John Brosio: Tornadoes, Twisters and a Jerk in a Road

You have to like John Brosio: a guy who appreciates a bottle of Chateau Yquem, but is equally happy with a can of Budweiser. Brosio, who paints Texas twisters with the aplomb and sensitivity of Corot, is an artist who can make you smile and scare you at the same time. His canvases fuse dark humor and a dose of awe into memorable images that get you in the gut. I recently interviewed Brosio about his work and ideas. His responses, like his paintings, are emphatic and engagingly quirky.

John Brosio
JS: You are showing tornado and twister paintings at Sue Greenwood Fine Art. Can you tell me what originally attracted you to tornadoes as subject matter?  

JB: This question has come up before of course but I never took enough time to really think about it. It has always surprised me. I've spent all kinds of time on wording in the past to chase down some kind of justification for what seems like a "weird" or off-center choice of mine and that might have been a mistake. To tell you the truth it seemed obvious.

I was at the time even racing with the imagery, thinking that someone else would beat me to it. What would truly interest me is to interview one of many given artists and ask them why they paint people sitting in chairs, dogs, or what have you. We have a TON of paintings like that and no one ever asks about it because our programing -- yours, mine, everyone's programing -- is to instantly consider legitimate that kind of subject matter as all but part/ parcel to the definition of modern representational "Painting." And to be honest I am bored with a lot of that.

The really truly good ones I enjoy no end, the works that articulate space, but there are so many paintings these days of figures intended to look quirky and contemplative but end up as overly expressionless and comfortable as if painted while listening to a lesser episode of Prairie Home Companion. I want to ask someone, "what attracted you to painting people in rooms?" and see what happens.

Back to the tornadoes though: they did not originally start out as being exclusively about weather. I had a series of paintings where people were hanging out with a variety of larger-than-life subjects. In the beginning I had folks looking at tornadoes, a B2 bomber, dinosaur skulls on display, a giant dead shark on a pier, etc. The series went that way but the twisters took off with the crowd. And that was fine with me because I loved all of it but ran with my reception.

John Brosio, "Texas Road," 60 x 36 inches, Oil on canvas
JS: Is it fair to call you a "Romantic" in the sense that your work transmits a sense of awe about the force of nature?  

JB: Ha! I would call myself a "Romantic" in that sense but a lot of people don't see it in my every day life. There is not much of a chance to explore certain things in every day life. No context for it.

But I always thought that what sense of awe I feel and 'transmit' in my work was common to all of our appetites. I used to think that at least. My take on it now is that we are all naturally dazzled by those things but most of us end up crowding them out of worry and wonder by way of our daily considerations such that they get relegated to oddity. And that's dicey I think.

Curiosity has been crowded out. It sometimes even goes uncultivated, even in children, and that's just wrong. I've even had people, more than one, ask me why I was looking at the sky when all the stars are out and the more pressing question is, "Why are you not?!" Those natural forces are right next to us and all the time. They are gorgeous, incredible, and dangerous. Living as though they don't affect you is even more dangerous because it is irresponsible. Tornadoes though are probably the most pictorially accessible thing for me to use in representing these forces but I am speaking to the whole dynamic.

John Brosio, "Unleashed," 50 x 68 inches, Oil on canvas

JS: Your work seems to blend realism and invention, science and mythology. Tell me about the mix of these elements.  

JB: This may be hard to answer because I don't see much of a difference among these elements. They at the very least breed one another. By "realism and invention" I will take you to mean "representational vs. manipulated." Let me know if that is in error and I would be happy to answer a subsequent question. But I think I end up, even if incidentally, in the seeming language of surrealism.

The thing with surrealism though is that it often invites us to seriously contemplate the absurd and non-sensical per se whereas I employ it with leanings toward narrative. There are things in the works though here that will be a little more unhinged so stay tuned. Science though in some ways is nothing more than defined mythology but I think that folks are making a mistake there too if it causes any of the wonder to diminish.

I mean, shoot -- we're being told now that there is another whole universe just a tiny bit to the side of every given point in the one we perceive -- right next to you in fact. There are also many more dimensions involved than the ones we know. There's this thing called the holographic principle that not only fits into all of the best math and physics being worked up but that means there is a duplicate of you, right now, 13.7 billion light years away, reading this sentence. Current science. Myself, I might have very much enjoyed pursuing cosmology but I very much do so in my own way.

John Brosio, "Nocturne #3," 60 x 40 inches, Oil on canvas
JS: How does your sense of humor shape your work?

JB: It shapes it more and more! I spoke above about a disconnect between folks and the forces of nature and, the wider that gap gets, the funnier everything seems to be. Pointlessness is a rich source of humor to me. I love it. Making up things to do is great too. Heck, I tell my students that there is no reason not to take drugs and watch t.v. None at all.

 But the flip side of that is that there is no reason not to attempt some of the greatest things that have ever been done. That is just as crazy if not more so. What is tragically comedic to me too is the middle ground: students turning in B to B+ work in order to race through schooling and not demand more of the process. Question it! Come to me in class with ideas from Mars if you're reading this! The rest is a gorgeous "whatever." I love that "whatever" and I can be very celebratory and simultaneously dismissive of it; I think this duality is very much at the core of my "Edge of Town" tornado series. My chicken painting is not far behind.

John Brosio, "Edge of Town," 35 x 40 inches, Oil on canvas

JS: What kinds of skills and techniques do you employ?  

JB: While I could always draw I had originally been drawn to making movie monsters - sculpting, mold making, etc. I'm probably just as proficient at sculpting those things as I am at painting. But I ended up very deliberately choosing to confine myself to the format of traditional painting. It is a confining thing in some sense but challenging too in that I should be able to speak with the use of a known language without having to be "louder."

I mean, were I to travel outside of painting I might need to rent an airship hanger and that's just not practical when I can tackle the same concerns where I stand. I still very much use the palette of Wayne Thiebaud, who was a teacher of mine. I added a few colors here and there, removed's still an extrapolation of his palette. Beyond that I execute my paintings with the eventual use of a delineated wash. Many painters use this traditional approach. Thiebaud demonstrated that for his students on many occasions and someone like Sargent did the same thing. I sometimes model things underneath my imagery using white but not always. I sometimes sand, sometimes glaze, and have stopped using varnish.

John Brosio, "Tornado and Moon," 36 x 29 inches, Oil on canvas

JS: Outside of painting, what interests you?

JB: Oh, dang - I like film making. I love stop motion animation. I enjoy baseball, chess, and Beethoven. I love planetary science and cannot wait for the Webb telescope to enter orbit. I love cosmology, black holes, and quantum mechanics. I love modern classical music composers from Schoenberg to Ligeti. I love the works of Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Carl Sagan. Mark Twain. I enjoy writing too but am not finished with my book. I had wanted through most of my youth to be a herpetologist and work with snakes but my favorite snakes are black mambas and Indian cobras.

I also enjoy very high end culinary experiences but eat very simple things most of the time. I enjoy connecting with people over the edges of life, the needed surrender as part of coping. A bottle of 2001 Chateau d'yquem and foie gras helps. So does a case of Budweiser and honey bbq corn chips. I almost bought a cast of a tyrannosaur skull at one point but have settled on an original Darth Vader mask. There are a lot of great masks out there. My favorite movie is currently Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven but the French Connection is growing on me.

I know how to use a bullwhip and am dazzled by the work of Cecil Henderson. I enjoy bats, wolves, and dusk in the forest. I love sequoia trees. I enjoy the rain and traveling by train through the desert Southwest. Planes are spectacular but I prefer ocean liners. I wish someone would build a transatlantic dirigible again too but they would have to serve cheeseburgers.

John Brosio, "Jerk in a Road," 35 x 35 inches, Oil on canvas
JS: Does this show include "Jerk in a Road?" Somehow that painting of a determined jerk blocking our path seems just right for the political era were are living in...

JB: It does!! I love that piece: and it is a little different for sure. It is more of an intuitive piece about how people take a stance and start posturing over nothing. I don't know if the twister is something that makes our jerk meaningless or if it is his backup man.

John Brosio's work is on view in a group exhibition at Sue Greenwood Fine Art through December 31st.
Sue Greenwood Fine Art, 330 North Coast Highway Laguna Beach, CA 92651