An Interview with artists Brian Despain from 2012 by Gideon Egger and Karen Lo.
Brian Despain finds beauty in tin, sorrow in rust. Weather-beaten, worn, falling apart, inorganic but very much alive, his robots make up in spirit what they lack in polish.
Despain has been a graphic designer, an illustrator, a digital artist, but he is best known as a painter of hauntingly sentient machines.
Where do you draw inspiration for your pieces?
I steal them from the dreams of sleeping orphans… But seriously, I get them from wherever and everywhere. I think inspiration comes from all around an artist. It could be a conscious event, like being inspired by a song, a film, a body of work of an artist, a time period, or an artistic movement, a specific work of a specific artist, or even a moment like a sunset or an overheard snippet of conversation. Then there’s the unconscious inspiration, the constant flood of information that is continually bombarding us and shaping our psyche every minute of every day. All of that together is where I get my inspiration. Take any bit of it away and I’m a different person… But really, sleeping orphans.
What is the ideal setting for you to work? How important is it that you control the environment: lighting, sounds, the pace of work?
I would love to have a large separate studio space with lots of natural light and plenty of space to store supplies and half-finished work, but most of the time I’m working out of a spare bedroom in whatever house we happen to currently be in. It turns out that I’m fairly flexible with being able to work wherever I’m at but it’s still important for me to be the master of my domain. I’ll spend weeks putting together and arranging and rearranging my studio so it works best for me.
Besides the emotion of a given painting, what else do you try to instill?
Nothing really. In fact I’m not really trying to instill anything, merely suggest. I think any given piece of artwork is essentially just art potential; in my case just so much colored mud on wood, until it is experienced by a viewer. I’m not painting trees or skulls or robots I’m painting a specific pattern of suggestions that trigger, what I hope to be an appropriate response in the viewer’s head. The art happens when a viewer sees the pattern and recognizes it as “robot” and “bird” and “tree” and then furthermore as “interaction” and “emotionally loaded situation.” The more the viewer looks and sees those things, and the deeper they go towards developing a connection between the elements the stronger the art becomes. Thus instead of trying to instill my own sensibilities into any given painting I instead try to merely suggest a direction using broad stroke psychological triggers such as subject elements, body language, implied movement, compositional tricks, lighting, color, etc. etc. and leave the details up to the viewer.
Do your robots have an origin story? Are they ever young, or do they enter into existence as weathered creatures?
Back in college I used to draw all sorts of steam driven appliances. Things like coffee makers, generators, sewing machines, etc. They were all pipes, gears, tanks and valves, sort of the artistic predecessors to the robots I’m doing now. To make the whole idea of the machines more believable I fabricated a mock company, complete with a logo and its own back story. The company, called Focus Brothers Inc, was run by two brothers, Reginald and Theodore Focus. It was their goal to bring the modern age into the home. The only issue being that all of the machines they invented were bulky, overly complicated and usually either worked too well, (like a garbage disposal that fossilized instead of merely compacting) or worked in such a way that the end result was different and detrimental to the user (like a coffee maker whose coffee was so strong it made the drinker randomly travel in time), and so the brothers and ultimately Focus Brothers Inc. was always fated to failure at some level but at the same time always moved to continue forward by the passion of invention and a stubborn verve of a bygone era.
I ultimately quit drawing the machines in favor of other things but years later when I started doing the robots–and this is after having done quite a few of them–I had a sudden epiphany that all these metal monstrosities had come from the same brothers, perhaps much later in their career, but they were definitely Focus Brothers products.
Are your robots conscious?
Yes, I do believe they are. Without the knowledge of “self” there can be no struggle to identify one’s place in the greater scheme of the universe. And without that struggle, or more to the point, the failure to achieve the desired end result, total enlightenment, the emotional impact of the situation is somewhat lessened.
Do the hummingbird and the robot in The Exchange understand each other?
I think they think they understand each other, but like many human interactions each is seeing the truth of the situation and the exchange from their own unique perspectives
Do you ever imagine the robots from different paintings interacting with each other?
You know, I never have. I think they all come from the same source or company and I have often had people request that I do multiple robots in a single painting but I think a lot of the charm of the images comes from the robot’s position as an outsider. If I were to give them a familiar, familial partner the pain of their uniqueness and their estranged position in their environment would be somewhat lessened
What is the relationship between the robots in your paintings, and the human world? Do they coexist? Do they need each other, and how much do they know about each other?
They do coexist. The robots couldn’t have come about without a human hand guiding them. But the robots in my paintings also live on the fringes of the society that created them. They are the cast-off, older models, the discarded and the forgotten. However, I also see my robots as having developed the gift, (or the curse) of self identity and are now, newly conscious, trying to find their place in the human world but in an innocent and naïve way.
Is humanity just some robot’s experiment that went terribly wrong?
I think the robots are the end result of humanity trying to rise above its station and become the creator, and ultimately succeeding but also failing when we fail to recognize our success because it appears differently than expected.
Do your robots see radio waves and x-rays? What does their world look like to them?
They see the world as a long string of logic gates and punch card malfunctions.
If you could have your consciousness transferred into a robot–in order to escape death–would you? Would you still paint or would you just want to design circuit boards?
I honestly don’t know. I suppose there’s always the fear of death and that yearning to escape it which would warrant a “yes,” but isn’t part of the joy of being human actually being human? In other words, without the whole of the human experience I wouldn’t and couldn’t be considered human and thus having my consciousness in a different vessel or even a different state of being goes beyond what I know and thus I can’t give a definitive answer. To put it in even simpler terms… Does not compute.
Is your daughter’s imagination and humor inspiring new artwork?
Not directly. Don’t get me wrong, she is a joy to be around and I’m lucky to have her but I’ve not started doing little kid robots or anything. On the other hand I’ve always said that art is just a physical manifestation of an artist at a given point in time and space, the sum of their being on paper, so in some obtuse way she does have a strong hand in my work.