Lex Braes

Punctuated Equilibrium: Felix Ringel Galerie, Düsseldorf 2002

Video of the exhibition.

An interview with Lex Braes
Kit White

KW_ There are two things that you've brought up here which you speak of as separate issues and they strike me as interrelated, but having a different place in history, in your personal history. For instance, you've talked about the idea of having an object, a source object. You look, it gives you information, then you go through the process of transmuting it in the process of painting. So that's one thing, in that case we're talking about the object as source material. But you also talk about the idea of environment – how one's sense of space is itself historical, that a sense of space evolved both through one's physical history of space and one's psychological history as well.

Aren't these two things actually the same issue but looked at slightly differently? Because, in fact, this sense of space that you talk about as historically developed leads one to one's perception of the world in a parallel way that the random object, which you use as a source material, leads you into a painting.

Let's go back for a moment to the idea of taking an object and using it to find an image for the painting. We've talked about that in terms of the ridges, the three sisters, and other sort of landscape elements which you've drawn out of your Scottish background. You've used those to make images. But this other kind of object that you've talked about, of picking up a piece of fabric from the street, for example - what happens, what are you doing with that piece of fabric, where is that leading you, what are you finding in that?

LB_ That second dynamic is as much about letting go as it is about meaning. I respond to them, found or seen, and they serve as the catalyst. I think they have something to do with loss. About wanting and unfulfilled desire, desire beyond reach, nostalgia. Letting go of that. My family was badly depleted in the 1940's and 50's, first as casualties of war and secondly and the way that affected me more directly, was from death by food poisoning, which took my grandfather and grandmother and my Aunt May. I remember I made a great fuss and my mother allowed me to see my grandfather one last time; she held me up and I kissed him goodbye as he lay in the open casket. I was 5 years old. It was my first great loss and I still feel it now. Our life was then changed as a family, a seismic psychological shift from then on.

Around this time I was simultaneously learning from my cousins the beauty of painting with watercolours. Visual and musical talent ran on my mother's side, the MacDonald line of our family, and was encouraged as an integral part of life, not at all as a separate or elitist activity. (That type of artistic education would follow later from so called "expert" training at art school and University.)

This somehow connects for me with my life now. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, there are several sweatshops, and remnants of cloth drift haphazardly into the street. Some attract me, catch my eye. Some I pick up gingerly and, keeping the folds intact, return with them to my studio. The remnant that I am using now in a painting had been lying around in my studio for 3 years before I was able to use it.

KW_ "Remnant" strikes me as a critical word for you.

LB_ I do like the word remnant. However I worry that it's almost too specific. It is important alone, neither is it solely the shape, although it has something to do with the shape that attracts me. But still I find myself wondering why did I look at that particular remnant on the sidewalk there? And I find that if I go on a walk and I return by the same route, I'm drawn to the same things both ways. Now why is that? What is the attraction? This kind of questioning interests me very much. When I study more closely I see details that I couldn't possibly have seen in passing, evidence of the hand revealed in the cutting with shears, its an off cut a negative from the fabric's footprint, a leftover.

KW_ It strikes me that what, why and how you observe the world around you is tied to this notion of your historical personal space, which you call your environmental issue. That it is, your sense of space and form, developed early in life and then over time, and leads you to be attracted to a particular object. It is also what then informs the development of the object into another image. So that your sense of environment gets to recreate itself out of the remnants of your past.

LB_ Yes that's good.

The sense of denial that I experienced growing up was overwhelming it was ingrained in every aspect of life. The Church of Scotland isn't exactly patronly to the arts. More or less dictated fixed state of being, based on strong do's and don'ts. Even now I find I am in some ways influenced by those laws of the permissible. Many pleasurable sensory experiences were not permitted, there was comfort in belonging to a group but for an individual like myself, within such strict outlines. This idea of outline is significant to me, I question very much the outline and the boundary between meaning and non-meaning.

LB_ What I'm doing is trying to betray myself, trying to actually find out what I'm about, where I am coming from. I'm trying to find meaning through painting. I want to find freedom through being personal.

KW_ That's an interesting choice of words: "to betray yourself!".

LB_ Because only in that can I discover something about myself.

KW_ But that's an interesting equation, the idea that betrayal is an act of discovery. Because another thing you were talking about earlier is the embrace of paradox, that the beauty of a painting which one would probably resist in daily life. We avoid paradoxes because they are uncomfortable, painful. And yet paintings thrive on the idea of paradox, or that part of the studio process of finding and losing, betraying and revealing.

LB_ Yes I was thinking about innocence the other day, that something we hear a lot about is "childlike innocence". And I thought, there is no such thing. We come into the world screaming our head off, we don't want to be here, it's a terrible experience being born. And from then on the child is aware from the earliest point that everything isn't satisfactory, and they learn to accommodate to their given environment. But what we do as adults, is to construct this fantasy of innocence. We should get rid of it, there is no innocence. And it's OK that there is no innocence. And that's what I like about painting. It's a place where you actually can deal with that.

KW_ I think that the idea of innocence is a kind of envy of ignorance, the ignorance of childhood.

LB_ And the adults are constantly pushing the child away from one aspect of life. To just show them that everything is nice, but the child knows, the child always knows anyway. Often the accusation made against someone who paints as I do is that they are naïve or innocent.

KW_ But critics don't criticise painters for being naïve, but for being sincere. I recently heard a painter make a comment that thick paint is a signifier for sincerity.

LB_ It's as if we're not supposed to see the human touch, the gesture. The gesture has such a negative meaning to the intelligentsia, to the expert.

KW_ Gesture implies some kind of emotional content.

LB_ Which means naiveté, sincerity - not really being able to be detached from one's emotions.

KW_ So the issue is, how do you avoid this criticism? How do you make a case for this kind of indulgence, this kind of pleasure? If you can't convince people that pleasure is worthwhile then it's hopeless. If you can't convince people that there is emotional intelligence as opposed to strictly rational intelligence then there is no hope. This is one of the dangers of culture that have put all of their faith in scientific investigation. Of course the great fallacy is that science is a rational procedure. In fact, science is a kind of painting. It's a form of discovery by accident.

LB_ And it's always changed by the next discovery. Not factual at all. Science is responsible for getting rid of the myths. Without myths, how can you have believable gesture?

KW_ And I suspect that the brushstroke, the gesture is also important to you as the vehicle for expressing historical, physical, and psychological environment. Certainly with those paintings we talked about in the gallery, every time you made a reference to one of the images, it was always an image that had some historical resonance for you, it was something that took you back to Scotland, or took you back to a moment or memory that had some particular historical or psychological import for you. And so, it's a matter of taking that thing and turning it into a signifier.

LB_ or a cipher

KW_ Okay. So that the information is there, but there is always something else as well, and that something else really is a lot of what the viewer brings to the painting.

LB_ And it's open enough for the viewer not to be limited by the physical representation.

KW_ I think it's a very delicate balance for anyone. How do you get the image specific enough to have content, but non-specific enough so that it remains open, to permeable, multiple interpretations, not just for yourself, but for the viewer. It seems to me that that is the area where you dwell a lot of the time. It also allows for the gesture to take on certain signature qualities of its own that become something beyond their descriptive purpose, so that the line itself becomes its own line, it's serving a descriptive function, but it's not completely stuck in that role.

LB_ I think that it's a starting off point. A way in which metaphor can be conveyed again, getting under the skin to the truths that lie beneath the surface.

KW_ The one thing that we haven't touched on is what you feel about the idea of pleasure. Is pleasure something which is acceptable in painting, sheer unadulterated pleasure? Is it a strong enough objective to make it the reason for a painting?

LB_ When Beckham kicks a ball just so, more than being accurate there is a link to an inner instinctual necessity, and Michelle Kwan opens into a movement, and her whole being seems to be present in her gesture there is a link to an instinctual inner necessity. Athletic performances like these speak to me aesthetically, expressing a kind of celebration. When the viewer can witness this through them, this kind of pure in-the-moment experience, a sheer pleasure is felt. It's hard to describe because pleasure and happiness are about being and for me that is about doing and there is a morality involved. It is not experienced through detachment and being critically motivated.

When I made paintings inspired by lines of sand deposited by an ant colony while building underground. I didn't know why I was doing that. Meaning, or let's call it personal understanding came to me later. I also find that past and future are related in ways that are impossible to foresee. 9/11 had a profound personal impact on New Yorkers and it happened that in the aftermath that this image drawn by ants, somehow inextricably made sense to me, maybe that connection saved me from a hopeless situation.

This interview is based on a recording between the critic and painter Kit White and Lex Braes which took place in May 2002 in New York City.