The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 41: ASSASSINATION: Val Britton, Artist Represented by Johansson Projects

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Photograph of Val Britton. Courtesy of Val Britton.
Val Britton: Re-mapping, 2006, installation with printed cut-outs and acrylic on wall, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Johansson Projects.

Having viewed Val Britton‘s ambitious and beautiful pieces in New American Paintings last year was an incredible spiritual experience. The feeling was similar to that of entering a cathedral where one could see the dimmed shafts of light passing through the stained glass windows. Britton’s diagrams (if you are willing to call them that) are full of ambiguous information that radiates a particular beauty that is full of hidden poetry like Wallace Stevens.

I had a chance to talk with her online and she was kind enough to allow me to introduce her work here in its proper context for the public. I hope that the readers will have a chance to view her works that allude to nature, cartography, ocean maps, quilts, and history.

If you have any questions about Britton’s artwork, feel free to contact Johansson Projects at or at (510) 444-9140.

Now here are THE ART ASSASSIN’s details of the “assassination”:

qi peng: As you are a former graduate of RISD and the California College of the Arts, do you have any memorable experiences with your arts education? Do you have any significant professors or fellow students who influenced your current studio practice and methodologies? In what ways do you think that the art education and programs could be improved?

Val Britton: Going to RISD was an incredibly valuable experience. It completely changed my life. I grew up in a small suburb without much knowledge of contemporary art. I was pushed really hard to develop technical skills while also being challenged to articulate the meaning and motivation behind what I was doing. Being around other artists who were working at a high level was inspiring and encouraged me to work harder, and I’m still friends with friends I made there. Things I learned in undergrad come back to me all the time when I’m working in the studio, but one of the most important things I developed there was a strong work ethic.

CCA was a different experience for me since I was a graduate student there. It was an interdisciplinary program that focused more on independent studio work and group critiques that emphasized critical dialogue. Attending the program certainly changed my work—I was encouraged to work larger and open up my practice, and I began to trust myself more as I let go of some of my old trappings and got more in touch with what was at the heart of my work. Some professors I worked with that really influenced me were Kim Anno and Anna Von Mertens. The most valuable aspect of the graduate program besides having the dedicated time to work was being part of the community of artists there and being able to learn from them.

qi peng: Your artwork, which has similar overtones of the installation paintings of Julie Mehretu and Alexis Granwell, is a landscape-like installation form of painting into the world of mixed media and collage. What inspires you to pursue the use of various materials ranging from pen, cut paper, and collage within your pieces? How do you plan for each individual work? What inspires your titles, which seem to be extrapolated from geography, landscape art, and National Geographic issues?

Val Britton: I love working with paper and have a background that was heavily influenced by drawing and printmaking. Using paper feels very natural to me and it has so much potential for texture, layering, being used in a sculptural manner, and accepting many kinds of painted and drawn marks. My process is very intuitive and I approach each piece without any planning. I tend to accumulate materials and sort them out as I’m making a piece, deciding through trial and error what will work. Some of my techniques for making the work, like the cut-out areas or collage, have resulted from frustration at not being able to resolve the piece; using collage to cover up an area that is not working, or using cut-out to take away elements in the hope of changing the overall dynamic of the piece.

I struggle with titles. I hate to leave anything untitled because it seems like a missed opportunity to say something more about the work. For my titles, I often try to combine elements that describe the landscape or natural world with references to an emotional state of being. I try to leave the titles open to ambiguity and interpretation.

I do have an extensive collection of National Geographic maps from my grandfather…I guess it all seeps in.

qi peng: Noticing that your early work contain more elements of figurative motifs such as sheet music, intricate patterns, embroidery, and pop art figures, how do you feel that your style has shifted from those pieces from 2000 to your current works in 2009? How do you feel that printmaking and monotypes fit into the context of your artistic practice?

Val Britton: As an undergrad at RISD, some of my professors encouraged me to work with personal imagery, and I began to explore a personal narrative using those motifs you referenced. As my work developed in the years after college, I began to situate these motifs in a dreamy landscape-like space. I was still working in this manner when I began grad school. My studies led me to realize that I was holding on to these figurative elements when what I needed to do was let go of them and develop a more abstract language. I realized that the story I wanted to tell couldn’t be communicated through knowable motifs because it was about memory and intangibility. I was looking at an old atlas my family had given me, and I discovered that these maps resonated with me and the stories of my father’s travels. Elements of these maps had the potential to be the jumping off points for my images. For some reason I had been afraid to let go and fully embrace abstraction, but once I did I felt that my work expressed the emotion and intangibility more directly and authentically. I had been making small works on paper, and the figurative/patterned elements were becoming more and more dense and compacted. I was encouraged to work larger, and doing so opened up my work and opened up my eyes to new possibilities.

Printmaking and monotype are techniques that I have used less in recent years, but they are important to me in that they employ a method of translating my hand. When my marks go through the press, they are transformed in often unpredictable ways, and I think this layer of surprise is exciting. I like to not always be able to control my work and to be open to making mistakes that could enrich the work in unforeseen ways.

qi peng: You have such a wonderful command of color and line within the individual pieces. How do you achieve such a delicate yet immersive effect with the components of the artwork? How do you fashion the artwork into larger series? Have you noticed whether you are more prolific within the studio as time goes on?

Val Britton: It’s hard to describe my process because it is so intuitive. I have realized after many years of fighting it that I have a certain look and hand that comes naturally to me. It often involves beauty (a dirty word to some) and a balance between order and chaos, delicacy and fragility. At the heart of my work is a longing to synthesize all these disparate elements and communicate something that is emotional and authentic, something that the viewer can get lost in and find his or her own meaning in, regardless of what that viewer knows about my stories or my intent.

My process involves spending a lot of time in the studio, and using trial and error to put materials together. I love working in a series because it allows me to take one idea and expand it in different directions to explore different possibilities.

I do think I am more prolific in the studio as time goes on. I think that having a studio practice allows me to build momentum, and that momentum keeps me excited about what is next.

qi peng: How was your cooperation with your gallery Johansson Projects enhanced the direction of your work? Has gallery representation boosted your artistic career and your ability to pursue more ambitious pieces? How do you feel that the contemporary art world differs in California than in New York? Do you have any advice for emerging BFA or MFA students who completed their degree recently and are ready to enter into the gallery system formally?

Val Britton: Working with Johansson Projects has been a valuable opportunity for me. The gallery promotes my work and helps me coordinate my participation in group shows in and outside of the Bay Area, which has brought my work to a wider audience. I think that having the support of the gallery behind me helps me feel more confident about pursuing more ambitious work.

Getting to know some of the other artists represented by the gallery has also been inspiring. I did not realize before working with Johansson Projects the importance of feeling that your work fits into the program of the gallery.

I think that artists in New York and California deal with many of the same issues and really exist in the same world, since the art world can feel like a small place where everyone knows each other. When I lived in New York, I was younger and at a different point in my career, so I don’t know how much insight I can provide about being an artist there. I came to California to pursue my MFA at CCA because I wanted to engage in a more challenging dialogue and to push my work to grow as an artist. I’ve been living here for 4 years because I really love being part of the Bay Area arts community. I am constantly inspired by being around so many great local artists.

My advice for artists who have recently completed their studies is to get your work out there in whatever way you can and to stay engaged with your friends/community. You will grow together and learn from each other, and when/if the time becomes right to enter into galleries you will have the support to make good decisions about what place is right for you. Try not to fixate so much on the gallery thing. It’s most important to develop your work, and the galleries will follow.

qi peng: How do you feel that the current economic recession impacted the contemporary art market and way that it functions in the larger national economy? Do you feel that artists will be pursuing more personal and intimate projects during the upcoming years? How do you think that galleries and non-profits will be coping with the seismic shifts within the political and corporate culture?

Val Britton: I’ve seen galleries closing. Artists and galleries are worried about how they will make ends meet and how long this recession will last. When I was in Miami this winter it was my first time at the art fairs, but people around me kept saying that collectors were holding out much longer before buying, and the fair wasn’t as well attended as in previous years. However, the satellite fairs such as Aqua were very well-received and attended, and there seemed to be a lot of excitement and energy around the emerging artists. I think that the silver lining to this difficult economic time is that artists who are dedicated and sincere will withstand this time and come out stronger in the end. Hopefully people will realize what their priorities are and will be inspired to create work that has integrity. Maybe being unburdened by the pressure to sell will allow artists and galleries to be more experimental and innovative.

qi peng: What are some of your future projects that you will be pursuing soon? Will these new pieces be an extension of the themes and ideas that you are examining now or a different direction instead?

Val Britton: Currently, I am showing several new pieces in a group show at Johansson Projects called Collective Compulsions: the Winter Group Show (which runs through March 6) and at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in All Over the Map. In May I will be showing at Johansson Projects in a two-person show with Michael Meyers.

I’ve started a new series called Constellations that combines some of the themes I’ve been working with and brings together more painting with collage. I’ll probably show some of these works in May along with some new large-scale mixed media works on paper.

I’m also planning to work on a sculptural/installation project at Project 7, an experimental residence program, sometime later this year.

qi peng: What is your opinion on juried competitions such as New American Paintings and curated artists registries such as The Drawing Center‘s Viewing Program in the development of a young artist’s career? Do you feel that being judged by “officials” or “art referees” help to create a strong reputation for the artist’s work? What elements do you think are necessary to make a particular artwork strong and communicative?

Val Britton: Registries like the Drawing Center’s Viewing Program are great opportunities for artists to get their work out there. I think it can be beneficial to apply to registries or juried shows/publications that are reputable and demonstrate a commitment to quality work. I would encourage young artists to apply, but be selective and don’t pay too much. Even if your work is not accepted into the show or publication, often these are juried by prominent curators and arts professionals, and just being part of the application pool is a great way to get your work in front of people. Sometimes opportunities can come out of these experiences down the line.

Being judged is hard. Making work is very personal, and putting it out there to be judged is essentially putting yourself out there. I think it’s important to have faith in yourself, and if you feel confident in what you’re doing and know that you haven’t compromised your ideas, you can’t worry about what others will say. Art is so subjective, and you can’t please everyone. It can be discouraging to be judged or rejected, but it’s important to keep things in perspective and realize that this is only one person’s opinion. I don’t think participating in these sorts of calls is necessary, just that they can be an opportunity. I don’t think it really enhances an artist’s reputation to take part—it just brings an artist’s work to a larger audience. What builds a strong reputation is the quality of the work and the respect of one’s peers and community.

If I knew what elements made a work strong I wouldn’t be spending so much time in my studio trying to figure it out! I often wish I could develop a system for making work, but each piece evolves organically and has its own identity…it’s hard to try to replicate a successful piece. I think that a successful work can be elusive…it’s about putting everything you’ve got in to it, but there’s also that mysterious click when all the elements come together just right…I am always chasing this.

qi peng: Your seminal piece “Re-mapping” which was a 2006 installation project based on the idea of a wall is considered a landmark of contemporary art in terms of how it broke the boundaries between the flatness of surface and the explosion of paper and collage to induce a sense of physical freedom. What inspired you to do this and how did you create this wonderful work? Do you hope to enter into the work of sculpture someday?

Val Britton: The piece was a departure for me in that I was experimenting with creating a site-specific work (on the very small scale of a floating gallery wall) for a group exhibition that I was part of at CCA. The show was an exchange between artists at CCA and at Osaka University of Arts that explored contemporary printmaking practices. The shapes I used as part of my wall drawing had been printed and were pinned to the wall in a more sculptural manner and combined with painted and drawn marks. One of the professors who organized the show invited me to create a larger work.

The resulting piece evolved organically as I was working in the space with the materials that I’d brought. I was compelled to make the piece through my experimentation with printing intaglio plates onto different papers and creating cut-out landmass-type shapes derived from my own drawn and painted marks in combination with some old photos taken by my father. My work seems to embody a sculptural element more and more, but I’m also becoming increasingly more interested in painting…I’ll definitely explore more sculpture in the future, but I’m really drawn to creating works on paper, and will continue to do that for a long time I’m sure.

qi peng: What are some of your favorite artists, books, art magazines, toys, movies, or other cultural artifacts that you wish to share with your fans here? Do you have any recent galleries or exhibitions that you would to recommend to us? What things inspired you about them?

Val Britton: I like so much stuff, probably too much to list…Some of my favorite artists to look at and follow are Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Yuken Teruya, Ernesto Caivano, Reed Danziger, Adrienne Colburn, Wangechi Mutu, Lee Bontecou. I love the Gee’s Bend quilt artists. The show of their work at the Whitney years ago was incredible. Some of the things I admire and respond to about these artists are the elegance and complexity of their work and the careful attention to craft.

I recently saw the Maya Lin show at the DeYoung in San Francisco. It was amazing, as well as the companion book. As far as galleries, I like to see the shows around Oakland like Johansson, Hatch Gallery, Swarm, and Blankspace. There’s a lot of interesting work being made in Oakland these days. I always like the shows they put together at Triple Base Gallery, and Jack Hanley, too.

I find a lot of inspiration in the writings of Agnes Martin, and I really like those big survey books that Phaidon does like Vitamin D. My boyfriend recently gave me Julie Mehretu’s book Black City which is incredible. I also love Haruki Murakami’s books. He creates this other-worldly reality that completely captivates me.

qi peng: What are some of your hobbies? How does this relate to your studio art practice? Do you find yourself having to enter into the studio out of habit on inspiration or a mixture of both? What are some of the challenges that artists have to face during their studio time?

Val Britton: I have to admit that my work and hobby are one and the same. It’s really challenging to make a living as an artist and to find enough time in the midst of the day job and all the administrative work it takes to support your career as an artist to have quality studio time. I think that balancing these elements is probably a lifelong challenge.

When I’m not in the studio, I like to get outside and walk around my neighborhood, ride my bike, read, cook, go see bands play, go look at more art, and watch movies. I find inspiration where I least expect it, and I try to get into the studio during those moments, but it’s not always possible. I also believe in the discipline of making a habit out of being in the studio, because you never know…sometimes things just happen, and you need to put yourself in the position to take advantage of those great moments where things just click.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 2:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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