Briannah Wilson’s Ethereal, Grotesque Art is as Unsettling as it is Empowering
The first time I saw Briannah Wilson’s sad femme paintings, I was standing in her kitchen. I remember really liking what I was seeing but trying to be chill about it. I had come over to play board games with mutual friends. My brother and I had just rolled into town on the back of a 12 hour drive and I was still somewhere in that beautiful place between exhaustion and mania. At some point, everyone stepped outside for a smoke. I lingered behind and slowly walked the length of the hallway, taking in all of the art.
I stopped and studied one of the smaller pieces. The color combinations were gorgeous. Vivid blues washed out against popping violets. Soft oranges smoldered into fierce crimsons. Finding harmony in a whirlwind of color is no easy task, but each color stood out on its own, flaunting itself while highlighting the colors around it. No tone seemed out of place. There was no muddiness — only a muted, softer kind of clarity. The combinations were so clever and unique. I kept it to myself, fearing that I was too tired to pay a coherent compliment.
“Whose paintings are these? They’re really cool.” I think that’s about all I managed to say.
But I kept thinking about those paintings throughout my trip. I asked one of our mutual friends about them and she told me with great excitement that she had recently commissioned Wilson to paint her portrait. I shared her enthusiasm. From the work I’d seen, it was certainly going to be something — and, knowing my friend, she was bound to make for a captivating subject. Sure enough, a few weeks later she posted the results — sitting amid a field of cacti against a hazy night sky, her beautifully rendered figure dominated the surreal atmosphere of the piece like an alien queen.
A few weeks after that, another one of my friends updated her Facebook profile with another portrait by Wilson. I recognized the style right away. Femme in trouble meets opulence and pleasure against the roar of the world. I followed her link to Wilson’s art page and was captivated by the power, subversion and technical mastery of Wilson’s work. It was the perfect congress of cyberfeminist aesthetic, sad-girl theory and natural magic.
To say that I was excited to be able to talk with Wilson recently is an understatement. I am totally thrilled to highlight this femme and her bold, femme-centered art!
Suma Jane Dark: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What inspires you, what issues are important to you as an artist?
Briannah Wilson: I’m a sad queer baby garbage princess living in Oakland, and painter of the pretty and unsettling. I draw inspiration from a lot of places: my struggles with mental illness and an eating disorder, pretty things like plants and sunsets, ugly or grotesque things, the surreal and ethereal. My art is kind of a coping mechanism for the weird and uncomfortable state of being alive and existing in a body. My art has always been a pretty personal thing, but as I’ve become more politically aware my art has reflected that. I took a hiatus from art for a while because I was really struggling to step outside my comfort zone and create art I was happy with that showed more diversity; it’s still something I’m working on getting better at and have a long way to go. I know that representation really matters and I have the power to provide that in at least some small way, so right now that’s something that is really important to me.
SJD: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get into painting and drawing?
BW: I’m completely self-taught and I’ve been making art as long as I can remember. As far as I can recall, women have always been more or less my only subjects. I was lucky enough to have really supportive parents who always encouraged me to create. Art has always been something I was drawn to do, an essential outlet for me.
SJD: What do you like about creating physical pieces? Is it a conscious choice to do only non-digital art?
BW: My attempts at creating digital art have been frustrating and disastrous. There is something about the physical disconnect from what my hand is doing to where the image is that I just can’t wrap my brain around. I have enormous respect for people who make digital art, it’s just not my medium.
SJD: Your subject matter centers femmes, particularly sad femmes. Why do you choose to give this subject visibility?
BW: I’m a sad femme, so I paint sad femmes. I guess art imitates life or whatever. I’ve always listened to sad music and read sad books and watched sad movies because that’s where I feel comfortable, so I guess the art I create takes after that. While I do paint sad femmes, I also like to incorporate some element of strength in the vulnerability. Putting my subjects in uncomfortable places while staying strong or unaffected. I like the duality of a soft body with pastel hair and gaping wounds, surrounded by danger.
SJD: Who do you consider to be your audience? What do you want them to feel?
BW: When I make art I’m not really thinking of the viewer or the audience, I just kind of make it. Showing my art in a gallery or vending setting is really interesting though, to see people’s reactions and insights, what they take away from it. Usually cis-het men will be super disgusted and freaked out, which I love, but middle-aged women love my work. They see it as really empowering. I love that my naked femmes subvert the male gaze, while other people often see something they admire or find strength and beauty in.
SJD: Your work is very colorful and bold. When you begin a piece, do you already know where it is going to go?
BW: I almost never know what a piece will be until it’s finished. Sometimes I’ll get inspired and feel the need to paint something specific, but I then have to figure out how to give that context in one of my pieces. It’s a really organic process that doesn’t have much structure to it. There are things I really like to incorporate, something that makes the piece morbid or unsettling, but I definitely don’t have any hard rules when it comes to that.
SJD: What is your process like? What inspires you to begin creating?
BW: Usually I just have an urge to draw. I like to think of it like craving food; sometimes I crave something sweet or maybe something salty but it’s rare I know exactly what I want to eat. It’s the same with making art, sometimes I’ll be inspired by a color or a feeling but not really know what it’ll be until I’m actually sketching it out or painting.
SJD: Do you work with models?
BW: I generally collect reference images or take them myself, but don’t use live models for my pieces.
SJD: What would you like to see more of in the visual art world?
BW: I’m not going to lie, I don’t follow the art world too closely, [only] with certain artists I follow and really admire. That said, there is so much incredible art out there, and I’m really glad to live in a time when so many people’s work is accessible to view. I think there is a niche to be found for any kind of art you’re into, and I’m not sure the visual art world is lacking anything if you are willing to dig.
SJD: What would you like to see less of?
BW: I think that the world of gallery shows can be a bit ostracizing and unwelcoming if you don’t know how to really put yourself out there, which I know is a hindrance to me as an artist. So perhaps less pretension and more accessibility for young or uneducated artists.
SJD: What projects are you really into right now that you think our readers might enjoy?
BW: I’m lucky to be surrounded by a bunch of super creative friends and talented friends whose work I’m really in love with. My buddies Tavo and Helen make incredible hand-cut metal jewelry that also incorporates ethically sourced bones and plants they find hiking. You can find their stuff on instagram.
SJDL Where can we see your work and how can folks get in touch if they’d like to commission a piece from you?
BW: Unfortunately, right now I don’t have an online shop up. I’m in the process of trying to find a good local shop to make prints of my pieces to make buying them more accessible, and when I do I’ll be sure to let people know on my active social media. But I do have Facebook and Instagram and a Tumblr. If anyone is interested in a commission or original piece, send me a message on any of these platforms.
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