Brion Nuda Rosch: The Basement Years

Studio Sessions

Brion Nuda Rosch: The Basement Years

By Kara Q. Smith October 22, 2015

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to Bay Area artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.


Brion and I met in the 1970s; we knew each other through Jim Jones, the infamous one. After surfing the LSD wave and studying cave art, then finally escaping from our stint with the Children of God in Huntington Beach thanks to copious amounts of whiskey, we somehow ended up at one of Jim’s communal homes near Balboa Park, arguing with him about race and politics in the Bay Area. Or am I just conflating my and Brion’s chance encounters at Rock Bar, during his previous life as a bartender there, with that one time we met to talk on his last day on the job and a lovely, long-haired older gentleman wearing sandals named Ron Turner sat down and told us really great stories?

Brion has been laying low for the last couple of years, mostly engaging with art and curation through group exhibits at ACME. in Los Angeles and DCKT in New York, and through his gig at Rock Bar, where he organized film screenings, happenings, and interventions with artists in the modest neighborhood bar. He’s been making work, but hasn’t been showing it…yet. I wanted to hear more from him about what he’s working on, how curating and making art intersect, and what he’s been doing in his basement all this time. After weeks of talking about meeting, and about how we could collaborate on this conversation, we finally met in his studio at the bottom of his house.

Accompanying this conversation are photographs Rosch has taken of work (and ephemera) in his studio(s); the photos were then photoshopped onto found images of empty galleries. 

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© Brion Nuda Rosch 

Brion Nuda Rosch: A few thoughts come to my mind any time anyone comes to me and says, “Let’s talk about art.” Talking about “art” is rather boring to me, AND now that we are away from the bar, Ron Turner’s not here right now, so I don’t have someone with stories that are actually interesting to upstage any boring “art talk.” I am aware that nothing is spectacular–and that’s not a false humbleness [on my part], it’s like there is nothing in the art world that I find spectacular, and there is nothing that I am doing that I find spectacular, but then that brings up the biggest contradiction because then I look out at what’s happening around me and there are so many things that I am excited about AND then I get down here in my own zone and I kind of start thinking: This is so great! Art can be great.

Kara Q. Smith: So something outside excites you and then you get excited about your work?

BNR: No, no, to clarify, there’s always these contradictions. At the end of the day, what I’m doing is the least interesting thing for so many people. I’m making big, awkward paintings that look like they should have been made in a cave a long time ago. What’s the point? But then I keep coming down here every night. Why? The contradiction is relating that to the rest of the world—when I’m out at a bar and the person next to me asks me what I do, and I talk about art and their eyes just sort of glaze over. I’d rather lie and say some other boring profession that they would not want to ask questions about. Then Ron Turner sits down next to you and starts telling you history and you’re just transfixed. That’s a story! I’m almost forty and I have no story to tell except that I’m just down here in a basement. 

I’ve been down here metaphorically and physically for so long, and now I’m looking out onto a new opportunity: I recently took a position at Minnesota Street Project, where I'm building access to a larger workspace, a community, and resources. For so long I have been dragging a sledgehammer covered in paint, and working on these canvases endlessly, being patient, just waiting for what's next. I feel like a lot of artists in San Francisco have been like: “FUCK, the last couple of years have sucked!” I’m now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, this progression into something productive, and there’s something to be said about that.

© Brion Nuda Rosch 

KQS: We’re surrounded by art down here. In particular, two large paintings. What are these?

BNR: Before the taped-up head fell down on this one, it was up here [re-tapes paper fragment to canvas]. Now I’m just getting to the point where the layering up is getting somewhere, but I’m wondering should I [long pause] is this going to go toward the figure idea, like the one next to it, or not. I could paint on something for years and never finish it. I just have to tell myself to stop–or follow self-directed rules.

KQS: There is a small, framed piece perched on the wall of a face, kind of like this one that I recognize from Googling you over the last several years. What is this piece doing here? 

BNR: This piece up here steps back to this idea of making a face with only three marks, which has been an ongoing constraint, and one I use when I think about landscape as well (e.g., “make a landscape using only three parts”). I could make these faces until I die. It’s easy and I never get tired of it. I like setting up limitations. I could sit here for hours making faces out of abstract, messy shapes that I create during mark-making experiments–that I make for paintings in the future, almost like sketches, which is kind of new for me. Just using old worktables as new paintings. But the three-mark rule simplifies the act of getting something done: If I make a face with three marks then I am done, versus making abstract forms everywhere and working on something forever, or looking at something forever. Even if a painting might take just a few minutes to make, I’ve looked at it for a long time. However, these paintings down here, they took a long time to make.

There’s something that is enthralling about taking work from the studio and showing it in an empty gallery. I think these paintings are heading to ACME. in Los Angeles.

© Brion Nuda Rosch 

KQS: What are you thinking about now, as you get ready to show work again? What’s going to happen with these paintings you are working on?

BNR: If I show these two paintings together, they can’t be this close together. That’s the interesting part about taking them out of the studio context and knowing they are going to have an independent voice and making sure the conversation pieces are having [in a space together] makes sense. If you add a different type of painting, maybe a form painting with an abstract painting and some other elements here or there–like a collaged work–then you can plan the formal starting point for the conversation and add complicated intention to the landscape of the exhibit.

Recently, in every show I had this set number of works or equations: a few collages, a sculpture, a collage hung up high. I became very successful at telling a certain story, which was great at the time, but I really want to take a step back and consciously make different decisions about what I am making and placing together. In these past shows each work is like a prop on the set of a performance of some sort. And the new shows may just have the same feel, but I like the idea of just hanging a nice large painting on the wall at fifty-eight inches center.

I [participated] in a group show in Seattle of all self-taught artists, which isn’t normally a flag I wave, but the Gee’s Bend artists, Grandma Moses, Henry Darger, Bill Walton, and Bill Traylor, among others, were in the show, so I immediately signed up. It was a really beautiful survey, and I felt out of place—I sent up some new work, but when I saw it installed, out of the context of the studio, it just felt like it was too soon to be seen. I felt like I represented myself and the works looked great individually, but it felt out of context for what the works meant to me at the time and the body of work I had intended them for. I think that is the nature of surveys. I know that they were received well, but it just seemed to be missing the dialogue, like the ceramic heads didn’t have anyone to talk to, surrounded by so much history. They were being shy.

© Brion Nuda Rosch 

KQS: That reminds me of an interview I read with Peter Saul, where the interviewer asked him a question about being included in the Outsider Art Fair and he said, “It's true I'm an outsider, but mainly that's my opinion. So I'm not sure I should have been there.” That stuck with me, this notion of how one works through the art world on a personal level, like in your basement, and how the art world processes things on its end. There seems to be many juxtapositions.

BNR: Wouldn’t it be great to be a part of the art world that just puts you in a box? That doesn’t even happen to anyone I know!

© Brion Nuda Rosch 

KQS: Doesn’t being put in that self-taught show feel a bit like that—someone seeking you out and including you in a group exhibition like that?

BNR: Yes, kind of…but I meant…

KQS: Do you mean like physically in a box?

BNR: Ha, no, not physically in a box, but being at that point in your career where the art world puts you in a box. When I hear the phrase, “The art world has decided this about you…” I think “Wait, someone in the art world knows what I’m doing?”

As grumpy as Peter Saul wants to be about this label, it’s just a label, and I’m sure he just doesn’t care about it that much. How many people would love to have that happen, the art world has assigned you this box! 

KQS: Yes, but I feel like another example you mentioned is the Gee’s Bend quilters. When I worked at Art Folk, a gallery in Alabama, I once met with someone who helped organize a traveling show of Gee’s Bend that went all over the nation. He told me that when the show opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which I believe was its first stop, the director flew several of the women out to a fancy opening dinner; at least a couple of the women had never been on a plane before. After some remarks from the director and curator, the quilters were asked to come up and say something. My colleague said they just stared out into the sea of tuxedos and gowns and after a moment, just started singing gospel songs. I’ve always loved that story.

BNR: I can’t remember if it was in Seattle or Portland but I saw a very thoughtful exhibit of aboriginal and contemporary painters. Nothing was labeled or intentionally defined as “aboriginal” or “contemporary.” There is something to be said about the conversation which occurred without labels identifying the work. As a visitor followed the exhibit through the galleries, more and more distinguishably aboriginal work appeared. It was not until entering the final gallery that wall text and videos provided guests with information. I thought that was thoughtful, giving the aboriginal artwork the same platform throughout the exhibit, considering how it is shared with the public in a way that is respectful. It is hard to pull off. I’ve seen it go wrong far too often.

When I worked at Creativity Explored in 2010, I put together two exhibitions of work by their artists, and it was important to me to show the work interspersed [with] artists just being artists. In this case I dislike an exhibit that labels artists as “self-taught” or “disabled”–just artists, please.

© Brion Nuda Rosch 

KQS: I love that story. Does audience, big or small, affect you in the studio?

BNR: I am anxious to do something soon, it’s time, and maybe [I can] even put something together by spring, but I am being up front with myself that I [long pause] It may take far more time for me to make the show I want to see happen at ACME in Los Angeles.

So maybe fall 2016, but whatever it is, it’s going to be the first time in two or three years that I’ll have been able to put this much time and thought into an exhibition. I’ve intentionally slowed down from doing one to two solo exhibits a year. Every time I show I feel like I learn more about how different audiences interact with the work, and I attempt to balance the line between having the art nerd who is informed with art history coming in and appreciating the work and wanting my niece to understand it as well, having no entry points other than the work itself.

KQS: Maybe I am just too optimistic, or have just gallery sat too often, but there is the uninformed viewer who can walk in and get it.

BNR: Totally. I think about that a lot, but I don’t know if it necessarily informs the work.

KQS: I think that’s fair. You’ve worked with people a lot, somehow consciously you have to think about people and their reaction to your work, even when you are holed up in your basement and don’t want to, and I like that about you.

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This article is made possible through the generous support of the Artists' Legacy Foundation.

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