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Interview with Kenneth Brown Jr., Los Angeles

Veröffentlicht am 18.11.2018

My name is Kenneth Brown. I am a visual artist living in Los Angeles, California...

My name is Kenneth Brown. I am a visual artist living in Los Angeles, California.
I hold a degree in History from the University of California at Los Angeles. My academic studies were focused on the history of the city (urban studies) and architectural history. After graduation, I worked for 5 years as a fine arts printmaker after which I began a working at The Getty Research Institute (an academic library in Los Angeles affiliated with The Getty Center) for 15 years. During my years there I worked in the capacity of Special Collection Assistant, Special Collections Reading Room Supervisor and finally Head of Special Collections Reading and Circulation.
As an artist, I work in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, printmaking and photography. My work focuses on the interconnectivity of things in a given space, in particular the visual dialog that occurs between the human environment, and the natural world.

What is it that you want to see?!X What is it that you’re able to see?!X
I want to see, what made things happen and I`m able to imagine how it felt when it happened. At least I think so...
Maybe I do understand the signs, the vocabulary and the language of what I see, but if not, someone else, who sees me pictures might be able to read the lines, that people leave on the surfaces of our world while they live their lives.
It is all simple and it is all very individual, but you have to be able to sense it.


Roman Hoffmann: In your images you focus on details and you combine elements with each other, making them look like what?

Kenneth Brown: I have always worked creatively by juxtaposing
various elements together, either within a photograph or by combining a series of my non-photographic pieces into a larger mosaic of images. I’m not trying to make them look like anything, it’s more about using details to evoke contrasts, continuity, tension, etc. I would characterize in general that most of my work is detail oriented. It is my tendency with photography to take in the entirety and then focus in on one particular aspect that interests me. Often these are subjects that may be overlooked by society or considered vulgar. They may be hiding in nooks and crevices where they are not likely to be seen. They may be found in areas not frequented by people. They may be found in garbage cans or dumpsters. I feel compelled look for these neglected, overlooked and isolated spaces and objects. I find them intriguing and mysterious. I’m fascinated by the way people continue to habitually alter these spaces and objects in some way. Graffiti is a good example. I suppose one could say that my work is somewhat archeological and anthropological.

RH: When you look at a subject of interest what do you see in it? What do you want it to convey?

KB: When I’m out in the field and I’m looking I’m not necessarily looking for anything. I’m trying to be very open. I often do not have an agenda or expectation. I don’t always require an agenda. Particularly in the beginning of a project. I don’t want to force anything to happen because that doesn’t feel right. I want the photo to come to me and not the other way around. Obviously, I’m looking for something. Colors compositions, juxtapositions of subjects. I’ve thought about it and for me my photography is sometimes like painting with a camera. Sometimes it’s less about the subject matter and more about the color and composition and the geometry. By focusing in on a detail I can subtract the greater context. For example, an entire wall where there are layers of paint or a patchwork of buffed graffiti rectangles. Here I’ll focus in on a particular section. It is here where I may compose a “photographic painting”. Other details may include the way light hits a piece of glass and the resulting dialog that transpires between it and the other elements in my image. It is this conversation of elements that I’m interested in.

RH: Why do you focus on the things you focus on?
KB: I like to see behind the facades and the shallow surface of things. I’m interested in capturing subjects that are a worn out, used, beat-up, stripped of their surfaces. It is here that I find a kind of truth and a profound beauty. That rawness of age, use and decrepitude makes me content. Nothing lasts forever in its current state. Nothing is static. Everything eventually breaks down and is re constituted into something else. That makes me feel settled. A false front or covering makes me anxious, perhaps afraid. I want to peel back the layers. I want to see it all. This is impossible of course, but I try nonetheless. The urban wall is a great example. They’ve been painted and altered over and over again. Perhaps windows have been bricked up and new ones placed elsewhere on this surface. Evidence remains. Always. I enjoy finding this evidence of human interaction with the environment be it natural or human made. These details are at times nearly invisible/hidden but never completely if you look carefully and know what clues to look for. Scars. Scars on surfaces. I’m interested in the mysteries of these scars or remains. I want to know what it is underneath it all. I’m frequently disturbed by the knowledge or suspicion of a hidden subtext. Something is out there, or in there. I can sense it. What is it? What’s really going on? The city is like that for me. What is going on here in this enormously large and complex organism-like human construct. What a mystery it all is! Why does this street look the way it does? What do these markings mean, and why? Why is this here and not there?

It is always interesting and never completely clear.
I like that.

RH: Is there something special to the places where you take your images? If so, what is it?
KB: Yes. Its community. It is where I’m at. It is where I’m living. Where ever I’m at, whether it be Madrid or Los Angeles, I want my work to be about my environment. I want my work to be labeled such. Not titled. These subjects exist in real time and in real locations. They are not vague generic random images. At least not to me. They all represent a specific place in my space. These are images exist in real locations and it is very import to me that they are acknowledged, recognized as such. This mosaic of image squares, photographs, paintings or drawings I generate form a greater representation of the place I live in. This is very touching for me. I find it very powerful visually. The effect can be overwhelming. I get emotional just thinking about it. This is in part what drives me to capture these images. That they may become greater than the sum of their parts. I like the feeling I get looking at this overall composition comprised of single discrete compositions. It feels wonderous. I work with all these little bits. Details. Little square images. When I envision seeing a large wall covered with these pieces I imagine all these elements turning into something more complex and deep. My wish is that this recombination may reveal new ideas and patterns that previously existed but remained unseen to me. All this dialog is going on between the images. The wrecked car is talking with the old mattress and the mattress is speaking to the shattered mirror. That’s exciting. It’s exciting that I never know what it will end up looking like or what kind of visual conversation I will generate. Mysteries. The mysteriousness of it all. I like this state of never really knowing. That is part of what my work is about. What is it? If I document this how will my other images respond. What may I see? Perhaps a new image or pattern? So, place, its where I’m at in Venice, in Western Los Angeles, in Greater Los Angeles... It where I’m at and what I’m feeling connected to.

RH: Are your images part of your language?
KB: Yes (laughing) absolutely. Images are really my only language (laughs). But seriously, visual language is so important and it’s what I respond to first. I feel it very powerfully. It is often overwhelming. The things I see speak to me in a profoundly deep way. They surpass intellect and go deeper. Images speak emotion and convey many things, tensions, conflicts, love, humor, past traumatic events and so on. So yes, images form a significant part my language.

RH: Sometimes you capture other people’s language, like graffiti. Do you think you understand what these graphics and images tell?
KB: I’m not a graffiti writer so I can’t profess to know what is in the mind of the writer, but I can say why it is meaningful to me. I was born and raised in this huge metropolis called Los Angeles. From a very young age I was aware of the existence of graffiti. I wanted to know what all these written words, names and symbols on the walls in my community meant. It looked amazing! Stylistically, it was so powerful in its composition, size, execution and bold placement on public and private surfaces. I was very attracted to the power of it and the implied community it seemed to convey. My home life was troubled then and as an only child I felt very alone and unseen, as a result these graphic symbols of identity attracted me. It is another language. What do these symbols mean? I wanted to know. So, I began a process of hand copying what I observed on these walls. Overtime through my own investigations and through acquaintances at school, some of whom were gang members, I figured it out to some degree. The power of gang graffiti was at the time was meaningful to me. I was like a family putting their members up on a wall or other surface. It communicated support, community and acknowledgement, three things that were lacking in my life at the time. This was very significant.

No matter where I find myself, I’m always catching tags. Looking for some particularly beautiful style that some urban calligrapher has practiced tens of thousands of times to perfection. I simple can’t stop. It’s a calligraphy. I’m interested in all forms of written communication from ancient mark making, classical calligraphy to modern day typography. Mark making and the fact that they are made by humans is an enormous interest of mine. And I love to that these “marks” get covered over continually. There’s gang graffiti, tagging, classic hip-hop style graffiti. They are in ways different, but ultimately similar in that represent the basic human need to be seen. To be seen is so important and powerful particularly to those who feel ignored or isolated on a deeper personal level. At least that’s how I feel about it. In a world where we often feel neglected, ignored, marginalized to see your name out there in community on walls snaking through cities on a train is powerfully self-affirming albeit totally dysfunctional. A name rendered in blockbuster script place upon a wall are a huge affirmation of one’s presence and identity. When I was a child in the 70’s I would often see films and photographs of these New York City trains, 400 meters long and completely covered end to end, inside and out with all these tags throw-ups and pieces. It was intoxicating. It was and still is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It provides the same excitement. Intoxicating. Highly stylized names up and affixed to a fast moving surface for all to see! It still fuels my soul. It’s simply beautiful! Vandalism? Absolutely! I’m I conflicted? Absolutely! And yet even given these reservations graffiti is for me as beautiful as anything I can think of. Kinetic art for all to see. Art in motion.


RH: You have wonderful “reflections images. Is it because it looks good or do, they have a special meaning for you, or do you associate special memories or feelings with this kind of images?
KB: I would answer yes to all of those questions. Sometimes it’s just simply the reflection, other times it’s a constructed complexity in the way the highlighted elements interact with the surrounding environment and the glass relative to its position in relation to the subject or subjects within my point of view. Sometimes I have found the glass to have a polarizing effect which changes the colors. Makes them appear more saturated/deeper. It will for example deepen the blue of the sky. So often when I look a window, I see something like a painting. It is framed. Some streets have appeared as exhibitions to me. Each storefront displaying a reflective painting. I love when I get a reflection compounded by other reflections within my frame of reference. Reflection of reflections due to reflective surfaces.

In terms of memories? I remember in Winter of 2016 when I arrived at the Villaverde Metro Station in Madrid one day. The station is a modern rectangular structure entirely comprised of glass except for the roof. It surrounds and covers the escalators leading to and from the station platforms below. The atmospheric conditions that day were bright, sharp, clear and free of pollution. So, when I got to this station after this rather unremarkable walk, I found its glass surface reflecting everything around it brilliantly. The sight of it just stunned me. It was so sublimely beautiful. The brilliance of this combination of reflections with the interior apparatus and vehicles, buildings and people moving outside and inside created this amazing visual event for me. It was so powerful compositionally. And the colors! The colors were sublime in their intensity and beauty. It was like looking at mural. Four murals in fact. One for each side and all of these surfaces are constantly changing. These “reflection murals” depicted the town, the adjacent above ground commuter rail station, the brilliant saturated blue sky and all the comings and goings of people trains car buses. Pure beauty was my inspiration. It simply looked awesome! That is, it. If I choose I could breakdown the images and examine how they change with my movement and choice of angle. Oh, I could spend a life time with a complex surface like that. There was so much there and always changing. Everything changes, everything’s reflected. Seeing new things in things you continually see. Nothing is static. Constant changing and reconfiguration.

RH: What do you associate with broken glass or broken windows?
KB: Truth. The way things are. They represent neglect. Abandonment. Perhaps anger. The result of a violent action for example. This I find sad. So, I guess I associate broken glass with abandonment. That said, I’m not giving up on these broken, neglected objects. These objects are still important to me through their current state and powerful symbolism
But they also represent the idea of impermanence. Nothing remains in its current state. Everything deteriorates, decomposes. Everything is a participant this cycle. A cycle in which its parts are broken down and at some point, a reassembled into something else. Impermanence. Nothing stays the same.
There is a beauty in there. The patterns of fracture and their interaction with light. The scratched or acid etched glass surface defacing the subject it covers. I find a beauty in that. It evokes the look of a scratched negative and yet it is not. I suppose I find a tension there. I’m capturing a defaced object and within that capture, I’m also defacing the capture itself. Nothing is too precious, nothing lasts forever. Ugliness is the truth and for me therein lies its profound and troubled beauty of it all.


RH: What is really significant [is that] you do not convert your photos to B/W. What do colors mean to you in your photographs?
KB: I really like this question. First off let me state I enjoy black and white photography and I have produced black and white images in the past. Perhaps I will in the future but for the time being I do not wish to work in black and white. I adore colors, they provide me with so much joy and visual stimulation. Color for me expresses in my work and what my eyes sees. A myriad of tones and hues. My work, among other things is about place and time. I’m not colorblind. Black and white and grey hues are not what I’m seeing or reacting to in my environment. So, for me to convert my current images to black and white would change the intent of my images and be...well, inauthentic.


©: Kenneth Brown Jr. / Instagram: @kilobravo26

Interview: Roman Hoffmann / Instagram: @romanhoffmannpoetry