Becky Brown: Excess Baggage


Becky Brown
Safe Keeping (shelf), 2017
Mixed media installation
Image courtesy the artist

CH: When I went back to my blog archive, I saw that it’s been five years since the last time I visited your studio.  Do you remember the piece you made in 2012 called “Luggage”?   At the end of that post, I said something along the lines of holding onto everything that one’s ever had, keeping them together and feeling like everything is necessary.  It ends up looking like a mess or worse, a bundle of garbage to other people. 

BB: I definitely remember “Luggage” and am pleased you bring it up – because it was among the first individual works in a series that is ongoing, including several larger, site-specific installations.  I’ve always been a collagist – collecting material, taking it apart and reassembling it in different ways, but “Luggage” was the first time that I “stuffed” one object with other objects, and painted the whole ensemble a solid color.  In all my previous work, and in much other work since, I use different systems – formal or conceptual – to determine my composition.  But in “Luggage” and the rest of the series – now loosely grouped under the title "Safe Keeping" – a sincere commitment to “stuff” to or beyond capacity supersedes any compositional motive.  I knew I was done with “Luggage” when I truly couldn’t fit anything else into it – and I have maintained this commitment with all future variations, whether I am stuffing an oven, a smashed-in TV monitor or a replica of my childhood kitchen.  “Safe Keeping (shelf)”, in the current show, is built around an ordinary bookshelf, stuffed and spilling contents on all sides.




Becky Brown
A New Kind of Conversation, 2017
Pencil and ink on paper
Image courtesy the artist

CH: I remember the “Oven” piece.  You took that “baggage” onto a whole different level.  In terms of composition, it looked weighty and overwhelming, but I like how you highlight the composition as one of the keys to how to take in the work. So, what have you been doing in the years that we haven’t seen each other?  Have you managed to shed off the excess baggage?

BB: I think one of the reasons this series continues to feel relevant for me, and increasingly so, is the very fact that “excess baggage” is changing shape – we have less and less physical baggage, and more and more digital.  Entire libraries of books and music can now be carried in our pockets, making many physical objects obsolete (or at least drastically downsized, materially-speaking – a boombox that is now a phone or jump-drive, for example).  



Installation view
King of the Cockroaches at Hercules Art Studio Program
Image courtesy the artist

CH: You raise a lot of pertinent questions in terms of how the “digital phenomena” has changed the way we live.  Often, I find people getting on with whatever is new while forgetting to assess (or not wanting to consider) whether it is truly something that has changed our lives for the better. 

BB: Absolutely – I think my reservations about what constitutes “progress” is a huge driver in the work.  It makes me especially interested in collecting physical objects today, in 2017, just as their functions are being replaced and they are increasingly discarded.  Do they still matter if they are less necessary?  Will our homes one day consist of small pods where we float amidst our digital belongings?  Even if we manage to hold onto things, do they eventually harden, fuse together, freeze in time, like petrified fossils? 

CH: Over the past few years, you have participated in a good number of artist-residency programs and had done many shows in New York and outside of New York.  Do you collect things along the way, ideas and physical objects?  Do you translate these into your next work, and in a way, everything becomes a collection reflecting the journey?

BB: I am always collecting, and yes, I think every work I make – 2D or 3D – becomes a kind of inventory, though organized according to one of my own very idiosyncratic systems.  Whenever I go to a new place – and I’ve occupied four different studios in four different locations in the last 15 months – I bring a load of stuff with me and then begin accumulating more stuff particular to the environment.  The resulting works are usually combinations of stuff collected in different times and places – including photographs, magazine clippings, text fragments and (especially recently) lots of maps.  I completed a large composite map piece this year that drew on source-maps as diverse as central New Jersey circa 1980, Zion National Park in Utah, ancient Pompeii, and a parking map of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  Since 3D work is harder to transport, I almost never bring physical objects to a new studio.  Any 3D works made at a residency, including one in the California desert, are composed of objects found there.  “Safe Keeping” works are always a combination of material discarded in my own home (whatever electronics, books, shoes, busted chargers my partner and I are getting rid of that week); on the streets of NY – a reliable treasure trove of discards; stuff from friends and family and – when I get really desperate – material from the “free” section of Craigslist, which curator Katherine Gressel reminded me of last year when I was making an installation for her show at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn.  I think the combination of personal and anonymous stuff is important, particularly as it is assembled and these distinctions dissolve – literally and figuratively.



Becky Brown
To Do List, 2015
Pencil and ink on paper
Image courtesy the artist

CH: I would be interested to see the composite map piece.  It sounds like you have branched out into collecting and reassembling “places.”  In this instance, you bring the information printed on paper from the past into the present.  The reason I asked about “collecting things” is because I know you have been working with this idea of using found objects, words and phrases, re-organizing them in ways that reveal a kind of social collective behavior that is absurd and amusing – although the initial behaviors exist without humor, rather it has been honored and practiced by the others with utter sincerity.  Do you think my understanding and interpretation of your process and work hit close to home?

BB: Yes, I definitely feel that collecting elements of a culture – whether images, objects or texts – will help us sort through and understand that culture, like collecting stones on a beach becomes a memory or symbol of that beach.  Though unlike this analogy, I am never away from the “source” of my collections, since the source is all-encompassing: my whereabouts in this era – usually (though not always) in America, often (though not always) in New York.  Outside of the art context, people collect things for different reasons, and my work taps into that because my personal instincts and my art instincts are related – I’ve kept all my CDs, in their boxes, for years recently while more and more friends digitize and eventually get rid of them.  After I travel, I assemble a folder of maps, brochures, postcards and other ephemera collected along the way.  I have an attachment to physical objects, material traces – and increasingly so as we use fewer and fewer of them.  I don’t like throwing out my old newspapers (the paper version, to which I still subscribe), but I know keeping stacks of them approaches hoarding, so my partner keeps me in check. 



Installation view
King of the Cockroaches at Hercules Art Studio Program
Image courtesy Becky Brown
Please click here for part 2 of this interview.

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