Justin Brennan has a lot on his mind, and as his thoughts take form, so does his art
Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
Reaching milestone ages often induces a certain amount of self-reflection – something to which 40-year-old Justin Brennan can attest.
When asked his age, the soft-spoken artist chuckles and immediately acknowledges he’s been “thinking about things.” Later, when asked what the future holds, he confesses, “Being 40, you start to question everything.”
But thinking about things seems to be a creative sweet spot for Brennan.
He draws inspiration from personal relationships. He churns day-to-day interactions in his head, ruminates on them in his studio – a long and narrow room carved out of the PopEye Gallery-curated Survival Kit space on the third floor of 78th Street Studios – until it’s time for paint to meet canvas.
Cerebral musings fuel his work, and at the moment, his artistic tank is full. His evocative new series of portraits, some 20 of which will be on view starting in July at HEDGE Gallery, is evidence.
Greeted at eye level, these Francis Bacon-inspired paintings invite viewers in for a conversation about what’s on their mind. There’s a directness to them that way, but they’re simultaneously elusive. Bright colors mask potentially darker themes, and the ways in which facial features are blurred and distorted suggest an emotionally charged static interference that never quite lets the viewer connect with the solitary figure portrayed.
The tension is palpable.
“I did portraiture before, but it was more realistic. This is completely abstracted,” he says, highlighting their ambiguity and indefinability.
“I always leave the viewer to determine what they want from the piece, to take what they want from it,” he says. “I want it to affect them. I want them to look into it. I want them to remember it.”
He wants those who view his art to think about things, too.
‘No second thoughts’
Brennan was born and raised in Lakewood, the second oldest of four children. He credits his mother Maureen’s side of the family – her father drew and collected art, and her grandfather was a vaudeville dancer – for his creativity.
For his drive, determination and work ethic, Brennan credits his father Sean’s entrepreneurial side of the family. Brennan’s Catering & Banquet Center on the west side of Cleveland is the family business. It’s also where Justin Brennan holds a title of manager/chef.
As a child, Brennan was both good at and interested in art but admits he “never took it seriously.” It wasn’t until his senior year at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland that his interests and talents started to take shape. It was then that he learned of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, whom he credits with leading him to painting as his art form of choice. He also gives a nod to some formal arts education he received.
“Ignatius wasn’t known for its art program back in ’93/’94,” he says. “I had to wait until my senior year to take drawing or painting. I really enjoyed painting a lot, and it just kind of took off from there.”
He matriculated at Kent State University to study graphic design. He took studio art for a semester but ultimately stayed at the university for only two years.
“Then years later, I went to Tri-C, and I took Painting I,” he says, clarifying that was about 2004. That class would mark the end of Brennan’s formal art education – he’s largely self-taught – and the beginning of his artistic career.
“When I was 28 is when I really decided, ‘Hey, I want to be serious about this,’” he says. “It’s only been about 12 years that I’ve been going strong at it – completely focused on it, no second thoughts and 100 percent devoted to it.”
Hitting his stride
What led to his shift in focus?
“I had some life-changing experiences,” he says. It isn’t a topic Brennan wishes to dwell on or discuss in detail but he concedes he wrestled with anxiety during that time.
“There’s a cliché that abstract expressionism is expressing emotions,” he says. “I had trouble expressing my emotions … so it was a way to kind of, not communicate, but yeah, express how I (felt) and what was going on.”
Brennan channeled that energy into his creativity. His early work involved stylized portraiture, and his first show was an ARTMart: SPACES Members Show and Sale at SPACES Gallery.
He later shifted to nonrepresentational abstraction. A July 2016 show entitled “Turbulence” at Maria Neil Art Project in Cleveland‘s Waterloo Arts District showcased that later phase.
“The term ‘turbulence’ refers to my psychological state, thoughts, emotions and the interactions throughout the past eight months of creating this work,” he said at the time.
The abstract portraits he produces today are a combination of those two approaches. Those “thoughts, emotions and interactions” are now taking form – a dynamic he admits he stumbled upon while pushing himself to do something different.
“When I do a big series or body of work, usually around the 15th or 20th piece, I’m usually like, I’m painting this and it’s kind of repetitive,” he says. “People like them — they’re good paintings sometimes – but I’m not satisfied as an artist. So I always change it up.”
Brennan’s willingness to experiment is what drew the attention of HEDGE Gallery’s Hilary D. Gent, who started representing him at the outset of 2017.
“As a painter, I think that’s important because as a gallery representing him, it shows promise for new bodies of work in the future,” she says. “That’s what excites me about showing an artist like Justin. He’s adventurous. He’s willing to mix new mediums into his work and … to experiment with them to develop new bodies of work.”
Brennan’ s place
Brennan lives in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, but his home away from home is his 78th Street studio – a space he’s quite enjoyed since moving in back in late 2015.
“Once a month, hundreds of people come through my studio – and it’s great,” he says. “I love being here. It’s super inspirational.”
His paint-splattered studio floor and paint-caked A-frame easel – both of which suggest an artist who feverishly capitalizes on that inspiration – are favorites of Third Friday Instagrammers, he jokes.
“It was immaculate (when I moved) in here, and this is my second thing of cardboard,” he says, pointing to a layer of cardboard meant to protect the floor from said paint. “Yeah, this is all my paint.”
A Miles Davis “The New York Sessions” poster that hangs on the back of his studio door also provides inspiration. Whether it‘s Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk, jazz is in the air every time Brennan works. Actually, he considers it more “superstition” that inspiration.
“Back when I first started painting – I like rock ’n’ roll, too, a lot – so I would drink and turn on the Rolling Stones, paint – and think I was Jackson Pollock. And then I’d realize 20 minutes or half an hour into it that I was drunk, my painting was complete shit and I’d wasted all these supplies,” he recalls with a smile. “Now, I don’t really drink when I paint and I listen to jazz. I love it, and it keeps me focused.”
A jazz-infused soundtrack isn’t Brennan’s sole self-professed superstition.
“I don’t like violet,” he says unwaveringly. “I like pinks, reds, blues, browns, yellows. I just don’t go near violet – and rarely green. It’s superstitious – I’m a superstitious painter at times.”
Less eccentric are Brennan’s commitment to craft and his ambition to improve as an artist.
“My last piece is always inferior to my next piece. I feel like I can always do better,” he says. “It keeps me driving, it keeps me painting.”
And one thing he doesn’t have to think too much about – or question even at the milestone age of 40 – is his creative future.
“I know I don’t want to stop. … I can’t stop and I won’t stop,” Brennan says. “I don’t think about it anymore. I just do it all the time.” CV
Justin Brennan will take part in “Free Style: Tease and Tension Between Abstraction and Representation” from May 12 to June 24 at Zygote Press Gallery, 1410 E. 30th St., Cleveland. Other artists in this group show will be Dave Cintron, Jamey Hart, Michael Lombardy, James March, Kelsey Moulton, Patricia Zinmeister Parker, Scott Pickering and Grace Summanen. An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 12.
“No Expectations,” a solo show featuring 20 to 25 of Brennan’s paintings and drawings, will be on view from July 21 to Sept. 1 at HEDGE Gallery, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. July 21.
Lead image: Justin Brennan in his studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.