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Art in the Balance: A Profile of Scottish Artist Lex Braes

 

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Who needs the craft most? Artist or patron? Scottish painter Lex Braes would argue that it is the painter, and that the act of painting itself is a way of finding meaning—in the diffidence of life, and in the rage that exists in all of us.

“Painting isn’t hard for me, it’s natural,” he says, in a gorgeous west coast Scottish brogue, tempered by years spent in Los Angeles, Zurich, and New York. I ask him more specifically about his process. “I see something; I draw something when I see it. Then there is a germination period from a few months to a few years. Then the image starts to make sense to me.”

The first time I visited with Braes in Brooklyn, New York, a few years back, he was, along with far too many artists, being evicted from his loft in DUMBO. He noted the imperative it had created in his painting. “Now that I’m just about to leave this neighborhood I’ve been noticing the suspension girders for the Manhattan Bridge. I’ve been here for years, and now there’s an urgency, and along with this urgency is a freedom.”

Freedom is a major theme in our conversations. The freedom to paint what feels natural versus what will sell. The freedom from the constraints of school-taught painting. The freedom from “camps” of artists, and the idea that there is “good” and “bad” art. For Braes, freedom means the difference between work that is merely willed work and work that is inspired—and the freedom from being easily categorized. I mention that he seems to have a sense of privilege about painting, about his right to be a success on his own terms, and that this contrasts with the more practical pull to commercial gain. “But I’m not comfortable with [the commercialism of art],” he responds, deepening the chasm between these two seeming opposites. “All I care about is the genuine article, the real stuff,” he says.

He grew up with a father who was a tradesman, painting houses, hanging wallpaper, painting tromp d’oeil images on grain doors. He hails from a grandfather who survived two wars and seven sunken ships. “He was a Highlander,” adds Braes, “of course, he couldn’t swim.”

The Braes family grew up in the Castlemilk housing estate in a working class area of Glasgow called Glenwood. He attended the experimental Glenwood Secondary School, a new type of school that practiced comprehensive education, and which provided working class students with a highly academic education. His school, in fact, was the first school in Britain to have a modern studies program. Phrases like “Dresden Bombing” and “American Negro” entered the lexicon of the school programs.

Little did Braes know then, but he was studying the same subjects that first-year college students were studying. He found this out years later when he met up with the head of the school system, long since retired. Braes also discovered that all of the heads of the school were members of the Scottish Communist Party, which explained the automated liberal sensibility amongst the teachers, but also the lack of diverse thought. Braes “got punished a lot for being different, for being interested, I guess, in myself. I think I developed a very strong repulsion for formal education—I had a very uncomfortable relationship with the system”— adding, with a wink— “to my great detriment.” His success as a painter—he has had a loyal following of private art collectors and gallerists—would indicate the opposite.

Today Braes teaches drawing to architecture students at the renowned Pratt Institute in New York. When I ask him what class he is teaching, he laughs and says he doesn’t know what it’s called—“I refuse to the learn the name.” He makes one up for me: “Analog Representation.”

As for his style of teaching, it is through action. “I believe the major themes or concepts come out of working, out of the practice of art,” he explains. “I can teach craft, process. But it is more about leading so that they can see for themselves…I’m teaching them rudimentary perspective that they should have learned at age 11, but got passed by.”

If there is a theme threading through Braes’ work, perhaps this is it, this sensation of not being passed by, of taking ideas and curling them into the paint brush as they occur, not being swept away by the ideologies of the moment, the flash in the pan trends, but stepping back and allowing ideas their full range of expression, without expectation. “It’s about deciding what’s important,” he says, “allowing yourself to be open, which wasn’t always easy for me.” Well, you are Scottish, I mention. “Yeah, all that fucking Calvinist shit,” he retorts.

Throughout our meetings, Braes speaks fluently about the tension between the artistic and commercial aspects of painting, and admits that he has steadily spurned the role of typecast contemporary artist, full of commercial savvy. This is most evident in his deliberated decision after September 11th to break away from his dealer in New York and what he calls “the art marketing machine.” He is a man who wants to paint—if he lived in the age of the Medicis, I believe he would pour pigment all day and surface only to accept a commission, and even that, somewhat reluctantly.

But that is an exaggeration, of course. He would also stop for tea and cakes, and for the vital embroilments of life, love, and sex. Food and love are passions about which Lex seems to draw little division from his work. In this respect, he is like an octopus, tentacles perusing anything within grasp and taking passionate hold of those objects (people, marmalades, cats, beers) which are both immediate, and immediately arresting to his senses. He is a man of great passion, and the broad strokes of his brush, plush strokes of thick red lines bear witness to a markedly rich interior life in each painting.

But I speak mostly of his earlier work, two, three, four years back. There is a new stroke in the brush today. Less abstract, his painting has taken on a sense of yearning—to comprehend faces, emotions, masks, and to paint an image that tells a specific story. As he explained to me in a recent email, intellectual rigor is essential to his work; he is inspired by everyday life, to be sure, but also by writing, by the Frankfurt School, and by the Deconstructionist movement in Paris—Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and the like. With each painting, Braes takes his initial subject matter—that image or thought that first grabbed his attention— and ardently deconstructs the myths that surround the image, as well as the myths that envelop the act of painting itself. Thus he makes intellectual decisions about the work while allowing for a deeply personal improvisation to actually reinvent the canvas. And the magic of his work is that despite the deconstruction, despite the slow accretion of image over idea, in the finished product the story is still wholly up for grabs.

“If you limit the idea to a product, rather than a gem, you lose the point,” he explains. “I try and allow the attraction of the image to generate an open possibility of an idea, not a closed one.” A prime example of this is his series of paintings with men and women looking upwards, to the sky, to a bird, to a building, to something. What that something is is entirely unclear, and Braes himself doesn’t have an answer.

He painted many of the images of upward-glancing people while on a month-long residency at Yaddo, the artists residency in upstate New York. When it came time to show his work to his fellow artists, many of them assumed that the paintings evoked September 11th—that they were images of people in Manhattan staring up as the World Trade Center came down. It is easy to see this in the paintings, but in fact the thought had never occurred to Braes.

“The heads looking up—I’m not exactly sure why, it just happened and I went with it,” he explains. “If I make something specific, it’s not interesting to me anymore, in the way I need it to be interesting.” The need for an open mind while painting is what Braes feels separates him from being just a journeyman building a chest of drawers for a specific client. (Images of his father and the wallpaper and grain doors come to my mind as he explains.) He returns once again to his larger theme, the escape from being enslaved by commercialism, “that you’re not stuck in the professional realm, which is deadly.”

What is it that he is interested in, I ask? Survivors. The working-class. “That’s who I represent—the under-known. That’s my culture,” he says, more to his paintings than to me. The question, then, is how to level the playing field, while rising to the top. In this vein, Braes seeks to create “something that will exist on its own terms, usually. So that, regardless who looks at something, you don’t need to exclude the uneducated, or uninitiated.”

After a late morning at Braes’ new studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, replete with tea and delicious biscuits and bread, Braes drops me off at the train station.

“I don’t know if you got anything from this meeting,” he tells me. “I just hope I don’t sound like an asshole.”

Hardly. There is a tension to our conversations, a sense that he wants to speak endlessly about the holy act of painting and creating, but at the same time is aware that a quotation given to an interviewer is somehow a depletion of the artist’s power.

But I did come away with something, a great deal in fact, most of which isn’t easily put into words. It wasn’t so much that what Braes says is entirely new or newfound, but rather, that he truly means what he said—each word. One line came back to me as I sat on the subway, heading back into Manhattan. “Good paintings keep you straight. That’s one of the reasons I paint.” I left Braes’ company refreshed, imbued with a sense of painting as necessity, and with a fear that Braes may be one of a dying breed—the artist who paints because he must.

The work of Lex Braes can be seen in the coming months in Dusseldorf at the Felix Ringel Galerie.

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