Craig Drennen, BANDIT (SMALL T), oil & alkyd on canvas, 32" x 28", 2019 and
BANDIT (LARGE T), oil & alkyd on canvas, 86" x 36", 2019 photo: Evie Saleh
Craig Drennen: In Dialogue
with Nitzanah Griffin
Craig Drennen came to Atlanta in 2009 to teach Drawing and Painting. He has served as the Graduate Director in the School of Art and Design at Georgia State University Working primarily in painting and drawing, Drennen’s multilayered studio practice combines using sculptural elements and ready-mades, image appropriation, installations and performance. Some of his recent solo exhibitions include Mit Zuckerstange (2019) at Flyweight Projects in Brooklyn, New York; Bandit (2019) as a Working Artist Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Georgia in Atlanta, Georgia; and The Painter and Servant (2013) at Ellen de Bruijne gallery in Amsterdam. He has shown in group exhibitions like The Hidden Hour (2019) at the Mindy Solomon Gallery, Miami, Florida; and Depiction, Again at Kunstverein Langenhagen in Germany. Most notably, in 2018 he became a Guggenheim Fellow.
Drennen has an inquisitive fascination with society’s creative failures. He revisits and reimagines unpopular source materials viewed as remnants of society. Drennen scavenges and unearths abandoned nostalgia that has long been forgotten. He taps into the collective reservoir of what he coins as our “Cultural Bandwidth.” After dedicating eight years to his Supergirl series (2002), which was a project based loosely off of the 1984 cinematic failure starring Helen Slater, Drennen has devoted over a full decade to exploring the characters in William Shakespeare’s most unpopular play, Timon of Athens, which was his only play not to be produced during his lifetime.
Rather than a reimagining of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae, Drennen’s Timon of Athens project begun in 2008 views each character as merely an entry point. He incisively crafts contemporary associations that allow him to resolve his own artistic issues and to visually explore conceptual ideas. In doing so, Drennen’s image making becomes a new aesthetic, one that looks to an historical moment, yet is distinctly his own. In our interview, Drennen discussed his current work in process, a part of the Timon of Athens project, titled Merchant Series (2020).
Craig Drennen, ORANGE BANDIT (HO HO) oil, alkyd on canvas 24” x 24” + three 16” tall bags 2019
Nitzanah Griffin: How important is following Shakespeare’s dramatis personae to your rendition of Timon of Athens, in how you translate your work? Why did you choose Merchant as your next character study?
Craig Drennen: I’ve been using this as part of my studio practice for almost eleven years now, and it still feels useful. In the beginning it felt like I was stealing from the royal palace. It gave me a proximity to the canon that I never felt in my real life. There was a great tweet recently by Nayland Blake where he said, “The canon is authority masquerading as consensus.” That’s such a perfect summation. Timon of Athens gives me a complicated, impure starting point for the work that I then have to think my way out of. The cast of characters seemed like a ladder that could help me climb out of whatever mental or artistic hole I was in. I’d been working three years on pieces dedicated to Bandit, but at the end of it I started to feel an itch toward Merchant. It’s always a totally intuitive move on my part.
Craig Drennen, (Your Mama Don't Dance), 2020 oil & alkyd on canvas over panel 60-inch diameter
Image courtesy of the artist
NG: What was your thought process when approaching this series? How do you decide on which medium to use?
CD: I rarely get asked that question. I never got a true painting education, so I never had the panoramic skill set that some artists get from school. Because of that, I’m always learning and satisfying my technical curiosity alongside everything else. For instance, the Masquers pieces showed me how paint survives with photography and found objects. The Mistresses showed how paint and jpegs relate. The Old Athenians dealt with photography and latex house paint. For Merchant, I wanted to reference newly obsolete recording technologies that people kept in their homes—vinyl records, cassette tapes, and VHS tapes. Part of the reason is that the practice of painting always feels half contemporary and half obsolete. It has one foot in the 17th-century and one foot in the current moment. Those are the kinds of things are that in my head when I’m revving up a new character.
Craig Drennen, (Your Mama Don't Dance), 2020, (detail of record) oil & alkyd on canvas over panel 60-inch diameter
Image courtesy of the artist
NG: I’m really intrigued by your work. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why you revisit the image of the record, which you render beautifully in trompe l’oeil, and why round geometry? Can you talk a little about this aesthetic decision?
CD: I really wanted to commit to circular artworks. Circles are the shape of records but are also really scopic---like looking through a telescope or microscope. Also, I’m told that babies are automatically attracted to circular shapes because it reminds them of nipples, so maybe it’s as simple as that.
Craig Drennen, (Your Mama Don't Dance), 2020, (detail of currency) oil & alkyd on canvas over panel 60-inch diameter
Image courtesy of the artist
NG: It seems like you used a bit more freedom when you created these works.In the near life-size painting (Your Mama Don’t Dance), 2020, a multi - colored, hodgepodge of geometric rounds, including a solitary record that is crafted in trompe l’oeil, commingle and are drawn towards a heavily painted field of white. The positioning of the record causes you to take a second look at the overall composition in order to see what else you could have missed. There is a twenty-dollar bill floating within the void that is also rendered “to fool the eye.” You demonstrate finesse in rendering paintings as effortless and playful. Stretching the shapes draws up an energy and aliveness. It’s intriguing, and a little arousing to look at! I am surprised that you used oil instead of acrylic. Also, certain areas appear spray-painted. Is this choice purely based on how oil behaves compared to other mediums?
CD: I’ve never gotten good at acrylic or spray paint, so I don’t use them much. The starting point for the newest paintings, including
(Your Mama Don’t Dance), was a clear plastic sphere that I covered in office supply stickers and gouache paint, or whatever is close at hand. I take photos of the sphere in front of different backgrounds, then manipulate the photos a bit digitally until I get a version I want to paint. The placement of the record and money comes later. Every step of the process is important though, and every inch of the final painting is important. The representational components, like the records, do behave a little differently. They feel like they are the places on the painting’s surface with the most nerve endings, where pleasure and sensitivity are connected.
Craig Drennen, (Blank Front), 2020, oil & alkyd on paper with cut-outs,40-inch diameter Image courtesy of the artist
NG: In the Merchant series, the records do not signify the same thing, or even convey the same ideas as in the previous character studies. My guess was that the records signify someone’s aspirations--their love, pain, and emotions--that can be transferred through music. Here, to me, the record is/was the “Collector” or even “Governor” of what you’ve coined as “Cultural Bandwidth.”
CD: I think you might be right. I chose records from a very specific memory, from the jukebox at the laundromat that I used to go to as a kid in central West Virginia. So there’s a lot of mid-‘70’s singles in the paintings, like Elton John, the Bee Gees, and the Jackson 5. But there’s also Pia Zadora and Irene Cara. The aspirations you’re noticing are probably mine. I had a health scare last year so suddenly song titles like "Staying Alive" became a lot more meaningful. (laughs)
Craig Drennen, (Blank Front), (detail) 2020, (detai oil & alkyd on paper with cut-outs, 40-inch diameter, Image courtesy of the artist
NG: Across your entire Timon of Athens oeuvre, the records tend to dangle in space, and in works such as (Blank Back), 2020 or (Blank Front), 2020 you punctured the records, which could suggest notions on presence and absence across time--that’s just me. Tell me what your thought process was in creating these two works.
CD: I had a fully painted record album in a piece called The Actors Names from 2011 and a 45 single in Timon of Athens 7 from 2010, so those might be the two you’re remembering. (Blank Back) and (Blank Front) were total experiments. I wanted to recreate some of the vinyl records I had around the studio that had accidental paint splatters on them. Those particular records were no longer functional as records but were indexical recordings of the paint action instead. I also liked that this record had its labels missing, so it somehow seemed emptier. Those pieces are painted on paper, so it was really easy to cut out circular dots, which I’ve used before as a recurring motif. The painted records themselves aren’t pierced though.
Craig Drennen, Studio View
NG: I came across the McGovern works from 2020 on Instagram. A pair of photo realistic paintings that resemble oversized campaign buttons are positioned above a series of abstract records that bear the implication of stars. It seems like there’s a tension here. Can you tell me more about this? How does our present political climate influence your work?
CD: You have a good eye. Yes, when I have a new idea for future work, I like to make tests to hang up to look at. I really do need time looking at physical objects in reality. Pixels aren’t enough. Those McGovern pieces might turn into a new character in the future. I’ve been buying political buttons on eBay from failed presidential campaigns. I like the 1972 campaign where McGovern ran against Nixon. Technically, it was the first presidential election I ever voted in because I was in the first grade that year and our teacher held a mock election for our class. I was very excited by this and cast my secret vote for McGovern. When the teacher counted up the votes at the end, Nixon won by a landslide just like he did in reality. I was devastated. In an art world full of Nixons, I still feel like a McGovern.
Craig Drennen, Double Painter 3, 2013, graphite, acrylic, oil, alkyd, spray paint on paper, 40 x 80 inches
NG: What are your thoughts on exploring characters through short film? Would that rely too much on a narrative?
CD: Film is a beautiful medium and I wish I had the skills and equipment to do it. I’ve always had friends who were outstanding in film and video—like Kevin Everson and Victoria Fu. I have taken baby steps into video recently. The first work for the Bandit character was actually a video piece, which is the first time that has ever happened. I made another 30-second video loop that I’m very proud of. It was based, in part, on a short Robert Longo video I saw on MTV in ’88 or ’89. So yes, I’m totally open to film and video and don’t think it has to be narrative at all. I still go back and look at those Jack Goldstein videos from the ‘70’s and they are so strong.
Atlanta, Georgia 2020
Craig Drennen is an artist based in Atlanta, GA. He has received national awards, including a 2015 Art Matters grant and a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship. His work has been reviewed by Art Forum, Art in America, and the New York Times. He has recently shown at Cloaca Projects in San Francisco, Flyweight Projects in Brooklyn, and the Kunstverein Langenhagen in Germany. He teaches at Georgia State University, served as dean of the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, and writes occasional art criticism. Since 2008 he has organized his studio practice around Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.
Nitzanah Griffin is an Atlanta-based independent curator and writer. She is a graduate of Georgia State University where she received her BA in Art with a concentration in Art History. Her research interests include contemporary art of the African Diaspora, and American art where transnationalism, identity politics, and visual culture and power converge. She has worked as a gallery assistant at Georgia State University’s Welch School galleries, as assistant to the curator of museum collections at Spelman College Museum, volunteered at the Atlanta-based, nonprofit art organization, Art Papers, and has served a multi-year appointment at the High Museum of Art as an Andrew Mellon Curatorial Fellow. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and son.