Paul Branca is a painter living in Queens, New York. His most recent exhibition, Couch Crash, was exhibited at Golden Parachutes in Berlin. Paintings in the exhibition were made specifically for the handful of friends the artist has in Berlin, who were invited to the opening to take home their painting. Though Branca primarily focuses on a painting studio practice, I talked with him about some older projects that related to Couch Crash.
What was your favorite moment the day we drove Upstate to go apple picking?
If I remember clearly I attempted to read out loud from Emile Zola’s l’Oeuvre, the text where, upon publishing it, he severs his relationship with his childhood friend, Cezanne, by casting him as a misfit completely lost in his own high standards and fantasy. I think I barely got through the first page when we were distracted by a military Boeing 747 that was landing somewhere nearby. It was flying so slow, and extremely quiet. I don’t know if that answers your question, but it was quite impressive. Oh, and after being warned that there were no apples, we found lots, and even tomatoes to boot.
Yeah, we found lots. Cameos, and a few Golden Delicious’ still on trees. And the acorn squashes we snuck out of there… Remember when I ate that tiny Cameo off the tree and left the core still hanging? Ha! So, tell me about the project you did at Golden Parachutes in Berlin.
Eating an apple directly off the tree without even picking it is a fantastic experience which everyone should try once. Because you would have to work to get near the tree in order to work less. It’s an odd contradiction of terms.
For Golden Parachutes I intended to construct a space of conversation around a body of work specifically made for my friends who are living in Berlin. Most are American ex-pats, but some of them are European, some even German, and one, an actual Berliner. Most are art workers in some way or other, but one, I learned at the opening, currently works for an employment firm in Berlin. I wanted to make a series of word paintings which refer to the 1970’s Conceptual art works that deal with language and its dissemination or distribution within a social or idea space, but also can stand alone as a formal object. I wrote a few sentences which consisted of around 15-20 words, the amount of friends I thought of, and used Google Translate to translate it into German. Google Translate created an odd sentence at best, and since most of the recipients speak very poor German, they had some take home words to learn. I liked the idea of works which are shown, but can not be sold, although they appear as commodities one minute, and non-commodities as they are selected and taken away by friends. I didn’t police the taking of the paintings, in fact, I tried not to watch – smoking cigarettes outside instead. My friends, I imagined, would take care of it for me. So the show, I suppose, is also about politics of friendship and trust within systems of exchange.
Studio photograph of the paintings taken to Golden Parachutes.
Eating the apple off the tree is nice because you have to go to the source, you don’t let it come to you. It’s like a reversed globalization. Or maybe it’s just tourism! And you don’t just get near the tree, you go inside it. The paintings were made for your friends, but how exactly did you give them away?
Not unlike picking an apple from a tree. They simply took which one they wanted. The majority of the paintings came down during the typical three hours of the Berlin vernissage. I think three or four canvases were left, and the left-over paintings (made from the detritus of process) which will be on view until the closing. Also, the nails from the removed works will remain on view, marking the painting’s former position.
What I like about this is that your friends activate it. It is about the friend, about friendship, the social bond – but the project is literally your friends. In some open projects there are always concerns about who is actually participating and if it is actually open. And sometimes there is criticism that it isn’t actually the public, but just the art-world and a group of friends surrounding the artist. Yours avoids this because it is about your friends, and in this honesty I feel it is very genuine in its generosity.
I know you as a painter, and only later I learned about earlier projects before you started primarily focusing on a studio painting practice. Can you tell me about some past projects – especially the phone card project that involved the community you live in, the one where you painted phone card imagery and set the paintings out on the street corner to give to the same people who buy the phone cards?
I like working alone in the studio making things, lost in work and thought, and all the while considering how my works may appear outside of the studio, to a certain public and context. It is this space of thinking which allows me slippage into abstract thought, like “do you see/think what i think?”- its sheer impossibility. So planning a project, such as what I did quite sometime ago, like the phone card paintings, or in this case Couch Crash, I had intentions of how things will play out, and set certain soft rules, only to watch them fall apart. This confused space is my great impetus for making work. But, to return to problems of painting, critical painting as it may be commonly called, I am interested in playing with these problems. I like how paintings spend their infancy being alone, but should be expected to grow up in a social space (that of the viewers), and I try to play within that field. The phone card project enabled me certain play within a social sphere, that of my neighborhood. It held its own set of problems – that of unfair exchange (when is an exchange ever fair?), but constructed a situation of dialogue with a public I was anxious to confront. With the Berlin works, my friends are more ‘understanding’ of the nuances of fair or unfair exchange, and by being friends offer understanding as an implicit trait.
Phone card paintings on the street of Jackson Heights, Queens.
Tell me some more about the phone card painting.
I was charmed by the wide variety of imagery on each pre-paid phone card and how they were hand tailored for specific communities of new immigrants and/or simply people with friends or families overseas. It was hackneyed to say the least, but consisted of a wealth of imagery which could fit into the art historical construct of genres. So I felt the need to paint them, to work with them somehow, and it was only after making a few dozen oil paintings of the card’s images, sans text, that I considered re-inserting them into the community. I cut a flap into the canvas’s surface and inserted the scratch-off code, allowing the participant to use the painting to contact his or her family (or whomever). I then proposed them gratis to the passersby, in Jackson Heights where I live, in exchange for a photo. The photo documentation proved problematic, and I realized that there are more effective ways to document distribution.
Calling card poster.
Why was this problematic? Was it because of technical problems with the camera documenting the event? Or because the camera alienated your project from the community because it added an awkward layer (once it becomes obvious that it’s an “art project” people may become skeptical of its intent)?
On the contrary, once it became known it was only an art project (they were oil paintings on canvas after all) people were less skeptical and more interested in participating. I don’t like the posing of pictures, and asking the phone card paintings recipients to pose with the canvas added a level of power that would be better left out. Everyone was quite content, and even understood the reasons why (communicating verbally is very important and something that is often omitted or edited from documents) they were asked to pose. At the same time I am a strong protagonist for learning while doing especially when working in the social realm, as expecting people to act a specific way is more problematic.
And this was in the Queens Museum, right? There was a real phone booth built in there?
No, the phone card paintings took place on the street in Jackson Heights, outside of the now defunct Bollywood Eagle movie theater, surrounded by phone card vendors. The project at the Queens Museum was a calling center I constructed enabling participants to use it to call anywhere for free.
I remember you told me a story about the night guard at the museum, what happened?
Yes, I was informed that a security guard apparently broke into the booth one night and called home (Granada) for several hours. I was then contacted by the museum’s director, Tom Finkelpearl, to discuss the mounting phone bill.
Yes, that is great! You were giving a free service, but someone was paying. And now you are painting a new series of portraits – of someone with the same name as you – a doctor named Paul Branca that you found through a Google Image search. Can you tell me about these?
Dr. Paul Branca from a Google Image search.
I never googled myself until doing projects with you, and upon doing that I ‘discovered’ this other Paul Branca. Duh, there are many Paul Brancas, but only one whose image appears first on google images. That’s fine, I mean, I am not obsessed with web presence, but I do think it could be interesting to paint a portrait of him, or learn to paint portraits by painting Paul Branca. The next step would be to post and tag a photograph of the painted portrait, thus re-inserting a painted version of him in hope that one day the portraits align côte-à-côte on the same google image space.