Pandemic, pro wrestling inspire artist Briseus Smith's new show, ‘MY NAME IS MY NAME’
The painter's exhibition at Emergent Art & Craft opens during Gallery Hop in the Short North on Saturday, June 5
During the pandemic, Briseus Smith’s days were often dominated by two activities: painting and pro wrestling.
While the two may seem unrelated, Smith said aspects of the wrestling videos sometimes made their way into his paintings. “I look for weird poses when I watch videos while I paint,” Smith said recently by phone. “I'll watch a match, and five minutes in I'll pause it because somebody's arm looks [messed] up and I want to take that and add that exact dimension to my work.”
While the figures in Smith’s paintings usually tend toward the abstract, they became even more disembodied in the past year as the artist went from seeing people all the time, especially during his work hours as a bartender, to living a more isolated existence. Sometimes, Smith's pieces depict versions of the floating heads he sees during video chats or the eyes and ears of masked faces in grocery store aisles.
“Seeing a lot of people all the time made it easier for me to be able to freely draw a body part doing whatever without a reference,” he said. “I haven't done a lot of figures in the last 12 or so pieces. There's arms and legs, but there's no full body.”
Some of Smith’s recent work will be featured in a new solo show, “MY NAME IS MY NAME,” which opens Saturday, June 5, at Emergent Art & Craft in the Short North. Smith will paint outside the gallery from 1 to 3 p.m., followed by an opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m.
Growing up on the South Side, Smith began making art as soon as he could hold a crayon. Early on, he gravitated to video games and anime, honing his skills by drawing Sonic the Hedgehog and Dragon Ball Z characters, then branching out to create his own figures. Around the age of 20, he took a check from his warehouse job and put it toward painting supplies, and after a few years, he began developing his own style centered around a pastel color palette of pinks and blues.
At first, Smith wondered if he should branch out and incorporate other color schemes to avoid the risk of repeating himself. But over time he realized the colors had become his calling card. “Even now, lots of local artists will see somebody using pink and blue, and it's like, ‘Hey, yo, you're going to have to pay Briseus that tax, because that's his color. That's his trademark,’” Smith said, laughing.
Order and chaos fight for attention in Smith’s paintings, which typically start with an acrylic base that Smith embellishes with paint markers, pastel sticks and sometimes spray paint. Swaths of calming colors compete with aggressive, rough-edged black markings. “It kind of looks like I've defaced my own work,” Smith said. “I’ll paint something pretty, where the pink and blue are in perfect harmony, and then I'll come in with a black marker or a pastel and just disturb it with whatever comes to mind.”
Often, those black markings reveal disturbed, shell-shocked faces in a sea of pastel prettiness. “They might look beat up and mangled a little bit, but they're calm about it. They're cool,” Smith said. “They’re fine with the situation that they're in. They’re not being overwhelmed by their feelings.”
The title of the Emergent exhibition, “MY NAME IS MY NAME,” reflects Smith’s own acceptance of something inherent to his existence: his first name, which elementary school teachers and others have perpetually mispronounced (it’s BRYE-see-us; “Briseus” is an alternate spelling of a character in Homer’s the Iliad.) The show's title takes inspiration from the Pusha T album of the same name, as well as the phrase coined by Marlo Stanfield in a scene from HBO’s “The Wire,” a show Smith watched for the first time during the pandemic.
“It’s a super unique name. … I remember growing up, always having to correct people,” Smith said. “So when I heard ‘My name is my name,’ that always stuck with me. I just knew, that’s gotta be it. That's the title.”