Bradley Butler wants his work to floor you. Literally. A former graphic designer, he has hopes that his eerie “dreamscape” painting will disorient viewers and cause some dizziness. Working out of a peaceful studio in Upstate New York, Bradley likes to combine the processes of writing and painting, getting inspiration for the canvas from the page and vice versa. We got a chance to talk over the phone about his work and get a glimpse into this contemplative mind.
How does your background in graphic design affect your current work? How did you know it was time to move on from graphic design to painting?
Right out of highschool I got a job at a print shop and at the same time was going to a community college to get a two-year degree in graphic design. At the print shop I was an apprentice to a designer that was there and then a couple years after I started, she left and I became the head designer at the print shop, while still going to school. So my graphic design experience comes from working in the shop, going to school, trying to do some freelance design work on the side, all really for print. From there, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do—maybe go on to get a four-year degree in design, I wasn’t sure. I decided to go to school for a bachelor’s degree in art education, and it was there that I had to take a lot of art classes. I took my first college-level painting class and something just really resonated with me. The action of painting just really felt right. From then on, I considered myself a painter. I think the design comes into play on a subconscious level.
Do you think you will remain a painter for the rest of your career or are you interested in any other mediums?
I don’t think I have any kind of allegiance to painting in general. I really like working with charcoal—drawing with charcoal kind of feels like painting. But I’m also into hand-made books and working with paper.
What is your artistic process? How long do you think about an idea before it ends up on the canvas or drawing paper?
I’m always trying to get a manifestation of what your unconscious mind would be. So I’m trying to get a really deep and rich image...I want it to look like there’s been a lot of activity on the surface, a lot of visual depth. So I’m thinking about all these things as I’m cutting the wood to build the canvas stretcher, gluing it together. And then looking at that blank canvas and making that first mark. And then from there, the activity is informed by whatever mark I put on the canvas. I work in really short spurts. So it’ll be an hour or two hours of really furious activity and then I’ll walk away and come back to it the next day, or sit and look at it for a while and then think about it. There are usually about five paintings underneath one finished painting that I was happy with at one point.
You wrote a thesis to accompany your MFA work. How did that affect the painting? How important is theory to your practice?
The practice of painting is definitely tied into my practice of writing. I write in my sketchbook—I never draw. I find that writing about what I’m thinking about really helps me to know what I’m doing. And that’s really how I wrote my thesis for my masters. So there’s definitely a big link for me between writing and painting.
You cite Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists as influences. How much do you consider your work to be a continuation of some modern tradition? Or do you try to operate outside any art historical realm?
I don’t really consider myself to be in any kind of continuation of any other movement, but I definitely have influences from the Abstract Expressionists. I’m less tied to “Action Painting” as I am to the idea of the abstract—it is an action, and what you’re seeing are remnants of activity. I’m more in line with the surrealists in that way. I may or may not know exactly what I’m doing at the time. I try to use chance and intuition, relying on unconscious thought.
How are abstraction and realism connected for you? What are the ideas behind the work you’re doing now?
I think that realism and abstraction are in a fluid state. There’s a push and pull between the two. For me, you can always recognize something in an abstract composition. You can’t really ever say that something is completely abstract, because there’s always something that you’re trying to recognize. Both the real and the abstract are coming into play for this present body of work. The idea came from these strange occurrences, instances when I would see something that wasn’t there. Almost like a feeling of déjà vu: you’re totally present where you are but you see something out of the corner of your eye that’s really not there, a mistaken identity of something.
Creepy. Is there a message you’re trying to communicate to your audience through these depictions, or are they purely aesthetic?
I would hope that when people look at one of my paintings, it’s something that they kind of get lost in for a short amount of time. It was always an idea that I had that it would be great if I could have people look at my work and then fall down because they’re disoriented! So I’m trying to make them think they see something and get totally caught up in the image. And I think that’s something that a lot of artists feel—they really want people to spend time with an image. I would really like people to see something they might recognize but then it disappears.
So you’re trying to recreate that feeling you had yourself?
If it wasn’t based on something that’s real to begin with, it probably wouldn’t be something I could commit to for a long time!
What inspires you?
I feel like I’m always working, even if my hands aren’t dirty with paint or charcoal. If I’m driving for a long time and looking around, I start to see visions of my painting in nature. Once when I was driving my stuff to Artsicle last year, driving through the Cortland area, there are all these mountains and rolling hills, and I started to see a current painting I was working on! It was really interesting to see it go from the painting to nature rather than from nature to the painting. Nature is something that I’m definitely inspired by. But really it’s just the surroundings that I’m in: everyday interactions, thinking, writing. Moving from one period to another happens whenever I feel I’ve exhausted a certain idea or a certain way of working.
Being an artist working upstate rather than in NYC, how important do you think it is to be a part of the art “scene”? Do you feel connected or would you rather be isolated?
The only thing location has to do with is how readily available an art scene is to you. But Rochester has a really great scene: there are new galleries popping up and there are a lot of places to see art. So I definitely feel like I’m connected. And now with the internet, it’s easy to have connections with the people in other areas and ways to stay informed about what’s going on. The proximity of New York also allows for semi-frequent visits to see big shows that are really exciting. It gives me a chance to be part of the larger art world.
Where do you see your career moving in the future? What are you working toward?
I’m always hoping to progress. Maybe start working in more big cities. As an artist living outside of New York City, it’s hard to get there all the time, so being a part of Artsicle is a really great thing. I’d really like to try to expand the amount of things that my paintings are pertaining to...really just evolving from where I am now. I would like to work on a much larger scale: more people seeing them and making the paintings larger themselves. I’d really like to make a giant painting, that would be my dream.