A conversation between Thierry Goldberg Gallery and Briana McLaurin
Thierry Goldberg: The subjects in your paintings carry a sense of authority – most of them are looking straight ahead, gazing back at the viewer. Who do you choose to paint and why? What factors do you consider when deciding how to portray them? Briana McLaurin: One of the key factors that I always consider when deciding who and what to paint is the idea of relation. My work celebrates African American presence. The goal is for viewers to see my paintings and instantly feel some sort of connection. I paint portraits of my family members, pushing this idea of relation a step further. Gaze is another factor that I think about a lot in my work. I think there is a sense of bravery and strength when someone can just stare into another person’s eyes, unblinking with their heads held high. That sense of boldness is something that I like to portray in my work. Also, there is an unspoken communication that I tend to convey through the gaze, as if the subjects were talking to the viewers with their eyes. What they are saying is left to be interpreted by viewers themselves.
TG: Many of your works depict interior, domestic settings, filled with personal objects that reference family or home life. Could you talk about the significance of these objects and settings?
BM: There is a point in my paintings where I mostly stay true to the multiple reference photos that I work from. Then, about halfway through, I’ll recreate the setting completely. This could either be by adding more space to a room, or including random objects and people in an image. It gives me a sense of freedom and authority in my process, allowing me to acknowledge that in the end, I am the artist and I get to decide what everything looks like. For example, in Self Portrait (2020), the fridge in the background is inspired by my actual fridge at home. Unlike in the painting, however, it is completely blank. There are no magnets or photos adorning the sides of it. I include personal objects like these in order to give viewers insight into the figures that I am portraying. For a while, I thought of myself as strictly a portrait artist. It wasn’t until I began adding these personal objects and recreating these settings as symbols of my home life that I realized that there are other ways to depict a person without solely focusing on painting them.
TG: In Round a Memory (The Artists) (2021), Round a Melody (2021), and Round a Harmony (2021), we find one moment unfolding in a series. Similarly, From Outside (2020), From Inside (2020), and From both Outside and Inside (2020) capture the same scene from three different angles. What role does perspective play in your practice?
BM: Perspective plays a huge role in my practice. It helps me tell whatever story I am painting by coinciding with both time and setting. In Round a Memory (The Artists) (2021), Round a Melody (2021), and Round a Harmony (2021), perspective is highlighted more-so through time. These pieces (which were part of a series called How It Started…) are the prequel to a much larger endeavor. They were inspired by a DIY photoshoot that my family conducted in our unfinished basement. The subjects depicted are my sisters and the paintings themselves serve as the prelude to their much-anticipated, successful careers in the beauty industry. The goal of this series is to one day look back at them and reflect on the beginning of their success. It is the first part of a two-part series; the second part will come in ten years to show “how it’s going.” Meanwhile, From Outside (2020), From Inside (2020),and From both Outside and Inside (2020) depict my mother and my twin sister, each casually sitting at a table. The shift in perspective helps build the setting and the scene. There is an unspoken tension that prompts viewers to guess what is going on between the figures in this exact moment.
TG: There is a vivid warmth that can be felt throughout your latest works. Your subjects’ faces are highlighted by shades of orange, yellow, and red, with undertones of purple, green, and blue, while the more close-up portraits reveal the movements and gestures of each brushstroke. How did you arrive at this highly saturated color palette?
BM: Color is one of my favorite aspects of painting. It is where I take the most creative liberties. Before I start a painting, I will spend about thirty minutes or so staring at the face that I am depicting. During this time, I will make a list of every single color that I see in the skin. Then, I decide which colors will go where and which colors will stand out. My palette contains all of my favorite colors: Yellow Ochres, Cerulean Blues, and Naphthol Reds. Honestly, whatever color I am obsessed with or in the mood to see at the moment, is the color that will be the most present in my work. There is also a certain rhythm that I aim for in the faces of my subjects which consists of an almost melodic line-work intended to captivate the viewers’ eyes. This is where the brushstrokes come into play, each one revealing the direction of the subjects’ skin.
TG: Presidential Election (2019) stands apart from the rest of your work in terms of its overtly political and/or allegorical nature. The painting depicts a wide range of characters, from Martin Luther King Jr. to a figure wearing a MAGA hat. Could you talk about the process of creating this piece?
BM: Presidential Election (2019) was the first piece where I was focusing on something more than just the main subject. It was included in a group exhibition called Visions for the Future at Mason Gross Gallery. The premise of this piece is to prompt viewers to not only acknowledge the brave activists of our past, like Martin Luther King Jr., or open our eyes to the frightening brutality of our present, but to refine our understanding of what African Americans are capable of - like a black woman becoming the president of the United States. With this painting, I wanted viewers to step closer and really study what was going on in the scene; to see something that they might have missed upon first glance. For example, the lady to the left of the main figure is based off of Rosa Parks’ mug shot, another symbol of our history. The person in the center who appears to be wearing a MAGA hat is actually wearing a red hat that reads, “Make America Great 4 Once,” a rebuttal to the idea that America has already been its greatest self. The hooded figure next to Martin Luther King Jr. with a single tear falling down his face represents Trayvon Martin. He stands beside a black man with a gunshot wound on his chest. I imagined them staring at viewers, demanding their gaze, and unveiling the prejudiced forces in America that continue to target and kill our community. As I was working on this piece, my goal was to capture and highlight the Black Experience, an experience that contains joy, lightness, and celebration while also enduring hardships, darkness, and challenges. I wanted there to be resistance, possibility, and hope.