Brian Fencl

The Urge Within

STORY BY Seth Putnam
ARTWORK BY Brian Fencl
PHotography by Jesse Lenz




"Potato heads are everywhere in Brian Fencl’s art."

Potato heads are everywhere in Brian Fencl's art: weird creatures with striped legs and Mickey Mouse hands, bizarrely posed, sometimes carrying their painter’s own disembodied head in their arms.

They emerged out of the ooze when Brian was an illustration student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “I was under lots of pressure at the time,” the painter muses, sitting in his studio in West Virginia. “Class would let out at 9 p.m., and the professor would want 40 different sketches by 8 a.m. The potato heads became a shorthand for people. It’s interesting to me to see how expressive they were, how much storytelling was in there.”

Still, they might not have become a central theme in his work if the Art Center hadn’t brought in pop artist Keith Haring for a weeklong critique of student work. “Go somewhere and draw them in any situation possible,” Herring told Brian when he saw the potato heads. “Make a world for them. Draw until you’re sick of them. Then you’ll know it’s time to start painting them.”

He did, relentlessly. “I didn’t make a painting of these potato heads for almost three years,” he says. “I maybe did 1,000 drawings, horrible drawings, that I never want to see the light of the day. But when I finally started to paint them, they were a fully formed concept.”

It was his obsession with action comics like Conan the Barbarian that sparked his love of art. His gift was bright even at a young age, and as a teen he got into a precollege program in Los Angeles by the Parsons New School for Design. It was the kind of place where painter Georganne Deen might be talking about the album covers she designed for the band Oingo Boingo. “I spent four weeks living in McArthur Park, surrounded by art kids from around the world,” Brian says. “It might have been a dangerous place, but it was transformative.”

He spent the decade after college working as an editorial illustrator in New York City and showing his fine art painting around New England. A master’s degree from the New York Academy of Art followed. “It was all figurative,” he says. “You’d wake up, draw the body, have lunch, paint the body, have dinner, and sculpt the body.”

Marriage and children led him to accept a professorship back in Denver. Not long afterward, in the odd path academia often presents, he wound up at West Liberty University, where he’s now the chair of the Department of Journalism, Communication Studies, and Visual Art.

For a working artist, West Virginia offers a few challenges. “As far as pop symbolist paintings go, most people here don’t understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it,” Brian explains. But now that teaching pays the bills, he’s free to practice his own art without pressure.

Twenty-five years after they first sprouted from the gumbo of his mind, Brian still finds himself coming back to the potato heads. “They’re really kind of a stupid-looking creatures, like pissed off Charlie Browns,” he says. “It’s really something like a 14-year-old boy would be doing. But they can be taken seriously because of the craft element: the technique in which they’re painted.”

“Some have deep a comment within them,” he continues. “Some have none. They are me.”     —Seth Putnam

Brian Fencl was one of four artists who traveled with The Collective QuarterlyAfter the trip, we caught up with him to discover what he learned.

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WORDS BY Brian Fencl

The age spread on the Montana trip was exciting. The more diversity of perspective you have, the less there’s a feeling of competition for ideas, images, or space. You’re going to learn when you’re around people who are not like you.

As soon as I got to Livingston, I walked all over town, looking for a building where I could get up above the city and see the entire picture. The art here reflects this town. Buildings with paint are all beat up and cracked, hammered by the weather. In the galleries, the paintings reflect that with their weathered textures.

I was blown away by how sophisticated the galleries were. I thought I’d see paintings of cowboys and wagons. There was none of that. And if those clichéd images did appear, the artist had turned them upside down. There seems to be a special awareness here of how Montana is perceived from the outside, and they’re willing to push past it.

Plein air painting dominates Livingston, and it’s a unique way to paint. You go, you experience, and then you let that tell you what the painting is going to be. In Montana, I got off the plane, unfolded my easel, stood, and painted. It could be meaningful and useful, or it could not. There’s no pressure.

The most significant work I made for the magazine was the long, pop-symbolist painting. It’s very dense, and it covers a wide range of characters. One of the most remarkable is this trickster-transformer character. He could be a coyote. He could be a mischievous clown. 

I find myself using an iPad for everything: photographs, notes, sketches, even a bit of on-screen painting. It feels right to me that you can take this mobile device that’s just about the size of my real easel and make really good and interesting images with it. You might say you could do it with a phone, too. But I hate phones. Mine is crap on purpose. And on the iPad, no one can call me.

The ink drawings I did as a reaction to Montana are more specific to time or place or moment, like the incredibly bright rainbow I saw with Kristina Angelozzi. She goes, “Man, look at that rainbow. That’s some Care Bears shit right there.” And I thought, “There’s a crazy idea for an image.”

Art is lousy at actually answering questions. It’s great at asking them, though, which I think is valuable.

Sometimes I’ll make a painting and I won’t understand it for a month or six weeks or never. Sometimes art is a way of explaining the world to ourselves. We take all of the stimulation in our life and make sense of what’s going on around us. Art is a way to find order in the chaos that is living.

Not long ago, I spoke to multi-disciplinary artist Greg Spalenka at West Liberty’s MADfest. He said: “You’ve gotta be able to boil your life down into one sentence. It’ll give you clarity.” I began to think: “What is it I want for my art? For my kids? For my students?”

For all three the answer was “a dedication to possibility”—the possibility for my children to become whoever they want to be, the possibility for my students to be creative beings, not cookie cutters. Spalenka said, “Do you feel better?” I said, “I think I understand a lot more about my life than I did 30 seconds ago.”

Living as a painter has gotten extremely difficult. We’re maybe the most visually illiterate we’ve been in the past 200 years, and it’s because of overstimulation. What’s competing for peoples’ eyeballs is just incredible, so the reach a painter has these days is fairly small, which is sort of a sad thing.

Society has become visually illiterate. When I’m looking at something, I want to understand why I’m fascinated with it. Is it the color combination? The texture? The way two characters interact? Why is it linked to my life in the universe? You should be able to verbalize your feelings about why it’s emotionally manipulating you the way that it is. Because that’s what artists are doing: manipulating you to feel a certain way. And viewers shouldn’t leave it up to somebody else. 

"If the only art you’re making is the stuff you’re being paid for, are you really making art? In school, your teacher says, “Make this image.” That’s your assignment. That’s not your art. You’ve gotta have your own stuff on the side as well. If you don’t, you’re stumped when school ends and no one is giving you assignments. But if you have your own thing going the whole time, it’s easy to make that transition after school. It’s important to keep doing that throughout your career It’s exhausting, but the right way."