The Laborious Process Of St. Louis Artist Martin Brief
It is a curious fact that we humans desperately seek meaning in almost everything, struggling to extract coherence from even the most random and nonsensical experiences. It’s this human trait that makes the art of Martin Brief so compelling. For the past decade, the St. Louis, Missouri, artist has created a series of text-based works featuring content culled from books, dictionaries, online searches and other sources. Brief laboriously hand-writes the accumulated information onto frames, employing lettering so small it strains the eye. The result is semi-coherent word mashups that leave many viewers looking for meaning where there oftentimes isn’t.
Brief’s labor-intensive creations are striking a chord with gallery owners. His work has been featured in exhibitions in New York, Paris, Switzerland and more. Like much fine art, the purpose of the text-centric projects continue to inspire conjecture. Some might view his beautiful gibberish as an indictment of the Information Age, with its unrelenting flood of messages. Others will simply dismiss Brief as a calculating fine artist trafficking fashionably befuddling art. Indeed, maybe Martin Brief is just punking us.
For his part, Brief says his work reflects a growing fascination with communication and its various forms. He’s a man so captivated by words and text that when asked to name his favorite artists, he instead cites favorite writers, like Samuel Beckett, Alan Watts and the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. “I think we exist inside of language,” Brief says. “When we walk through the world, there’s a steady stream of language buzzing around in our heads, and whatever we experience is filtered through that. When you look at how language is used by our leaders at this moment in history, you see how powerful it is—how it can be used, abused, twisted and turned. So, on so many levels, language is a dominant force. To me, it’s fundamental.”
Brief’s technique hearkens back to the days before the printing press, when quill-dipping scribes hand-wrote manuscripts. The majority of Brief’s text-based work is created using white paper and a super-fine point Rapidograph pen. The sheer amount of verbiage featured in his work can form shapes reminiscent of electrocardiograms, seismographs and even radio waves. His series entitled “Success” provides a case-in-point. Comprised entirely of definitions of success taken from various sources, Brief’s work examines what constitutes success in an increasingly diverse society. Though, ironically, from a distance, Brief’s “Success” series resembles white noise.
“Trying to define and understand success is tricky business,” Brief says. “As a culture, we are obsessed with success, but a lot of times what we consider to be success is very unclear and superficial. So with my piece, the information is accurate, but it’s not going to give you any more understanding of what success is, and that’s the point.”
Judging from his works, for Brief, success means creating thought-provoking works that chronicle his verbal obsession. Gleaned from Amazon.com searches, Brief’s 2010 series, “Amazon God,” features a handwritten list of books with the word “God” in the title. For his series “Newspapers,” Brief filled in the center of each letter “o” in the text of randomly selected issues of the New York Times, creating an almost braille-like constellations of specks. His ongoing project “Dictionary” is created by tracing the blocks of text on each page of a dictionary, resulting in undulating shapes that evoke an electrogram.
Brief’s meticulous technique reached its apex with his 2015 project, “A Brief History of Time.” Named after Stephen Hawking’s acclaimed cosmology book, Brief’s project cross-references Hawking’s tome against the sacred texts of the world’s three dominant monotheistic religions—the Torah, the New Testament and the Qur’an. The result is 12 mosaic tiles that identify common words in the three holy books and Hawking’s tome.
Unlike most of Brief’s other works in which he applied ink directly to white paper, for “A Brief History of Time” the artist wrote words on small, color-coded blocks. Using tweezers, he then glued each 1/16” tall block onto another sheet of paper, a process that took roughly 2,500 hours. “A Brief History of Time” is a painstaking work whose attention to the smallest detail echoes the 1800s pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, who created mural-sized images from tiny dots of paint.
“It was probably the most time-consuming project I have done, but all my pieces are taxing, to some degree or another,” Brief says. “For me, that’s an important part of the process, the labor. I think the process itself is one of the things people see when they view my work. For me, it’s important that the work is imbued with that labor. It is meditative.”