Brent Houzenga is New Orleans-based painter and musician originally from Fulton, IL. Houzenga earned his B.A. in printmaking from Western Illinois University and his MFA at the University of New Orleans in 2017. Houzenga's art has graced the walls of galleries in Warsaw, Chicago, Kansas City, Washington D.C., Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, Miami, and New Orleans. His show "Fire Department" at the Dubuque Museum of Art in Dubuque, Iowa, was exhibited beside one of America’s most treasured artists, Grant Wood. In 2012 he was commissioned to paint a portrait for Matthew McConaughey's personal collection.
Houzenga's work has been featured in publications such as Time Out Chicago, Art and Art Galleries of the South, Art+Design New Orleans, as well as the Rizzoli book Stickers: From Punk Rock to Contemporary Art. He is the subject of the independent documentary film Brent Houzenga: Hybrid Pioneer.
Sometimes I wonder how I got to now. It’s fun to look back at all the little instances that might have changed my life, the little building blocks that brought me to where I am. I remember all those movements but somehow it still doesn’t feel like it was me making them. I have other memories too, from different times. Different lives.
Different lives at different times is one thing. But is it possible that I went there in this body and came back with the memory intact and a souvenir to prove it? Modern science says no. Theoretically I would have to have been traveling inside some sort of craft at the speed of light to make anything happen. The other known possibility of actual time travel involves a wormhole. Do we know where these appear though? No one can say for sure the actual nature of the universe. We’re learning but I think in all actuality the universe will probably avoid the ones who want to know and shed a little light on the blessed.
In science fiction magazines and comic books there is often a machine involved that aids the traveler on his or her adventure. Often times there is no machine involved. It’s more like a ripple in the fabric of time itself. We don’t know why it happened or where the wave came from. All we know is that the main character of the story is now involved in its effects. The main character. That’s me.
It is we who write history. We write it as it is made. We also have the power to write it as we see it or as we see fit. Every mark matters no matter how random or chaotic it might seem, even if those marks get painted over. I try to be as free as possible with the mark making in my painting process. Some sort of psionic tendency takes over me. I decide what stays and what goes. I decide what appears on the canvas in the first place but I also feel like I am guided by something outside myself. Voices, Ghosts, Pulses and Patterns. Synchronicity and Visions.
Although I have found some inspiration from using brand new materials I have an affinity for finding things to use in my process. To me, each object possesses some kind of spirit or energy. Some of these things might be drawn to me, or me to it, for that reason. Sometimes I hear a calling. Sometimes I don’t realize the possession until after it has passed. I am descended from Hunter Gatherers. I hunt and gather objects. I hunt and gather subjects. When the spirit is right and he notices the process I’m involved in, sometimes they hunt me. A special ghost might pull a switch or drop something in my path. To me it might seem like a synchronicity, and perhaps it still is, but to them it is a nudge in the right direction. Bring us back. You’re on the right path. Bring us back. Bring us back.
A lot of my process is focused on being free or at least trying to be random. At first the canvas is attacked with fervent marks. Random scribbles or words and blocks of color placed intuitively. And although these types of actions might mimic chaos, they also put my mind in a place to decide what happens next. Those snap decisions build up. Each following action becomes a little harder to place. Each decision and each action becoming more and more important to the composition and flow of the painting. It’s a process that I get caught up in and sometimes lose myself. Before you know it, the piece is finished. You are staring at a completed canvas. There might be the inclination to retrace each step you took by following the actions on the canvas. A good painting will lead you around by the nose hairs but even I can’t tell you the exact actions taken in the execution.
Finding It and Losing It
I have a knack for finding things to use in my process. Things that are thrown out. I find value where others do not. Books full of pictures come to me and these people become my subjects. My canvas comes in all shapes and sizes. All different shapes and sizes all with the same value to me. There is a spirit attached to these things. These objects have all lived their own lives, been exposed to many emotions, seen the daily lives of its previous owners before they end up in my hands. The objects I find I feel are drawn to me or sometimes me to them. Either way, this is how I find my ingredients. I take these ingredients back to the studio to mix up a cocktail to be drunk with the eyes.
A lot of times these objects and images become paintings. The found object becomes the canvas. A found photo might become my subject. In some other instances I have grown quite fond of assembling things and casting them in resin. This is where things get a little more involved with my process, as waste from my painting process is then recycled into my new work as well.
My found canvas for several years has been old windows. I created my own style of reverse painting on the glass. When I talk about things being drawn to me, the windows are the best example. Literally hundreds of these have ended up in my studio, a lot of times without me even having to look for them. In this painting process I use razor blades to scrape paint out of the painting, then it gets filled back in. I have a huge collection of these razor blades with paint scrapes attached. I also have a collection of the dried paint scrapes removed from the painting. These collections are often used in my assemblage work. These objects also carry spirit. A spirit very close to me.
When I’m creating a stencil (usually of a person from my found photos), I take care to save all the parts usually considered waste. The parts that are cut out. These things are also then reintegrated into my assemblage process. I use a lot of tape in my painting process to make patterns and layers. This tape which would also usually go to waste is kept and used again in the process. Bent nails, screws, wires, guitar strings, buttons, anything is fair game.
The placement of the objects into the assemblage is what’s important. The process is not that different from painting. It starts the same way at least. The placement of the first object can be seen as the first mark and then we react and work from there. I view my assemblage making process as an integrative process, not only according to the materials, but also a mind integration process.
Access the excess. Not just the excess in the world or in my studio but the excess in my mind. The assemblage process can be a playful process for me and in letting myself “play” with these objects I begin to access parts of my psychology that may have been suppressed. I am very interested in psychology, brain, and dream work. This is where my work strays away from Pop and becomes a distant cousin to the surrealists.
If you look at your reflection, your left hand is your right.
Ten years ago I found two antique photo albums from the 1890’s in someone’s trash. Since then they have been my constant subjects. Originally I was drawn to painting them simply because of the stark contrast. These antique people, usually portrayed on a found window, mixed with this very contemporary street pop style of painting. So I kept doing it. Through doing this a lot of amazing and mystical things have happened in my life. I did not set out to be involved in the ethereal. It was never something I was obsessed with. This is just where I find myself. Further investigation though provides links to my interests.
I never wanted to portray these people as ghosts. My idea was always to bring them back to life using the pop aesthetic. The paint passes through the stencil as they pass through time and space. That’s the process. Passing through the stencil is like passing through their portal. What’s left afterwards, that’s the ghost. The ghost is captured then in the printmaking process. Taking the stencil out of its original context as portal and printing the parts of the process that got left behind. I’m talking about overspray on the stencil. That shit builds up around the port holes. We roll these stencils as if they were a relief or block print. That’s the ghost. That’s the positive negative. That’s where I access the excess.
My subjects get a new lease on life through my paintings. They’re brought forward to this contemporary world in contemporary colors and patterns. The prints become the ghost of that process, but so do the rest of the excess materials. This is where the idea of ghosts is also linked to shadow characters in psychology. A shadow character in dream work represents a suppressed part of yourself only available to you through dreams. It is your job to pinpoint why this person appears to you in your dreams and what they represent. A lot of times they appear as someone who has given you great trouble in real life. This shadow character does not represent the real person at all. They appear to represent the emotions associated with that real person and/or similar situations. It is my job to go there in dreams and to work with these parts of my psyche, much in the same way it is my job to use the excess parts of my process. In this way we are doing the work on so many levels, and integrating the shadow at every stage.
The Collector and Curator
I’ve always been a collector since early childhood. Comic books, action figures, and other paraphernalia have been a constant in my life since I can remember. The pop aesthetic is ingrained deeply into my psyche. Of course I played with my toys, but what I remember enjoying even more than that as a child and adolescent was setting them up around the room. Setting the scene. Curating the space.
Comics gave way to tapes, records, and cds. When I discovered an artist that I really enjoyed I had to have their entire catalogue placed neatly on the shelf, along with posters and newspaper clippings about these artists or characters. My room became a tiny museum devoted to all of my interests and I would spend a great deal of time placing things around the room. The walls became a giant collage. I.e. placement, pop, assemblage….
I’m still a collector. I still collect comics and comic paraphernalia. I still collect records. Now I’m also an art collector and a collection creator. I collect objects to be used in my process to make my art. I collect souls to bring back, curating a new sort of nuclear family. I collect photographs like baseball cards. I create collections through painting, assemblage and photography. I get a special enjoyment from creating collections of work in mass. In this way I am also a lot like Warhol. This type of behavior mimics Warhol and his factory, but it also mimics the state of the world and the factory type nature we live in. “The Plant” no longer refers to organic material but to this man made structure which grows products instead of fruit. The fruits of my labor.
I have an association with finding my photos to Batman discovering the batcave. He wasn’t looking for it but that’s how he found his symbol, by accidentally falling down a well and seeing a bunch of bats. Like Bruce Wayne, I was running when I stumbled upon two photo albums from the 1890’s. Like the bats that Bruce saw, these photos scared me, because they said to me “You don’t have much time. One day you will be put out to waste like us. What do you want to do with your time on earth? What is your purpose?” That fear bred intolerance for the current state of affairs, both in the comic book story and in my life and these photos became my symbol of that fear and the symbol of our purpose. Like Batman I put my symbol on everything. The only difference is sometimes I spray my symbols onto things that might not be mine. Regardless, my symbols are part of my uniform. I wear them on my chest in the form of T-shirts. I don’t carry a Bat-A-Rang but there are always business cards in my pocket. They are in almost every one of my paintings which I use to create all encompassing spaces, much like the Batcave. If I had a boat, or a helicopter, or a plane, you can bet they would be painted. My symbols are on the car I drive, as well as many other people’s cars. Like Batman, I have partners and devoted followers. I may not brandish weapons or beat up villains in real life, but I lead by the same example of pure devotion and through that example evil is banished.
Punk rock played an especially huge roll in my life, musically and aesthetically. It was the pop aesthetic with a little more grit and I think this is why when I discovered street art it instantly clicked. I hadn’t realized it but I had been looking at stencils and tags for a long time already because of punk rock.
Punk gave me a place to put my rebellion. It still gives me a place to put it though I tend to not subscribe to any one train of thought. Another thing punk taught me was to Do It Yourself (DIY). Where I’m from you don’t have much choice but to DIY because there is literally no scene. I spent many years playing in and promoting bands. Find a venue. Book the show. Create the flyer. Disseminate the flyer. Record the album (usually in someone’s living room). Create the album artwork. Disseminate the album. I also ran my own zine called Build Your Own Scene. I wrote, edited, designed, sold ads, dealt with printing, and raised money. I’ve schooled myself for a long time on how to make something out of nothing. This is a big part of why I’m drawn so heavily to found objects and the punk and street aesthetic.
I can’t help but be subversive. It’s not really of my choosing, so much as it is part of my nature. It is inherent and unplanned but my work tricks you. Because of its pop sensibility, people want to associate the people in my work with someone who is famous. The usual guess is that the subject is Lincoln, or Tesla, no matter how little the subject looks like those figures. The masses are trained to recognize images presented like this as famous, important, and powerful. By presenting and spreading these images in such a manner I am also making these images famous, adding them to the pop world archive, giving them power. There’s something counterintuitive about that, as I have no idea who most of the people I paint are. Part of my motto is that we’re all meant to shine. We all have a purpose here on earth. These people showed me my purpose and hence became my symbols. This may not sound subversive, but encouraging people to “shine” is probably the most subversive thing you can do in the systems we live in. Highly enlightened people pose a problem to the status quo. Making your own living using the tools God gave you poses a problem. Individuals are not needed in the hive mentality. I’m not saying we don’t need a village. I’m saying the village should recognize each individual’s purpose, like a tribe. You shouldn’t fill an open position. You should fulfill your position. Your purpose. My purpose is this work and this message.
Creating and Solving Problems
When things are going really well, in life or in painting, I like to throw a wrench in the mixer. Sometimes it’s on purpose. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m creating a new problem until I’ve already done it. You can’t solve a problem unless there is a problem to solve and of course it’s all about the “getting there”. It’s no fun once you’re there, it’s the work you do on the way. So sometimes when it looks like I might be about to arrive I’ll put a big streak of brown through the picture plane to throw things off balance. This way I might have a few more hours of critical thinking fun. This also adds to the amount of time and layers involved, creating a greater sense of depth in an otherwise flat and graphic plane. Striving for balance in the chaos. Striving for chaos in the balance.