Years ago, I drove down from Michigan to Florida with a friend and her grandmother, Irene. Irene was a gifted artist with a zest for life that came across in her paintings. She used bold colors and simple shapes reminiscent of Matisse’s paper cutouts. One of her paintings hangs in my daughter’s bedroom, and every time I look at it, I smile.
Just prior to the drive, Irene was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Throughout the 20-hour ride, she had memory problems: I had to reintroduce myself, remind her where we were going, and so on. My thoughts of the road trip are mixed — sadness and fear at the idea of fading memories, coupled with happiness and comfort at the reflection of a life well-lived.
Seeing artist Kimberly Brooks’s latest work triggered memories of Irene. Brooks’s solo exhibition I Notice People Disappear, currently on view at ArtHouse429 in West Palm Beach, Florida, shows a beautiful evolution from her previous paintings; she has a looser style that demonstrates a confidence in taking chances. In these pieces, Brooks has masterfully subtracted from her figures and scenes, resulting in images with open narratives — meditations on memory and dialogues with the past. I recently spoke with Brooks about this series and her work in general.
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Colin Darke: What drives you to create?
Kimberly Brooks: I love the openness of this question. At first I was going to say death; then I erased that word to say that life is so short and you want to make as much as you can while we’re here. But it’s not just that either. For me, the drive to create is about sharing and giving.
CD: What was the impetus for this series of paintings?
KB: For this body of work, I wanted to elevate that sensation of accessing memory by dissolving the people into nothingness. I pictured accessing a memory of someone who died a long time ago. In Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, he bites into a madeleine and an involuntary memory of his youth floods toward him. But then an interesting thing happens, where he hops into the memory of another person (a friend of his father, Charles Swan) and starts animating events as he believed they happened years before he was born. I wanted to tap into that stream of other people’s memories from a time older than my own.
CD: Did you notice any changes to your technique when creating this series?
KB: I did. My other bodies of work had a more direct, and therefore more left-brained, approach that involved having an idea and then articulating it. This became a much more intuitive process. Imagine looking at a picture of a cloud and seeing a face or a woman chasing a balloon. Now imagine deciding to draw out that picture, pulling it into view, and then pushing it back again. This exploration forced me to stay much looser when laying down layers. The word “disappear” became a verb to me. I would paint a scene and then “disappear” the figures. I didn’t come up with the title until later.
CD: How do you know when a piece is finished? How do you know when to stop “disappearing” a figure?
KB: With this looser style of work, I dare myself to finish and let go before I’m totally comfortable, otherwise it will look overworked and fussy. I was talking to another painter a while ago, and I actually said the sentence, “when I see scumbling, I see fear.” (“Scumbling” is when you blend two colors together with a dry brush). We burst out laughing because it was such a ridiculous statement overall, but not for this body of work, where I run away from perfectionism and deliberately leave edges dripping and imperfections — the history of the process. It makes what is rendered more dynamic.
When I disappear a figure, I paint it almost fully and then start sampling from the background and subtract more and more until I find it most compelling.
CD: What draws you to include figures in your work?
KB: I have always been interested in the figure — not just because that challenge of depiction is endless in terms of articulating form and mood, but also as a vehicle to re-create a moment or a memory. When I did the series Mom’s Friends (2007), I used photography and models to reenact scenes of my mother’s friends as I recalled them from my childhood. Also, by nature of using the figure, every picture offers a frame from some larger experience — a single moment memorialized by moving oil and rocks on a canvas.
CD: What do you hope viewers will take away from this show?
KB: I want people to feel like they’re privy to a memory from another time.
CD: What’s next for you?
KB: Next up, I’ll be working on an installation at the Greystone Mansion in Los Angeles this fall, curated by Lauri Firstenberg with LA><ART. I’ll be taking over an room entire room and incorporating video for the first time. I’m waiting for someone to commission me to do the backdrop for an opera.
Kimberly Brooks: I Notice People Disappear continues at Arthouse429 (429 25th Street, West Palm Beach, Florida) through March 6.