Introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your practice?
I'm John Brennan and I'm a figurative painter. I've been practising as an artist for the past five years or so. I originally trained as an illustrator and spent the nineties working for lots of national broadsheets, publishers, design and advertising agencies.
I started exhibiting in 2013 and since then my work's been selected for many open shows and some national and international art prizes, including ArtGemini Prize, for which I was lucky enough to win 1st prize just recently.
My practice centres around my fascination with emotional and contextual contradiction and takes in a wide range of subject matter. It could be a landscape that feels both uplifting and menacing at the same time, a micro facial expression that reveals an underlying darkness, or a posture that implies invitation and rejection. It's this tension and the sense of subtle paranoia that I find compelling.
'Contemporary figurative' is actually a more accurate description of my work, but that in itself is a wide categorisation. Visually it's within the bounds of realism, though that's just how I happen to paint, rather than realism being the point of my painting.
I cover a wide range of subject matter, much of it inspired by my love of offbeat, kitsch and occasionally seedy British adventure sci-fi television and horror cinema, which I grew up with in the seventies. There's also my interest in military history and the world of unexplained phenomena. In my own mind these subjects are all connected and live in a sort of interior world.
What are you currently working on?
I tend to have several paintings on the go at any one time. I've just managed to complete a painting that I've attempted previous versions of, around five or six over the past couple of years. It was extremely challenging both technically and in terms of its mood, but I think I've finally cracked it!
I've also chanced upon the beginnings of two possible series recently, even though I don't usually concern myself with painting in series. Right now I'm working on a set of quietly unnerving interiors, with a potential group show in mind.
How do you spend your time when you are at the studios?
Having a rented studio really feels like working inside a pressure cooker for me, it's so different to when I had a home studio which is much more relaxed. I enjoy being sociable with the other artists and I might bump into one or two for a chat when I first arrive, or pause for a tea break, but once I'm in my space I'm extremely private. I start work the minute I'm in there.
'Work' might mean thinking about the painting that's currently in progress, looking at source material, editing images in Photoshop, or lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. More often than not it means getting on with the business of actually painting. Music is crucial for me, as I think it is for many artists. I'll often have something specific that I listen to for each piece I'm working on, sometimes on a loop. It helps me step into the painting for maximum intensity.
Arriving at the studio after a break is hard. Working as an illustrator through most of my twenties, I was often producing around two or three paintings a week. Even though that experience means I'm creatively well practised and disciplined, trying to pick up my train of thought from my last painting session often takes me an hour or two.
I keep my practice reinforced and energised when I'm outside the studio by watching a lot of youtube videos on all my favourite subjects, it keeps the 'world' in my paintings alive in my head at a reasonable level of intensity.
What music are you currently listening to?
Well, for that challenging painting that I mentioned earlier, I've been listening to a playlist of music mostly from the Ghost Box label by the likes of King of Woolworths/Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly. I needed a kitsch yet sinister atmosphere. Most of the stuff on Ghost Box feels like a soundtrack to my work, it's littered with samples from the same television and film that influences my choice of subject matter.
For the interiors that I'm working on now, it has to be Ligeti's 'Atmospheres' and 'Apparitions', Mica Levi's 'Under the Skin' soundtrack, or anything by Pan Sonic. The combined effect makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, especially if I'm working late at the studio.
What are your other (work) commitments if any?
I'm also a freelance digital designer and father with a young daughter. So between painting, designing and childcare my schedule is full. I tend to work in an on-off pattern, so that I get blocks of time devoted to one activity at a time. I'm lucky to have a wonderfully supportive wife who's freelance too, we both take each other's creative lives very seriously which helps with scheduling.
How does having a studio at Magdalen road support your work?
A solid workspace is essential for any professional artist and having a friendly community is a bonus. I'd say the key support is that the rents are subsidised, which helps with affordability.
The space I have now at Magdalen is great, it feels right, has lots of wall space and has good light. It's more expensive than the smaller space I had previously at the rear of the studios and I do have to consider how much I'm here versus time away, but I feel it's worth it.
What are you hoping to achieve over the next year?
I'd like to do some of the group shows that have until now just been either loose conversations or half baked plans. Everyone is so busy balancing work-life commitments, it takes a lot of perseverance.
Aside from that a solo show is really the big one for me, it feels well overdue now. I'm currently writing a proposal and deliberating between showing a snapshot mix of work, or else a single series. In a sense my whole body of work is a series despite the seemingly disparate subjects, as I mentioned earlier. The ArtGemini Prize winner 'Experiments in Movement: Part 1' feels like the start of something that might become a solo show.