Artist Interview: Joni Brenner – Malleable Intentions, Or Surprised By Optimism

September 20, 2021

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Joni Brenner is one of the mid-career South African artists featured in TAF Off the Grid, curated by Karel Nel – part of the TAF Special Projects programme at the Turbine Art Fair 21.


What sort of training have you received and how important do you think it is to seek training (in terms of learning first principles and refining technique)?

I studied for a BA in Fine Arts at Wits University. I majored in painting and in History of Art. I worked for two years at Southlight Photographic agency in the early 1990s before returning to full time study for a Masters in Fine Arts, also at Wits. The training was rigorous and the experience intense, and formative in developing my artistic interests and language. I can trace my current practice back to those early explorative and developmental years. I picked up a few technical skills along the way, though the focus was on the conceptual and historical foundations of the discipline.


What is your principal medium, and why did you choose it?

I think I am mainly a painter, in oil and watercolour, though I have always been interested in the relationship between painting and sculpture, and where my paintings are often sculptural, my sculptures are at times painterly. When I sculpt it is usually in clay, which is sometimes translated to plaster or bronze. The clay appeals to me for its bodily qualities, I work into it with my hands or elbows, and various tools. Many are left as air-dried raw clay and when dry, they retain a fragility and capacity to disintegrate. I like the malleability of oil paint, which allows me to push the paint around to echo flesh over bone; I like the emotional quality of watercolour – the way it pools, seeps, settles and sometimes leaks and floods. I make portraits, and the metaphors and associations that I describe relate to the body, and are differently embedded in the various media I use.


Describe the techniques you use most? How complicated are your methods, and why is each step necessary?

When I work with watercolour on canvas, or on paper, I often work wet on wet, meaning I don’t wait for each layer to dry before continuing. This creates chance effects and surprises; the medium takes on a life of its own. It is harder to control and you have to be alert to what the paint shows you. Actually, I work similarly when I use thick oil paint, I treat the paint almost as if it is clay, and I use my brushes to push and pull the form into being. I sometimes scrape it off and start again. I’m not disciplined about cleaning my brushes and I then take advantage of the crusty bristles to make textured and rough marks. With any medium that I use, I don’t play by the rules! Sometimes I take my watercolour paintings to the bathtub and wash them down with the hand shower. I work into and over the residual traces. For the watercolours I’m showing at TAF I have not fought so much with the medium, and they are less wrought or fraught. In summary – I would say my techniques are not conventional.


What technological tools do you use in your work?

For painting I use brushes: for watercolour I use sable-hair brushes which hold the paint really well, and I have some  large buffalo hair brushes, one is the size of a mop. I use sponges quite a lot too. I prefer the open-textured sea sponges. For oil painting, I use scrapers quite a lot to shape and cut into the thick paint. For sculpture I use a variety of tools to make marks – wire brushes, mallets, screwdrivers, planks of wood, chisels – I work with low technology tools, and I use them in all the wrong ways.


Who is the single other artist whose style you most admire, and why?

I am only a sometime-printmaker, but I hold close to my heart the prints by Cyprian Shilakoe – mostly because he finds physical and material ways to represent fugitive, dream-like and emotional states. His works are specific and abstract at once; of an external world and an internal personal world.


Galleries and other traditional means are only one way of marketing art. What do you believe are the most important other routes, and what is the most important insight you have gained in that area in your career?

In lockdown I put one toe into the social media world, and got an Instagram account. I was a mix of sceptical and fearful, but I found that generally it is a positive space and an opportunity to share work that otherwise remains invisible.


Why do you create? What are your stated goals in producing art?

It alleviates depression. It creates a space for introspection and reflection. It leads to development in a practice that can only happen through doing the work ­– like following your own lead. For the works I am showing at TAF, I have been surprised at how optimistic and hopeful the work I have made feels – almost as if ahead of my own psyche. I have always thought that artists work ahead of the current discourse, but here I am working ahead of my own feelings!

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