‘Talking Art’ with Painter Zach Brown

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If you have visited Lawrenceville’s Spirit in the past couple of months, you may have noticed this giant, sprawling painting hanging behind one of the booths on the entry-level. At 18 feet long, the painting’s mysterious presence is indomitable—as is Zach Brown’s, the artist behind the work. At just 27, Brown has successfully established himself as an artist and social figure in the Pittsburgh area, sustaining himself with a steady stream of commission work, individual sales, and a lot of frozen chicken pot pies, gin, and cigarettes.

I met with Brown in his current studio in Mars to ‘talk art’ and find out a little more about his personal history and his process.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Brown: There are two ways I could answer this…  Modestly, I would say it was either a choice between art or crime, and I’m just trying to a make a life by painting. With a little more hubris I would say I want to make very important work that is recognized in its own time. Really I’ve always made work and it seems too late for a career in anything but painting. Not sure if happiness is the goal, its more like a sick thrill and I have to do it.

Brown, a kind, engaging, boisterous fellow, identifies himself ironically as the self-described “pretentious artist.” Brown comes from a family of incredibly successful individuals. His mother, a pharmacist, and his father, an architect, encouraged all three of their children to pursue art from a young age. Brown attended the Rhode Island School of Design and the New York Academy of Art where he worked hard to develop his unique style. He has taught at St. Vincent College and has participated in artist residency programs across the country. For now, he is back in Pittsburgh, working to create a permanent studio in the city. Brown often spends his evenings attending events at local hot spots. You may have seen him—he’s pretty hard to miss. His personal appearance is just as alluring and mysterious as his work, and he’s friendly as hell, once you approach him.

What are your stylistic influences?

Brown: Growing up in Catholic churches in a more or less rural area was a huge influence, that and a Peter Pan complex stemming from fear of mortality. Other influences… William Blake, Bellini, Rothko, dead Italians, golden age illustrators, religion, really bad melodramatic stuff, and craftsmen architecture. I also hang out with a lot of designers.

Explain your primary choice of media/materials.

Brown: All sorts of goos and glops: egg tempera, encaustic, shellac, egg-oil emulsion, oils and shiny-shiny metal leaf.

What is your method of execution?

Brown: Idea, drawing, monochrome under painting, metal leaf…glazes and glazes and glazes.

How long does it take you to complete a piece?

Brown: If things go smoothly about a month.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Brown:  I always joke and say death but that is only half a joke. I guess I’m really into the stories we tell about ourselves. I like the idea of religion as a genre. I’m less concerned about being made in god’s likeness and more concerned about the god we made in our likeness. A lot influence from religion and mythology and the other half is all formal—flat vs. illusion… object vs. image… and playing some kind of design between the two.

What are the primary themes in your work?

Brown: Bodies… Stillness is a big theme. There isn’t a lot of movement in my paintings. I’m really into the idea of thinking of my paintings as totems or zero-relief sculptures. That’s a big reason I work life-size or larger. I don’t really want them to be scenes but things all their own. Russian icons are really good at being objects with representational elements.

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Although Brown has stated that his artistic influences are that of Blake, Bellini, and Rothko, there are also stylistic elements comparative to the works of Klimt, Bacon, Gauguin, Munch, Picasso, and others. His use of metallic color fields in contrast to the ethereal, fleshy bodies in his works suggests something eerie and eternal, internal and repressive, and even claustrophobic within his work. Brown explains that most of his inspiration comes from religion and an innate “fear of death.” Brown uses the process of transposing bodies as icons as a way of transcending the lateral nature of consciousness and transmuting physical reality. Fascinated with religious art at a young age, Brown explores the “worshiping” of familiar bodies in his work by including portraits of his closest friends as a way of both memorializing and immortalizing their bodies and relationships on canvas. His method of applying layers upon layers of paint and lacquers creates extraordinary depth and detail within the two-dimensional field of his pieces. Also, the pieces are on a “larger than life” scale, emphasizing this idea of worshiping the subject, or the identity of the individual as a God, epic hero, or symbolic figure or force.

How can patrons/collectors contact you to find out pricing/sales information/price of commission?

Brown: My website has all of my contact information listed [zachbrownart.com]. I’m also at the bar Mardi Gras a lot.

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Any gallery shows coming up?

Brown: Doing a fun spooky Halloween show at the Mine Factory in October.

We’ve heard you’ve recently purchased some property that you are planning to convert into a studio/residency space for local artists. Tell us about the “School House.”

I’m excited. Got a couple of artists lined up to move in with me. It’s going to be live/work spaces for artists. I’m also playing with the idea of starting of a monthly meeting in the basement for a secret society of creatives in Pittsburgh. Not sure how good I’ll be at getting that together considering I’m talking about wanting to start a secret society…

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Make sure to stop by and see Brown’s exhibition at The Mine Factory this October, and stay tuned to learn more about the development of a “secret society” of artists in Pittsburgh…