|Interview conducted by Lauren Berkley|
Last month, I attended the 13th Annual Phoenix Comicon. The Guest List was chockful of celebrities, but the one guy I had to track down? Artist Brandon Bird.
You may not recognize his name, but I bet you’ve seen his absurdist paintings of WTF-subject matter like Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe, James Woods at the Last Supper with Robocop, and Christopher Walken building a droid all over the internet.
For the first time ever, a compilation of his artwork, entitled Brandon Bird’s Astonishing World of Art, makes its debut at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, and will be available for mass purchase beginning August 27.
I found Bird amongst his many prints, of which I bought quite a few, and he obliged me with an interview…which did not turn out to be as “absurd” as one might think.
BB: With my hands.
Let’s try this: How about a time frame in which you began drawing?
Since I was a little kid.
Did you go to school for it?
I went to UC Santa Cruz, mostly because I got a full-ride scholarship, but you know when you’re supposed to go visit schools? I looked into the other southern California schools and instead of selling me on the school, they totally put me off going to art school….It was weird, because they didn’t seem interested in – I don’t know if it was having me as a student or having anyone as a student. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do art-wise, but I wasn’t sure that they knew what they were doing either.
So you went to UC Santa Cruz to study what, ultimately?
I went to UC Santa Cruz because I got a scholarship there, and my major was Art. I lucked out in getting the one teacher for Introduction to Oil Painting who knew his stuff backwards and forwards, technique-wise, and was able to just teach: “Here’s the material, here are its properties, here’s how you use what you have.”
A lot of art school is just critique and talk. People do work and then everyone just talks about it and their feelings and most teachers, most programs don’t address the actual “here’s how to do stuff.” I found when I did my residency at Cornell, it wasn’t really the Art Department, but I got a sense of some of the students I was with that that’s kind of the same everywhere.
It’s just, like, not “are you getting the idea you want to get across and how you could better your technique to get that across?,” but more like critiques that aren’t critical in any way. It’s not constructive criticism – you sit around for three hours and hear people talk about their work, take comments, and nobody says anything bad and nobody says anything interesting. Some of the classes I had before and after were kind of like that, but the entry point, which is “this is how oil paint works,” that was all business and it was great.
So, is oil paint your medium of choice?
Mostly, yeah, and that’s mostly because I feel just more comfortable in it. I know more of what I’m doing and there’s more of an opportunity to correct your mistakes.
You can wait for something to dry and you can fix it or if you mess up, it’s not necessarily permanent – you can take some turpenoid or whatever and wipe it off and go back into it. Watercolor, for example, if you put that mark up, that mark’s there.
How did you choose to paint really absurd subject matter? How did you decide on that?
That kind of grew out of how to use oil painting correctly: “Oh, if I can make a painting that looks kind of like an old painting, I can throw something in there that will be funny and unexpected.”
But you specifically chose pop culture, is there a reason? You could have chosen any other thing.
You know, that stuff is silly to me. I like Mr. T; he’s hilarious, so I’ll put him in, like, an old-style painting and it’ll be like, “Why is Mr. T there?! Ha ha ha ha ha!” And then from there, I just kind of follow that path of finding a pop culture thing to fit in some other form, like: “Eric Roberts plus Lunchbox Equals Hopefully-Hilarious Eric Roberts Lunchbox.”
So you are, though, a legitimate fan of Eric Roberts and Christopher Walken and so forth?
Yeah. I mean, some of these people, I think, are silly or unintentionally silly, but it’s not like I am making fun of them. It’s all stuff that I would WANT to paint. It’s not like, “I’ve gotta stick it to this guy!” I don’t like [painting just any pop culture thing] just for money, because a lot of pop art today is, “Oh, Game of Thrones is popular! I’ll do a bunch of Game of Thrones pieces…I’ll do Game of Thrones and Muppets!” you know?
You’ll see a lot of people have their style – usually it’s like a cartoon style – and they’ll just hit all the marks. They’ll do every single pop culture thing, like, “I did characters from Back to the Future, I did characters from Game of Thrones and this and this and this!” and it’s just, like, checking all the marks on the pop culture list.
I like things that are just a little bit off the beaten path. Everybody knows who Eric Roberts is – I don’t know if anyone is an Eric Roberts “fan”. People don’t put a lot of energy into thinking about Eric Roberts, which is why, to me, it’s funny if you see this painting of him, because it’s, like, “Why did somebody do that?!”
Seeing somebody put in the time to make, say, a Star Wars painting isn’t surprising, because people legitimately love Star Wars or Star Trek or Harry Potter or anything like that; it’s not surprising or strange. I shouldn’t sound like I’m knocking that stuff, that’s just not what interests me.
Why Law & Order?
Because it’s the best TV show in the world.
I had to ask, because a lot of your art is Law & Order-orientated. You have a series of art and products…
On one level, Law & Order is legitimately good, and then on another level – especially SVU [Law & Order: Special Victims Unit] – it is ridiculously cheesy and not realistic at all and there are total opportunities to kind of needle around in that, like, “Wait a minute…that’s kinda silly!” A lot of that humor, like the weirdness, comes from the fact that there are so many episodes.
If you watch one episode of Law & Order, you know, “Wow! That was riveting; that was interesting!”
But then you watch five of them back-to-back, and you see all the weird patterns pop up, so…I love it, but it also kind of amuses me.
One of your Law & Order products was given to the late Jerry Orbach by Conan O’Brien on his show. Did you get any credit for that? Any recognition?
No, it was weird, because they acted like it was a legitimate, licensed product, rather than a tongue-in-cheek idea. I’m not sure if they were in on it or not. Conan was like, “I can’t believe they made this! It’s got dead bodies in it!” as though it was something that was really made for kids to color in and not a parody. But still, he gave it to Jerry Orbach, but yeah, a random thing I made was put on TV, but no, they didn’t mention my name or anything.
The Law & Order thing is weird, because a lot of the actors and behind-the-scenes have bought Valentines and requested stuff and have it on the set and decorating rooms and stuff, but there have been a couple times where I contacted the Law & Order publicist for an art show of mine…to see if they wanted to help buy some snacks or something; that could be good press for them. I got a reply that said, “I asked Dick about it. He does not want to be involved, but good luck.”
Do you have any influences?
No, never. It’s 100-percent from my own head! [laughs] There are no contemporary artists who really do it for me, but clearly, a lot of my stuff is directly influenced by older art styles, but more like on a piece-by-piece basis, because so much of that stuff is anonymous.
I love going to museums and seeing the old European paintings and the whole mental process behind it, like, “The figure is well-modeled, but we haven’t figured out perspective yet, so everything is, like, flattened” and the electricity goes off in the back of your head, like, “Wow! I am seeing something that I don’t quite understand the mindset of!”
That’s what I like; things where I never could have thought of that. There’s not somebody where I’m, like, “That guy’s stuff is the best and I want to be like him!” It’s on a case-by-case basis, you know? If I want to do, for example, something like a collector plate, you might look at other collector plates that have already been done and get a feel for that style.
How often do you paint or draw new things?
It’s weird, because I haven’t finished a painting in months, but I’ve been working on a lot of them!
I don’t like to tell people, “This is what I’m working on!” because one: I like the initial surprise of it, because a lot of them are jokes, so if you kind of know the punchline, when you see it, you’re just like, “Yeah, ok, you did a good job.” There’s no “Oh my God, it’s so crazy!” because you already spoiled the reveal.
Also, if I tell people, “Oh yeah, I’m working on this…” and it doesn’t get done for another year…you know? I may not even take all my drawings and turn them into paintings – or not – right away.
Your work has won numerous awards and accolades and been featured online and in magazines. How does it feel to kind of permeate present society and pop culture and internet culture, yet not have many people know who you are or that some of the art they’ve been sharing online with their friends and on social media is actually attributed to YOU?
Well, yeah, a lot of that is my fault [for the lack of attribution]. Like, with the painting of the Law & Order attorneys walking with the Goddamn Batman, I made that drawing and someone else took it and added that text – which I hate. I didn’t add those captions.
I just like that image and then, of course, the one with the text gets linked around all over the place and people are all “Hahahahaha! That’s a funny thing the internet spontaneously generated!” It’s hard, once something is out of your hands, you can’t rope it back in. It’s also weird to me that if you like something, you don’t find out what its province is.
“Where did that come from? Maybe that person made other funny things I might like!” I’m one of those people who, if I’m watching something and I recognize an actor or a name in the credits, I’ll ask, “What else have they done?” and I’ll immediately look it up; I just like knowing that stuff.
I think also, though, with the internet, it’s hard to find the proper attribution, because with the internet, it’s easy to take advantage of someone else’s work and claim it as your own.
Oh yeah. Things like Tumblr and Imgur makes it so easy to just not have a credit there. Like, the credit goes to the person who first posted something, not the person who made the thing, and people will get mad, like, “Hey! Why did you take that off? I was the first one to post it!”
And, like, with the Nicolas Cage “Draw-Your-Own-Hair” Whiteboard, it got super-linked around on Tumblr and stuff, and a lot of the comments were “Ha ha ha, I would totally buy that, if it were real!” and I’m like, “IT IS! Just Google it and you can buy it!” Or people at these conventions will walk by and see it on display and say, “I saw that on Tumblr! I didn’t know that was real!” and I’m thinking, “That’s weird, because [merchandise site] TopatoCo and I were the first ones to post it and here’s the link to buy it!” and at some point, somebody is just, like, “Eh, we don’t need that link!”
So, do you think it’s harder to be specifically an artist in this day an age? An old-fashioned artist?
I think it would be harder to break in, because I have the advantage of being one of the first ones on the scene to do weird, pop art-y stuff, and that was in 2003, when I had my early site and shared the link around and you had to be, like, “Check out this guy’s stuff: Brandon Bird-dot-com.” So, I have some amount of name recognition and inertia, and I can’t imagine trying to make your mark in the world of semi-anonymous internet. It’s easy to get a following in certain circles – like those who skew a little younger, like cartoonists and such – will get more followers, but even then, I guess it doesn’t always translate to people buying your stuff or people realizing you’re a real person, you know what I mean?
I mean, it doesn’t help if someone says, “Hey, I’m a fan of So-and-So!” and when someone asks, “Well, have you bought any of their stuff?” and the person says no, because they don’t have any money, well, that doesn’t help an artist like you pay rent.
I think people who like my stuff tend to be older – and I mean not in high school or just starting college – and those people have grown up with the internet and I think they’re just used to “Oh, here’s a funny thing; give me the next funny thing.” I think there might be a generational difference between how we maybe revere or not revere content. I mean, I put my stuff on the internet not because I wanted to be popular, but because I was out of college and I thought, you know, “I have these paintings that people seem to like and I don’t know how to get them into galleries, but I can make a website and at least get them out there that way.” My interest is making paintings and making a real, tangible object.
What advice do you have to kids and college students who want to be artists, like yourself?
To actually study drawing or painting…People get into art, but really the only thing they want to draw is the stuff like ponies or fan art, where they’re not interested in “art,” they’re interested in drawing Batman or cartoon characters.
I think any subject matter is fair game, but it can’t be the end all, be all; that’s not the goal. The goal is to give your own viewpoint to things…kids will come into college, art school and all they want to draw are anime characters and they look down on having to draw figure drawing, you know, like, real art. If you don’t know how to draw anything, if you don’t know how to control anything, like your lines and stuff, then all your anime – if you’re just doing anime to draw anime – then I think the end result is just going to be something that’s derivative, derivative, derivative.
Just be willing to learn stuff, because that seems like that’s something not a lot of people want to do, and if you want to gain skills and get rid of bad habits, then you’ll be so far ahead of all your peers.