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Artist interview with Todd T. Brown on the opening of Inheritance

Todd T. Brown paints Invisible Passage

Todd T. Brown paints Invisible Passage (2009)

On Friday, September 16, from 6 to 8:30 p.m., the de Young will present the opening of Artist Fellow Todd T. Brown’s mixed-media exhibit Inheritance, a complex exploration of the intersection between human histories and the self-identity. The opening will coincide with our weekly event Friday Nights at the de Young and will be located in the Kimball Artist Studio.

The exhibit will include a 33-foot large-scale work, Invisible Passage, which Todd Brown completed as a de Young artist-in-residence in 2009. He is currently working on a set of accompanying pieces that will not only expand upon the thematic basis of that original piece, which portrays a diagram of a slave ship, but will also invite visitors to examine their own ideas of a distinct and immediately recognizable historical moment as well as of our relationship to the whole of human history. Brown manages to literally and figuratively unite a set of new works with the monumental Invisible Passage despite differences in medium, imagery, and historical reference. In other words, he has taken a rich, multilayered piece and elaborated upon it, bringing us deeper into his multifaceted meditations on what it is to be a human being and what it means to find where you fit in a world and society that thrives upon the formation of strict categories.

Todd T. Brown has sewn enormous, bold ideas into the vibrant yet minimalist visual works that make up Inheritance. We recently had a chance to sit down with him and explore the aspects of his journey as an artist and as a human being that led to this exhibit and discover what ideas he has been exploring in preparation for its completion.

Explain how your pathway as an artist led to Inheritance.

I came to the title Inheritance, which I feel pretty good about, because I’m thinking about that word in its fullest sense. We think of what we inherit individually from our family—everything from material things to biological things. We inherit on a global scale all of human history, and for those of us living today we’ve inherited everything human beings have amassed in the past: everything from the most horrific sides of humanity to the most beautiful, poetic, and rich sides. When we try to understand ourselves, we’re only picking from part of that scope—we’re looking at a piece of history and identifying it rather than seeing that we’re part of this immensity. So by using this title, I’m trying to point towards the fact that we’re all born into this immense inheritance and that we really don’t know what to do with it.  We’re still trying to make sense of it. At least for me, you stand and kind of look at that vast scope and it’s humbling. It makes me want to understand more, makes me less likely to assert something, to say, “this is the solution, this is how it should be.” We’re surrounded by so much that we don’t know.

How has bringing this piece back into the same space—but in a different context—affected your idea of the piece and how you’re going to incorporate it into a new series of works?

Bringing that piece back—and getting the response that I get from it—I had to first of all create a body of work that’s going to go with this piece. You’ve got a 33-foot painting in a gallery, it’s going to dominate the exhibit, so in order to make a strong body of work that relates to it I had to think, How do I take an image that’s so impregnated with this specific meaning and open it so that more people can relate to that?

For instance, someone’s going to look at a slave ship and they’re going to see it as a work dealing with African American history; they’re going to see it as specific. One of the first questions when looking at me as a white American artist painting a slave ship is, “Why are you painting this?” Looking at that made me think about how it’s unlikely that someone will look at me painting that and think of it as a work exploring European history, and there’s also that aspect because the ships were designed and sailed by Europeans. That in itself leads to a more complex understanding rather than these narrow narratives of which history belongs to who. You begin to see that these histories are really infused with so many different histories. The whole of the work is coming out of a deep sense of care of people, and to really care for people means to kind of hold the wholeness of who they are rather than pegging them into a narrow category… I want to undo the assumptions around who we are in order to embody and accept a much bigger sense of who we are. I’m not just this one thing, but I’m full of many things, I’m things I don’t even know but I am those things—our world is becoming more and more like that, the dissolution of borders. We’re becoming more and more complex.

A good metaphor is seeing yourself as a country, and within that country you have many selves. There’s a dominant group, then there’s all these minority groups on the periphery that aren’t given voice, that are denied space, that struggle to be heard, that just eventually become silent and don’t speak up anymore. It’s that little voice inside of me that says, “I want to do something different.” In terms of being an artist, it’s usually a creative side, and we’re taught to fulfill a working role. There’s a side of us that becomes marginalized: I’ve always wanted to dance, but I feel like I can’t. These parts of ourselves get marginalized.

And then when you think of it in terms of a biological inheritance—you kind of are a country in terms of how many people were required to make you. All the voices that came before are coming through. I don’t have an answer: this puts me in a space of wonder, and you don’t hear people talk about it that much, but it makes me curious, and it makes me understand myself and others in a different way. The bottom line is: what’s going to make us curious about each other? We sum each other up.


September 16-30
Kimball Gallery, de Young, Golden Gate Park

Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 am - 5:00 pm + Fridays until 8:30 pm
except Saturdays, 1:00-5:00 pm only
Select works on view from September 24-30

Read the full interview

View the Inheritance exhibition book by Todd T. Brown and Adrian Arias, which includeds photos of the artist at work. 

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