Interview with Midpoint Artist C.W. Brooks

This is the second installment of the Midpoint 2016 artist interview series.

C.W. Brooks || Second Year M.F.A. Candidate || Director of the Laboratory Research Gallery || Exhibiting in MIDPOINT 2016 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Grace DeWitt

To start with a little background, where are you from, and where did you study as an undergrad?

I’m originally from Chicago and I lived all around the Midwest. I went to Ohio State for a little while and then I got my BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so I went back to Chicago.

I understand that you went through quite a journey to get here, at Maryland’s MFA program. What eventually brought you to, or back to, art?

Really, it was that I’ve been compelled to keep making art. The need to then continue to develop and find critical communities in which to do that brought me back here. I happened to meet one of the professors here at a curling club and he encouraged me for a year or more than to come here for graduate school and I had a bunch of other friends who were also pushing me. Finally, I just gave in. So that’s how I ended up here. Previous to this, I worked in non-profits and politics for over a decade.

You’ve mentioned before that you’ve spent many years working with tape, and I think also index cards? Correct me if I’m wrong?

Well from 2004 to 2007– all of 2004 but not all of 2007– I worked exclusively with masking tape and 10″ x 10″ sheets of Bristol board. And that was all I worked with there.  After that I felt comfortable enough to sort of open up my materials list a little more, but I do find that restraint to be very helpful, at times. Other times, we need to do something else. But, the idea of placing somewhat arbitrary limits, or the practice of placing arbitrary limits on your art-making can allow you to more fully explore subtleties of what you make or of the materials or of the idea pretty effectively, at least for me.

So is that what led you specifically to the masking tape and the Bristol board?

That was just one step in it, there were others. I think part of that is I come out of a photography background. Because in photography you are pretty limited in that you use–  when I learned photography– you used film, and paper, and you go into a really dark place and do a lot of things there. So there really is that limit, and then going out from photography into more of, for lack of a better way to put it, a drawing-based practice, one that really considers mark-making, “thingness.” It made sense for me, it was a natural step really, to just then, you know, choose carefully and then use limitations as a resource.

Would you say control is a goal of your work? Or perhaps a method?

I’d say kind of the opposite. You know within those limits, I have to worry about control less, so within the actual making of the thing I can allow the process to take place organically. I don’t have to worry about a lot of things. Most folks around here, most of the grad students around here, seem to be very contemplative in their studio practice. I’m much more, I’m very impulsive, though. And so by setting those limits up front, I’m able to allow that to happen and at least have some coherence, sometimes. But you know, then I have to self-curate in what I show people at all, let alone what I put in a show, like this one.

We kind of got into this, but do you select your materials to serve the purpose of a project, or does the project present itself out of your preliminary manipulations with the material?

I do a lot of research, is what we’ll call it, which is just screwing around with these things, sometimes I get a good piece out of that. But a lot of time I have to develop a real intimacy with a material to understand how it’s going to work. And at that point usually things become apparent to me as far as what needs to happen. And again, it is a much more impulsive process. There isn’t a lot of deliberation, or contemplation about it. And if I’m doing that it usually ends up very frustrating. That’s not a bad thing to do, it’s just not necessarily what works best for me making my most effective work.

Are there any particular artists, art movements, or other concepts that inspire your current work, or your art overall?

Certainly the conceptual artists from the 60s and 70s are very impactful. And surprisingly, I’m very interested– well, surprising to me given my other background– but I’m very interested in social practice and activist art, which I don’t think really shines to the forefront with my material work. But certainly that has had a big influence on how I approach working.

In regards to the MIDPOINT piece, would you mind talking a little bit about the title of the series? And do you consider it a series?

The title actually is just something I pulled out of a Susan Sontag essay, which she was actually quoting Nabokov, I believe. And so that’s where the title comes from, I think it is effective in explaining how these are made in that the thing exists because I have this intimacy, because I have this strong familiarity with these materials and with these ways of going about making them interact, or altering them, or manipulating them.

Where did the idea for “The Pattern of the Thing Precedes the Thing” come from?

It was just something that I think was ripe, it was something that made sense to do you know these large set of multiples you know there’s a lot of smaller works, in fact there are smaller sets as well of work that do similar things.

How did you mentally and physically go about creating the piece?

To make this piece I drove out to Winchester, Virginia. I got a room at a Motel 6, and for five days, that was what I did. I sat and worked with these materials, it was real nice, because I could go out to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I could go to yoga, but other than that I would stay in the hotel room and work. I took my dog with me, she just likes to sleep a lot too. So that was pretty much the process. But taking myself and these materials out of their normal studio context, I was able to focus on them I think a little tighter, focus on them more closely.

I wanted to ask about that actually, I remember you saying that you felt that this project differed so much from your previous work that you couldn’t do it in the studio space, and I was wondering if you had felt that way about any previous projects?

Not really, I only really brought that [strict studio practice] back since 2013. And in 2013 even, when my primary body of work was made, I had some terrible office  job so you know on my breaks I would make some work, and you know it all had to fit any piece I made had to fit in a number 10 envelope and I would address it and mail it to a friend of mine, in part for an accountability mechanism, because I was at a point where I was ready to rebuild a practice, and a regular practice, as opposed to kind of earlier where I spent a lot of time trying to get away from art and deny that as a part of my life, ’cause wouldn’t that be easier? So, previously, it was really about trying not to do this, trying to get rid of things, and I still have issues with the material object as an element, but if you’re going to sell you kind of have to accept that. Or it helps to accept that.

Do you feel like that kind of office-life frustration maybe in some way inspired the gravitation towards the index cards at all?

I wouldn’t… I had a show in 2010 and we did an interview for that and that interview was very frustrating because all the questions the person had were about how, you know, a terrible office job blah blah blah, you know, the job I had was terrible, but working in an office doesn’t bother me very much, you know. I like the order; I keep a lot of records, and I have personal archives, and I have various tracking mechanisms in my studio that make it almost office-like.  So I wouldn’t say there’s any frustration there. And by 2013 it was sort of becoming obvious that the work I was doing I was working on both campaigns and at non-profits then, was not going to really be a long-term healthy decision.

Back to “The Pattern of the Thing,” what was the greatest challenge you experienced when creating so many pieces within the larger piece, and all with such a high level of precision– or maybe you wouldn’t call it precision?

By the time I made this piece– the word I use is intimacy– I had such a high level of intimacy with these materials that it was just a question of sitting down and doing it. I’d love to be able to do this like once a month for a year, I think it would be fascinating. But really the biggest challenge was to actually get all the pieces in place. I had a set of materials I took with me, and then when I got out to Winchester I realized I needed this and I needed that, so there was a day of driving around town trying to find things… which would be relatively easy here except the traffic would be worse. But out in Winchester was a little more challenging, even though it’s not a terribly small town. But you know, really the challenge there was to really get myself set up, get going, what was surprising is that I expected to be able to do more of this each day. Initially I planned on being there for 3 full days, I ended up being there for 5 full days. The first full day I was there I did 300 cards and then the next day, I just slept all day. I was surprisingly tired from it. And for the rest of that time I did about 200 a day. I averaged about 200 a day in the end and the last two days I was there I did 200 a day and that was very effective. And I was surprised at how tiring this was though, really.

Was there a method to how you organized the cards after creating them, or did you create them with their arrangement somehow  in mind?

They were made in the order that they are presented by row first moving from top to bottom, and then by series. Until they were hung up, I had not seen them in any sort of relationship to one another. For the most part, as I made them, I would begin a row that would establish a theme for the row, and there would also be themes for an entire set. There is one outlier to that, but it actually is not included because of space here. But I think not having that, the viewer is not really going to miss it… but I think there is a little bit of richness that is lost because the piece is technically incomplete. But I think there is still plenty to engage with there.

When someone walks into MIDPOINT, what do you hope that person will grasp about your work?

I’m hoping that they’ll just engage with the work, I think that there’s– based on conversations I’ve had with people who’ve seen it– I think that there’s a number of ways to do it. And I’m pretty willing to let people direct themselves. I think some people will kind of glance at it, and this work may not be for them, and I’m okay with that too. My real interest though, is in the subtleties of the thing, as it is now, which in some cases actually are built off of subtleties of manipulation, or subtleties that already existed, that are sort of amplified through the manipulation. So there’s a lot of different kinds of ways in, I’m not sure how other people are necessarily going to do that. For me, the making of the thing is really the primary experience. I can’t say I’ve spent that much time looking at it since, I’ve certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it. Well I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about “Okay this should have been this way and that should have followed this,” but that’s not how it happened, and given, sort of my interest in this piece as a document as well as a material piece itself, I wouldn’t be willing to reorder it.

Can I ask what you’re currently working on?

Right now I’m actually working on, well a couple of things, I’m working w some photographs, cause i still do that. and I’m working on some very large line drawings. That’s relatively new. I’m trying to figure out given what I’m doing and how I’m doing it what the process necessitates as far as inputs and outputs. and I’m just trying to form a model of how this is going to work in my mind. I’m not saying here’s a model, but that how I’m going to think of my mind working, so that I can work with this process and these materials relatively predictably. And even within a process and material set, that I feel I have well modeled in my mind, there are still, and in some cases there may even be intentional decisions to allow intentionally unexpected things to arise. A decision not to make a decision. Sometimes it is very consequential and important to make that way rather than to deliberate and then dictate every element. But there is still a decision there in saying these preconditions can exist, and it can go a number of different ways from there. But, create the preconditions and then allow that to happen. Preconditions for every one of these cards is basically the same. But the outcome is generally different. There might be a few that look very similar.

I know there’s a few that have not been altered.

Yes. And those are very similar. And you know in those cases the preconditions vary because two different material objects probably are not truly identical, whatever that means. But that’s okay.

Lastly, any advice for budding undergraduate artists? Or, anything you would tell a younger C.W. Brooks just entering the arts world?

Let me think about this for a minute… I mean as far as figuring out what work you need to be doing, often that’s a process of elimination. It’s important to engage deeply with whatever practice you are doing, but I think that it’s also valuable to switch practices every once in a while, certainly early on. And see if you actually come back to that initial practice, or that favorite practice, or discipline, you will probably have been enriched by that. When I moved from Ohio State to Chicago in college I went from working with some real capital “P” photographers, I was “zone system” blah blah blah whatever else, all the way. very quickly I was working Barbara Genevieve who is or was really a fantastic teacher and mentor and also really one of the best.. really a great artist in making semi-pornographic art and communicating activist cultural messages through it. My work is not necessarily cultural activism even though we worked very closely within a student-teacher, teacher-student, student-mentor relationship. But had I insisted that I was only going to work with more photographers, that would have been a real shame. Work with things that really make you uncomfortable.


C.W. Brooks’ work can be viewed at MIDPOINT 2016 in The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, until May 21, 2016. They will be joining the other artists of MIDPOINT 2016 in an artist talk in the Gallery on May 11, from 11am to 12pm.

For more information on C.W. Brooks, visit

For more information on MIDPOINT 2016  and artist talks, visit


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