How do you situate your work in the context of the current moment?
The acuteness of the pandemic’s omnipresence is new, but we’ve been living in a strange and difficult place for some time. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and both the rise of American proto-fascism and the racial justice revolution that is happening have long been bubbling under the surface of “normal life.” I have always been politically engaged. While that element is rarely explicitly depicted in my work, it’s impossible for me to ignore or forget, so it’s always present, and hopefully in complex and emotionally resonant ways. Over the last several years I have been depicting my ever-broadening circle of LGBTQ+ artists, friends, and our allies as a way to explore this time, but they also speak to the larger story of the human experience. That phrase is perhaps overused, but without it, what else do we have? Making work is a way of saying we were here. My interests and inspirations are diverse and anomalous, and I want that to be reflected in my work, which is why I also incorporate references to pop culture and art history. I’m not interested in being an artist whose work is easily defined as political, or gay, or male, or Kentuckian, or even American. It is all those things, but it is also something else, something unknowable, slightly out of reach. It’s the gap between what is understood and what we keep yearning to grasp that makes anything engrossing.
What projects are you currently working on and how is social distancing affecting your art practice?
Initially, the quarantine and shut down hit me hard emotionally. Living in Kentucky, there can be a general sense of isolation from the larger art world, and I’ve recently made efforts to expand my connectedness. In early March, just as COVID-19 was exploding, I exhibited and curated at Spring Break NYC and met so many incredible people. It was difficult to switch from that excitement to the solitude of the early weeks. I deal with serious depression even in the best of times, so the last few months have been especially challenging. Thankfully, I found some solace in the sanctuary of the studio, continuing the work I have been making.
About a month ago I hit another wall and felt overwhelmed by grief and dread, but a chance listening to a Terry Gross interview with Patrick Stewart inspired me to revisit Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. Surprisingly, it was just what I needed: familiar, hopeful, expansive. This is a dark time in America. Things are not good. We suffer from worsening fear of the other, division, polarization, and we have an absolute dearth of national leadership. It feels as if our nation could easily dissolve in a matter of days. At its heart, the universe of Star Trek is utopian, egalitarian, wondrous. It has been such a balm to be able to escape into a reality where everyone (well, most everyone) works together regardless of their vast differences, and where intelligence, decency, and the brilliance of existence is celebrated above all things. I’ve begun incorporating characters from the show into my paintings, alongside my other figures. The resulting works are a little bizarre, but I’m viewing them as sentinels, as symbols of what we could be, what we should be, and representative of the kind of culture we have the potential to create. If we were kinder.
What advice and tips can you give to other artists during this time?
The best advice I’ve been given was from my friend and mentor Norbert Bisky who told me “you just have to make the work.” It seems so simple, so obvious, but it’s easy to forget. Despite the obstacles of resources, access, motivation, and inspiration, you have to find a way to keep at it if you can. But we must remember that as artists, nearly everything we do—not just time in the studio—should be considered working. Looking, listening, feeling, thinking, being: these are all necessary. Attune yourself to your inner voice and allow yourself to engage as you need to. Sometimes I feel compelled to be in the studio, but other times I need to be gardening, or reading, or out in nature. I’m thankful I have a poetry practice as well as my gallery, so I have a balance of options.
Maintaining a sense of connectedness and community is also so important right now. We each have our own individual struggles, but in so many ways we are all experiencing the pandemic together, so this fear and uncertainty is communal. Don’t be afraid to rely on others for support and to give it when you can.
How are you cultivating community for yourself and what can the community be doing to support artists?
I’ve maintained relationships with many of my artist friends via Instagram and have visited a few as social circles have widened. By far the biggest connector for me is my gallery Quappi Projects, which I founded in 2017 in unused space in my Portland studio. The gallery moved to Nulu just over a year ago, and with this excellent new space seen our impact and audience have expanded greatly. Three shows have opened and closed since late February and each managed to reach some viewers and collectors, despite the current situation. But running a gallery—especially one concerned more with showing substantive work than with commercial considerations—is extremely difficult in the best of times, let alone amidst a pandemic. The gallery’s next show, “We All Declare For Liberty: 2020 and the Future of American Citizenship,” opens October 8. Planning for this group show began over a year ago, and I’m thrilled with the selection of artists and works. It’s the most important exhibition I have curated, not just because of the stark choices in the upcoming election but also because the eyes of the world are on our city as we navigate through the aftermath of the horrors and sorrows of the death of Breonna Taylor.
To the community: don’t forget us! You need us! Art, in its various forms, has sustained so many through these tremendously weird and stressful past few months. There are artists in your own city making and exhibiting outstanding work, and engaging with visual art is generally free or very low cost. But we do need the financial support of collectors, so please consider us. When all of this passes, as it eventually will, we will be a changed people. We undoubtedly already are. Whether or not we will be a better people remains to be seen, and that depends on each of us doing the work that needs to be done. Artists will continue to tell our story, and that story is yours, too.
About the artist:
A native of central Kentucky, John Brooks (b. 1978) studied Political Science and English literature at the College of Charleston, South Carolina. His work has been exhibited in the United States and Europe and is held in the collection of 21C MuseumHotels and numerous private collections. Brooks’ poetry has been published in Assaracus and Plainsongs. Over the last two decades, he spent several years in London, England and Chicago and has been based in Louisville, Kentucky, since late 2013. In 2015 Brooks studied at AUTOCENTER in Berlin, and in 2017 he launched Quappi Projects, a Louisville-based contemporary art gallery focusing on exhibiting work reflecting the zeitgeist.
“We All Declare for Liberty: 2020 and the Future of American Citizenship” will be on view at Quappi Projects Oct 9-Nov 21, 2020. A socially distanced opening is scheduled for Oct 9, from 12-8pm at 827 East Market Street. Check out what is happening at Quappi Projects: https://www.quappiprojects.com and on their Instagram page @quappiprojects
You can see more of his work on his website: https://www.johnedwardbrooks.com/new-work and follow him on Instagram: @narcissusandgoldmund