Studio Visit: Brea Souders
Romke Hoogwaerts (R): So, this is an old Masonic center, and it’s now a community center for the Basque people?
Brea Souders (B): Yes! It’s been around for a long time. They’re renovating it now. There’s an old bar in there. I think they’re building a restaurant too.
R: How did you find it?
B: Stephanie Diamond’s Listings Project.
R: Oh the Listings Project! That’s so cool.
B: I looked for 3 months and all things considered it’s pretty affordable. It’s artists that run it. This couple who are both painters, I think they lease a bunch of spaces in Brooklyn. They just manage it. They try to keep things affordable for the artist community. But let me put it this way, it’s not a clean photographer’s studio.
I used to live in Bushwick. Do you remember my old space? [Romke had interviewed Brea there in 2011 for the first issue of Mossless] I got out of that space!
R: And you’re now represented, Bruce Silverstein, right?
B: Yeah, it’s been amazing. They’re very supportive.
R: That’s so great. How many people work here?
B: There are about 10 spaces. A couple people share studios.
R: You don’t share this space though, right? It’s just you.
B: Yeah. Let me show you these prints here. It’s been a while since I’ve shown this portfolio. I’m working on a new project which I can also show you guys. Let’s start with the Film Electric work and then I’ll move backwards. After that I have a few prints of my new work that I can show you.
From the series Film Electric
I’m using my own film archive from the past ten years to create these ephemeral sculptures using static electricity. I use this material — wait, I can show you [she grabs a sheet of it] — this is the clear acetate that I use as a binding material.
R: So it’s not visible in the photograph, but is it in the image?
B: In most of them it’s there but not really visible. So I’m attaching these random cut-ups from my film archive – like the bracketed exposures that were too dark or too light to make a print, experiments, awkward compositions…
R: So no valuable negatives were harmed.
B: You never really know. You know that feeling, where you’re looking at work five years later and you think, wow, how did I discard that?
R: That’s a good point.
B: Even if it’s just as a capsule for that time in your life. I definitely saw that going through this project and the negatives. It came about by accident; I was moving and I was cutting up all these extra frames to clear some space. I was cutting them up over those plastic film sleeves. I wanted to throw them out and I noticed they were all clinging to the clear plastic. I like that sort of reordering of memory. I had just gone through a dark time in my family, I lost both of my parents in one year. I was working on a project about that with objects that I grew up with. So Film Electric came about after I got my life back. It carries that emotional weight as well. Some people say, oh, it’s about the demise of photography! It’s about process!
R: Yeah, I could see how a lot of people could have different interpretations, but I think that memory is definitely the strongest theme. I’ve heard you talk about it before, it’s so poignant. Now that you’ve told me about your personal experience about it, it tells me so much more. It’s really profound. Have you ever used found images?
B: I haven’t. It’s exclusively cuts my own archive of work, but I have thought about it. Some of [the prints] are much more minimal, with almost no recognisable imagery.
R: I love those.
B: Yeah, I’m kind of partial to those. Because they’re my cut-outs, of course I can tell, even with the smallest amount of detail, where they’re from in my life. I think it’s interesting that I can look at this [as she points to a fragment of an image that looks like leaf texture] and know exactly what that’s from and remember how I felt that day, what was going on in the world…
R: It’s funny how with memory you just need a fragment of something banal and it brings it all back.
B: Yeah, a trigger. I find that a cut-up is almost a more accurate trigger of memory than a complete photograph.
R: Because it’s so insistent on the context?
B: Exactly! It doesn’t let you access all of the other memories that are related, or impressions. Ironically cut-ups have less clutter.
R: Did you shoot these in this studio?
B: These I shot in my older studio, my home studio. I haven’t been working on those lately. I probably will though, I still have a lot of material. I need to really clean my studio before I… this place is really dusty, and this project… it’s a dust nightmare!
R: Oh I can imagine. What’s it like to work from home, now that you don’t have to anymore?
B: It’s good! I have a home office where I do my editing and retouching. I found that I needed a place to get messy, especially with the painting, the bleach… I didn’t start my current project until I moved to this space. It is significant how it can influence a new direction. I like the separation. I used to not have any boundaries with work. I used to work all night or I would clean the house in the middle of the day…
R: I know what you mean. We still make all of our books at home, it can really mess up our… yeah.
B: With your life! I’m sure.
R: Where do you get your prints framed?
B: General Art Frame, they’re in SoHo on Varick Street. I like them because they hand paint their frames. It gives them a nice finish.
So this is a related project called Mountains Without Faces. It’s still using pieces from my archive but in this one I’m not using electricity. I’m piling the film and erasing the content that way.
R: Hmm, right. All the colours get neutralised.
B: I arranged these piles intuitively. They’ve ended up resembling nests and cocoons which was not intentional but I find it interesting. In both of these projects I’m using light as an obscuring element as well as for illumination.
[Brea continues to show us more prints]
R: I remember last time we spoke, we were talking about dreams.
R: Is that something that still enters your work?
B: No, it hasn’t for a while, not in a direct way.
R: It’s interesting though, this new work is kind of an extension.
B: Yes, I’m interested in the subconscious. I’ve studied hypnosis.
R: Was that after we talked?
B: It was! I remember we talked about how I wanted to learn that. It was interesting. It was a six month course. Fascinating stuff. It opened my mind up to being comfortable with working intuitively and tapping into what’s below the surface.
From the series Single Cuts
These are the Single Cuts. It came about during a project for Conveyor. They did a box set based on the colour spectrum and commissioned a group of artists to make booklets for it. I always loved these slices of film by themselves, so I created these for my booklet.
[she flips through more work]
These are the earlier film works –they are more collage-like. I wanted the background to have a fleshy tone. [She points to the background of the image] So this is the acetate. With these pieces, I would lift the acetate sheet up and the film cuts would reorder themselves. Then I would photograph the sheets flat.
R: It’s nice, it feels like brushstrokes.
B: I’ve always loved that red tone to negatives, just as a physical object. I always wanted to do something with that.
R: When were these made?
B: 2012. The ones with the neutral background and more 3-dimensional shapes, up through 2014.
In this earlier project (Counterforms) I was exploring the experience of being an American. I made many of these in one of my ancestral countries – France. It was about being a foreigner in this place. I’m a mutt – French, German, Italian, English, Irish, Russian. The idea for this project came from the first time I had ever been to Italy, actually, in 2010. I was envious of the young Romans kissing by the Coliseum. A long sense of history combined with a deep sense of place — It’s something that I don’t feel like we have here [in the US]. It’s such a young country. There are great things about that too, but this project was more about making sense of where I came from.
I did a residency for three months in a seventeenth century monastery on the Seine – out in the French countryside. It was one of the best times of my life. It was spring, everything was blooming. I had just left my day job to focus entirely on my art for the first time. This is composed of different things that I encountered during the residency, plant matter and objects…
M: Can I ask you about this snail?
B: They were everywhere outside in France… It was just the shell that I saw and I thought the snail had long died. I put it in a jar with some other things and brought it into my studio and an hour later this snail had emerged and was slithering across the table. I constructed an environment and placed the snail into the scene. I liked that parallel, it was sort of what I was doing in this foreign environment… slithering around. [laughs]
[she shows us more work]
Do you know the unicorn tapestries? They’re at the Cloisters, they’re amazing medieval tapestries that depict a hunt for the unicorn – they have both Pagan and Christian symbolism. The were made in the early 1500s in the same part of the world as where I did the residency. There’s a motif within the tapestries called Mille Fleurs which means thousands of flowers, filling the negative space. I was drawn to that small detail and decided to create my own Mille Fleurs in that same region, using flowers that I collected from a giant field and a mirror borrowed from the monastery.
[she shows us more work]
This is French Bed and Moon, made where I was staying in Marnay-sur-Seine, France. The quilt on my bed represented this expanse of time in my life and searching and blooming. The moon, I photographed the night I found out my dad was very ill. That was a confusing experience, here I was in this ancestral country searching into the past and future, and then this very real, first, vital connection in my life is in jeopardy.
French Bed and Moon
R: Have you worked with other media before, besides photography?
B: I’m currently painting on unexposed film sheets, using watercolour, bleach and film developer. They are mostly portraits, which is interesting because I don’t like photographing people.
R: That’s really interesting. How far along are you with that?
B: I’m getting there. I have 15 that I feel good about.
This is the project that I worked on when I returned home from France. I moved in with my dad after my mom passed away – my dad was sick and I was looking after him. I was sort of living half there and half here in NYC. I had put together a studio in their attic. My mom was a painter, she passed away first. Her studio was in the attic so I took it over. So it was like, this is what I have access to now, so this is what I’m going to make work about.
When she taught me how to paint, growing up, she said “never use black paint out of a tube, it has no dimension.” She taught me to always make black paint out of primary colours. I love that. Especially in this dark time, the idea of darkness being composed of the most vivid, bright colours… The piece “Black Ball” is about that lesson.
[she shows us more work]
R: Oh yeah, this photo. What can you tell me about this one?
B: This is a plaster mask of my mom’s face that my dad cast when she was in her early thirties. She painted it and I photographed it. It’s sort of a collaboration between the three of us. In this project I’m using light as an obscuring element again.
[she shows us more work]
This is African Violets. It’s terrarium that I grew up with, spending half my life with it. It’s self-sustaining. I photographed it through the lid, with water drops accumulating, about to fall. I love the idea of the self-sustaining ecosystem.
[she shows us more work]
This is Dangerous Pathogens. They’re antique microscope slides of dangerous pathogens such as malaria and typhoid, but they’re over 100 years old so they’re all dead. My dad was a physicist, when he retired he collected antique medical instruments. He also had a collection of amazing microscope slides that I’ve always been fascinated with. Dangerous Pathogens was about facing death and dying, thinking about my childhood… Trying to lighten the idea of death.
R: So your mother was an artist and your father was a physicist.
B: Yeah. They both inspired and influenced me quite a bit. This one, Under Water, I painted part of it using my mom’s cosmetics and this was an old family photograph… we always had fishponds. Every time we moved, my dad had to build a new fishpond for my mom. She had dyed the fabric in the photograph for some embroidery pieces she was working on.
[she shows us more work]
This is Teeth and Shell. I found the yellow background in my mom’s studio in the attic – it was the back of one of her drawing pads. It was stained with what I guess is turpentine, which formed the darker yellow orbs you see in the photograph. My parents had lots of shell and bone fragments everywhere, butterfly collections, fossils. Some of those pieces made their way into this image.
R: These are just black ink.
B: Yeah, condensed watercolours, which is what I’m using now in my current work.
M: You started to say something about the acetate in these pieces…
[Brea shows us how acetate works in her cut pieces as well as collections of film fragments.
R: Do you keep a different envelope for different segments?
B: I started to. If I use it, I’ll put it in an envelope and mark down what I used it for. It started off organised and just devolved into madness. [She reads an envelope] “Medium-large, no dust.” Guess what, these are dusty now!
[We move on and Brea takes out her latest work]
R: Wow. It looks great!
B: I’m making paintings on unexposed film sheets using developer, bleach and very condensed watercolour paint. The eyes [of the subject in the painting] are where the bleach has completely bleached through the emulsion, so there’s only the clear substrate of the film left. I wash these thoroughly and then I layer it over a mirror, and then I photograph it. That’s what you’re seeing in the eyes, that dimension.
The thing that I love about this project is that I can’t see what I’m doing for the first five minutes. The bleach and the developer take a long time to fully manifest on this film sheet, so I’m reacting to marks I’ve made five minutes earlier. I also don’t know when I lay the bleach down, how big the hole will get. These images are full of holes..
M: Do you have to work quickly before things dry completely?
B: Yes, but I work on each of these for hours at a time. I photograph them in stages as I add pigments and bleach. Years ago, I was given a lot of 4×5 film. I don’t shoot 4×5, I don’t even have a view camera, so I started painting on the sheets and working with the emulsion. I’m using different [kinds of film]. This is newer Ektachrome film that I was given. But then I bought various boxes of expired film from the 70s and 80’s. Every film that I try has a different colour palette and it reacts differently to the paint, bleach and developer.
R: Do you see yourself continuing abstractly with film processes? You’ve cut up negatives too…
B: It’s possible. I don’t know what’s next.
Teeth and Shell