Sculpting as processing emotions – interview with Brett F Harvey

“My hope is that I make honest work with which people can identify.” – Brett F Harvey

An interview with Brett F Harvey (see his works on Ownetic) prepared by Ewa Pasternak-Kapera.

Ewa: You seem to be under a strong influence of Ancient Greek esthetics. Your sculptures recall close view on beauty. Are you inspired by the ancient philosophy in your approach?

Brett: Yes, I am heavily influenced by the sculptures of Ancient Greece. I think that the artists of Ancient Greece created a language that is universal, meaning it transcends Western culture and taps into a part of our brain that predates modern humans. Whether we consciously recognize it or not, most things we find beautiful have an underlying structure that organizes the chaos of life. The same ideas of pattern and repetition that create the structures of most music are what are also at work in the sculptures of Ancient Greece. In Ancient Greece, they developed an architectural concept for the human figure, breaking the parts of the body down into geometric forms that could be articulated against one another in predictable way. Their ascertainable mathematical structure idealizes the patterns and structures that Mother Nature created in our bodies. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense that our brains would be attracted to the heightened representation of the underlying structures and patterns of the human body. My aim is to use the architectural system of the Greeks, but to allow my own influences to dictate the more superficial elements such as the form sense and pose of the figure.

“My aim is to use the architectural system of the Greeks, but to allow my own influences to dictate the more superficial elements such as the form sense and pose of the figure.” – Brett

The human form is, as I observe, the most important subject of your artistic research. Your sculptures depict humans who seem absent and away, occupied by their thoughts or emotions, beautiful but vulnerable at the same time. Would you call yourself a humanist analyzing the human condition?

Absolutely, I do consider myself a humanist. I believe strongly in equality amongst humans throughout not just our contemporary world, but also throughout time. I look at the artifacts from the ancient world and to me, it is obvious that, while the people who created them did not have microprocessors and touch screens, they were people who cared for and responded to the same thoughts and feelings that we do. I believe we are imperfect, and without careful introspection it is easy for us to fall back into the traditions of tribalism and mysticism that can be so very dangerous. Reason is not our first instinct, but it is what allows people to cooperate with one another and keeps us from devolving into tribes constantly at war with one another. I borrow heavily from the late philosopher of Darwinian Aesthetics, Denis Dutton, when I say that one of the functions of art is to prompt an intellectual practice session to explore our emotions. Practicing emotion in this way teaches us how to deal with the things we may encounter in life before we have to face them first hand.

“I look at the artifacts from the ancient world and to me, it is obvious that, while the people who created them did not have microprocessors and touch screens, they were people who cared for and responded to the same thoughts and feelings that we do.” – Brett

denigration 2017 brett f harvey scultping
Denigration, 2017. Brett F Harvey (Source: Ownetic)

I see, so you consider universal values and, at the same time, bring the individual, psychological depth to your sculptures. I’ve heard that your artworks are more often considered portraits, not giving much attention to the nudity. Would you agree with that view?

I do hope that that is what I achieve. I use nudity as a sort of default setting in an attempt to make something universal. I see the human body as a conduit for expression, and the fact that the sculptures I make are nude is simply a way to remove as much of the cultural context as possible. Without any contextual cues provided by clothing, the viewer has fewer cultural barriers, and I hope can more easily respond to the emotions and humanist ideas I am aiming to convey.

I find the human anatomy – proportion, form, detail – is in your sculptures close to perfection. Are you idealizing the human body in your artworks? And if so, why is that?

I don’t know if I believe in the idea of perfect proportions. Although the underlying architectural ideas about how I build a figure are borrowed from Ancient Greece, I reject the idea that every part of a sculpture should be carefully measured and mathematically correlated to the Golden Mean, or another particular ratio. I do idealize forms to accentuate the underlying structural patterns of the human body, but the proportions I use are quite generalized. I think that carefully relating every little dimension to a particular ratio is a good way to destroy the spontaneity of expression, and create something that is contrived and overworked. I lived in the borough of Queens in New York City for nine years. Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet, and I value the time I spent on the train commuting. I was lucky to be able to observe people of many different shapes and sizes, and how very different people can be in real life. I think that because of this, I am more open to intuitive ideas about proportion. Don’t get me wrong, I do measure and compare parts of the figure I am sculpting, but only to verify that I am meeting some loose guidelines that I feel contribute to the success of the architectural ideas of the human body established by the Ancient Greeks. Although I generally don’t like the work of Rodin, I do appreciate his exaggerated scale with the more expressive parts of the body, like hands and feet. I take that into consideration while still maintaining the idea that limbs taper as they get further away from the core and torso of the body.

overflowing 2017 brett f harvey sculpting
Overflowing, 2017. Brett F Harvey (Source: Ownetic)

Hm, Rodin did came to my mind once during my research… So could you point out a few artworks (past or modern) that have affected your approach in the most powerful way?

I went through a period where I drew heavily from minimalist and conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt. I had always been drawn to representational art, but when I was in my early twenties and began learning about modern art, I was intrigued by LeWitt’s formulaic approach, including his two treatises: Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art. I liked the idea of distilling art into the most basic elements. I was coming of age in the world of postmodernism and was desperately seeking a guide for how to navigate the very confusing art world. It was not until a few years later that I would learn the formulaic architectural approach to anatomy based on the sculptures of Ancient Greece, and even a few years on from that that I would be able to see the parallels to which I was responding amongst the two very different approaches to art. I think they both provide a structure to organize the chaos. I think humans crave organization and structure, as it gives a sense of security and predictability. The idea of complete freedom is scary to most people. Humans evolved in groups as social creatures, and cultural rules and norms are what allow us freedom to focus our energy on things like microprocessors and sculpture, rather than fighting off the neighboring tribe. Humans do value the surprises we find in chaos, and what can learned from them, but the chaos needs to be organized. Within the guidelines LeWitt establishes, he can create a type of chaos that can be digested. I think this balance of chaos and structure is a universal desire. Even anarchy, when looked at as a political structure, is reliant on strong humanist underpinnings within the culture, or in effect, cultural guidelines that provide us with a sense of security, while allowing the freedom for spontaneous experimentation and discovery. I think LeWitt’s problem is that his products are too dependent on knowledge of the particular culture in which they were created. Without the background knowledge in modernism and the culture of the early- to mid-twentieth century, they become just decorative motifs.

The male nude isn’t as apparent as a topic of art as the female nude. What do you think is a reason for that?

I think the reason the male nude is not as prevalent in the world of art as the female nude is because men have been making the decisions about the production of art through much of the past several hundred years, and most men prefer to look at the female figure. I think introspection can be difficult, and the nude male makes men confront their own thoughts and feelings. Generally, I believe we men are not as willing to confront our feelings. I know that I am certainly not as adept at understanding and communicating my feelings as I could be, or as my wife might wish me to be. I make primarily male nudes because I am a man, and it is my language. Although it is not easy, it is the best way for me to process and understand my feelings, and I hope that my work will help other people see parallels in their own life and learn from the contemplation of those parallels.

If I compare some of your work to the actual state of ancient sculptures (to what remained from original ancient art objects) I come to think of the time passing and how brutal it is for artworks. Was that your intention or did I misread the analogy?

It was not my intention, but I am happy to let people read into my work however they wish. I consider time only in that I hope to make something timeless. I have tried to find a way to make work that will withstand the test of time, both physically as well as stylistically. My hope is that I make honest work with which people can identify. Making these things takes a lot of time and energy, so if I am going to make them, I would like them to be able to reach as many people as possible. I use concrete and steel not only for their longevity, but also because they are of our culture. For many years, bronze has been the obvious choice for casting a sculpture into a permanent state, but I wanted a material that was more accessible. Concrete is everywhere today, and bronze has far fewer practical applications.

momentum fragment #1 2016 brett f harvey sculpting
Momentum Fragment #1, 2016. Brett F Harvey (Source: Ownetic)

What is your purpose of fragmentation sculptures? Especially in the context of the whole body forms. Do you exhibit them as separate or as complementary art pieces?

I have been playing with the idea of fragmented figures for a couple years, but my intention is more to edit my work than make a statement with the action. I have been exploring how much of the sculpture I really need, and also experimenting with different compositions using the broken pieces. A former instructor of mine, Harvey Citron, once said something to the effect of: often the sculptures conceived of only as fragments are usually not as successful as the fragments from antiquity, because they are not conceived of as entire figures with a cohesive design. I think he was right to a certain extent. I typically model and cast an entire figure, and then experiment by using a hammer to “edit” my castings down to smaller parts.

I know also that you deal with painting too. Do you still use that medium?

I studied painting before I studied sculpture, and unfortunately I have not had the time to pursue it in recent years. I do hope to return to it soon. The figures in most of my recent work have been invented from my imagination. I find it a lot easier to build the figure in real life and allow light to fall as it may across the form than to paint a figure from my imagination. In painting, not only do you have to imagine how the forms are oriented, but also how light, shadow and color all play into the equation to create the illusion of form and space. My wife and I are in the process of opening a studio in Naples, Florida where we will be teaching, and I plan to use this as way to return to painting.

“The figures in most of my recent work have been invented from my imagination. I find it a lot easier to build the figure in real life and allow light to fall as it may across the form than to paint a figure from my imagination.” – Brett

And my last question is: do you believe that art can affect people’s moods, beliefs and attitude toward life?

I do. I think it prompts us to explore our emotions, and like exercising our muscles we need to exercise the part of our brain that processes emotions.