Color, Light & Space – Brian Quirk

It’s been awhile since our last post on Color, Light and Space, but I’m determined to continue to ask other artists questions about the subject, especially, how they go about confronting these issues in their work. I am fascinated by the thought processes that artists use when they consider color, light and space. In this post I’ve asked the playwright, actor and artist, Brian Quirk, a few questions about how he uses these tools when he is developing his scripts.

MS: As a playwright I suspect the ideas and processes of color, light and space are integral to the way you develop the scenes, the characters and the atmosphere of your play. In painting we have to develop this all at once, and these things unfold as one looks – I’m thinking here of Caravaggio especially, who set his scenes for a dynamic visual overload that then unfolds.

BQ: Yes, I love how that works in Caravaggio. He is such a theatrical painter and visual overload is right! There is such realistic detail in his work and gorgeous light too.

MS: How does color, light and space unfold in your writing?

BQ: It really depends on which play I’m writing. In MAPPLETHORPE/The Opening, it was all about visualizing space in black and white. With PLUSH LUST, interior decorators are moving in together and then moving apart so color was vital. Palladin, the lead character, develops a substance abuse problem and his best friend, Marion, stages an intervention. She, literally, draws back the blinds and lets the healing light in. In my play CRASH which deals with obsession and imagined scenarios, the lighting changes depend on the mood; more threatening scenes imagined in reds, whereas lighter scenes have a softer palette. There is a character, Lucille, in a train station and blue is prevalent. At the end of the play, we realize it has all been imagined and the light of reality shines harshly. How these elements will unfold depends on the play.

MS: Are you concerned about these issues as you develop not just the scene, but the characters in the scene?

BQ: Yes. In the Mapplethorpe play the “portraits,” characters based on his images, were imagined in black and white. Whereas, the people in the world of the gallery were imagined in color. In my most recent play NERINE about a young girl’s awakening and breaking away from a dysfunctional family, space is almost another character in the play. They are living in cramped quarters and that confined space informs the scenes. Nerine, the young girl, discovers gardening. The open space offers to her the possibilities of a different life, of being an artist.

MS: Do you consider spaces between characters or character and audience as part of the tension or release of a scene?

BQ: Absolutely. When John Stix directed the Mapplethorpe play, he had the “portraits” off center and staged at a bit of a distance from the audience. Giving the audience space to take in these very extreme characters. However, the artist’s grandmother, another character, is played almost in the audiences lap. She welcomes the audience into the gallery space and makes them feel safe. In PLUSH LUST, the characters cohabit and there are silent scenes which document their life. This is all done visually with their pulling together and breaking apart and tentatively coming together again. These silent tableaus help tell the story of their love affair.

MS: Do you specify direction toward the audience, the way they are seated, how the play is seen, how they might participate, etc?

BQ: I don’t specify direction toward the audience. However, my writing has a lot of direct address in it (where characters speak to the audience.)

MS: Does the design of the theater itself play into the idea of the text?

BQ: Not really, though I do visualize the space when I write I do not at this point write with a particular space in mind. Of course this could change if I was continually writing for a specific theater!

MS: Can you alter that (the limitations of the theater itself) with the lighting, the color or the space that you describe in your writing?

BQ: Yes. With my Mapplethorpe play, we had to alter each of the spaces that I performed in so that it would be that neutral space called for by the text. At Dixon Place, we had to deal with an all white space, so the designers had to create shadow. In Provincetown it was such a large space, so a platform was built to define the playing space, and in San Francisco, the theater was painted to look almost like a Polaroid.

MS: How do you use color as you develop a character or a scene?

BQ: Again, it all depends on the project. In my play SUMMERLAND based on the Fox sisters, I drew. I was on two fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and was inspired by all the great visual artists. Frustrated in my writing process, I ended up drawing (badly) colorful circular forms. I was trying to imagine the supernatural. I made dozens of drawings and cut out collages, trying to wrap my mind around the “ghosts,” both real and imagined in the play. While working on PLUSH LUST (I was at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on a fellowship) and I made collages and drawings to both imagine and define the spaces that the designers lived in and the spaces their imaginary firm designed.

MS: Brian, as a visual artist, I like the fact that you move to a visual practice to help you define your characters. I find this true of other playwrights and directors, I’m specifically thinking of Robert Wilson, whose drawings relate directly to the light and spaces of his productions. Orson Welles would draw his productions out before he began – translating the text into a visual experience. In your drawings you used circular images to refer to the supernatural – you were searching for a way to represent the un-seen or unknown. How do you translate your visual images back into the text in this regard?

BQ: The images that I drew became clues to me as far as the text and also the character. In a way, the drawings made me realize that the girls were just regular normal children (this was the solid element that appeared in the drawings.) Their “gift” (the ability to speak to the dead) was the lines that were spiraling out all over the page.

MS: Has this become part of your process when you’re writing (using visual practices) to define the text?

BQ: I am very inspired and influenced by visual arts. I have used this visual practice to develop two scripts and I’m sure I will again but for the last play I wrote NERINE, I did not define the text visually.

MS: As the play forms on the page lighting must become a great concern. How do you indicate the light or the spaces of light in your writing?

BQ: Yes. Extremely important and it varies piece to piece. As a production approaches, I rely on a designer to help realize the various scenes I have imagined. Sometimes with stage directions such as “the light of reality shines in this scene.” Sometimes guiding the designer with a specific color suggested for a scene. I sometimes specify it in text and sometimes I just know what I’d like to see and this comes out in collaboration with the production team.

MS: Are you thinking in tableaus or is there a more natural unfolding of light and space?

BQ: It all depends on the world of the play. PLUSH LUST has a series of silent tableaus which are very stylized and staccato. In NERINE, the light is all natural (cramped and dirty inside, and beautiful California bright outside.)

MS: Can it become a character in your play as well?

BQ: Yes. In SUMMERLAND the ghost is only light.

MS: There are always the inevitable changes from the page once something goes live. What processes of color light and space are you looking for when the piece becomes physical? What tensions or releases?

BQ: It is going to be a challenge when PLUSH LUST is staged. There is the silent tableau world of fabulous interiors and an upwardly mobile career. There is then the interior private world of Palladin and I think the light becomes more severe and the space more confined as his addiction spirals out of control. In the final scene after Palladin’s best friend Marion intervenes, I think there is a big release. The light will become more natural, warm and kind. Whereas earlier, the world will become harsher, crazier, unnaturally bright and smaller – mirroring addiction. At the end, there is hope and more room for the audience and the characters to breath.

MS: How are those elements heightened by color, light and/or space?

BQ: As the character spins out of control I think the color and light become “crystal methed” out, as does the space. Then with recovery there is warmth and natural light.

MS:In your work “Mapplethorpe: The Opening” you created a black and white space to open one’s imagination to the stories behind the images. How did the idea of the photographic space and light play into the writing of the piece?

BQ: When I first started writing the play, I went to the Strand to look at the S&M portraits that Mapplethorpe had photographed in the late 1970’s. I could not afford to buy the book at the time so I would return again and again to live with these black and white images. When I imagined them, they were always in a black and white world. Even the presence of Mapplethorpe himself seemed to be in black and white. That world was always the world of the studio, of defined, specific and bright light.

MS: Mapplethorpe’s images, though at times disturbing, have a classic all-over light and space. Did this imagery affect how you wrote the staging, lighting etc for the play?

BQ:I actually did not specify any lighting directions. Lance Horne’s brilliant sound design really helped define the difference in the worlds between the “portraits” (one reality) in black and white and the world of the gallery (another reality) in color. The lighting design then gave the gallery an overall natural wash with color. The world of the portraits was studio-like lit and confined white light.

MS: How did you animate that light and space to re-present that imagery and that camera process – that moment when the image was captured?

BQ: It was a square of light in which I would suddenly appear. There would be a music cue then a transition and we would be in this hot confined space and the photography session would be in process. The “portrait” monologues were all about a dialogue between artist and model. Private moments that were helped by the “gallery” colored lights coming out and just the hot “studio” light coming on. The transitions were rehearsed endlessly so it really happened so smoothly and quickly, like a camera click. Then zap, we would be back at the gallery and Mapplethorpe’s first opening in 1977.

MS: It seems to me that there are a lot of visual cues that you have to take into consideration as you write. This also is part of the process for painters – we have to lead the eye so to speak. I’m interested in how you build an interaction between the audience and the play itself. Is this something you write into the text or does this fall more to the director’s interpretation?

BQ: I think that I give a lot of suggestions for visuals in the text but in the end it really falls more to the director’s interpretation. Ultimately theater is a collaborative.

Brian Quirk will have a reading of his new play, Nerine, sponsored by the id Theater this July 19th.

Agent of SHIELDs

The marvelous David Shields appeared on the Colbert Report last night. David is great playing the straight man to Colbert’s out of control faux Fox Network pundit. Lots of fun!

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
David Shields
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

Link to the show if the video doesn’t load

All Art is Theft. Let’s face it – “appropriation” is a hip catchword for an old process. And as we all know the best art continues a dialog with the past while infusing it with the reality of the present. The strong artist finds a way to overcome the past in just this way. However, with so much “appropriation” everywhere we look in our artworld, it would be great to see more of it infused with the reality of our existence and this is where “reality” comes in – a tool is only as good as the artist who wields it. To be clearer about this issue I think we should define what “Theft” might mean, or what it means for an artist to “Steal.” I’ll leave that for another post.

Embedded in Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” is the French national anthem. Aaron Copeland based a significant part of “Appalachian Spring” on the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts.” Manet’s “Olympia” is an overt reworking of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” Genius borrows nobly. Art is theft. Good poets borrow; great poets steal. James Joyce said, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.” Who owns the words? We all do, though not all of us know it yet. Art is not a patent office. It’s a conversation between and among artists. Reality can’t be copyrighted, especially in the digitized universe we now occupy.”

reality_further in

I’ve been following the Shepard Fairey case through the last few months. I find this case interesting because the issues that are being litigated touch on so many current cultural/theoretical problems facing artists in the Postmodern art world. The first is the technique of appropriation, which is always POMO’s first salvo against Modernism. However, this critique has been supplanted by a further cultural one connected to use – free use of culture as a found object. This has been going on in visual art for hundreds of years. Titian and Giorgione, Tintoretto and Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael, every Mannerist known to art history, the Pre-Raphaelites, well you get the idea. Strong artists steal from other strong artists. It boils down to a kind of ongoing dialog with the past, precedent and innovation – art about art.

There are a deeper issues today since our tools of appropriation allow us to replicate images exactly, and now, the idea is that we must try to determine when an image has been transformed just enough to make it into something not duplicated. But unlike the old masters struggling with precedent our cut and paste studio technologies aren’t designed to transform the past, they customize it. Replication exists before transformation and use is “originality.” Artists no longer feel that they have to make up their own images, they simply retread the found imagery that has been ingested through all of our electronic outlets. For artists this has created a conceptual endgame aimed at re-contextualizing this found culture – making “context” far more important than the replication – ground over subject. Originality is now determined by how one manages the ground rather than how one uses the subject. There is a further element to this endgame practice in that most all of our “culture” is now copyrighted. With everything institutionalized in this way we no longer have to overcome precedent – the “agon” described by Harold Bloom is not the anxiety that drives the next generation of artists. Today cultural production’s anxiety is about business and the proliferation of that business throughout the media – who owns it, who uses it and who gets paid for it. Originality, transformation are not the point – customization and accessibility are. As culture of all type, high, middle and low, has merged with business, style and theoretical change has all but disappeared. We are content with upgrades, reformulations and revivals of existing software – we have come to believe that this is the only kind of change that matters.


The Fairey case brings up many these same philosophical issues for artists – economic, political, cultural, theoretical, moral and ethical. How do we use these images – what does it mean to use these images – how do we change them – if we create our own images can they be used by others in this same way – where does money begin to play into the equation – does this change the aspect of the use of these images? Do images still carry power – how do they service power? The questions are endless.

Unfortunately for Shepard, he has become the poster-boy for many of these issues. His Obama poster was an iconic image during the last campaign, and it helped to define a new political reality for the United States. (This too may be part of his legal problems, there are many who did not want power to shift hands.) Fairey has always acknowledged the fact that he used copyrighted images, that isn’t necessarily a problem under the concept of fair use. In this instance his work’s use of the copyrighted image had changed the original enough for this new work to be considered “original” in the legal sense. I’m sure he would have had no problems in court – it was a fairly straight-forward fair use case. But that’s not how this whole affair has played out. We found, as the case has gone on, that evidence had been destroyed, and that he had purposely mislead the court about which photo was used to make this now-famous image. In the blink of eye so many other factors about how and why artists appropriate imagery have come into play. There is now a criminal case pending even as the civil case continues. None of this bodes well for Fairey or for the artists that will have to appear in courts to defend their use of copyrighted culture. Surprisingly for Postmodernists everywhere, it turns out that making Art may very well have moral, ethical and philosophical considerations after all.

Artists can’t simply slough off questions about what we do and how we do it any longer. To continue to hide behind the Postmodern monolith does not bode well for the future of “appropriation.” Which brings us to the questions we might begin to ask ourselves in our own studios. Should we create our own styles, our own images or do we continue to use what we know, what we understand? What should we question, what should we accept, what should we create? Do we customize or innovate? Again these questions are endless. They are the shifting realities we create in our studios, and that may begin to count for something in our quest for innovation and style change. Paraphrasing Dave Hickey from his speech at SVA in the fall – if you follow the rules your art disappears, it becomes just another thing on the wall. As we continue to look into reality, it is that thing on the wall that will become our focus, not the ground that supports it. We will turn away from context and look closely at how we might change the reality of the thing in itself.

Further Thoughts On Dryness

We’re still experiencing some tech problems here at Henri – so please be patient. In the meantime we’ve been discussing “dryness” and all it’s implications amongst ourselves.

Roberta Smith wrote a wonderful article for the Times the other day about painting. I’ve mentioned this article already in a previous post. But I wanted to discuss something that kept bothering me about the paintings she uses to illustrate her point that painting is indeed alive and well.

Now I have nothing aesthetically against the artists that she chose to illustrate her point. They are all capable painters and each of them make accomplished work. But for the most part these paintings are unambitious and settling for the aesthetic leftovers of Postmodern theoretics. These works contain nothing that presents a challenge to the Postmodernist art world. Most have an “unschooled” or “outsider” look – straight out of Alice Neel, Henri Rousseau, hippie illustrations, academic realism and surrealist primitivism. Most all of these works employ a rear-grade, 20th century “amateur” aesthetic. Now I’m all for an approach to painting that isn’t overtly academic or professional in flavor, but I do believe that any serious challenge to the monolithic nature of the theoretics of the art world will have to at least be a scholarly one, and that challenge will have to stand up to the best painting that our visual history has to offer. Today there are many painters that rely on charm and guile to make their work. That’s nice but it’s not enough. I realize that any sort of ambitious painterly critique will have to be based on nuanced differences that we Postmoderns don’t understand any longer, but we painters must accept this visual challenge! Rear-garde painting will not carry the day against strong Postmodern painters like Christopher Wool, Peter Halley or Mary Heilmann.

That being said it’s great to read that a major NY critic is challenging us to make it new once again!

Technical Breakdown

We’ve been having a few horrendous technical problems of late. It’s complicated stuff for non-techies but with a little help from some experienced folks it seems that we’ve finally resolved some of those issues. Hopefully, we are back to normal and you’ll be able to access Henri once again. Thank goodness for database backup, I highly recommend it!