Adrien Brody on His Apocalyptic Art—and How Painting ‘Liberated’ Him
The Daily Beast
May 4, 2016
There is quite the hubbub around booth SP20 at Art New York and its sister exhibition Context New York.
It is the start of New York Art Week, with the glamorous Frieze at its center: severe haircuts and inventive tunics for the gallerists, tanned, wealthy buyers hovering, two observing a wooden installation of a battery farm with videos of chickens playing in each compartment… and there’s a Hollywood movie star selling his work at booth SP20.
“I’m just going to see Adrien Brody,” one gallerist whispers dramatically to a colleague. And off she darts to see the handsome 43-year-old Oscar-winning actor, whose collection of paintings of brightly colored fish, “Hooked,” has already attracted a mix of gawkers and admirers to this VIP preview.
There may be 150 galleries representing nearly 1,200 artists from 50 countries here, but really the buzz is only about the Hollywood star of The Pianist, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar in 2002—the youngest actor to do so—at age 29. Brody’s other films have included Midnight in Paris and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Brody will soon appear in Manhattan Night, playing Porter Wren, a crime reporter and columnist whose portrayal was influenced—in the novel it is based on, Manhattan Nocturne—by The Daily Beast’s Michael Daly.
Brody himself, bearded, hair pulled back, has paint all over his hands and is wearing a white robe with his initials on it.
He looks like both an artist and a doctor, and, wielding a paintbrush, slightly comic—perhaps even from a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. “I was actually going to write ‘Happy Ending’ on the back of this robe because it looks like what a massage therapist would wear,” he says, smiling.
On the table in front of him is a plastic container of paint, some prepackaged fruit salad, a half-eaten croissant, and a bowl of candy—his usual sustenance when he paints (at home this may include beer, too).
Brody directs me to some works he has created on nearby walls: one is titled “A Great White Shark” and it is precisely that: a white shark on a red background. On another wall, he has printed “Brodybucks Hooked,” featuring a familiar riff on a certain coffee mega-corporation’s insignia, with directions to his booth, and protestations of “I Love Brody.”
“I work through the night,” Brody says of painting. “Then when I wake up, before I do anything, I look at the work if it’s in the room with me, then go finish and touch it up before I have tea or brush my teeth. A lot of it is literally waiting for the paint to dry: You have to do layers and layers.”
The tropical fish are multicolored, and on block-colored backgrounds.
“I love fish. I think they’re beautiful in a physical form, remarkable creatures,” Brody says. The concept for the images came to him in a dream, and he hopes the many paint drops that make up the pictures of the colorful fish against a solid background “exude” individuality, “like the DNA in living creatures. I also love the chaos of our inner molecular structures, our indefinable beings and this opaque, very clean backdrop.
“What most interests me is the lightness and brightness fish possess living in the darkest, deepest depths of our universe. There is a parallel for me of how there is a need for that brightness, the ability of the human spirit to prevail in the darkest hour.”
Another piece features a mermaid, guns trained on her head. This is informed, as is Brody’s Starbucks satire, by his “despair” about consumerism, he says.
“We toss paper cups into the waterways. We all have a part in destroying our environment, we are hooked on the convenience of throwing things away.” He castigates himself for using the two cups on the table and not getting a Thermos.
However, Brody is not political and says he just desires to have “a conversation to bring awareness.”
He has painted and drawn since he was a young boy, “completely immersed in the art world in New York City.” Brody’s mother, Sylvia Plachy, photographed celebrities for the Village Voice—“Warhol, Timothy Leary, you name it,” Brody says proudly.
“My father [Elliot Brody] is a very accomplished painter, far more accomplished than I am,” he adds. “He just doesn’t show his work.” (His parents are orbiting the booth, but—I am told—as “very private people” will not speak about their son.)
As a child, Brody drew fish, dragons, and dinosaurs, but didn’t pursue painting in his “very busy years” as an actor. Friends encouraged him to pick up the brush again, particularly the artist Domingo Zapata, who has guided Brody, taught him techniques, and showed work with him at last winter’s Art Basel Miami Beach.
“The autonomy I gain from being a painter or from doing anything creative that I can put my hands on and do is the freedom no acting can bring,” Brody says emphatically. “These are my creations, not my interpretations of somebody else’s interpretation, as dictated and directed to me.
“I am the director, I am the performer, I am the artist. It’s my responsibility, and I am the one accountable for it. It’s not through a chain of people, it’s not an editor’s version of it. It is open to interpretation, and it will be judged just like a performance, but it is more true to me and more at my whim.”
Making art, he says forcefully, has been “absolutely freeing, it’s the most liberating thing. Basically, I’ve taken a year and a half off from acting. I’ve taken a lot of time off. It’s wonderful. It’s allowed me to be more discerning in my choices as an actor. This is wonderfully liberating.”
Does he want to give up acting? “I don’t think I need to. I love acting. You just want to pick your battles. It’s a difficult job, it’s a very complex thing. It takes a lot of one’s soul, and I want to feel…” he pauses. “I want to pick those opportunities carefully.”
Of his influences, Brody mentions Warhol and indicates his pastiche of an advertisement for canned fish, on which he has written the words “Wild Style,” both as a reference to graffiti culture “and the street definition of ‘wilding,’ meaning a lack of accountability and responsibility, a flagrant disregard for the pollution of our waterways.”
“Bumbled” is another word on the can, meaning “high on power, and how the corporations end up leaving the world in shambles.” Wild Alaska has become “Wild alas canned” to show how the bucolically pastoral images on canned foods can be far from the actual conditions animals are kept in.
Brody does not feel optimistic about the state of the world; indeed, he feels environmental destruction has “gone too far already, with global warming, deforestation, the last of the Indonesian rainforests on the verge of extinction, biodiversity completely at risk, the pollutants people are breathing in—it’s beyond words.”
But as grim as his words are, he swims off to meet his public happily enough. He starts laughing, talking, and appears an equable center of attention.
He is wielding his paintbrush as a conductor would a baton. It’s going to be a fun, intense few days for Adrien Brody.