Luis De Jesus Los Angeles presents JOHN BROOKS: Thinking About Danger, the artist’s first solo exhibition with the gallery.
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The paintings in Thinking About Danger combine images and inspiration from art history, cinema, literature, music, and the artist’s personal life to explore longing and remote desire, empathy and connection. The richness of experiences as well as a kind of “existential openness” is alluded to in the exhibition’s title which is taken from a painting of the same name and borrows lyrics from the Marianne Faithful song “Times Square.” Their subjects are our lives: what is and what can be, the known and the unknown. These are not ordinary paintings—they are meant for all of us—and the reading and understanding of them need not be ordinary. In truth, they invite us to lose ourselves in their openness and, as the Sufi poet Rumi enjoins, “come out of the circle of time and into the circle of love.” These and other subjects are discussed below by Brooks in his own words.
I have always been primarily moved by connections, and what I call emotional resonance. Above everything else, it’s that that I care about. In addition, I’ve always had disparate interests—I’m a painter, poet, and a former competitive golfer with a political science degree. About mid-year last year, I began to understand that I could use and combine these interests in my work and make better work as a result. It’s a sort of collage approach; collage has always been a part of my artistic practice—my painting practice changed tremendously in 2018 when I began to use paper collages as the basis for my compositions. I’m not currently making any collages but am still using this mindset. I found great strength and an almost limitless number of ideas in using this approach, and it also utilizes my knowledge and memories and creates something that feels entirely new.
For example, I’m quite sure that Lil Nas X and Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann have never been presented together—but why shouldn’t they be? Painting allows me to imagine alternative realities. Each man brings cultural weight with them, and the combination feels (to me) exciting, unexpected, electric. This is why I use a lot of found imagery and “known” people. I don’t think of my work as celebrity portraits or even relying on celebrity—each person is chosen for specific reasons—because they have meaning to me, or meaning in our culture. There’s power in that, and power in using that cultural weight to create something new, or to shift the conversation in a direction that interests me. The figures, subjects, and scenes are touchstones and nodes of connection, people and things that I carry with me, but I am ultimately interested in their realness—inasmuch as I can access it—rather than the personas.
I recently heard a quote from the singer songwriter Joe Henry, who said that as artists, “it’s never our job to dispel mystery.” I think that’s true. Art does hold answers, but they’re slippery, hard to grasp, and maybe ultimately knowable. That’s what makes art, or works of art, compelling to me. When I am thinking about my compositions, I like the idea of creating an image or a scene that seems like it might start to make sense, perhaps narrative sense, but then disintegrates the closer one gets to getting ahold of an answer. I don’t want the works to be answers, I want them to be hints, or even scents. I hope they contain multitudes, exhibit a thoughtful exploration and depiction of my Queer community—particularly Queer artists—as well as allies. Ideas related to impermanence, the fragility of existence, the complexities of identity, are all explored. I think they’re also, in a way, an antidote to the rigidity of our times, and the rigidity that so many people seem to crave. Life—existence—isn’t like that! It is, in so many ways, unknowable, and that’s ok. It’s beautiful and even comforting. I hope the works contain all of that—complexity, humor, irreverence, poignancy, tenderness, sadness, sexiness.
The paintings are also an exploration of Queer Time (written about by Garth Greenwell in the New Yorker). I’m 44, and I grew up at a time during which I didn’t feel entirely capable of embracing my Queerness (even that word is a new thing). I feel like I’m still learning every day, reaching backward and forward, finding connection with anyone I can, anyone whose head and heart seems to mirror with my own. The works are intentionally becoming more Queer, which is a reflection of my self, but that doesn’t mean their relevance narrows—I think it’s the opposite. Because I am expanding, the work is expanding. Because it encompasses more things, that has to mean it has more relevance to more people. Paradoxically, the weirder and more specific it becomes, the wider it becomes.
As always, the paintings are also about art, about painting. Colors, themes, and even images are inspired by luminaries like Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, RB Kitaj, David Hockney, Peter Doig, Markus Lüpertz, and Noah Davis. Salman Toor, Anthony Cudahy, and Doron Langberg, as well as others, are both friends and sources of inspiration and conversation. For a long time, I hadn’t really thought of myself as someone who thinks consciously about color—but that’s not true, of course. One of the takeaways from the response to my [previous] exhibitions “We All Come and Go Unknown” and “I See This Echoing” was how much people were intrigued by my use of color.
I’ve tried to push that even further this time. It has also been nice, as well as challenging, to return to painting after drawing for many months. I love drawing, and will continue to do it—and there is also a lot of drawing in my painting—but painting is an altogether different beast, because of the nature of the materials. Oil paint has its own desires—it’s alive, in a way—and the dynamic is so different from drawing. When drawing I feel in control. Painting is a matter of finding control where you can, but letting the paint control when and where it wants. Knowing the difference between the two is obviously key, and only comes from practice and experience. And long hours in the studio. When it doesn’t work, it can be so frustrating, but when it works, it is rewarding and glorious.
There are also themes of “doubleness” and duplicity in the works. Sometimes it is quite literal—doubled or twinned figures—and other times it is subtler. This relates to this idea of complexity of identity, and also the nebulousness of truths. Judy Barton is Madeleine Elster is Kim Novak, I am a painter / poet / gay man / Kentuckian / former Londoner / poodle dad—all of these things are true, but they are, in a way, temporary truths. I also loved that word—danger—it seems we are surrounded by it. It comes from everywhere—ourselves, the skies, the earth, our past, our future, the main streets of our small towns, the halls of Congress. And it’s very real, but then it can also be unreal. When I first heard (at age 16) Marianne singing those words, I thought the danger was me, my sexuality, or the path I would have to take to either pursue my true nature or the path I would have to take to shirk it. Now that I’m older, I know that for me the danger is in not pursuing my true self, as an artist, a Queer person, a human being. — JB
A visual artist and poet, John Brooks (b. 1978, Frankfort, Kentucky) explores themes of identity, memory, death and place while considering questions of contemplation, the expression of emotion, the transformative power and emotional resonance of particular experiences—and what Max Beckmann described as “the deepest feeling about the mystery of being.”
Brooks is a native of central Kentucky. He studied Political Science and English literature at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, with continuing education in art at Central St. Martins and the Hampstead School of Art in London, England. His work has been exhibited in the United States and Europe and is held in the collection of 21C Museum Hotels, Grinnell College Museum of Art, and numerous private collections. Brooks’ poetry has been published in Assaracus, East by Northeast, and Plainsongs. Over the last two decades, he spent several years in London and Chicago and has been based in Louisville, Kentucky, since late 2013. In 2017, Brooks launched Quappi Projects, a Louisville-based contemporary art gallery focusing on exhibiting work reflecting the zeitgeist, where he has curated over twenty-five exhibitions.
Installation view, JOHN BROOKS: Thinking About Danger, Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, 2022. Courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Photography by Paul Salveson.