The interview took place on a rainy December afternoon in 2005 inside Fogarty’s incredibly cluttered and chaotic studio by the sea near the ruins of the West Pier in Brighton. Lucy Chang (LC) was supposed to be asking Brian Fogarty (BF) about his collection of short stories and poems entitled The Greenhouse, which features his portrait of Scarlett Johansson on the cover.
LC: Tell me about Scarlett Johansson. How did you come to paint her?
BF: Why talk about her? There’s no room for
paintings in this little book! Aren’t you supposed to ask me about my writing?
LC: Her portrait’s on the cover.
BF: Is that her? So it is!
LC: Did Scarlett do sittings for you? I mean, like, did you actually meet her?
BF: The answer to the first part of your question is‘no’, to the second part ‘yes’ – in the sense that I met her by conjuring up her presence by the act of painting.
LC: You mean by painting her you were able to incarnate her here in your studio?
BF: Yes. The painting as you can see is life size. After I work for a while in the absence of the model, I begin to feel euphoric, when a strong presence of the model is coming. This is so exciting for me that I need a whisky or two to calm my nerves and carry on!
LC: It’s a pretty intense portrait of a well fit girl. It gives a powerful sense of the reality of Scarlett, even though it’s nothing like a photograph, and the photo on the cover of ‘The Greenhouse’ doesn’t do it justice. Yeah, that’s some vicious painting alright, and it’s hard to believe you managed to work it without her even doing a single sitting for you. How’d you do it and
how long’d it take?
BF: I watched all her films in the cinema or on video, drew and photographed her straight off the tv screen, studied photos of her in magazines, immersed myself in her. I realised that Scarlett’s appearance changes all the time. No two photographs of her are alike, and in all her films she looks different in almost every frame. It’s hard to capture a single image of Scarlett and say that’s her. She’s amazing really, the heart of her is so elusive. You just can’t pin her down.
LC: Which of her films did you like best?
BF: I liked her in ‘The Horse Whisperer.’ And in ‘Ghostworld’ – she was really peachy in that.
LC: You know something….the way Scarlett’s looking in the portrait, it’s as if she knew you were painting her, as if there was some kind of exchange between you. I mean it’s like you shared something together. Yeah, it’s as if she gave you something. Spooky….understand what I’m saying?
BF: Yes, but you know art is only an illusion that uncovers the truth within the lie.
LC: So, how long did it take?
BF: Once I started painting Scarlett I didn’t do anything else until her portrait was finished. I worked every day, seven days a week for nine weeks. Some sessions were four hours long, some ten or fifteen. Usually I did six. The final session was a marathon of thirty six hours with no food or sleep, although I did go out for a couple of hours to the Sanctuary to read some of the poems from ‘Red over Blue’. By the time I got back here I was drunk. I felt exhausted but just couldn’t rest until the work was done and Scarlett was here! So I stood and worked all through the night. I staggered about a bit like a prize fighter slugging it out, slinging paint on and moving it around. To keep myself going I listened to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and I talked to her.
LC: You mean, like, you talked to Scarlett?!
BF: Yes, I did, but you see it’s not unusual for me to talk to the person I’m painting, even though they’re not really there.
LC:How weird! What did you say to Scarlett?
BF: I told her how gorgeous she is, what a goodactress she is, which scenes in her films I liked best, I talked about myself a bit….some of the time I just talked dirty to her.
LC: You talked dirty to Scarlett Johansson?!
BF: I did indeed.
LC: God, that’s really sick! And did she answer you?
BF: She most certainly did!
LC: What did she say?
BF: Fuck off!
LC: Cool – uh, so she did give you something! But really, has Scarlett seen the portrait?
BF: I don’t think so. I don’t know if she’s even aware it exists. I’m planning to show it at the Brighton Festival Exhibition in the spring, at the Sussex County Arts Club.
LC: Awesome! I’m sure she’d think it’s totally rude. Maybe it’d be cool to email her an invitation to the private view with a photo of it. But why d’you like painting people you’ve never even met?
BF: Well certain film actresses fascinate me because they give so much. They’re so expressive and open. You see, no person I’m ever likely to come into contact with in so called real life would be capable or willing to reveal so much to me – certainly a professional model wouldn’t. By seeing my subject in the cinema or on video expressing deep human emotions such as anger, tenderness, passion, sadness, joy, astonishment, anguish and so on, I feel close to them. I feel they are giving me something! I feel I know them. You see in order to paint someone I have to be moved by them – that’s the key. And Scarlett moved me very much. That’s why I was driven to paint her. But I didn’t really get to know her intimately until I’d been painting her for several weeks. Yes, each brushstroke brought her closer, even the ones that were outrageously abusive or went wrong – yes, maybe especially those! ……. It got to be a pretty desperate and brutal business at times. It’s just as well your actual Scarlett wasn’t here!
LC: Your approach to painting seems just as violent and wayward as your writing. Just suppose you were going to paint my portrait. How would you go about it?
BF: Well, I see you’ve appeared in two of the films you’ve made.
LC: Yes, but I wasn’t really doing anything. I was just making wallpaper.
BF: Look, I think the best thing would be for us to go out, have dinner together somewhere nice, have a few drinks, loosen up and enjoy ourselves, have a bit of a laugh. I might do a couple of little drawings of you or take photographs of you while we were out.
LC: You wouldn’t want me to pose for you here then?
BF: No, not at all, that wouldn’t be necessary unless it was for a naked portrait.
LC: Am I right in thinking that you’d need to share some sort of emotional experience with me in order to feel inspired to paint me?
BF: Well, you’re probably thinking along the right lines, although I wouldn’t necessarily need to be part of your experience but to observe it, largely unconsciously and then to paint you from memory. Observation alone can’t create the deeper truth I want, especially not any kind of slavish copying of whatever is placed in front of me. I’m not interested in mere illustration, which unfortunately is what most portraits tend to be. I like to take risks while I’m painting, set up accidents, let in chance. If I give the paint its head, let the paint itself have its say, then there’s the possibility that a recognisable image that’s never existed of someone who does exist might emerge from all the chaos, and I’d have made something new!
LC: Wicked! You’d create an alternative Lucy that no one’s ever seen before! But it’s as if for you painting a portrait’s as much about your relationship
with your materials as it is with your subject. Isn’t that the case?
BF: I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, I think you’re absolutely right! It’s the paint you see. Yes, the paint is the subject, for while I’m working the paint by some wonderful alchemy becomes the victim’s flesh – if I may think of the subject as my victim!
LC: I don’t mind!
BF: I know – maybe a good way to get to know you would be to take you for some rides on the pier!
LC: Oh you ….. I love those rides! It’s the next best thing to getting naked!
BF: Then let’s do it!
LC: You’re on, but only if you’ll promise to talk dirty to me on the big dipper!
BF: Oh, behave!
Lucy Chang is a 19 year old performance artist, poet and film maker. Brian Fogarty’s portrait of her is now well under way.
To see the book The Greenhouse click here