Artist Talks: Ally Fouts & Daniel Bruttig

New Wings | Install Photo | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

Esthetic Lens presents another installment of Artist Talks. Artist Ally Fouts visits New Wings, an exhibition featuring the work of Daniel Bruttig at 65GRAND in Chicago.

As I walk to 65GRAND to view the work of Daniel Bruttig, I take notice of the characters on the street that I make eye contact with along the way. Most of the muddled details of their faces leave my memory the minute they pass, while a few strong features persist clear as day. When I step into the gallery, I am greeted by thirteen portraits, playful and sinister, humorous and stoic, lively and dismal…a varying chorus of faces looking back at me. A moment later, I realize I had misjudged them; they weren’t looking at me, but looking with me. I gaze at the work in the exhibition; twisty PVC, popping steel wool panels, a looming sculpture, and vibrant thermal adhesive fills the room. Later in the day, I talk with Bruttig about this diverse range of work present in the gallery.


New Wings | Install Photo | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

Ally Fouts: Within this exhibition, there are five different materials and mediums present. I see twisted PVC panels, thermoplastic adhesive, cuckoo clocks, steel wool, drawings, and mixed media sculpture. Are they all created with the same approach?  

Daniel Bruttig:I’ve always been a multimedia artist. I was more exclusively a painter in undergraduate studies. As I went on making paintings, I got bored with the materials I was using. I wanted to explore more by experimenting with different types of material to blow open my pre-conceived notions about what I could make. I thought of these materials as stand-ins for the paint. Through this, I’ve developed multiple bodies of ongoing work like the steel wool pom poms, which started out as thermal adhesive pom poms. There’s a transformation with material while I’m exploring in the moment. I’ve always been interested in striped paintings. I began making striped paintings; I started with regular spray paint and graduated to PVC lanyards and different cording.”


Pom Pom Puff Jr. Power | 11″ x 9″ | oil-free steel wool, oil enamels, and thermoplastic adhesive on panel | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

“The more I make, develop, and transform certain bodies of my work, the more they ride the line of object, material, and painting. The thermal adhesive work has been a fun and interesting way to work the last few years within the painting, but also with the clocks…It’s an ongoing process. I tend to work in multiple arenas. I like to think of them as being opposite while also being a family. There are various bodies of work that could be really radically different from one another. But I think if you look and study them closely, you can see parallels in process and materiality.


New Wings | Install Photo | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: Each piece has a strong painterly quality; the colors in the PVC panels are intensely vibrant. From far away, they appear as an almost digital presence because of your chosen colors. Once I step closer, the concept you mention of confusing painting and object becomes very apparent. As I look around, I begin to see portraits in each piece emerge. Perhaps this is due to the group of figurative drawings present, or our biological desire to find faces in abstractions. Is there a level of intentionality behind these figures that emerge?

DB:I think you’re spot on, the drawings are strictly drawings, they’re figurative, they’re obvious, but they’re also kind of a monster. With paintings, like The Yearling, which is the largest steel wool pom, there is actually something in there. It’s a yearling fawn. As you observed, you are kind of seeing it, and kind of not, but there’s something there beyond just an abstract field of dots. I’m definitely interested in pulling that out in the work. With the other thermal adhesive painting, Monster Mask Melt, I was thinking of that exclusively as it has a latex monster mask that’s been melted down and smashed onto a panel. That was the impetus of that specific piece. There’s been an interest in toying with that illusionistic concept even with the stripy lanyard painting that has this optical resonance to it. I think the drawings are a foundation for everything else in terms of trying to incorporate the figure, the face, or a recognizable image, and trying to bring that out in an abstraction.”


The Yearling | 21″ x 17″ | oil-free steel wool, oil enamels and thermoplastic adhesive on panel | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: Looking at the utilization of the cuckoo clocks, I am wondering where your interest in these specific objects stems from?

DB:They’re disassembled and reassembled cuckoo clocks. I think of them as assemblage paintings, or objects, or just paintings, I can’t really pinpoint one thing. My grandmother collected Black Forest cuckoo clocks and, she worked on them, and I grew up around them. I still have a few that are functional that I love. Knowing the components of a cuckoo clock, there’s a facade, there’s a case, and it is like a birdhouse. But…it’s also this whimsical, magical object. Some of them have the cuckoo bird that will chirp to tell you the time and some will play a song. Growing up around them was really influential in certain ways. I got to a certain point maybe 10 years ago or so where I started actually collecting them, removing the movements, and treated them like a surface to work on.”

AF: There are apparent juxtapositions in your work. One that jumps out is the way you play with the beautiful versus the grotesque. Where does this desire to interrogate the line between these opposites come from? 

DB:It’s evolved on its own. I’d like to think that there’s some humor in my work, probably teetering more on dark humor than anything else. I’m really interested in making a beautiful painting of a still life with amazing flowers as much as I’m interested in really screwing that up. To not cross a line where it becomes dismissive, but to be right on the fence. I think color is the beauty for me, versus the grotesque made obvious by these aggressive marks. Before I started working with thermal adhesive, I was doing salt-water taffy paintings where I’d melt the taffy in the microwave and apply it to a surface. This material is edible, and pretty to look at because of their spirals of colors. When incorporated into a painting, it maintains a beautiful and tasteful candy quality, but..also suggests that you should second guess it.”


Monster Mask Melt | 21″ x 17″ | thermoplastic adhesive, inks, crayons on panel | © Daniel Bruttig, 2018

One moment in the show that this unsettling feeling is prevalent is in GC2. I study the details of the colors curling and swirling in on themselves. I take in the mutated form of the cuckoo clock, and then am surprised when I see my own eye looking back at me. What was once simply pleasant to look at, becomes punctuated by a startling moment.


GC2 | 23″ x 20″ x 5″ | thermoplastic adhesive, crayons, mirror, wooden cuts, clock case | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: Moving over to your sculpture, Big Puppy, can you tell me about the materials present in this piece?

DB:It’s been an ongoing thing for a couple years. There’s a lot of excess sculptures that I put as the foundation to build it out. It’s been this disposal for things that are in purgatory in my studio. I’m trying to really utilize rather than toss things. It’s primarily dead things in the studio capped with feather boas and different synthetic hair.” 


Big Puppy | 98″ x 22″ x 26 1/2″ | mixed media | © Daniel Bruttig, 2018

AF: Big Puppy is another example of your subtle use of juxtaposition by this strange, daunting, anthropomorphous figure, capped off with a charming and playful undermining title.

DB:Right. There’s a dagger in it close to the top. I wrapped the dagger with fabric and then in feather boas. As I was building it out, it started to look like a dog and I just went with it. I turned it into this hippy dog with a bandana around its eyes, and then worked out the snout, and a subtle mouth. I stopped when it got to that point where I asked myself, is there something there? Is there not something there?”


New Wings | Install Photo | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: In the cuckoo clock pieces, I notice there are delicate drippings of thermal adhesive that seem to suspend in mid-air. This made me think about how the process of making these objects has to be rather messy, but the result is very contained. The physical act of your making references this concept of the beautiful versus grotesque as well. Is the process as messy and explosive as I imagine?

DB: “Yes and no. It is sort of messy, but I set up a designated space to do certain things so it’s not going all over the place in the studio, it’s pretty contained for the most part. There is a lot of excess that falls off when I’m using the material and I take that material and store it for the next painting. It is however, really tough to know when to stop. Until I reach a certain point, there’s a lot of editing and adding.”


Contrived Yawning | 21″ x 21″ x 5 1/2″ | thermoplastic adhesive, crayons, colored mirror, ceramic figurine, wooden cuts, clock case | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: Looking at the PVC panels, I am curious about the technical side of creating these. The color choices are undeniably deliberate: What is your process for these color choices? Do you make digital versions of these first?

DB:At this point, I’ve built a body of previous works that I riff off of. A similar lanyard painting that I did six years ago that I will maybe grab a portion of and apply to the new one, but also try and do something completely different. In Wild Summer, you can see that there is so much tension. If you look at the top and the bottom of the painting, the bands pull so much that there’s a shadow on the very top in the very bottom where you can actually see the tension.” 


Wild Summer | 30″ x 24″ | PVC cord on panel | © Daniel Bruttig, 2019

AF: Moving to your drawings, do you utilize certain source material you use for those portraits?

DB:I mainly work on drawings in the wintertime when I’m not able to do things outside or in a properly ventilated space. The drawings are things I need to get out of me. There isn’t a focus or point of reference other than the previous drawings, where there’s a relationship for sure. I’ve always thought of the drawings as observers, especially in the show at 65GRAND; they’re observing the other work and all part of the mix. There’s definitely something therapeutic about making these drawings. I think I’m just constantly working on exercising my demons when making the drawings.” 


Stevie, Smile In The Sky, Franz Hesh, Bishop, Propeller Nose Sally, Ol’ Bud, Marty, Merf Pinchie, Lil’ Poot, Mr Larson, Tibbar, Rich, Dog Table | mixed media drawings on paper | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: I definitely feel the comradery between the drawings and the viewer. As
I walk between the other pieces, I feel as though I could return to the drawings for comfort and confirmation, as if they were looking at the show with me.

DB:Yeah, totally. I think it’s cool, and I’m so glad you got that experience.”

AF: Out of curiosity, if you were to have filled this show with pieces made with a singular medium, for example only PVC pipe panels, or only the steel wool pom pom panels, how would that change the meaning of the show?

DB:For me personally, it would be difficult to do just one at this point. It’s not that interesting to me to be like, okay, here’s another material painting with a different composition and different color arrangements. I struggled a lot with putting this show together because there’s so much color. Since the objects are small and portable, it’s more maintainable in the space. If I were to do a show all in hot glue with lots of colors, it would be too much, but not enough. The bodies of work do rely on each other and need each other to make a cohesive show. “


New Wings | Install Photo | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: Yes, they all feed off of each other. Having one alone without anything to challenge it, the grotesque would be lost. The exhibition would show only a repetition of beauty.

DB: “Right. Which is also a reason why I decided not to make paintings with paint because you can do it forever. People do just paint forever and transform their process and their practice; there’s something that lacks in that for me. I’ve been interested in craft, and I think that comes through in my work. There’s pom poms, fabric, glue, and plastic lanyards…”


Burmese Twist | 10″ x 8″ | PVC cord and gesso on panel | © Daniel Bruttig, 2020

AF: Because you allow different avenues of materiality to coexist, an element of play comes through in the work. You went from salt-water taffy to crayons, what’s next? Is there another substance that you want to get your hands on and work with next?

DB:That is an interesting question… When I started doing the pom-pom paintings, it was fabric and then glue. When I use a hot glue gun, sometimes the glue will get stuck and it’ll drizzle out in this really thin, almost like a spiderweb-like cord. I can take that material, mash it together, and make it into a ball that looks like loose and airy fabric. If I could make that happen faster and faster, it would be one thing, but it’s really difficult to do. I have to think of how I can do this same thing with different materials…so, I thought of steel wool. It does the same thing, but it’s a little heavier. In terms of like process and time, I switched over, thought of something else, and was able to work faster. With the glue and the crayons, I’m still in this really playful place with it, I’m manipulating the process, I’m applying this process to materials I’m using for a different substrate. I’ve got quite a ways to go before I get bored or think that I need another material to explore… but, I’m sure it’ll happen.”