Inspiration and Restraint: An Interview with Brett Flanigan

April 22, 2014

Brett Flanigan is a bay area-based artist and muralist whose abstract, illustrative style draws from a set of self-imposed constraints that he designs for himself. This method of constraint and inspiration is drawn from a literary movement called "oulipo." Flanigan was born in 1986 in Great Falls, MT, and currently lives and works in Oakland, California.

Lauren: Where do you find inspiration? Who are your biggest influences?
Brett: Little glances of unordinary things in my everyday life. Imperfections and decay. Destruction and reconstructon. Objects placed out of their original context or altered from their original form. Things that when people see them, they call the authorities to have normalcy restored. Imperfections, raw movements, split decisions. Puzzles that can’t be solved. The way all of this interacts with the context in which it is placed within. Italo Calvino is a major influence. I want to make art in a way that is analogous to the way that he wrote. 

Have you ever experienced a significant change in artistic direction? Why/how?
Definitely. It’s important to me that I try new ideas and keep moving forward. I wouldn’t feel fulfilled by creating the same work year after year. I can think of maybe six paintings over the past few years that defined a new direction and set a precedent for everything to follow. Maybe the most significant change that I’ve undergone in the past year or so would be cutting out a lot of the figurative aspects in my work, which has opened me up to more experimentation.

If you could hang out with one person, living or dead, who would that be? What would you do?
I’d want to hang out with my Grandpa, but when he was my age. He has some crazy stories I would’ve liked to be a part of.

What is your background in math/science like, and how does it influence your art?
Math always just made sense to me, and later I ended up pursuing biology. As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in finding patterns and creating these inconsequential problems in my head, maybe just to reassure myself that everything was right in the world. A lot of my paintings become these complex problems that I set up for myself and then I essentially work backwards to figure out the best visual answer that I can.

How did you decide to become an artist?
Some people just feel the need to create things, and that’s what makes me an artist. It definitely wasn’t premeditated for me. I feel like there was some time where I tried really hard not to be an artist, but it always felt disingenuous.

Tell us more about your "set of self-imposed restrictions"--give us an example. What is the purpose of having constraints?
I’m always making up these abstract rules for myself when I’m painting. It’s sort of a game for me to see if it’s possible to follow them all the way through. It wasn’t really a conscious thing at first but then I started learning more about a movement within writing called “oulipo,” which is basically where an author will impose constraints upon themselves in order to trigger ideas and inspiration. I started to reflect more on what I had been doing and why I do it. An example in my work would be having all of the surface areas of a certain color be the same size even though they are different shapes, or having the spacing of seemingly random lines actually be based off of a particular number sequence. The purpose is to have some sort of pattern or structure or algorithm to interact with or balance out the other more intuitive forms. It’s like processing the raw mark making though a machine of pattern in order to keep the opposing powers balanced.  

What do you hope to see your art doing in ten years?
That’s hard to say, since a major part of my work is experiential. I’ll have 10 years worth of experiences to process, so who knows where that will take me. I would hope to be continually progressing and reinventing, and to be working in a more interdisciplinary way.

How will the world end?
Y2K? Y3K? It will probably have something to do with robots. It will end when the story is over.

Anything else you'd like us to know?
I’ve been experimenting with some new techniques for an upcoming split show called “White Forest Noise” with illustrator Cannon Dill. It’s based on our unique interpretations of some shared experiences. It opens May 10th at LeQuiVive gallery in Oakland. 

Interview by Lauren YS