Brennen Cabrera: The Grit And Grime Of Art

Brennen Cabrera’s art is fluid, changeable and explores their interest in what is raw, textural, dirty and destructive. It analyzes life at its most base and atomic level. They don’t create without the audience in mind but much of the work explores issues personal to them. Audiences are given an experience that helps frame the concepts Cabrera presents. Cabrera is thoroughly modern, connected in the usual continuum of art’s legacy but working in a world, at large, challenged with diseases like COVID or, now, Monkeypox — illnesses that result from those diseases — and technology. Cabrera’s creative problem to solve, just like their contemporary artist counterparts, is also one created by modern living.

LEO: Talk to me about your art practice? 

Brennen Cabrera: I consider myself multidisciplinary, however, my main focus is mixed media painting with sculptural elements. Drawing, performance and my cellphone approach to experimental video are the other areas. I have a studio in Clifton, and I also work from my apartment that’s a healthy distance away by bike or foot. When it comes to mixed media, I commonly use acrylic paints and mediums, dry pigments, unprimed canvas and wood surfaces. Sometimes I use unconventional materials like dirt and human blood. I’m interested in rawness, texture, destruction and grime. I like things that faced the elements. I do a lot of layering, staining, distressing, mark-making, dialogue and occasionally realism. I look at a lot of things on my walks, like scratches, marks and residue on different surfaces. A lot of what I look for in those surface obstructions is subtlety, but they most definitely get a lot more obvious. I’ve been focusing a lot on a minimal color palette and incorporating vibrant colors when I feel it’s necessary. I find myself interested in black and white, colors associated with nature, and liminalist colors like muted tones and pastels. When I get to the studio, I put on some music or an arthouse film and get to creating. My work is both planned or unplanned. Planned, of course, comes with a drawing or reference on paper or a phone. If it’s unplanned, I do have a concept in mind, but no visual reference, and I go by observation of the piece over time. I apply these things when doing something performative/filmed as well.

When performing the piece, I must document through video and photography. I also have relics, which are the things I interacted with or wore during the performances. I make time to do computer work, social media, and of course, go out to support other artists in the community.

How do you use art as a way to tell a personal story? Do you try to reach others with it or is it more about catharsis and process for yourself?

As an independent queer autistic man, some of my work shares personal stories. I never wanted any of my art to be just for myself, even if it is cathartic. I think it’s important as marginalized artists to share personal experiences both pleasurable and painful to society to find relativity, understanding and artistic growth. I find that performance art can be an interesting and different ballgame when telling something personal. An example would be my most recent event, Come to Church. I snapped when I started working on it. A few meltdowns in the space where it was going to be. It wasn’t from building the set but more from what was on my mind.

I wanted something immersive. I wanted the audience to experience overstimulation and the horrors of ableism. I also felt that being vulnerable with my struggles and mistakes would show I’m just as human as anyone else. Dehumanization is common in the autism community. So, when I did this performance, I presented myself as the monster neurotypical society perceived me as, Dimitri Bellrock. Dimitri is shadow work and a vessel for expressing stigmatization, abuse and trauma. He’s also an outlet for my sexuality, comedic openness and rage. I never think of him as acting because everything feels real with him. I was going to confess things in this performance, so I thought a church environment was the way to go. The confession was quite long and was a welter of trauma, anger, sins I was sorry for, so-called sins I was not sorry for and justice sensitivity. After this confessional sermon, I unrobed myself, naked and covered in dirt. I lifted and rolled away a tire I sat in during confession, walked down an aisle of chain-link fencing to un-dulled barbed wire which I wrapped around my unprotected eyes. Then came continuous flagellation with a rope and electrical cord that I dipped in metal buckets of fake blood. With every lash to the back, I would return the blow to a canvas in front of me that was covered in layers of ableist and conflicting dialogue. The whole time this performance was going on, there was color changing and fluctuating light along with rumbling sound from two speakers. We increased the volume so that the room started shaking after the confession and Lord’s Prayer. I need to be accommodating so I made sure that earplugs were available and reminded people to bring glasses that would reduce light if it was too much. The audience was made up of neurodiverse, neurotypical, and ableists. That’s an intense example.

Who are the artists that you look to for inspiration?

I love Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin. Artists of my childhood would be Monet, Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti. Artists who make things for the stage and screen are also artists I enjoy. Ingmar Bergman, Lars Von Trier, Gaspar Noe and Dario Argento are just a few for film. For stage, it’s a lot of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Any upcoming shows?

I am currently working on a solo exhibition for Surface Noise on Baxter. I look back at everything I have compiled in the studio, and I am very happy with what I have. Some pieces have not been seen yet. I also have more performance art ideas that I’m looking forward to working on.

What is your background with art and how did you get started?

I believe around 3 years old was when I started drawing. I was also doing pottery classes around that time. I grew up in the Presbyterian church. I didn’t like many of the reasons I attended, so I would run away to the library or workroom during services or events to make things. You would never find me without a pencil or paper. I started painting in watercolor in middle school with the church elders. I immediately stopped after the instructor passed away. Then one of my mother’s friends gave me her mother’s paints and pastels when she died. I started painting as soon as I got them and continued focusing on painting ever since. I attended atelier classes and workshops on and off in my childhood and teens. When I graduated high school, I only did art school for a week. I love teaching, so I did workshops for developmentally disabled adults and children at the library and for other organizations in the Louisville area. Then I did some interning, summer camp counseling, and volunteering in the Speed Art Museum’s studio programming, Art Sparks, and after-hour events. I was a private artist mentor and tutor a few times.

What themes are you exploring right now?

I use stimulation and overstimulation to explore mental health and environmental factors, ableism and accessibility, emotionality and eroticism. But ableism has been a big word on my mind for quite some time now. There is still plenty of stigma and structural issues when it comes to the lives of disabled people. I think it’s a very important subject society still overlooks. On a more stimulating note, I’m exploring eroticism and intimacy. Sex is a spectrum that I want to explore more of and how it affects the mind and body.

How does the duty of the modern artist differ from some artists in the past? What do you think we still have in common with previous artists?

Technology. Technology is a big difference I see in the duty of a contemporary artist compared to ones of the past. I think it’s vital for communication and getting your work seen to a wider audience. I think what artists have in common is that we look at the world through a philosophical lens, where art depicts the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.

Have you had shows outside of Louisville? Where?

One of my first shows was a group show in Rosemont, Illinois. It was the gallery space in the Chicago O’Hare Intercontinental Hotel. I had the opportunity to have my work featured in an on-set interview on ‘Good Morning Chicago’ along with other amazing artists. I was in another group show titled, “Hidden Truths” in Cosa Mesa, California at The Gray Matter Museum of Art.
I have some acquisitions in public spaces in the boating village of Cape Vincent in Upstate New York and had some work shown in their local gallery The Breakwater. It’s a lovely little area with a lot of history.

Any collaborations with other local artists?

I do have plans to collaborate after this exhibition and I’m looking forward to what we make.

What’s on your creation playlist?

Diamanda Galás and plenty of metal. Also ambient electronic and classical music.

“Don’t Push, Pull,” by Brennen Cabrera.

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