I finally met with Brandon Bird after months of rescheduling. His action-packed jet-setting lifestyle as an acclaimed artist had previously interfered. Plus, we kept getting colds. We met near his massive downtown LA loft, which is his home, his studio, his business and still has room to raise fourteen elephants, should he wish to do so.
Every time I’ve come downtown, I’ve gotten lost. This was no exception. Googlemaps fucked me. Plus, the pub we were going to meet at was closed.
If you wish to imagine artists in exotic locations, picture Brandon and me in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, leaning against the Gates of Hell and sipping absinthe from the skull of Camille Claudel. In reality, we sat on cold metal chairs in front of a convenience store. Brandon bought me a Gatorade and we discussed homoeroticism, Sears and Chuck Norris and their relation to art.
Jason Henninger: It’s hard for me to explain to people how your art works. It’s not exactly ironic. It’s not simply contradicting elements. There’s a strange harmonic that comes with Bob Ross on a surfboard with a Rottweiler.
Brandon Bird: I have trouble explaining it too. I just like to paint things that I think are legitimately cool and legitimately interesting even if they’re interesting and cool because they’re silly. My friend Jesse Thorn does a radio show, and his concept is “the new sincerity.” Look at Evil Knievel. There’s a guy who does ridiculous things. He wears a cape and jumps over things, but he does it with complete sincerity. I like that notion.
JH: Right. You’re not making fun of somebody when you paint them.
BB: Yeah, and I don’t really like the pessimism that comes with really ironic stuff. Like Family Guy. That show makes my skin crawl. It’s mean. I like stuff that’s cool and awesome and fun.
JH: The most cliché question to ask an artist is ‘where do you get your ideas?” so I’m going to disguise that and ask how you chose your subjects.
BB: I’ll just answer both. Sometimes it’s a matter of making a list of people and subjects that I think are funny. Other times it’s “Eureka! I will paint Walken building robot.” Usually it’s the general idea first, the scene or style, and I ask myself how could I make it strange.
JH: I know a few of your subjects have seen your paintings and reacted positively. Has anyone been offended? Has John Tesh sent you a death threat?
BB: It’s so far below the radar, I don’t think anyone would care. I think Tesh would have a sense of humor about it, though. I mean, if your website is tesh.com you are aware of who you are and what you represent.
JH: Do you become fixated on a particular subject when you make a series of paintings, or does it come and go?
BB: With the Norton stuff or Law & Order, somehow I never felt that one painting would be enough. Doesn’t satiate the need, you know? Other times, I just think, “Eh, that’s it. Got it out of my system.”
JH: Storm Trooper Rod Stewart, for example.
BB: Yeah. That was never even in my system. I did it for a friend. I wasn’t jonesing to paint Rod Stewart.
JH: And you don’t generally paint musicians, I’ve noticed. Most of the celebrity subjects are actors or comic book characters. Or actors playing comic book characters.
BB: I don’t find musicians all that interesting. I’m a TV nerd. In my solo show coming up, I will have one musician, though.
JH: Gonna be quiet on who that is?
BB: Yeah, I’m gonna be quiet.
JH: When is your show?
BB: August 11. Gallery 1988 on Melrose and La Brea, right next to a comic book store.
JH: I got a tattoo just up the street from there. Do you have any tattoos?
BB: All my tattoo ideas are either too ridiculous or I have too much body hair. Though I was thinking of getting Jabba the Hutt on your belly so that when you’re old and fat, the tattoo will just get cooler. Or maybe a portrait of the A Team on my back. But my back is too hairy.
JH: You could go for Chuck Norris.
BB: That’d be creepy though. You know the shirtless Chuck Norris painting I did? I expect never ever to be able to sell that. To display that in your home you have to have the right counterbalance. You can’t just have that be the one painting in your house. You have to have Chuck Norris and a unicorn on the other wall, to even things out.
JH: Chuck Norris is an anti-unicorn. Speaking of tattoos, how did it feel when you found out someone got Abe-Kido as a tattoo?
BB: There’ve actually been a couple more that people have sent in. Somebody got the Walken head on their chest. And the squid fighting the whale fighting the dinosaur, on the small of their back. It’s weird. I I’m sort of flattered, I guess. But at the same time, I hope I never, I don’t know murder somebody? And they’d be like, “I got this tattoo and the artist turned out to be a murderer.” I don’t think that would be cool. Tattoos are a commitment.
JH: The celebrities subjects you chose are not exactly A-list, right? Some are former A-list, or permanent C+. You’ve mentioned before that you wouldn’t do Schwarzenegger or Oprah or people like that. Why not?
BB: They already carry too much content with them. Someone like Angelina Jolie, for example, who’s famous and has her hand in all sorts of causes and such. A painting of her would have to be about her. But if you’re doing Vin Deisel, you’re like, well, I know who that is, but otherwise you’re a blank. They’re kinda famous so you can fit the content around them and not be wrestling against them. Other celebrity art, like Warhol, is about that celebrity, and about the nature of celebrity. Which is fine. I’m just not into it myself.
JH: Have you ever gotten to the end of a painting and decided that one of the various elements just not happening? Should have been a Poodle on the surfboard instead?
BB: Have I ever halted a painting and thrown it in the garbage and started over from scratch? The answer is yes. Usually it’s the execution, not the concept. There were a few earlier Abraham Lincoln cage-fighting ones that ended up in the trash, but I eventually did it better. The Noam Chomsky one, too. But usually the concept is fully formed by that point.
JH: Noam Chomsky has seen it, right?
BB: I think so. Several people have told me they’ve sent it to him. A friend of mine worked with him after going to UC Santa Cruz and said he was always open to questions. Apparently he’s very accessible. When my friend told me this I got the idea for the painting. I thought I should show him getting groceries and putting them in his Noam Chomsky car. And then it became more about the car than him. I did want to do someone who was famous but not famous from being on TV.
JH: You went from the UC Santa Cruz art program to Artist in Residence at Cornell. How did that come about?
BB: I found it through a Craigslist ad. I had to leave Santa Cruz, I had graduated two years before and didn’t know what to do with myself. I checked the New York Craigslist and it just said “College dorm seeks artist in residence” and buried in it was the fact that it was at Cornell. I was like, that’s weird, cuz I think that’s a real school! I wasn’t exactly affiliated with the art program and I wasn’t teaching. I was just sort of hanging out. I wasn’t really a student. People who live in the dorms pay a fee to have extra arts programming, which includes having artists in residence and running programs and theoretically you can come down stairs and see what they’re working on. I was “enriching the building.” Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?
JH: Now that your business is a burgeoning commercial success, if that’s not too pretentious a way of putting it
BB: I hope it’s burgeoning and not waning!
JH: Does that change the subject matter? Do you now think, “This will make a good postcard”?
BB: I try not to do it that way, mainly because I can’t predict what other people will like. Like the Harrison Ford painting. I had no idea people were going to like that. It makes some sense, I guess. I mean, Harrison Ford is very recognizable and it’s very colorful. There’s an emotional base, yeah.
JH: No one wants to see Harrison Ford sad. You think, hey, who are those mean kids, and why won’t they play with Han Solo? Big meanies.
BB: There are a lot of ways to enjoy it, versus some of my paintings are a little too weird or unemotional. I have a few things that sell very well whatever form they are in, shirts, prints or whatever, and I sometimes think of marketing those so that I can have more time to focus on less commercially popular paintings. But I don’t want to make a whole series of, you know, “No one wants to go fishing with Harrison Ford,” or “No One Wants to Drive in the carpool lane with Harrison Ford.” But if I sell a hundred million billion Christopher Walken building a robot pictures, that means I have more time to paint silly things that no one wants to buy.
JH: More big hairy Chuck Norrises.
BB: Yeah, or the Captain Sisko stuff.
JH: Ok, let’s piss off some Star Trek fans. Why do you say Sisko a better captain than Picard?
BB: In terms of who’s a better leader, they’re about equal, but Sisko’s a better character. Picard was like “I’m an explorer; sucks I never had a family.” Sisko’s like, “I have a son, love my son. I’m gonna date, gonna get married, be a religious leader. I’m gonna punch a lot of people. I’m gonna win a war. I’m gonna yell.” Awesome to watch him go from his lowest low to his highest high. And if you lived in the Star Trek universe, I think Sisko would make more headlines, he’d be more famous. He did more stuff. I read that Deep Space Nine was run by the writers while all the producers were babying Voyager. Micromanaging it.
JH: Makes sense. Voyager always did feel like it had a stick up its ass.
BB: Deep Space Nine was awesome and everybody should watch it, just as everyone tells me to watch Battlestar Galactica.
JH: You mentioned at a gallery showing that the Christopher Lambert/Sean Connery painting was the most homoerotic piece at the show. What’s the most homoerotic piece you’ve ever done?
BB: Possibly the shirtless Chuck Norris, except no one actually wants to touch Chuck Norris. Or ever think about him in a sexual way. So probably still the Highlander one. Because the movie is already, you know two immortal guys who share their big secret and because of that no woman can ever understand them the way they understand each other. And they’re running and jumping of cliffs and fighting. Oh, it’s the Quickening!
JH: And it’s Sean Connery at his prettiest, except maybe for Zardoz.
BB: It’s a really well made, completely ridiculous movie.
JH: Penultimate question. What makes a perfect Sears? You obviously have an opinion on the subject.
BB: A perfect Sears is one that adheres to the large, beige aesthetic. No weird fixtures or trying to dress up the façade. If it can just be a slab, that is the Sears ideal.
JH: Is “Prelude to the Magic Hour” a perfect Sears?
BB: That is my childhood Sears, at the Sunrise Mall. The Sears of my memory. In my solo show, I’m working on another Sears, which will in fact be my ideal Sears.
JH: It will change art as we know it.
BB: Oh, it might.