I can just barely hear artist Bret Slater’s voice over the street noise of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn as he walks between his apartment and his new studio.
In the press that he’s gotten, Slater has been pictured as the Platonic ideal of the cool kid, a young New York artist with a cigarette perpetually in hand. But to me, maybe because of the easing pressure of no longer being “the new kid,” he seems to have taken on a persona both more grand and contemplative. As his winding, Joycean sentences fill the gaps between sirens and unexpected sidewalk interactions, we talk shop, smoking weed, and how time and cosmic circumstance drive his work.
HERB: What role does weed play in your process?
SLATER: When I’m working, I’m not really smoking. I’m more on a different type of high. But you know, I’d say 87 to 97% of my favorite ideas, the shit that comes to me, that interests me by far the most, comes to me after smoking, while smoking.
And often right after I smoke and I’m thinking about stuff I’ll be walking around like I am right now. I kind of just let my mind wander, I look around and see the intense amount of urban landscape here, sometimes shit just all of a sudden kind of clicks, like the forms that I have been interested in but haven’t been able to really figure out yet. It’s not only when I’m high that that can happen but it really, really fucking helps. It helps me both see outside of myself and see into myself more.
HERB: It’s interesting what sort of inspiration you get when you’re stoned, both before the work is created and then what organically emerges after that catalyst, how it’s cosmic in a way.
SLATER: I think that kind of a “cosmic” thing is just something that I’ve always had a little bit, but I’ve been letting it in more and more in a way. Some people like it, some people don’t like it, but that’s just what’s happening. I like it. […] I don’t consider myself an abstract painter [but] one of the initial goals of abstraction [is] not painting “pictures” but painting paintings. […] One goal of formalism is a kind of universal language that can transcend [written or spoken] language, and that we all can get or not get as people together. I think that it fails in [some] areas but succeeds in others, and, of course, art is a commodity and sometimes even the most absurd and eccentric commodity for the rich. […] At least as an artist, for me it started purely as spiritual, but also a search for the real, a kind of like journey towards enlightenment or something. I think the commodification of our work and becoming a selling professional artist [makes it so] you gotta be okay with that coinciding somehow with the spiritual and the intimate and the territory of exploration and discovery alongside the really shallow, plastic surface level.
I think the commodification of our work and becoming a selling professional artist makes it so you gotta be okay with that coinciding somehow with the spiritual and the intimate and the territory of exploration and discovery alongside the really shallow, plastic surface level.
I want to keep questioning what it is that I’m doing, that we’re all doing, you know? As artists, and as people, and as collectors. What is this thing that we all place so much value on? And, for me, this thing that started and still is so spiritual and so full of wisdom and also error and flaw and imperfection and humanity, what is this kind of thing and image that’s a painting, this concrete and made thing that I’m infatuated with, that we’re all infatuated with. I’ve got some theories, you know—I think it’s important to note that painting is the first form of visual art, the cave paintings in Lascaux and dating back further than that. That it’s the deepest form of visual expression that exists.
I wanna make things that, for me anyway, are kind of these encapsulations of what I’m interested in, or the things that affect me that I’m experiencing during or before making the art. I hope I can kind of embed individual content in each one and hopefully they are strong enough to take on their own existence. It’s very much about this idea of an essence of existence, and I think that’s where the cosmic has been coming in more, because existence is just kind of something that’s scarily bigger than us all, that we’re really just a microscopic part of. That’s kind of the strangeness and coolness and sometimes sadness and also grandness of our existence.
Existence is just kind of something that’s scarily bigger than us all, that we’re really just a microscopic part of. That’s kind of the strangeness and coolness and sometimes sadness and also grandness of our existence.
I think a lot of the drive and the ambition for artists is to tap into the collective subconscious and have people relate to you and to your work. But for me it’s a very internal, virtual thing, a search for yourself as well. I want to paint what I’m interested in, not just kinda make things that I think other people will be into, so it’s my work, it’s compositions or forms that have become important to me, that have become kind of like a visual language.
HERB: I can see forms in your work that, I wanna say, look kind of like eyes. That iteration over and over, I can see you developing a vocabulary that shifts the way that real language does to address something you want to discuss.
SLATER: That all developed in a really funny way, the whole thing with the eye. I’ve always felt about painting as kind of like seeing. The first time I ever painted a circular canvas the result ended up looking kind of like an eye. So I made that painting and I titled it “Baby Brother” because it kind of was just like “Big Brother is Watching” but it was small. I loved it, but it did make me feel a little strange because of how representational it was so I didn’t plan on doing anything like that again. Three years later, though, all of a sudden I’m making these paintings that kind of have these eyes and I wasn’t thinking about them in relation to that painting from 2009. But then I received that painting back—this was like two years after I’d started making things that kind of were like eyes or whatever again—and I was like, “Wow, this is the fucking truth. This is so sick.”
In June 2014, I moved studios from Long Island City, Queens to Brooklyn, and then pretty much as soon as I got into that studio the first paintings I started making were another kind of new variation of that composition of an eye. And then, all of a sudden, when I began to make these large kind of color-field paintings, it was just clear to me that the eye was going to be an important composition. Maybe because it was a re-visiting, discovering this thing that I did by accident, this proto-influential moment for myself that I didn’t even know I was doing. It seemed to be too perfect to not, like, really make that my focus. That was almost like woah, this is me from the past telling myself my future purpose.
It all comes back to the eye and to vision. I want these things to have as much presence back at the viewer as the viewer brings to them.
In my quote “artist’s statement” or whatever, I call the paintings inanimate beings with living souls—since that’s been the main focus, them being bodies or body things. Maybe things that kind of have this essence somehow of a complete body, or sometimes even a face, sometimes it kind of is about how we view each other, and sometimes when, not to stress too much on that, but it’s always been about kind of trying to make these things into beings. And as I continue to really fucking think about it a lot, you know, it just makes the most sense if I’m trying to make a thing that is both the encapsulation and painting of its own soul. What better kind of a form to make, a form to be, than an eye? It’s this thing that is a visual practice, a visual history, a visual act, to make paintings, to paint, it all comes back to the eye and to vision. I want these things to have as much presence back at the viewer as the viewer brings to them. They’re eyes looking back, in a sense, at the viewer. And the gateway to their own souls, that’s what eyes are, you know, in that metaphor.
Bret Slater’s new studio in Bedford-Stuyvesant is open for visits. He has a solo show at the Liliana Bloch Gallery in Dallas in January.