Craig Drennen is assistant professor of drawing and painting at Georgia State University and the dean of Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. “Craig Drennen [Dramatis Personæ],” at Saltworks gallery through March 3, reveals the latest progress in his ongoing project, in which he uses Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” as the conceptual framework for a series of paintings and a performance focused on the play’s characters.
Rebecca Dimling Cochran: “Timon of Athens” is an unusual play for William Shakespeare. It is an unfinished work, never produced during his lifetime, and it has a tragic, unlikable protagonist. What drew you to focus on this play?
Craig Drennen: I am always interested in an idea that serves as a canopy over the work; it can sort of cover everything. And I like things that have already been made, things that already exist in culture but are abandoned. This one seemed kind of perfect to me because it seems relevant: it’s about economic betrayal, it’s about disappointment with your friends, your peer group, your community, and I think those things never go out of style. So it provided a nice platform to move up out of.
Nobody cares about “Timon of Athens.” If I had chosen “Macbeth,” there is a lot of activity within that bandwidth, but “Timon of Athens” is empty. There’s no talk about it. Nobody has strong ideas. Most people haven’t even heard of it, and so I like that unlevel launch pad where it’s the most famous English literary figure’s worst work. Plus and minus at the same time. I think that is mainly how we experience the world: as a bouquet of pluses and minuses all mixed up together.
Cochran: Your character sketches, if you will allow me to call them that, do not try to create a physical resemblance. Rather they attempt to get at the essence of some inherent personality or character trait. For example, the “Mistresses” were represented by lush pink paintings of anuses and the “Flattering Lords” by daisies. How do you locate the aspect of the character you want to highlight and tease it into visual form?
Drennen: The answer is twofold. Painting is a horrible narrative device. So many things are better. Film is better, literature is better, even song is better. Painting is just horrible at telling stories, and so I wasn’t really interested in narrative and I just got rid of that right away. The second part is, well, if there is no narrative, then what is left? And I decided that, again, because I think this subject and this idea system are relevant to now, I want everything to be contemporary. I would have a hard time being intuitive and just making work out of nothing in the studio without this kind of structure and prompt. So, basically, going down the list of characters and making work for every character allows me structure within which I can be intuitive.
So I don’t want it to sound like there is a rational “A plus B equals ‘daisy’” for “Flattering Lords,” but I am being intuitive, trying to get some image that I am thinking about in terms of the character. With “Flattering Lords,” I like the daisy idea because they are routinely pretty and close to the ground and everywhere, so they really never rise up, they stay close to the dirt. They’re sort of pretty and bright. They don’t have a smell; it’s all surface. That seemed sort of equal to a “Flattering Lord” to me.
Cochran: The show introduces us to the “Painter.” This interpretation feels a bit more literal, because you are using the tools of the character’s trade. But you seem to be talking about more than just what they do in the way you use the different kinds of paint.
Drennen: Well, that’s true. Shakespeare didn’t give a lot of the characters names; they just go by type. There’s jeweler, painter, merchant and so on. “Painter” never gets a real name. He shows up in the first act, and then later on he comes around begging for money in the second half of the play.
But I am a painter so I tried to think about, how would I address that? The more I thought about it, and I sort of tried out a few ideas, I decided to start with a big “X,” because painting and painters begin from a state of cancellation. The practice is always under debate; its continued relevancy is always suspect. So I liked having a big “X” that you can read from across the room: cancel. Having your tradition crossed out before you even begin seemed like a good way to begin the “Painter.”
Then I decided to make every gesture be a different color and a different material. So it started with drawing with the graphite, then it goes with the spray paint, then a layer of acrylic, then a layer of oil and then a painting of a Polaroid, because I think the impact of painting on photography … it’s difficult to even assess how important that impact has been.
It’s also [about] how quickly painting was able to learn from everything that tried to kill it. That is another thing I like about painting. Photography gets invented, painting takes a hit, but then it recalibrates and comes back stronger. Conceptual art comes in and makes painting irrelevant, according to [Mel] Bochner and all the others. Painting takes a hit, recalibrates, absorbs the data from conceptual art, comes back stronger. Minimalism was supposed to kill it, video art was supposed to kill it, and it never really dies. It is like a virus that constantly mutates and adjusts.
That’s what I like about it. The antiquated nature of its materials makes it extremely flexible. I think it’s like a semiconductor: it’s a flat surface where materiality and information are managed, and we couldn’t have all of our development without the flexibility of a semiconductor. I feel like painting is the semiconductor of the art world: a flat surface where information and materiality are managed. That’s why I wanted the last thing that you see right in the middle [of each “Painter” painting] to be the back of a Polaroid, which coincidentally looks like [Kazimir] Malevich’s “Black Square,” that kind of monochrome punctuation on the supposedly reductive end of painting. Then I have some cigarette butts floating down on the bottom because painters smoke because smoking is cool.
Cochran: Both the Polaroid and the cigarette butts are painted in a very realistic manner. In fact, at first I thought the Polaroids were collaged.
Drennen: I’m not ideologically opposed to collage, but the reason the Polaroids are not collaged is because this play involves acting. Acting is extremely important to me as a painter, believe it or not. And one of the reasons I don’t use collage is because I like to force the paint to perform different roles. I want it to be expressive, I want it to be flat, I want it to be representational in a sort of 1970s kind of way and representational in an 1870s kind of way. It can be all of these things. If you look at that piece of tape and the Polaroid, and you think that it is real, that just means that the paint did an extraordinarily convincing performance. It built the accent and the character so well that you thought, my gosh, that really is the Iron Lady instead of Meryl Streep.
Cochran: “Apemantus,” the philosopher, also makes an appearance here. He is represented in the gallery by a papier-maché head based on your likeness, which is a remnant of a performance that took place during the opening when a person wearing this mask played the guitar and repeatedly sang “Awful” by the group Hole. What led you to present this figure not in painting, as with the others, but as a performance?
Drennen: This is a fairly new character. He was shown first in September 2011. With every character there is a technical challenge. So I had to learn how to do something. For the “Mistresses,” I had to learn how to mix a flesh tone properly. For “Painter,” it’s managing how to paint a Polaroid and tape and how to get spray paint to stick and be archival and so on. “Apemantus” is probably the most fully realized character in the play, which makes me think that Shakespeare really identified with him. He’s really mean in public, constantly giving devastating comments to everyone else in the play.
So because he was clever in public, that made me think it should be performative, even though that’s not really my skill set at all. I’m really a studio hermit. I stay far removed. I make it and then take it into the daylight. So this was really a challenge to me. I wanted the character to do something in public. I didn’t want it to just taunt people, so I thought, “What would be awful but not really poking the audience too much?” I thought, “Oh, I’ll just play a song called ‘Awful’ over and over. That’s a way of being awful in public.” Thankfully, Hole had already written a song called “Awful,” so I didn’t have to write one.
But I had never played a musical instrument anywhere, privately or publicly, and I had to learn how to play the guitar. The first two performances were last year, one in New York City at Socrates Sculpture Park on September 25th and the other at FLUX in Atlanta on September 30. Since [“Apemantus”] is mean, I did not want to put this meanness on anyone else, so I just had the papier-maché head look like me. After one-time use of the head, they get [the date of the performance scrawled across their forehead in red paint] and are never used again.
The Saltworks opening was the first time I had someone else play, and he was much better than me. There will be more performances coming up: one in Toronto and perhaps a few others. But even now, looking over at the head in the gallery, and looking at it as painting — a puppet head as painting — is really bizarre and interesting to me. When you have a row of them with different dates, it’s like the severed heads of your enemy, only it’s always me. All these unexpected art historical associations come up: Caravaggio’s “David and Goliath” or all the paintings of John the Baptist. None of that was expected.
Cochran: In addition to the focused look at individual characters, you’ve also made a series of large-scale paintings like “The Actors’ Names” and “Timon of Athens 8,” both in this show, that take a broader look at the play. What role do you see these paintings playing?
Drennen: About three characters in, I realized that I needed to step back and kind of summarize what had happened and what was about to happen. I’m not one that extends an olive branch to the viewers generally, but I also thought it probably would be a good idea, for me and everyone else, to just say what the name of the project is. So I started making the “Timon of Athens” paintings, which is about the play, not about Timon the character yet, and I thought, “I’m going to treat these just like they are posters for the play. It will give the name and a few hints of characters that have already happened.”
It turned out to be a great way to try out ideas for future characters. I don’t have everything planned out in advance. I usually stay just one character ahead, so I figured out what I wanted to do for the “Painter” in “Timon of Athens 1” and “Timon of Athens 2.” It’s like a sketchbook essentially. It allows me to think out the idea on a large scale and make it public and then decide if I am going to make a character out of it.
So almost every two characters, I’ll pause and make either a “Timon of Athens” piece or something like “The Actor’s Names,” which is a page out of the 1623 folio edition of Shakespeare’s works, made seven years after his death. The record [in that painting] — maybe I shouldn’t give this away — but it will probably be a character called “Servants.”
Cochran: To date, you’ve created a number of characters: “Chorus,” the “Masquers,” the “Mistresses,” the “Flattering Lords,” the “Painter” and “Apemantus.” Various configurations of this work have shown in Boston, Beijing and Atlanta. In each instance, you allow the galleries to select and install the work differently, much as directors would stage the same play differently. Do you learn anything new about the work during this process?
Drennen: I learn a lot. I don’t want to force my own subjectivity onto every aspect of the creative process. Just like responding to the play as a prompt, I also want to respond to what the curators or gallery owners think. It always ends up being better than what I would have come up with on my own.
I have been fortunate that I’ve been able to have these exhibitions sporadically. I had an exhibition in 2009 at Gallery Stokes, for which I will always be grateful. Dayna Thacker was the director, and she had ideas about organizing the pieces that never would have occurred to me, thinking of them as a character, like a “Mistress” would never stand next to “Timon of Athens” but would stand next to a “Flattering Lord.”
Then when I had a show at Samson, my gallery in Boston, the director there, Camilo Alvarez, had a different kind of idea that was more august and stately, where every character had its own divided section, and that had a totally different tone. He also had a new version of the “Masquers” characters that I wouldn’t have thought of. He set the 18 units of the “Masquers” in a rectangle, as if they were around a table, because they appear in one banquet scene. Things like that are so thoughtful and so useful to the work, and it would never have occurred to me.
When we were setting up [at Saltworks], Brian [Holcombe] had almost a cinematic approach. I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but he had this panorama when you enter, this first establishing shot. Then you walk in, have a repeated unit of the “Painter” that leads you into the back room, and so on. He had a really clear plan of what he thought would be strong, and I think he was completely right. I’m more than happy; in fact I’m eager to have that kind of collaboration with people.
Cochran: So you’re six scripted parts down, roughly 25 to go. How long do you think this project might take you? Do you think you can stick with it for that long?
Drennen: I have no trouble sticking with it. This really is the engine, its accumulating. I don’t foresee stopping. Getting started was a little slower. I started in 2008, so it’s been almost four years for only six characters, and I hope to pick up the pace a little, but I expect it will be 12 to 15 years. But I don’t mind the idea of a long immersion in a project.