Arranging It with Care: Brandon Forrest Frederick Explores Futility

SALE, 2016. Mirror, plywood, brackets, screen printing ink, light. 8.5 in x 12 in x 12 in (Photo credit: Max Wagner)

“We are all so tired.”

“I just want everything to be okay.”

“I just want to be happy.”

There is a chance that, when reading the above statements, you hear a little bit of yourself in them. There is also a chance that you may feel a bit of relief hearing someone else say those words other than yourself, affirming that you are not alone in your thoughts. There may also be a bit of sadness in the moment of admitting that you may be tired or discontent. If you do relate to some of the above phrases, I am confident that Brandon Forrest Frederick thinks about you often.

When I ask Frederick why he cares about the work that he does, his responses repeatedly include things like: wanting to have an encouraging effect on others—to not stop yourself and not give up. “Care works both ways—instilling self-worth in others helps me see worth in myself. We are always more aware of our own flaws more than we are of others,’” Frederick tells me.

Frederick’s approach to art-making is complicated. It is evolving as he grows along with it. He began making art by making pictures, he then moved toward social practice projects—running spaces like The Roost and conducting meetings with RAD School, a Kansas City-based alternative graduate school program. Offering open spaces for people to connect with one another is important to Frederick’s practice, and in addition to organizing spaces and collectives, he fosters public participation through his sculptures, videos, and workshops. Come Here, Build ______ (2016-ongoing) is an example of that; where fellow citizens are invited to reimagine public spaces through drawing. While the drawings represent the imaginations of citizens, the process of this project involves engagement with strangers who share and utilize the same public spaces that you do.  Listening and communicating with fellow citizens is the next necessary step toward progress for Frederick, whereas creative spaces can act as the open-door invitation to this collective effort. Through these different outlets, he is often contemplating oppressive elements of capitalism, such as the exploitation, division, and subordination of people, and their collective effect on the human psyche.

Under the conditions of a society like ours, it is easy for us to self-criticize, to feel like we are perpetually losing, and to sometimes believe we are powerless in our personal capacity to influence our surroundings. In these confrontations, Frederick would never try to convince you that he has the answers, but he may be the one to say “we have to start somewhere.” So, where do we start?

Frederick invites us to begin with our imagination: What do you want? For yourself? For your neighborhood? What should the facade of this drugstore consist of? Let’s spend time inside The Drugstore together, let’s discuss, let’s make some sketches. We are the citizens. It is our drugstore, it is our city.

Imagination gets us thinking, but of course, it is impossible for us to forget our feelings—the self-criticism, self-doubt, and fatigue that come with striving for contentment in a capitalist society. We desire to feel important and of purpose, but often that goal is pushed out of reach by the need to pay the bills and keep ourselves fed and healthy. By allowing himself to contemplate these conditions through art-making, Frederick’s works embrace and reflect a rich spectrum of emotions and anxieties derived from a life in capitalism. From the indulgent catharsis of sewing old school flags into plush pillows, to inspecting the humorous approaches of SALE propaganda, Frederick is able to find comforting poetry in our conflicted existence.

We sometimes find ourselves seeking rewards from a society that has led us to believe that we are failing. I don’t mean big trophies, but rather small treats—affirmations we know we can reach. The ones that have immediate therapeutic potential: a refreshing soft drink at the gas station, a pizza dinner when we are too tired to cook, a lotto ticket, a movie, a purchase because it’s “a deal you just can’t pass up.” Superficialities have an inevitable relationship to expendability. Naturally, when one feels that they have been undervalued by the society they live in, there is less of a sense of responsibility to that society. We see high concentrations of this in capitalism, when it can seem that money is often treated with a greater importance than people. Frederick reminds us that it is important to breathe and retain a light humor in an atmosphere that has the capacity to suffocate. “Always support the bottom,” an appropriated phrase from a catering food tray finds a poetic new home on the sheet of a homemade hammock. He reminds us that Papa John is, indeed, a Papa—branded as a father figure, he represents a resource for nourishment, but he is also just that—a representation, a hollow facade.

For the conversations that we mostly experience alone in capitalism—like the internal conversations we have about whether or not we deserve to have a pizza dinner on a night when we are too tired to cook, or whether we deserve our favorite soft drink at the gas station—Frederick uses these small, simple moments to ask bigger questions,

“How did we get here?”

“Why do we need to justify our pursuits for self-love? Have we not earned it?”

Despite his approach in taking on complex ideas with a satirical perspective, there is a tenderness that pervades throughout Frederick’s creative disciplines. While the work offers a critical commentary through re-purposing school pendants into pillows, trimming their reputable academic names into dismal phrases, we can’t ignore the sensitivity required in mending these felt pieces back together. To make a photograph of a snakeskin curled into itself in a bush, one must first hold it delicately and arrange it with care. Frederick reminds us that not only do we all share this kind of human tenderness, but we all can be embracing it much more than we are.

Matt Austin
Matt Austin is an artist, educator, and publisher based in Chicago. The output of his creative practice ranges widely in form, but share a focus on the importance of honesty and learning from others. Inspired by failure and often motivated by fear, he demonstrates his enthusiasm for living by trying things out. Austin is the co-founder and director Candor Arts, a press that focuses on life, learning, and healing. He teaches in the Continuing Studies department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has exhibited his work at venues including the MCA Chicago, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Catherine Edelman Gallery, Ohio State University, as well as solo exhibitions at Johalla Projects and the University of Notre Dame. Austin was recently awarded the 2016 Alumni Residency at the Burren College of Art in Co. Clare, Ireland. He is currently working on several publications including a book and of his own photographs, writing, and conducted interviews called For the Birds Trapped in Airports, part of which was recently featured in his solo exhibition No More Dying at the Seerveld Gallery at Trinity Christian College.