Brian Donnelly

When Brian Donnelly titled his most recent show “Blasphemies, Monstrosities and other Perversions,” he was bound to start some dialogue. Factor in his actual artwork, which consists mostly of large portraits of nude people with animal heads, and you’ll have more dialogue than a Tarantino movie. This young Toronto painter’s relationship with his work is complex in reception and creation, which can often lead to polarized audience reactions—sometimes intrigue, sometimes disgust, sometimes both.

The body of work in Blasphemies, Monstrosities and other Perversions that was on display at Show & Tell Gallery in Toronto this past September was stunning. Starkly blank canvases with nude male and female models were presented in random states of pose, all with their heads whitewashed out and replaced with animal heads. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Brian.

The majority of the animal heads in your show have open mouths. Is this on purpose?
Well open mouths are more fun to paint. I get more out of it because it’s more fun to do. The most fun is painting the inside of an animal’s mouth. With figure painting, people can be hypercritical, but not with animals. People are not hypercritical about animals. No one looks closely at animals so you get to play around. You can get more out of an open mouth because it writes its own story line.

The act of using white paint seems to be a crucial element in the pieces. Is it directly related to vandalism?
The white paint is not directly influenced by vandalism. Primer white is what all painters use to start working on a piece. I just use it to wipe out what already exists. White allows you to destroy a lot of stuff and create a lot of stuff. It provides the right visual message—the message that I am treating them like actual people yet doing disgusting things to these people. It is kind of like two-dimensional torture, which is just really fucked up.

I saw it as cum.
That makes sense. Cum is one half of creatorship.

Your art is grotesque and sexualized. Were those the main intentions behind the pieces?
Grotesque? Yes, but there is not sexual thinking around the art. It might kind of be there but what I do to them kind of desexualizes. Like the coyote one, if the girl’s face was there it might be sexual but who is going to want to fuck the head of a coyote? Nudity is important, though I get criticized about the female nude. They get upset because I don’t paint enough dicks. Some people get really upset about the females nudes and comment that they have never seen vulvas before.

How has your audience received your work and this show in particular?
The first question was about the vulva on one of the subjects. Seriously. The great thing about painting is that it creates dialogue. Liking it or hating it, people are interested. People either love or they hate it. No middle ground. You don’t gain anything from middle ground. I don’t like to make totally palatable art. I’d rather have someone be totally pissed off at me than be indifferent.

Only one of your subjects in this show has a human face and the owner of the gallery had mentioned something about someone being critical of your ability to paint human faces. Was this piece a direct response to this critique?
I wouldn’t replace a human face with a deer head. I crop things down to fit, but a deer’s head would look like a pinhead on a human. But around the criticism, I didn’t have any personal worries. Though there was this other painter who always painted his subjects holding stuff in front of their face. You never knew if he could paint a face because you never saw one. So I just didn’t want to have that worry from anyone else so I planned the painting and made it. I blew my own perception with this piece. I found out that white tail doe grow antlers, sometimes 10-point, which are very rare. I found out that I don’t have to paint just guys with antlers, I can paint women as well.

What is the difference between painting men and women?
Guys are a lot more fun to paint because I can be rougher around the edges. With females there is sensuality about them so there has to be a bit more of a softness. But with guys I can be rough, use rags with thinner, scratch out the paint. I take my time with women. When I first started painting figures, I was only doing paintings of myself standing in front of canvas. I was dressed in most of the paintings. I was a bit rough with the females that became slowly included in those images as well. I was rough with them initially, but when I wasn’t, I often pulled off something more believable. Men have more angular shapes and women have great curves. With a million little curves, there are spots you like to paint and spots you can’t stand to paint. You find this all out when you paint a lot of women.

What is your least favourite thing about your medium of painting?
I used to hate painting hands. I usually leave the hands to the very last. They are a centralized focus point and people will pick on you for this. Hands are something that you see everyday. You know the distances and the lengths, what a hand looks like, the thickness, everything. People will go straight for hands and eyes—they are really drawn to both. I usually end up leaving them to last because they are a daunting task. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you fuck it up and then you have to destroy the painting. And then the painting dies. It makes or breaks the painting. Once you are there, you can’t look at it. It is something you definitely notice and I am working on it, but overthinking can kill you.

Your pieces are striking but the simplicity of the composition points towards minimalism. Is this intentional for the audience’s focus?
I don’t paint on backgrounds. I’m not a minimalist but I just care about the meat and potatoes. I want your central focus to be on the subjects. The animal faces make the human bodies so much more emotive and makes you read into them.

What was the first piece created in this show’s collection?
The coyote face was the first painting for this show. This image is the only one with feet, so basically she is out on the loose and is out to do what she normally does.

It’s pretty violent. I mean she is the only one with another animal in her mouth. Kind of like she just made a kill.
Coyotes are not vegetarian. I feel like this body is going to keep going and either become more violent or lead me to a new idea. Or just dead.

How did you choose what animal heads to paint?
I tend to paint a lot of pumas and ironically the puma was the downfall of Dr. Moreau from the Island of Dr. Moreau. There are four pumas, not on purpose, not really based on anything. Moreau is a guy that is bull-headed and does whatever he wants. But then he dies. I didn’t want to do what he did which was shape animals into humans—I wanted to take two things together. This work is all mine and I think about how to wreck things. How to be as cruel as possible. But really, I am a nice guy.

Leave a comment

ION Magazine 170-422 Richards Street Vancouver BC Canada V6B 2Z4
© Copyright ION Publishing Group 2013