Jesse Bransford in conversation with Josh Freydkis, Spring 2010
This interview originally appeared at http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, this immensely talented Brooklyn-based artist spends his time scouring the world for signs of esoteric iconography. Equally inspired by the technologies of Star Trek as he is by the reaches of ancient occultism, Jesse Bransford’s work is built upon a disparate amalgamation of forgotten imagery drawn from cultures past and present. Juxtaposing a mix of spaceships and medieval beasts alongside astrological diagrams pulled from obscure manuscripts, Bransford’s work utilizes a complex visual vocabulary in order to deconstruct the foundations of modern myth.
Jesse Bransford, Plant Consciousness, 2007, 76x26”, Acrylic, watercolor and graphite on paper.
Collection of the Artist.
Bransford recently finished up his sixth solo show with New York’s acclaimed Feature Inc. The show, titled “The Jungle (for Norma),” was centered around Bransford’s experiences with the psychotropic plant ayahuasca under the guide of an Amazonian curandera. The body of work consists of intricately crafted watercolor paintings, as well as an extended series of dice based sketch experiments, that serve to both artistically and scientifically dissect the formative visions induced by the plant.
Bransford received both a BA in history of sciences and a BFA in painting from the New School for Social Research, as well as an MFA from Columbia University.
For more on Jesse Bransford, visit www.sevenseven.com/bransford.
Josh Freydkis: You’re one of many artists I’ve spoken to who has recently done ayahuasca. What drew you to seek out such an experience?
Jesse Bransford: Yeah, it’s been interesting how these plants have really gotten a lot of attention lately. I say great, frankly. As far as psychedelic experience goes, it’s the least likely to become a party drug. The vomiting and potential diarrhea would seem to preclude that. I think ayahuasca use has really great potential (and I emphasize the term potential) to change people’s relation to themselves and the world. It certainly has mine.
I’ve been interested in consciousness and how we think it works for a long time. I think most artists are. I think if you’re really interested in consciousness you eventually have to approach the ways to alter consciousness. Seeing around a thing or idea gives you insight. It’s really a shame, plant/drug/chemical induced alterations to consciousness have such a bad rap in our culture, mostly because of the media’s focus on it as a leisure/recreational activity. The disdain is extremely duplicitous when you realize how many other chemicals are basically force-fed to us. I can say I went into the woods and meditated for 3 days and people might look askance, but when I tell them I went into the jungle and drank a psychoactive tea, well, I tend to lose people... I find it especially strange given how much of our culture seems obsessed with the idea of novelty. My psychedelic experience has been extremely useful and constructive. There are definitely pros and cons to these experiences and I think they are certainly not for everyone. Like everything else, how you approach them and what your intentions are seems to count for a lot.
JF: What affect did the visions have on your work?
JB: My ayahuasca experience had an enormous effect on me. Lots of personal, introspective, near-mid-life stuff (I’m 37), pretty boring to talk about actually, but enormously important to being a person I think. As for my work, I had to stop everything I was doing and make a completely new body of work about what had happened. I basically had to try to reinvent myself. I think if you are looking at the work I’ve done the results are pretty nuanced to most people, but the change is definitely there. Coming back to the project I put aside has been really interesting and amazing too.
Jesse Bransford, Untitled (Ayahuasca Vision), 2008, 29.25x18", Acrylic, watercolor and ink and on paper.
JF: Given our current state of over-access to information, can anything remain truly esoteric?
JB: Absolutely. I think there is so much information now that things get lost. I also think it is getting really hard to know anything with any depth. Reading the wikipedia article about it doesn’t count! The more information there is to look at, the less time there is to give to any one thing. What we choose to look at becomes really important. I actually think esoteric knowledge was founded on this in the first place: looking really long and hard at something. Even before we had access to all the information on the net there was too much stuff. One theory that I partially ascribe to is the idea that consciousness is actually a reductive model, a floodgate of sorts. Lacanian thought says that if we saw what was really here in front of us, the totality of our being, we would go insane. Psychosis in this model represents an inability to shield the self from the totality of everything. Reality is an image we produce to filter the un-fathomability of the real. So with more information out there for each of us to focus on, what is known to one person is probably truly esoteric to another, filtered a different way. Knowing the ‘secret handshake’ of the Masonic order is different from feeling the brotherhood of giving and receiving the handshake (I’m NOT speaking from experience in this metaphor BTW). Thinking this way has made ideas of community and the social a lot more interesting and full of potential. And VITAL.
JF: What prompted you to pursue a BA in science? Did you have any intention of becoming an artist at this time? Would you say this provided any advantages over receiving a traditional arts education? Would you advocate one path over the other?
JB: I had known I wanted to be an artist from a really young age. The BA/BFA thing was originally a compromise to my parents. They were really intent on me going to a ‘real’ school and I had to make a pretty strong case to get to go to the New School/Parsons (art school) and still have their financial support. I knew I had to be in New York, and they knew that this was probably a terrible idea. In the short term they were right, but in the long term I think I knew what I was doing. And I got a pretty awesome education in the process. As for the concentration of the BA, it was almost accidental. I found a mentor in that area, a professor who understood what I wanted from my education better than I did, and his specialty happened to be the history of the sciences. The pairing of art with liberal art really worked for me at the time, partly because I was always able to give myself a view from outside. All of the discipline-specific arguments that I was working with had a counterpoint somewhere else where I was looking.
Jesse Bransford, Luna, 2009, 39.75x21.75", Acrylic, watercolor and ink and on paper.
Collection of the Artist.
JF: How did you apply your interest in art?
JB: My thesis/research at the end of undergrad was all about color theory and its history. I ended up writing about the dubious polemic between Empiricism and Romanticism in the personages of Newton and Goethe. It’s been amazing how much of what I learned in those years has followed me, and how much I’ve used that to make a bridge between my art and my other interests.
JF: What about "traditional" art education?
JB: I certainly don’t advocate any idea of ‘traditional’ art education. The only thing that makes art education even remotely advantageous is its openness and lack of a real tradition. The art school I think about is in theory light years ahead of other institutions, mostly because it has discarded the notion of a fixed body of knowledge. Art school really stopped being about making things at the end of the 19th century. The rest of the world sees art school through a 100-year-old lens. But in my experience it is this misinterpretation from the outside that enables most art schools to do a few things really well. Critical theory programs can really flourish in an art school in a way they can’t in a media studies department. Art educators don’t pretend to have mastery of theory, so theorists can teach what they know and are interested in much more easily. This ‘non-mastery’ idea has trickled down into the other arts media over time, and the so-called new media have also complicated the issue of mastery. It is a total mess, don’t get me wrong, but I think the successes it can produce are pretty amazing...
I got a lot out of my educational experience because everything was such a mess. I worked with a few teachers who believed in knowledge, but also believed in teaching about learning. Learning is not about the right answer or the best way, it’s about recognizing there is always a bigger picture.
JF: What does the term "outsider" artist mean to you?
JB: Untrained, usually uneducated in their medium, sometimes with prominent organic aphasias and agnosias. It is one of those terms that almost meant something once, but even then it was a problematic term on the best day. Seems like a lot of people use it now as a badge to assert their disdain for the ‘art world.’ I think if it is descriptive of a life and career that was unappreciated in its lifetime it makes some sense (Henry Darger fits this bill perfectly, but it makes someone like Howard Finster not quite fit). I sometimes cynically think the term just defines how well the artist has been able to exploit the economics of the art market.
JF: How do you define artistic success? By this definition would you consider yourself successful?
JB: I think an artist’s sense is that their success is always over the next hill. I think it is really hard to measure in any external fashion, especially when looking at yourself. I’ve had a lot of great things happen in my career, I’ve had as much opportunity to exhibit as many of my peers, but until recently I would not have considered myself successful. Success in this culture is really contaminated with economic concerns. It’s pretty boring. I think I realized I was successful when I started thinking about it in terms that I wanted for myself. I was very confused for a while about how money fit into the picture. Not that I was thinking about it all the time, not that it was a specific goal, but I think financial success is THE measure of a successful life to most people right now. It is what we are conditioned to believe. I had the assumption that financial success was at least a by-product of any other success. Realizing that most of my heroes are/were relatively impoverished set up a polemic a long time ago and I think it is where a lot of the tension in being an artist comes from. Recognizing that there is success that can be completely divorced from economics, while obvious, has taken a long time for me to feel.
Jesse Bransford, Rising Moon (Malcha Betharsithim Hed Beruah Schehakim), 2009, 49.5x30", Acrylic, watercolor and ink and on paper.
Collection of the Artist.
JF: Can you talk about your obsession with skulls?
JB: A skull is a weird thing. It’s the primal bridge between thing and body, person and corpse, life and death, etc. It represents the mystery of life in a way that is ineffable. Calling it a cliché is a dodge and just means you’re steeped in pop culture. The critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin was my access to the idea of allegory, and his analysis of everything from consumer culture to religion hinges on an image’s ambivalent relation to its ‘meaning’. Staring at a skull for a long time makes you think about your own mortality, that you or at least a part of you will someday be a skull. Eventually you realize that in thinking about death you are actually meditating on life and the circle loops on itself. That’s allegory. Skull=Death=Life. It has to be experienced for it to make sense though. It’s like a gestalt image, you can only see the chalice or the two people, never both at the same time. You have to experience the image in time to get the full allegorical content. I have really enjoyed looking at the infinite ways a skull can be representative of this oscillation.
JF: What were you like in high school?
JB:See the answer to the question below :)
JF: In recent years, it has become hip to be a nerd. What does it mean to you to be a nerd?
JB: Hip comes and goes. Being obsessed with minutiae used to be useless, but now it is a useful tool for navigation. Pop culture has built itself around our ability to remember narratives. You can see evidence of this in where we cultivate our humor. The Simpsons and The Family Guy (as ubiquitous examples) both rely on mixing metaphors and crossing narratives. It’s bad form to mix Star Wars and Star Trek narratives: it’s funny. These narratives also have long histories: to be a Trek nerd you have to be fluent in almost half a century of narrative arcs. We think ‘wow’ when we hear how people used to have most of the bible committed to memory, but how many people have every Star Wars line memorized, or has command of the smallest details incidental to the narrative, like what race builds Stormtroopers... From this perspective, all the high-low culture stuff becomes TOTALLY irrelevant, because in a way this knowledge is no different than knowing all of the names of the muses or the apostles etc. I also think the increase of nerd status is a nod to the breadth/depth thing I was talking about earlier. The nerd is the person that goes deep into a territory, can always make the person who is conversational in a topic realize there’s more going on (usually to the point of annoyance, right?)
I am obviously a nerd (the Kaminoans, duh), but I experienced the sand-in-the-face version of nerdom that I’m sure is still out there. I wore the term as a badge of honor and it is surely still a part of my identity. I think the shift in our relationship to information has made some of the attributes of nerdom attractive, but I doubt it is truly considered cool to be a real nerd.
JF: How do you foresee systems of informational organization evolving in the next decade (i.e. what comes after Wikipedia?)
JB: I honestly have no idea. The way things have become so push oriented is really scary though. I feel like it is making little bubbles around us so we only see the information that our robots think we want to see. From a use perspective, sure, signal to noise has to be manipulated, but I miss the not-knowing-what-you-are-going-to-get of early web browsing. I think the image tumblers are playing a lot on that nostalgia. Facebook looks like it is about to tank, and if Apple is not careful they could blow their winning streak too, both because they are making bids for a total control of these networks. I definitely think ‘open’ is the real deal, anything that tries to get a hold will ultimately fail.
JF: What initially drew you to Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, etc.?
JB: Funny, as I am answering this I just found out that Ronnie James Dio has graduated to the next level. That would be the short answer: Ronnie James Dio. The long answer is a little more involved, and without lines like “don’t write in starlight, ‘cause the words may come out real...”
JF: What is it that excites you about fantasy?
JB: Fantasy is the space where the play-space of childhood transitions into the plan-making of adulthood. Let’s be honest, plan making sucks and is at the core of what sucks about being an adult. Plan making assumes you know what is going to happen, that you want to control what will happen. It’s about a kind of control that really tries to deny the uncontrollable nature of reality. I guess it is just a very specific kind of fantasy. I always think about the game of ‘why’ we all play with our parents at some point. The fact you can say ‘why?’ to whatever answer you were given shows that no amount of planning/explaining can account for our being in time and space. And we figure that all out at five or six years old. Fantasy is the space where ‘could be’ and ‘is’ overlap. A good reaction to the world has to mix knowing and not knowing, reality and fantasy. Fantasy actually describes our lives much more accurately than the plan-based reality of technical civilization. I really hope it doesn't’ take a real catastrophe (and I mean a REAL catastrophe) for the species to get that through its cumulatively thick skull.