Brin Levinson is a Portland, OR based artist with a penchant for depicting haunting, solemn landscapes populated no longer by humans. His work is an optimistic counter force to human exploitation of the natural without regard for the effects, particularly the effects on the fauna inhabiting those areas. Check out his interview for an intelligent meditation on the current state of our world expressed through the medium of paintings.
Please introduce yourself, tell us about yourself, where you’re from, where you are now. Physically, personally, metaphorically.
I’ve been in Portland, Oregon since 2001, California before that and Vermont before that. I started painting seriously in school but everything was figurative. I moved to Portland and started painting the city. Eventually a theme developed that was influenced by the industrial areas and dark winters here. I’ve been enjoying getting better over the years.
Why do you choose to use oil on canvas? What do you like about oils? How long have you been painting?
I’ve been painting regularly for about fourteen years, I’ve gone back and forth between acrylics and oils many times. Now I use both paints for they’re specific advantages but usually oil is my favorite because it’s so heavy and brilliant. Painting on wood panel was my favorite for a long time but I switched to canvas a few years ago and like it for a lot of reasons. It’s lighter and softer. The bounce is an acquired taste but I like it now.
What kind of artistic education do you have? How has specific your level of schooling helped you as an artist? How has it hindered you?
I don’t really think any education can hinder you unless you’re brainwashed into copying a certain style and never get to develop your own vision. I had a ton of art education and remember almost all of it. I had a great art class in public high school which jaded me to the design rules I learned my first year at the Maine College of art. I took a year off after that and that’s when everything I learned the previous year sank in and I noticed it’s value. So, I got into the animation department at Cal Arts the next year. The great thing about being there was that I could design my own education and take classes on top of animation. I knew I liked illustration better but I figured I’d learn everything if I learned animation because it incorporates design, illustration drawing and painting.
What was your most recent painting? Looking at it, what can you see in it that you like? What do you consider your strengths? What in it are you looking to improve? How can you be a better artist? At a certain point an artist may have looked at his or her own art that they loose perspective, they feel like they’re hard pressed to critique their own work, that they have to somehow step out of their own mind to think critically about their own work. Have you experienced this? How have you overcome it if you have?
I think the best part about doing anything creative for a living is that you always get better and it’s like a giant life project. Sometimes there are great breakthroughs and it’s very fulfilling. But those kinds of things can be very different for the person doing the work than for the audience looking at it. Right now I’m thinking a lot about the imagery and how to take it to the next level. I don’t know if it’s possible to not loose a completely objective perspective on something you make from scratch because it’s such a long precess. I’ll try to not look at a painting for a long time so that when I see it again, it’s with “fresh eyes”. That rarely works though because when you paint something, you have it totally memorized because you stare at it for so many hours. One thing I do it is to take a picture of a painting and flip it so I see the mirror image. That’s like seeing a whole different piece and you can notice things that you didn’t before.
Tell us about the subjects of your work, you live in Portland, is a lot of the imagery taken from or inspired by the city? Any places in particular? What about the animals? How do you decide ‘I’m going to put a rhino in this painting and a raccoon in this one’?
A lot of the buildings and bridges are from portland and places in the area. I do that for several reasons. It’s where I live and I find these landscapes beautiful and nostalgic. I also like having a local context in my imagery because if it’s a slightly familiar place, there’s more of a connection with it. It’s also interesting to bring people to places they’ve never been and walk a fine line between familiar and foreign. The animals usually work into the piece a little after the landscape is roughed out. I usually let the ideas happen while I’m working. I rarely sketch first because the paintings hardly ever turn out like the sketches. I like to let the imagery evolve organically while I’m painting.
Hawthorne Bridge and The Reflection Bridge have a unique perspective, almost like a fisheye photo, what inspired you to play with the perspective in these photos? Had you done that before? What kind of challenges do you encounter when working with perspective in that way as opposed to the standard?
Perspective is a big part of it for me. If a landscape is really pushed it can have a lot of movement and suck you in. It makes the image more interesting visually. It’s a lot of fun when there are little places you can go with your eyes. I want to make images that are exciting to look at in lots of ways so making the point of view different from normal is important.
The subject matter of your work harkens to a world where animals are very much a part of the urban landscape, but in many ways it seems like a landscape that has been retaken by nature. Much of the tone and coloring of your work seem, not dark, but reminiscent of a world after, I don’t know what that particular ‘after’ might be, but I get the distinct sense that the animals aren’t particularly afraid of being bothered by any humans. Do you think this is eventual? Do you think that mankind is capable of finding harmony with nature and coexisting with the natural environment? How do you envision that cooperation?
Well, coexisting harmoniously isn’t really possible because there are seven billion humans on the planet.We’re completely self serving and will eat everything in site. The reality is that simply existing as a human is bad for the planet.Our current epoch is the Holocene extinction event in which species are dying off way faster than ever observed on the planet. People think the dinosaurs were the only global extinction period but right now it’s happening too. So, by painting animals taking over our abandoned cities, I’m painting a very optimistic idea. That’s why I think my paintings have a hopeful tone. This is the moment of calm after the storm when animals return to the land even though it’s been paved over. They’ve adapted to life on the pavement.
What are you working on now? What’s next for you and what are you excited about for 2014?
I’m working hard on some upcoming group shows. The fall show is at Antler gallery here in Portland, it’s called Unnatural Histories and all the art is based around mythical creatures. Everyone wrote an accompaniment statement to their individual piece which I’ve never done and it’s a great idea. I’m also excited to be showing with the other artists because they’re all heavyweights. I recently made artwork for a band from SF called Beats Antique who are pushing the visual boundaries with their live shows. On this Thousand Faces tour, the art gets projected on 3D forms built on stage to create a whole animated 3D city. There are may artists and animators involved, it’s going to be crazy. There’s another group show in Chicago at the Merel Gallery that opens December 13th. It’s called Evolution and there will be amazing food made specially to accompany the art. I’ve never heard of that before so it’s definitely a new experience. There are four other artists who are kings of the poster art scene and they’re all doing originals. I have a show this spring with Jessica Hess at Breeze Block Gallery here in Portland. This will be an awesome urban landscape show because our work has similar context but very different visions. The opening is April 3 2013 and I have a ton of work to do!
What is a something, a song, a food, beverage, movie, etc, that you’re obsessed with right now? What about it draws you in so deeply?
There’s a lot of amazing art out there, I discover a new mind blowing artist every day it seems. I also get obsessed with a new album and then listen to it too much and get sick of it. So, I’m always on the hunt for new music. I need music to paint, it helps so much to get lost in the work.