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Brian Belott Puts Puff In His Stuff

Jan 18, 2016, 3:18 AM EST
Brian Belott's "Untitled puff piece (yellow)," 2015.
(Courtesy of the artist and Moran Bondaroff, Los Angeles)

Brian Belott is a little miffed that painting is so popular these days. When he graduated—in 1995, from the School of Visual Arts, after getting kicked out of Cooper Union for painting a mural of, he says, “sexualized, defecating angels” outside the entrance to the president’s office—painters couldn’t get much respect, and he was perfectly happy to be an outsider. Sculptors, he said, ruled the roost, calling their outdated, two- dimensional peers “antiquated and historically corrupt and dead.” A lot
 has changed in the ensuing two decades, including the market, whose maw 
now opens widest for colorful things stretched and hung on the wall. “A Dadaist now,” reacting to this climate, “would become an accountant, or get into church,” Belott deadpans. “I’m very reactionary. I’m always looking for the ignored thing, the underdog...”

But don’t get the impression that 
Belott is an ordinary painter, unless your definition of ordinary includes nasty, sweat-and-dirt-soaked socks, animal drawings rendered with mustard, and precarious collages stored in the freezer. One of his earliest sculptural paintings after leaving school incorporated a mess of Froot Loops and nails glued together. The Brooklyn-based artist mixes a DIY punk spirit with the hands-on exuberance of a middle-school arts-and-crafts teacher. His often raw, smilingly abject concoctions can recall Isa Genzken, with her use of prefab tapes and reflective tiles, or Dieter Roth, who was fond of incorporating rabbit feces or chocolate into his pieces. Most recently, Belott has been making three-dimensional paintings—of paper, found objects, paint, and huge tufts of ripped pillow stuffing—which he calls “puff pieces,” the journalistic term typically used to describe 
a form of lightweight, congratulatory celebrity profile. More than a dozen of these works will form the basis of an exhibition opening January 16 at Moran Bondaroff gallery in Los Angeles. But “puff” is only one body of work in Belott’s studio; he’s a proudly restless innovator, and is anxious about being known for 
any sort of signature work.
 
One of the most recognizable Belottian pieces involves reverse painting on Plexiglas that encases various items, like strips of reflective tape, sand, and foil, along with used socks. The artist has been painting in this manner since encountering a reverse-painted glass piece in a Florida junk shop. At first, he was making slightly off-kilter grid-based designs that purposely alluded to the work of Mondrian. Their color palette, though, was “more Liberace—the etherealness of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman wasn’t happening.” But then he heard a voice (Belott is prone to saying a voice arose to offer a suggestion as to how to push his work forward, and it’s unclear how serious he’s being, especially when he notes that artists often “become freer after drinking or weed-smoking or exhaustion” in the studio), and this voice delivered a commonplace but strange-in-this-context suggestion: Put a sock in it.

Rather than take this as what it might sound like—an order to stop or shut up—Belott chose to interpret the advice literally, and he started pressing used socks beneath the Plexiglas, where they became integral parts of the composition. They are, he says, “a stand-in for the body, a schnoz, or a penis.” He has occasionally purchased socks—including ones of the small, brightly designed kids’ variety—and dirtied them by rubbing them on the roof of his studio. “I don’t think about it so much, that someone may find them disturbing,” Belott says. (His onetime New York gallery, Zürcher, wasn’t initially thrilled by the concept.) “I would never use underwear. I would never use my girlfriend’s panties,”
 he stresses, in case you were wondering.

The Plexiglas works initiated a fascination with what could be trapped and splayed beneath that surface. “It
was a game,” Belott says, “to figure out what small things from the outside world I could stick behind it: combs, gloves, broom bristles.” Like much of his output, he considers these works to be a form 
of collage. His oeuvre involves recombinations of found materials and ready-made textures—Belott talks effusively about the joy of inexhaustible “fusions” of existing things. (He also produces artist’s books at a manic pace, small volumes of jumbled, collaged imagery that are meant to be flipped through by gallerygoers; MoMA recently acquired a set of 66.) The wall of his Brooklyn studio, when I visit, does have a series of more traditional, figurative paintings, but these are appropriations of a sort—part of a large group of canvases that the artist debuted at 247365 gallery in Brooklyn. They’re direct copies of paintings made by children around the world, which Belott found in books and other archival materials: as easy and liberating as “cooking from a cookbook,” he explains.

Most artists would be happy to settle into a groove and reap the benefits, but Belott doesn’t seem content unless he’s trying new things—not all of which are equally successful. He was working on some paper collages when that omnipresent voice-in-the-studio returned, this time with another suggestion: Why do you need to glue anything on there? Belott recalls the voice intoning. Why don’t you just take your collage that you’ve been beating to death, put it in a pan, fill the pan with water, and freeze it? Thus began a journey into the least marketable form of sculpture—namely, objects made using store-bought products and foodstuffs, which are only properly constituted when they are inside a freezer. He mixed things like cat food and toothpaste and hair gel, all of which, he admits, emitted a terrible odor when he was gently handling the icy pieces, but reminded him, when they were backlit, of pristine stained glass. “This impractical thing is going to turn into a smelly puddle if you don’t take care of it,” Belott says, “but if I hold it up to the light, it’s this surprise.”

Those original frozen collages have been destroyed, but the artist is brainstorming with boutique ice-cream-sandwich company Coolhaus to see if a limited-edition sculpture might be feasible in time for his L.A. exhibition. (Something tells me one of his ideas—
“a Dadaistic thing, an inedible sandwich filled with razor blades”—probably isn’t going to fly.) But what has occupied
 most of his time in advance of the Moran Bondaroff outing are those puff pieces, multilayered assemblages of found objects, paper, cotton, and paint that bulge off the wall. Belott says that he began making them in earnest as a response to the dimensional paintings of his friend and peer Gina Beavers. They’re funky and rude, laden with plastic doodads bought from the dollar store or a series of sculptural calculators and remote controls that the artist adorns with colored sand and shells. Belott likens the puff paintings to ice-cream sandwiches made of paper. “I feel as if they have an Oldenburg-y
zone, or refer to Lucas Samaras’s weird furniture,” he says. “I got tired of art where stuff was glued on the surface. With these, it feels like maybe there’s this treasure trove of things hidden inside.”

What’s next for the artist is hard to predict and will likely depend on a chance encounter—perhaps with a $1.99 bauble in a discount bin or an unexpected revisiting of a 20th-century modernist master, or both. “I set up my own rules and then foil them, and I feel like that’s important—to make sure nothing becomes dogmatic,” he reflects. “As soon as that happens, you’re an illustrator, you’re regurgitating tricks that have gotten handclaps before. I’m critical of myself, and other people. I’m watching, just to see where things fall, theatrically or historically.”
 

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