Brian Belott has had solo exhibitions in New York at the Journal Gallery and 247365, and at Moran Bondaroff in Los Angeles. He recently joined the roster at the New York-based Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.
Bill Powers: Look at how decadent you are, with the window open in your studio and the AC blasting.
Brian Belott: I’m wasteful, but I recycle, so it balances out.
I’ve never seen a box fan incorporated into one of your paintings before. Is that a new development?
Yeah, pretty much. At [the] NADA [art fair in New York] this year I was juggling box fans with my friend Billy Grant. We opened for Tyson Reeder’s performance Cold Steel. We’re doing this Clothesline project together at the Serpentine in London.
Is Clothesline the name of your collective?
Well, we have several working names: one is Clothesline, one is Christmas, one is George de George Hair Cuts Hair.
I don’t think of you as a performance artist and yet you enjoy making a spectacle of yourself.
I never got into skating, but what I do is similar, only without the board. Get your head where your feet are as quickly as possible. I’ve always been into Dadaism and absurdism. I think they’re still the rule of the day.
Do you like that kind of attention?
I was the class clown in high school. I think it comes from being wound tight, from being rowdy and ridiculous. My father was an upstart and a loudmouth. I’ve always reacted to comedy in whatever form. I still remember seeing my first Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera, at the Jersey Shore in 1986. My little brain couldn’t wrap itself around all those jokes, but I knew the movie was dear to my psyche. There was something about the multiplicity of when the brothers overlapped and the mayhem they created. I’m always looking for a partner in crime, a way to hit people three times over.
I believe it was Nam June Paik who said it’s important to overwhelm your audience.
I’m also obsessed with John Coltrane.
Who is not really known for his comedy.
No, but his freak-outs, his eruptions. Now, it’s way different in his case because he was very spiritual. I found that a very strange mix—someone freaking out for God. I guess Bach was like that, too, or Sun Ra. They were daredevils of the highest order.
Now that you’re showing with Gavin Brown is it harder to keep to your absurdist roots?
No, I need to follow that instinct and foil sensible things. I believe that our world is very open to clowns: [Jeff] Koons is a clown. [Mike] Kelley’s a clown. Duchamp is a clown. Joe Bradley is a clown. Sometimes clowns can turn people off, because they think of the classic image with the guy wearing a red nose.
Or a John Wayne Gacy painting.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. My definition of a clown is someone allergic to normality.
When I look at you, I think of a cigar-chomping taxi driver from the 1930s.
A few people have said I reminded them of Chico Marx, which is a big compliment.
What other comedians do you admire?
I love Jonathan Winters.
Who was also a painter.
His last movie was called Certifiably Jonathan, a mockumentary where one of his paintings is stolen. The dude I’ve been flipping my lid about for the last five years is Ernie Kovacs. He grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and got his start on the radio, then went on to be one of the first comedic geniuses of early television. He’s the original video artist.
There’s a famous YouTube movie of you with your hair on fire.
I always think about Jimi Hendrix, another guy who used to throw tantrums. He could play the guitar with his tongue. And if you didn’t think that was cool enough, he set the shit on fire. Before I made my video, I had a history of playing with fire. I would put rubbing alcohol on my hands and light them, or then I burned my beard. The only place left to go was up. I made that video right when YouTube started. YouTube for me was like vaudeville all over again.
I know Nicole Eisenman stockpiles images of “Sharpie pranks.” Do you collect found imagery?
I’m obsessed with show-and-tell. I think a lot of artists—at their core—are about that. What used to take me months to find in thrift stores, I can find instantly on Instagram now.
Does that immediate access sort of ruin the hunt though?
Yes and no. For example, I collect answering-machine tapes, which were a lot easier to find before everyone had cell phones. Ten years ago I could go to the Jewish junk store in Brooklyn and pluck out these gems from all the answering machines, recordings that people never intended to be listened to as entertainment—so much great drama on those tapes.
Do you have studio rules about art making?
Never trust yourself; always foil the paradigms you set up. I’m a big believer in the hermaphroditic principle, that things get exciting when you smoosh opposites together.
And yet you keep your mustard and ketchup drawings separate?
I don’t know why I segregate them. Maybe the smell?
Do you still keep some artworks refrigerated?
I call them frozen collages. The thing is that I inadvertently unplugged the fridge last year. I went to check on them a few months later and when I opened the refrigerator door it was a festering nightmare inside, with insects and the worst smell you can imagine. It was like one of the rings of hell. I immediately duct-taped the door shut and covered it in plastic. I still need to get it out of the apartment one day. It’s a disaster area.
Do you remember when you decided to make a stone calculator?
I have this thing I do called “The Dollar Store Challenge,” not unlike something you’d find on “Project Runway.” That’s how the first stone calculator happened. I was gluing rocks over the buttons, but then after a while it felt too Duchampian, so I started painting the bodies of the calculators in colored sand. I have two impulses constantly at play: one is the formalist who wants to make elegant things, and the other is the absurdist who wants to destroy them.
And what do the stone calculators signify?
I see the stone calculators as abstractions of our time, you know. We had the Bronze Age and the Stone Age and then our age now, which might be thought of as the button-pushing era before we integrated technology into our bodies.
Did the rock gloves come afterward?
No, I made them as a joke to give to my parents for Christmas one year. I told them they were the rejected prototypes for Michael Jackson’s diamond glove. I don’t want the pressures of history when I make something. I want my art to come from play with no ambition behind it. My greatest fear is that I’m making antiques. I think a lot of artists are making antiques and don’t realize it. No need to rush time—it’s coming for us!
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 24.