Phyllis Bramson – Affectionate Arbitrary Anecdotes

Phyllis Bramson’s oeuvre addresses sexuality, gender issues and stereotypes of “good behavior” in complex narrative-based mythologies layed out upon canvas. The COMP Magazine recently visited Bramson’s Greek Town studio to discuss her affinity with the Windy City, romantic nature, thoughtful and sometimes irrelevant meditation, and why painting is still highly relevant in contemporary art dialogues.

Let’s start with a little background. You’ve been working as a painter in Chicago for a great number of years. You were hired as a tenured associate professor, just as the University of Illinois/Chicago’s art program began to flourish and garner a national reputation. What other early experiences do you see as significant in developing your artistic practice and relationship to Chicago?

Really that was one of the most significant experiences, nothing else has had such an influence on my life.  It had tremendous impact on my development as an artist and visual thinker.  I could add to the list, working in window display at Marshall Field’s and helping form Artemisia, a woman’s cooperative in the seventies, but it was my teaching  “life” that affected me the most.  At UIC, the sculptor Charles Wilson was my “unofficial mentor”, although he really never knew that; I thought he was a very principled teacher and a smart conceptual thinker, in a very personally humanistic and philosophical way.

University of Illinois graduate critique, circa 2000

University of Illinois at Chicago graduate critique, circa 2000

What type of impact did teaching have on your practice? From my experience, new perspectives and ideas from fresh encounters provide new avenues for research and thinking. Was this the case for you?

I had been poorly educated in any aspect of contemporary art, A midwestern education, in art programs during the early 60’s and 70’s. It wasn’t always the best of times.  I wasn’t challenged one wit in any way!  When I started at UIC in the ’80’s, I learned as I went along mostly from a very verbal faculty during graduate critiques, which were wonderfully exciting and challenging.  I listened for about a year or so… and then jumped in!  I found I was able to construct my own way of seeing things, happy to remain the “outsider”, maybe even a bit of a renegade!  I know some of the faculty found me eccentric and dumbfounding. I still stand by my own off center positions, by the way.

Phyllis Bramson, Shipwrecked, 72" × 96" oil on canvas , 1987

Phyllis Bramson, Shipwrecked, 72″ × 96″ oil on canvas , 1987

Miranda McClintic made this insightful assessment, “Phyllis Bramson’s imaginative portrayals of stereotypical sexual relationships incorporate the passionate complexity of eastern mythology, the sexual innuendos of soap operas and sometimes the happy endings of cartoons”. This is a lot to digest. How do you connect these items that can appear initially disparate. 

I had never had anyone write about my work so succinctly.  It still holds true. and I don’t find them disconnected at all!  I sometimes say that my work is about Disney meets Bollywood… maybe a shorthand version of what she said. 

Phyllis Bramson, What Went Wrong?, 70" × 50" mixed media on canvas, 2004

Phyllis Bramson, What Went Wrong?, 70″ × 50″ mixed media on canvas, 2004

Can you provide an overview of your process? What type of research do you do? And, how does this become realized on your canvases?

My way of working is mostly intuitive and it gets me into a lot of hot water and very awkward moves in my paintings.  I have an improvisational and anti-formal preference for some reason. That means I have to consciously work at adding some formalism and repetition.  But while I do have a certain desire for some sort of visual order and color formatting, it is the “look” of things and my personal aesthetic preferences that completes my work.

Phyllis Bramson, Courtship Rituals (happiness, even after), 72" × 60" mixed media on canvas, 2006

Phyllis Bramson, Courtship Rituals (happiness, even after), 72″ × 60″ mixed media on canvas, 2006

A long time ago, I was really into researching various periods like Chinoiserie, Rococo, Chinese pleasure gardens and Persian miniatures. The painters, Boucher, Fragonard and early Goya paintings and also, two books were important: Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and the Volcano Lovers by Susan Sontag.  That earlier research is still the major source of my thinking.  I also am constantly checking look a lot of contemporary painting and sculpture. I want to remain relevant and current.

Phyllis Bramson, Flights of Fancy (and Leaps of Faith), 72" × 50" Mixed media and oil on canvas , 2003

Phyllis Bramson, Flights of Fancy (and Leaps of Faith), 72″ × 50″ Mixed media and oil on canvas , 2003

What do you value most in your visual art practice?

I value that I always have something to do, some challenge to own up to and the desire to keep growing.  How lucky is that?  While sometimes I do get bored with my work, upset with my career, I always seem to bounce back into the studio.  I am definitely alive and well but have little patience for banalities or shallow and duplicitous thinking.

Phyllis Bramson, In Praise Of Folly—The Parrot Knows, 36" × 36" mixed media and collage on canvas, 2013

Phyllis Bramson, In Praise Of Folly—The Parrot Knows, 36″ × 36″ mixed media and collage on canvas, 2013

What works do you hope to complete during 2015?

Well, I am getting ready for a thirty year retrospective that opens October 2015 at the Rockford Art Museum, so anything that I am making will be a possibility for that exhibition, in terms of showing newer work.  Also, at the end of January, I am going to stop painting on canvas and turn  to making narrative sculptural objects; beginning with found objects and whatever else I can think of using.  Starting off using large 12” teapots as the “base”, wanting the work to look totally eccentric and unapologetically gorgeous.  Also large scale mixed media drawings that map out or diagram the sculptural pieces. While I have made narrative objects in the past, I am very anxious about this particular project, committed to doing the unexpected.  I think it is important  to surprise viewers and also my self!  I won’t rid myself of this feeling of unease until I go into production –  I have no idea in terms of how to go about making this new body of work!  

Phyllis Bramson, The Rabbit Who Sucks Fur, Overall: 22" × 10" × 12" Scroll: 60" × 14" Mixed media, 2006

Phyllis Bramson, The Rabbit Who Sucks Fur, Overall: 22″ × 10″ × 12″ Scroll: 60″ × 14″ Mixed media, 2006

Phyllis Bramson has been a refreshing fixture in the Chicago art community for over 40 years. Bramson has received numerous grants, including two national endowment for the Arts fellowships, John Simon Guggenheim Grant, Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, New York City Studio Grant, The Rockefeller Foundation Residency/Grant, and Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. In addition, Phyllis Bramson has held numerous solo exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad at some of the most prestigious galleries and museums. Bramson’s work is held in over 70 permanent collections, including the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.), The Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Musée de Toulon (France), and the New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York).

For additional information on the artistic practice of Phyllis Bramson, please visit:

Phyllis Bramson: http://www.phyllisbramson.com/

Phyllis Bramson Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllis_Bramson

Phyllis Bramson at the Brooklyn Museum: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/phyllis_bramson.php

Phyllis Bramson Youtube Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgxuNdmJt6o

Phyllis Bramson at the Rockford Museum of Art: http://www.rockfordartmuseum.org/COLLECTION/p_bramson

Interview by Chester Alamo-Costello