Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Olimpia Dior
Part performance, part fine art, part photography, part prop styling, part straight up body painting, the one sure thing about David Henry Brown Jr.’s art is that it is more than the sum of its parts. There are two things that tie it together for us. First, the artist himself. In the instances we’re looking at here, Brown always makes himself the subject. Although, oftentimes that means that his very identity and thus “subjecthood” might be called into question. In fact, the artist would probably argue that David Henry Brown Jr. is not the subject at all, but rather the character David Henry Nobody Jr. is the one who appears before you. Clearly, as an artist, he is challenging identity in very interesting ways, and there is a lot to unpack, but the second thing that stands out about his work is, of course, that instant recognition effect it produces. You see Brown’s work, and you’re instantly pleased, even before the deeper meanings set in. Read on to hear about it in the artist’s own words.
What sort of background, training do you have? Looking at your work, I could see an art background, a performance background, maybe even fashion? Maybe a combination of all three?
My background is quite complex as I have a 25-year repertoire where I have reinvented myself over and over in very different mediums, as a New York artist. To start, I didn’t go to art school proper but attended The University of New Hampshire, a Liberal Arts University, where the focus was just on drawing and painting from direct observation. As much as I found this to be totally maddening, the oppression of it caused my creative spirit to react in an interesting way. While all the students tried to copy what they saw, I would rearrange the whole scene and even put the elements that I observed into my own fantasy context, change the direction of the light source etc. Luckily, the inclination to rearrange my surroundings in these drawings proved to be philosophically important and would play out in my art, in the future more fully.
My professors loved my creations and I got a lot of encouragement!! So, I’m not a product of a normal art school cookie-cutter mentality, I’m a Rebel!! I have wanted to change what art can be from the very beginning, (I’m serious). I go for the deepest depths but my work can also be super hilarious at times.
I moved to NYC in 1991 which was still during the Golden Age for artists’ in the Big Apple. By 1992, I started showing my work where ever I could, in parks, in bars and most importantly I started hanging out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where a burgeoning and really crazy and free underground performance and art-happening scene was kicked into full gear. It was at these DIY events like Organism in 1993, The Mustard factory, 93-94 and other pop-ups like Keep
Refrigerated where I started doing my first performances, all of which sent out really creative vibes in the community at the time. There was unlimited love for each other’s creations, even if they totally sucked! So I luckily came up as a young artist in a subculture that was TOTALLY divorced from mainstream culture. We had nothing to do with the oppressive forces of consumerist conformity-that was the gallery scene in Manhattan. This made me very free and nonjudgmental, and not afraid to fail, to stay experimental and to stay true to whatever I wanted to do as a really creative artist. This became who I am.
I think super importantly, when I started using my body or myself in the work, something really clicked for me. I didn’t need to make pictorial space, I realized that I am in the pictorial space of Life itself, that I live in a totally alive Painting (that is not under my control). These leaps and bounds and liberties I took were synergized to my developing understanding of conceptual art, art history and social theory, such as Guy Debord’s Society Of The Spectacle. I did start to show in galleries starting with Exit Art in 1995 and have continued to show in the Art World when I’m able.
Performance broadened my framework for what my art can be and this has kept me creatively diverse. So to answer your question, because I’m much freer than most other artists, my bodies of work have covered a lot of breadths and much like you indicated, my background is a complex mix of many mediums and materials.
I have basically worked through 10 major artistic periods in which I have invented a character that does performances and also makes objects. Each period involves very different materials and approaches because each character was immersed in totally different social communities. So, yes my background is in painting and drawing but I’m really more of a sculptor, or social sculptor, a reality hacker.
I have done performances, in reality, itself as a medium over long periods of time, most notoriously/disturbing of them at the time was my one-year impersonation of Alex Von Furstenberg (a real person, the son of famous fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg) in 2000. as Alex I snuck into scores of VIP events and cheesy celebrity parties in NYC, meeting the rich and famous and being photographed with them. I even snuck into a presidential event and met President Bill Clinton and Hillary as Alex. Sixty photographs document the nightlife of ”Alex” and formed my first New York Solo show in 2000. I took the story to the press and it created a national scandal at the time, appearing on ABC 20/20 TV news and on the front page of The New York Observer. I’m well versed in turning myself or others into illusions.
I stalked Donald Trump for a year in 1999 and met him 6 times. When he rumored he might run for President that year, I predicted the future and made Trump For President 2000 signs and campaigned on his behalf, taking the issue to the public on the streets of Manhattan at the time, in performances recorded on video. It was meant as a dark foreshadowing of the time we now live in.
I became a conceptual Fashion designer as a social sculpture and as a reaction to 9/11 from 2001-2003, so yeah, I’m experienced in fashion and textile. Because clothing is worn on the body it deals directly with the self as symbol and appearance and identity, some of the core threads of my work. I made clothing by subverting and modifying vintage conservative suits and shirts, It was sold in stores and I got a lot of press as DHBJR, the fashion designer.
I have worked heavily in costume, with myself and with the performance collective I founded in 2004 with 5 friends called the Fantastic Nobodies. Even before I have created my Instagram character David Nobody, who shape-shifts his appearance as his creativity, I was already thousands of different characters and costumes in the past.
These many older bodies of work are now being torqued, fused and combined to make the creations off my current body of work which is being made by David Nobody.
What will your performance at Trans-Ville 3 in December consist of?
I’m going to be in one of the Trans-Ville’s in 2018, I’ve no idea yet what wtf I will do, but I have a lot of ideas for proposals, generally speaking. i perform in my studio constantly and can take the many characters that David Nobody has created and turn them into larger works and live performances. My last live performance was “Self Portrait As A Buffet Table” which i did at the Spring Break art fair last March. It was curated by Coco Dolle and was videoed and later aired by Vice. I immersed David Nobody physically into a buffet table full of food along with two other performers and invited the audience to interact with the weird freak-out buffet spectacle. It was a great success, and totally bizarre and shocking, i think to some viewers.
I didn't need to make pictorial space, I realized that I AM in the pictorial space of Life itself, that I live in a totally alive Painting (that is not under my control).
Can you give us a rundown on how you define Resemblagè?
I coined the word Resemblagè to describe what my character David Nobody is making with this Body of work. It is a combination of the words resemble and collage. It is essentially physically collaging on your body/self with images from magazines, trash, body paint, wigs, food, consumerist detritus and whatever you can think of in order to alter your identity and appearance. It is turning the self into a digital mask. The recording of the ephemeral moment, a photo or video, becomes the work and lives on Instagram. The aesthetic mimics Photoshop or Apps but is all analog. On one hand, I’m making a kind of an infantile anti-selfie, and on the other, I’m reinforcing the idea that the internet is intervening deeply into our mental picture of reality itself. I’m looking at the idea that if for example, TV and Movies once influenced our perception of reality, than evermore so, reality and self-perception now mimic social media and the internet. The more time you spend on your iPhone, the more real life will appear to mimic what you see on your screen, in subtle ways. The creepy and Orwellian breakdown between public and private is displayed in a psychological manner on the visage of Nobody. It’s a clash of the inside of our humanity versus the language of the world we are immersed in, in society at this time. The construct of our current mental picture seems to mimic the attributes of art, to my way of thinking. My method is autodidactic, for sure.
I transform Nobody into a super creative problem solver by altering his appearance which looks like the strange visions of my dreams. There is a rhyme and reason, an interesting interdependence between his body and the things he attaches to himself. He assimilates his appearance to the objects he places around himself and produces emotions from this. These simulated emotions are a replacement for his Body. For on the Web, one has no body and perhaps this will become who we are in the not too distant future, Nobody knows.
What is your process like? Do you have an end result in mind when you begin? How long does each piece take you?
Its like 50/50, half the time Nobody can foresee the objective, and the other half he totally improvises and arrives at something totally unpredictable. I do use found objects that I find, like something incredible on the street, and it will just trigger a Resemblage. I pretty much work by a stream of consciousness and intuition. I walk around the studio fucking covered in food and other materials (often extremely uncomfortable after some hours) and still need to be able to operate the camera etc, LOL, it must look ridiculous!! It becomes a balancing act, like being on a high wire to keep my shit together. I need to be able to physically wear my subject matter, to get inside it, to live it, to experience it. I create many versions and record each one, observing how the image resonates in the recording. I continue to transform David Nobody and develop and change the work and improve the power of the image. The pieces take anywhere from 2 hours to a day or two. I generally post as soon as I’m done, with no hesitation.