nice to have a bit of nature that you can control.
LMF: Another theme that comes up a lot in your work and also represents that barrier between the outside and the inside is the window. With COVID-19, we’ve spent a lot of time looking out, and ‘out’ has a new meaning for a lot of us that involves something heavier or riskier than before. Has that motif changed at all for you in these past few months?
BK: Yes, absolutely. The last painting I made before we went into lockdown is literally of me looking out the window. And for the show that was meant to be at Art League, all those paintings were meant to be dark windows. So I was sort of glad that that show was cancelled because it would have been a completely different vibe from what I was going for. Now they feel more somber than I had ever thought of them. Now it’s more about longing than thinking about the window as a framing device, or the idea of painting within a painting, back to that artificiality of a painting surface. It’s definitely more fraught now. I haven’t made many more window pieces because of that. It’s just more complicated.
LMF: Framing devices are another thing I notice when I look at your work. In some works, you’re presenting us with a view, but you’re also obscuring the view with branches or trees. In other cases, you’ve got designs on the edges of the canvas that direct the gaze of the viewer.
BK: WIth any of those, the window paintings or the sunset paintings, it’s so indulgent and romantic to paint in general. But especially with something as sappy as a sunset, I like to have something negating it in a way, or covering it up, or trying to hide it. It’s my way of not getting too romantic or too indulgent. Remind yourself that this is a flat painting.
LMF: It reminds me of the impulse behind some of the smaller single flower paintings where you’re telescoping in, but the closer we get, the more abstract the form becomes. We don’t simply see a pretty flower; it becomes more about the shapes and the textures.
BK: Yeah. The flower lures you in, and then when you get close enough, it’s just gross paint. It’s again reminding you that it’s not just a flower. It’s a thing. It’s an interplay and a push-pull.
LMF: You say it’s just gross paint, but I think paint always looks delicious, especially in your paintings!
BK: Yes, but it does and it doesn’t. I guess there are just some dumb movements that happen, just clunky. But thank you for saying that!
LMF: Like consciously clunky choices and moves in your canvases?
BK: Yeah, when there’s an area of flat color like that, it’s nice – for me at least – to have the surprise of something kind of gross in there like a paint booger. It’s just a nice little ugly bit that can be a deterrent or seducing factor depending upon what you’re after.
LMF: I’m interested in the idea of anything ugly being in your realm, because you depict flowers, family members, and beautiful scenes that are very alluring and pleasing. So I’d like to hear more about your relationship to ugliness or clunkiness.
BK: I think it goes back to that idea about sentimentality. I always worry about the work being too sappy or too beautiful or too indulgent. So that’s my hat tip to people who are painters or people who look at paintings a lot or people who know what they’re looking at: they can see that it’s not just about the image. That’s literally just my way of grabbing someone’s attention. And then if you’re able to spend more time with the painting, it reveals itself a bit more in the application, or you get an art history connection, or whatever it is. Hopefully there’s a few layers to it.
LMF: Did you experience any other quarantine quandaries?
BK: Just that existential crisis that everyone else went through, like, what does it even mean to be a painter or an artist right now? And, will it ever make sense to paint again? But I’m slowly finding my way back to it.
LMF: What got you back into it? Because I totally had that with writing also.
BK: I think that part of it is just the absolute urge and necessity that I have personally. I realize that now. Because at first, you go through a turmoil, questioning everything. I was completely miserable, and I had to just do it. So, part of it was forcing it, but it wasn’t so forced. The watercolor wall was like therapy. It allowed me the freedom to screw around and not put pressure on myself or make a big deal out of it. I was working on mixing color and different approaches and veins of work in the scheme of things. It just slowly built from there.
LMF: So you had a need and a desire that was there, and even if you questioned the validity of painting at a moment of crisis, you just felt like you had to do it? And once you did, you felt relief?
BK: Yeah, and there were a few opportunities along the way to sell paintings to support certain charities. And I realized that as simple and straightforward as that is, there’s a way you can use your audience or use your skills to benefit others. It doesn’t have to just be about you. You can pay it forward. If it’s a simple as a money exchange, you can always just do that. Donate or whatever it is. Still now it feels so frivolous, but I don’t know. I have to do it.
LMF: I think it's easy to get lost in despair and fear in this moment. So doing something that’s very core to who you are, and that makes other people happy, is also generous and important to stay grounded.
BK: Yeah, and the kids help, too. There are definitely bigger things than what’s going on in my little buble, in my little life. So it’s good to keep going. And I have collaborations with the kids now, so it’s fun.
LMF: Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. You’re drawing from their drawings?
BK: Exactly. But they’re combined into a bigger picture, so it’s like on a refrigerator or a doorway. In one way it’s very straightforward, almost like trompe l’oeil, but it’s combining their images onto this other thing. It’s honestly really weird to think about, but I love them so much. That’s another really exciting development that could be a whole show or body of work. It’s really the same as anything else I do, but packaged differently.
LMF: I hope you will do a show of that, because it brings up interesting ideas about authorship, fatherhood, painting, male identity, and family. There are so many threads there.
BK: Exactly. It seems all-encompassing in a weird way. It’s kind of a dumb idea to be honest, but it just came to me, and I’m super excited about it.
LMF: I imagine it came to you while you were looking at one of these pictures. Is that right?
BK: Yeah. I’m always wanting that, seeing a kid’s drawing or a bad sign painting, anything like that: a painting that’s not meant to be a fine art painting. I love that impulse. It’s utilitarian, like “We sell meat,” or whatever it is. But it’s this beautiful little moment. I’ve always wanted to find a way to bring that in in a more straightforward way. This is the first time that’s happening, so it’s really exciting.
LMF: It’s also personal, but in a different way than your previous work.
BK: Yeah, and it’s the kids. It’s them, but it’s not a straight up sentimental portrait of them. I love that work around. It’s not straightforward, but it touches on the things that I want it to. It’s not beating you over the head with it, necessarily. It’s more subtle, hopefully.
LMF: Well I”m excited to keep following your developments. Thank you for this conversation.
BK: Good to see you and good to chat with you always!
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.