The enigmatic charm of the somewhat androgynous, yet undeniably glamourous female protagonists who take centre stage within Troy Brooks’s imagery, beckon us into their tales of mystery and peril with a beguiling magnetism. Painted with his signature elongation, the Women of Troy possess an ethereal beauty; a trait reminiscent of the early Hollywood actresses who made such a vivid impression on the young artist’s mind. The characters these actresses initially inspired a youthful Troy to conjure up, have evolved through the years and grown into the sensational ensemble of intriguing and multi-layered personalities we are treated to today. Delving deep into themes of identity, sexuality and transformation, the personas of Troy’s women speak to us through carefully crafted poses, beautifully rendered costumes, skillfully constructed allegorical surroundings, intelligent metaphors and the powerfully engaging symbolism he weaves within.
Troy Brooks is a contemporary surrealist painter living and working in Toronto, Canada. Entirely self-taught, Brooks has developed his technique and visual aesthetic through assiduous study and good old fashioned trial and error. Since focusing his attentions on pursuing a career as a professional artist, Troy has achieved a great deal in a short space of time. He is represented by Gallery House and has had his work exhibited in numerous high profile galleries in his home country and abroad, such as Corey Helford Gallery in LA and Jonathan Levine Gallery in NY. His work also resides in private collections around the world, some very exclusive collections it must be added, including that of pop icon, Madonna.
WOW x WOW is thrilled to have had the opportunity to catch up with Troy in the run up to the unveiling of his latest body of work, ‘The B-Girls’. This new series of paintings will be on show at Corey Helford Gallery from December 17th – January 14th 2017. Get an exclusive insight into Troy’s inspirations and the concepts behind his art in the interview below.
Hi Troy! First of all, thanks for agreeing to free up some of your valuable time in order to have this wee chat, we really appreciate it. If you could please start us off by introducing yourself and talking about your background, touching on anything you feel has been relevant to shaping Troy Brooks the artist?
I have no formal background in the arts. My mother took up watercolours as a hobby right before I was born and the only way I could get out of being forced to nap was to draw beside her while she had her afternoon quiet time to paint. I was drawing before I could speak because napping is agony at that age. So that’s how it started. But I was instantly fascinated by the act of rendering something on a flat surface. I used to laugh uncontrollably watching my mom do it and I just had a natural feel for it. My parents always encouraged me to get some training but I was convinced I would never want to do it for a living.
We’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community? Are these aspects of your life that are important to your creativity?
I live in Toronto, Canada. I think the art scene here is in transition. I have a lot of really talented friends, but they mostly sell outside of Toronto. In terms of visual art, this city is stuck in a very traditional holding pattern. A few years ago I had a very conventional impressionist gallery in Toronto reach out to me, which struck me as sort of incongruous, but I think they literally ran out of ‘Group of Seven’ buyers. It’s hard to ignore this new wave of visual art that young people are responding to so powerfully, but it’s very Canadian that the old guard is slow to recognize something interesting until after it’s been legitimized by the rest of the world. My work is handled by Gallery House, based in Toronto, and it’s one of the few established galleries in Toronto that carries pop surrealism.
In what ways did your childhood and upbringing affect your relationship with the arts?
I was always sick, so I had to find ways to amuse myself and I never wanted to just sit passively in front of a TV. I was born asthmatic, allergic to almost everything except cornflakes and I had a weird disease that made the skin on the palms of my hands and feet rub off like cellophane. My mother always made sure I had the proper artist tools to keep me occupied. I was a night owl too and in those days every TV station used to play old movies late at night. I was obsessed with the women in those films. Garbo, Davis, Dietrich, Crawford, etc. They all had a very elegant androgyny. I remember spending all day in the library drawing every classic Hollywood photograph I could get my hands on. I also used to order rare photography books from other libraries across the country. The lighting and composition in those photographs is so artful. For me, there’s still nothing that comes close to those photographs today. It was the best training for what I would go on to do and it became a huge element in the style that emerged in my painting. Of course I not only drew the pictures but read all the text and by the time I was 12 I was pretty much a pint sized film historian.
Please give us some background on the ‘Women of Troy’. Who are they? Where do they live? How do they view the world? What kind of agendas do they have?
My girls are sort of the product of a perfect storm. Things like early sickness setting me up to be maybe a bit more reflective at an early age, pent up energy, the feeling like I was born the wrong sex when I was little, getting tortured at school for being too feminine, and a deep seated need to leave a fingerprint. The only agenda the women in my paintings had was to provide me a door. For other people it allowed a window.
You’re currently working towards a solo exhibit at the wonderful Corey Helford Gallery. What can you tell us about your latest body of work? Are you basing your new paintings around any particular themes?
The Corey Helford show runs December 17th to January 14th. This was a busy year with lots of exhibitions, and since I was more or less tapped out of older paintings, I had to produce all new work. I had originally decided to paint one giant series to cover all my commitments, which became Veiled Hearts, Volume One. However, after completing that first solo exhibition and the various group shows, the girls at that party dried up in a weird way. It wasn’t that I had explored all the stories that I had planned. It’s just that they lost their pulse and went back underground and I had to scramble to find the electric current that needs to be there to make a painting. Instead, these other girls surfaced which sort of felt like b-sides to the Veiled Hearts. So I decided to call this show the B-Girls.
You make very effective use of light in your paintings, utilizing exaggerated patches of light and shade to control the viewers gaze in a manner reminiscent of the old noir movies you love so dearly. What was it that initially turned you onto noir and what are some of your favourite examples of the genre?
When I was very little I remember sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to watch old movies. As I said earlier, I’m old enough to remember when they played old movies on late night TV before the infomercial craze. What initially drew me to them were the women in those films. They were tough and feminine and they took charge. But I also immediately recognized the artful attention to detail in those films. The lighting setups for every single shot were so meticulous. Instead of any formal training, I learned everything I know about art from classic cinema, including the silents. One of my favourites from the noir genre is a 1947 movie called ‘Possessed’.
Please tell us a little about the allegorical aspects of your work. Do you view it as important to be able to steer the viewers of your work towards specific conclusions, and if so, which methods do you deem to be most powerful in this regard? Also, how do you approach the symbolism which aids you in extending your metaphors? Do you put emphasis on the development of personal symbolism, or do you prefer to draw from a more universal symbol bank?
I would never want to steer the viewer to any particular conclusions. I actually consciously try to avoid that. The symbols and metaphors are very organic in my paintings. It starts out with free association. For instance there’s a lot of animal symbology in my work. If you see a shark, it probably means there’s a strain of depression circling. Bumble bees usually represent my tendency for angry mind rehearsals. Butterflies usually explore themes of freedom, etc. It’s not very cerebral. I work mostly from instinct. These visual elements just gather meaning naturally with repetition. But I think it’s probably not a good idea to share too much of that stuff with other people because it compromises the work if someone sees me in the paintings. The viewer should assign their own story, which is why I try to leave the girls as open as possible. And anyway, it’s a little unnerving if people know too much about the symbology behind my work. The older I get the more private I tend to be. Maybe it’s a product of all the oversharing I see on the net. I haven’t decided if it’s charmingly intimate or undignified.
Being an artist who works within the visual realm, can you shed some light on some of the most important inspirations and influences on your work that aren’t visual?
Good question. Feminism. There’s a very purposeful reason why my girls have always turned out so domineering. It was never conscious or intentional, but a little boy who gets punished for being too much like a girl needs to get validation somewhere. I think it felt good to draw pictures of powerful, dynamic women because, as far back as I can remember, I was made to feel humiliated for being like a girl, which obviously speaks volumes about a culture’s inherent misogyny. To put it in a nutshell, the reason I was so obsessed all those formative years with painting imperious, autocratic women was so that innate feminine element in me that had been disgraced and repressed could rise up to command reverence. I remember distinctly the way adult men would look at me with disgust when I would do something that was maybe a little too feminine. I couldn’t figure it out at first. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong because every little girl I knew was a tom boy and they got no flack at all. There’s a quote from Quentin Crisp that always stuck with me, “There’s no sin like being a woman.” So I’ve come to understand that how the majority of us feel about women affects me and all gay men directly and my work is a reflection of that. In that way, I like to think there’s a kind of feminist dignity to the women in my paintings. And I don’t see why any decent human being wouldn’t call themselves a feminist.
Most artists will agree upon the importance of continually setting yourself new creative goals and challenges? In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist and what new ways do you envisage pushing yourself in the near future?
The bizarre challenge of making your living from your own reckless creative impulses is that you almost have to ignore outside voices while also being beholden to them. I learned the hard way that trying to second guess an audience is the death of an artist. I think if you have talent and you can truly be objective about your work without forcing the muse, you will find your audience. My work has technically improved a lot over the last 6 years in particular because I’ve been painting nonstop 24/7. At this point I’m like a mad monk. My whole life is in service to the work.
What are your opinions about beauty in reference to man-made artefacts? Is beauty something that you search for in art and is it something you consider when producing your own work?
For me beauty is so subjective. I see it all over the place, but in Western culture I think our palette for what we consider beautiful is waaaaaay too narrow. It’s unhealthy. I think modern media has made most of us merely passive receptacles for trends. The tipping point happened specifically in the 80’s. I see beauty in a lot of things that most people tell me is apparently ugly and I’m mystified. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t owned a TV in years and I’ve spent most of my time creating or reading instead of submissively consuming huge amounts of heavily formulated entertainment. I think the constant diet of too many TV and movie plots have put the population into a kind of mental paralysis. It’s so bloody important for young people to be exposed to great works of art, so they have the ability to reflect on a still image in a gallery and have that kind of spiritual connection with a piece of brilliant art. With that will come a broader spectrum of individual definitions of beauty.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one whose memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
When I was 11, I was taken by some other kids in my neighbourhood to a plywood fort in a wooded area behind a neighbourhood construction sight. They tied me to a lawn chair and put a sack over my head with the bottom cut out. I had a really horrible phobia of frogs. They tied one end of the sack around my neck and started shoving a bunch of big fat toads into the sack until I passed out. Kids have a pretty precise radar for who among them is vulnerable. There were lots of those precious moments I try not to dwell on, but it definitely shaped the person I am today. I grew up in a pretty constant state of fear and humiliation and my art was the only outlet where I felt I had any authority. It’s left me with a nicely developed and well-flexed imagination.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
If I could own any painting in the world it would probably be the 1926 portrait of Sylvia Von Harden by Otto Dix. I’ve always loved that one. I saw it a few years ago at the Pompidou in Paris. She’s pretty breath-taking. There’s incredible atmosphere to that piece.
What’s next for Troy Brooks?
I’m just now putting the finishing touches on my B-girls series and after that opens December 17th at Corey Helford Gallery, I start my morning tea party with the muses all over again.