Clayton Brothers Illustration Essay

From the Cadavre exquis to Expanded Painting.

by Ivan Quaroni

At the start there is always a game, a complicit sharing of rules that lead to a special relationship whose result is always greater than the sum of the parts. The Surrealists adopted a particular one, that of the excellent cadavers, a/k/a cadavres exquis, a creative pastime played with words or images. It works like this: one person creates the first image and passes it to the next participant, but hiding one part of it. The next makes additions, again partially concealing the results, and passes the image on to the next player. A group can play, but also just two people. At the end of the game, an unexpected, surprising image appears, the result of a process of creation and interpretation, which amplifies the contribution of the individuals, incorporating them in a collective graphic plot.
It sounds interesting, but we are prone to wondering what is the purpose of such a game.
For the Surrealists, with their focus on Freudian psychoanalytical research, the idea was to visually demonstrate the importance of the unconscious imaginary and the automatic processes of human thought. But there is more. Much more prosaically, the game of the cadavre exquis is – like all games – an experience of sharing applied to the field of creativity. Its legacy has been picked up by many conceptual art duos, like Gilbert & George, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Jake & Dinos Chapman, but much less often by duos of painters. The Claytons, then, represent a rarity on the contemporary art scene. Not just because they are two painters, but also because unlike the above-mentioned artistic couples, they are brothers who have demonstrated their ability to extend their natural link of shared parentage in the creative sphere as well.
For Rob and Christian – born respectively in Dayton, Ohio in 1963 and Denver, Colorado in 1967, both with degrees from the Art Center College of Design of Pasadena (California) – collaboration is something more than just a process. It is more like the result of a creative symbiosis that consists in constructing intuitive narratives, often without a pre-set plot. The Clayton Bros paint at the same time, in fact, taking turns intervening on the works through a method that leaves plenty of room for improvisation and the imagination of both.
“The process of the making of our works is never the same,” the Claytons say, “because we let our characters construct themselves day by day, exactly as happens in relationships that are built over time.” In their works they transfer individual experiences into the collective and global dimension, thus offering a faithful image of contemporary society. “We see these images as a reflection of ourselves,” Rob and Chris explain, “but also of our neighbors, our friends and families; in short, they are a reflection of the world around us.”
Curiously enough, the Claytons represent a missing link between the Surrealist experiments of the 20th century and the fresh, immediate approach of Pop Surrealism, one of the most interesting American movements to emerge in the delicate passage between the old and the new millennium. A movement, to be honest, that is so large, varied and in continuous evolution as to even become contradictory, in which Rob and Chris have found themselves immersed, almost against their will. The two do not like definitions, in fact, and they hate being boxed into a specific stylistic or disciplinary niche, even if it is that of Pop Surrealism, to which they owe some portion of their success.
Instead, were we to set out to map their artistic influences, we would have to operate at a hypothetical crossroads between Post-Expressionism, Folk Art and Pop Art, with input ranging from the left wing of the Neue Sachlichkeit (Otto Dix in primis) to the plastic experimentation of Ed Kienholz, passing through the simultaneous, multicentric visions of Robert Williams, the true founding father of the Pop Surrealist galaxy. Yet defining the pictorial style of the Clayton Bros in these terms would be a reductive operation, because it would not sufficiently underline the most original aspect of their research, which lies instead in the ability to integrate the experiences of everyday life, the true motor of their process of sharing, into art.
Of course, Rob and Christian are the first to admit the importance, for their visual culture, of punk rock, surf and skate culture, street art, tattoos and illustration, but this could be said more or less for all the artists of the Lowbrow area. The most original feature of their work, instead, is the ability to transfer into the language of art the impressions of day-to-day existence. The starting point for a work can be a word, a phrase, a circumstance or an impression gleaned during a trip abroad or a walk in their neighborhood. Life, with its infinite facets, is a much more powerful immersive reality, for them, than any environment of graphic or digital simulation. This is why the Claytons have invented such an exuberant, overwhelming chromatic and narrative language. In practice, they try to surpass or at least equal the complexity of human experience, with a kind of painting capable of stimulating the observer to reconsider doubts, to reformulate the questions to which every human being must respond.
We can safely say that the art of the Clayton Bros – which they define with the term “Abstract Narrative” – represents a reformulation of the existentialist positions of Post-Expressionism, bent on wedding the individual and authorial viewpoint with the universal, polycentric viewpoint of collective experience.
Like Robert Williams, the Claytons also raise the issue of the representation of reality as a synthesis of a multiplicity of experiences and interpretations, but they do it “intuitively,” so to speak, i.e. without calling into play subatomic physics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
With respect to the revered founder of Lowbrow Art, the Claytons have a less theoretical, more practical approach. In the end, their very modus operandi, which consists in a progressive layering of pictorial levels, made of continuous revisions, changes of perspective and overlapping of styles, represents an empirical demonstration of that multiplicity of gazes mentioned above. Furthermore, the importance the Claytons attribute to the role of the observer demonstrates that their work is truly the offspring of its time. A time in which author and viewer increasingly interact through forms of digital co-creation, such as forums and social networks. So the work of the Clayton Brothers calls for “participation” not just because the two authors make it in the form of a “duet,” but also because they see its viewing as a sort of final “fulfillment” and “completion.”
It is no coincidence that the works of the show focuse on analysis of the work-viewer relationship. “With this new body of works,” they say, “we want to present a vast group of fragmented images, simultaneously abstract and narrative.” Their objective is to trigger reflection in the viewer on the meaning of a rather common question – “How are you?” – to which we usually respond with an automatic “I’m OK”, shifting the observer’s focus from external to internal images. The paintings, drawings and sculptures of the Claytons set out to stimulate this mechanism of identification because it represents a preliminary condition for the formulation of possible responses.
If it is true that contemporary art – as we often hear it said – raises questions without offering solutions, the act of observing becomes a cognitive process in which the observer is stimulated to find his or her own answers. In fact, Rob and Chris warn us that no one certain method exists to decipher their works, no one interpretation, because each observer is expected to reconstruct a meaning, starting with their own emotional state.
“I’m OK” presents an array of characters and situations that offer not only a myriad of narrative impulses, but also countless optical, retinal suggestions. They are images of pure energy, where the impressions of everyday life explode in a dizzying vortex of bright and psychedelic colors, where the space seems to splay open in all directions, breaking the rules of perspective and solid geometry, even fragmenting the psychological dimension of the individual, through the repetition of hypertrophic physiognomies with wild expressions.
Like the painters of the Neue Leipziger Schule, from Tilo Baumgärtel to Matthias Weischer, David Schnell to Christoph Ruckhäberle, the Clayton Brothers are the standard bearers of a neurotic, disjointed art that sacrifices the formal values of balance and harmony to become the eyewitness of a socially fragmented, culturally polycentric epoch. This is why they make use of an “expanded painting” far from traditional canons, open to contaminations with photography, sculpture and installation. Good examples include works like Over the Moon, Pull and Pick and Wallop and Clobber, where the painting flirts with the plastic dimension of the object and the fetish, or like Can you Spare a Duck? and I Understand, which constitute an interesting mixture of sculpture and photography, and finally paintings like Greeter Hello, Greeter Goodbye and Orange Crutch, which extend the boundaries of the painting with long vertical offshoots.
The quality not found in many recent entries to the Pop Surrealist sphere, but which is clearly visible in the research of Rob and Chris, is a vivid interest in formal and linguistic issues, leading to experimentation with new solutions in a multidisciplinary outlook, making them an exception in a movement that seems to be increasingly losing its grip on its own cultural specificity, retreating into the solutions of a “school” it would be euphemistic to define as “academic.” Unlike many purveyors of fantastic and surreal imagery, the Claytons never lose touch with reality. Their art is firmly rooted in the present, springing from the apparently conventional folds of everyday life, and striving for the universal dimension of art thanks to the alchemical collaboration of two special individuals capable of shifting experiences lived in a familiar and relational microcosm into a wider context that coincides with a clear and at the same time dynamic fresco of contemporary America.

Together, American artists Rob Clayton and Christian Clayton make up the artistic duo known as the Clayton Brothers. Through a symbiotic process of collaboration, they create tightly-packed narratives within vibrant painted canvases, drawing inspiration from nearby shops and businesses, overheard conversations, and intriguing neighbors.They originally worked independently on artistic projects, illustrations, and advertising assignments, and began to contribute to each other’s work in 1996.

Rob Clayton was born in 1963 and his brother Christian in 1967. Both artists earned BFA degrees from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. After spending most of their childhood in Colorado and vacationing frequently in California, the Clayton Brothers were inspired by the aesthetics of surf culture, street art, and punk rock. The Clayton Brothers devise a common goal for a particular piece and work toward it by incorporating their shared interests and techniques.

For these two collaboration is more than a process: the concept of symbiosis resonates through every aspect of their paintings and installations. In a practice devoid of ego and restraint, the Clayton brothers develop intense compacted narratives on an intuitive basis. Rob and Christian Clayton seldom work on the same canvas at the same time, or discuss of their projects during making. Playing off their unspoken synergy, they take turns inventing, adding to, and editing each piece, propelling their ‘stories’ through spontaneous improvisation. Entwining their independent approaches, styles, and palettes, their works operate as co-authored epics, fusing the concept of self with the communal.

Brothers currently share studio space in La Crescenta, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, CA. Their work has been displayed at The Armory Show in New York, the Royal Academy in London, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, WI, and Art Basel Miami, and is included in both corporate and private collections. Both Rob and Christian serve as faculty at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

The brothers currently live and work in Passadena (Rob) and South Passadena (Christian), CA.

Year Exhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2014Open to the Public Mark Moore Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2014UntitledSaatchi Gallery, London, UKGroup
2013I’m Ok Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea, Malan, ITSolo
2013Texas Contemporary Art Fair, Houston, TXSolo
2013UntitledTorrance Art Museum, Torrance, CAGroup
2013Miniature-Museum Reflex Museum of Contemporary Art, Amsterdam, NLGroup
2013SpectacleMuseum of the Moving Image, New York, NYGroup
2013Incognito Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CAGroup
2013Wider Than A Postcard Breeze Block Gallery, Portland, ORGroup
2013Direct Address: An Inaugural Group Exhibition Josh Liner Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2013HEY! Part 2 Modern Art and Pop Culture Musee de la Halle Saint Pierre, Paris FRGroup
2013Unsung Heroes of the American West Video Happening, SPD, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2012Clayton Brothers: Inside Out Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena, CASolo
2012TONIGHT WE WONT BE BORED – 10 YEARS OF V1 GALLERY V1 Gallery, Copenhagen, DMGroup
2012Space, Form Breeze Block Gallery, Portland, ORGroup
2012Permanent Collection Nancy Margolis Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2012All in for the 99% Ace Museum, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2012Casa de Empeño Anonymous Gallery, Cuauhtémoc, Ciudad de MéxicoGroup
2011Clayton Brothers: Inside Out Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WISolo
2011Summer Salt The Proposition, New York, NYGroup
2011The Emergence of the Pop Imagist Bonelli Arte Contemporanea. Curated by Jonathan LeVine, Venice, ItalyGroup
2010Come As You Are PRISM, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2010Art Shack Laguna Museum of Art, Laguna, CAGroup
2010Art Basel 41 Patrick Painter, Basel, SwitzerlandGroup
2010ALBUM V1, Copenhagen, DenmarkGroup
2010INCOGNITO Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CAGroup
2010COLLECTION 3 Foundation pour l’art contemporain, Château d’Arenthon, Alex, FranceGroup
2010Never a Dull Moment White Walls, San Francisco, CAGroup
2010To The Road Less Travelled – Wishing You Love and Happiness and Curiosity Forever V1, DenmarkGroup
2010HeavenThe Art of Elysium, Los AngelesGroup
2009Jumbo Fruit Patrick Painter Inc, Santa Monica, CASolo
2009Stages 09 Miami, O.H.W.O.W. LiveSTRONG Foundation, Miami, FLGroup
2009True Self Jonathan LeVine, New York, NYGroup
2009Draw Shooting Gallery, San Francisco, CAGroup
2009Art Basel 40 Patrick Painter, Basel, SwitzerlandGroup
2009NEW IMAGE ART: 15 Year Anniversary New Image Art, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2009The Piece Process Anonymous, New York, NYGroup
2009Pieces of Heaven The Art of Elysium, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2008As Is Apama Mackey Gallery, Houston, TXSolo
2008Panorama Project 3 Jonathan LeVine, New York, NYGroup
2008Objects D’Art Ostrich Egg Benefit Auction Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena, CAGroup
2008BLAB!: A Retrospective Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Manhattan, KSGroup
2008In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor Laguna Art Museum, Laguna, CAGroup
2008More is More Byblos, Verona, ItalyGroup
2008Opening Exhibition, Part 1 Sloan Fine Art, New York, NYGroup
2008Heaven Celebrating Ten Years of The Art of Elysium, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2007Patient F2 Gallery, Beijing, ChinaSolo
2007Paper TrailsNew Adventures in Drawing, V1, Copenhagen, DenmarkGroup
2007Exit Art, 25th Anniversary Benefit Auction, New York, NYGroup
2007Maximalist Tendencies in Recent American Painting FSU Museum of Fine Arts, Tallahassee, FLGroup
2007The Armory Show Bellwether, New York, NYGroup
2006Wishy Washy Bellweather, New York, NYSolo
20063rd Annual Benefit Auction Drawing Center New York, NYGroup
2006Two by Two for AIDS and Art, amFAR Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TXGroup
2006The Armory Show Bellwether, New York, NYGroup
2006At Home, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WIGroup
2005Visual Language Mackey, Houston, TXGroup
2005Mystery Meat Future Prospects Quezon City, Republic of the PhilippinesGroup
2005Au Pays des Merveilles Galerie Magda Danysz, Paris, FranceGroup
2005Drawn to Expression Alyce de Roulet Williamson, ACCD, Pasadena, CAGroup
2005The Postcard Project Improved Foster Art, London, United KingdomGroup
2005Move 13 Clementine, New York, NYGroup
2005The New Image Art Show RVCA, Costa Mesa, CAGroup
2005WPA,C 2005 Art Auction and Gala, Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, DCGroup
2005Stranger Town Dinter Fine Art, New York, NYGroup
2004Art Statements Mackey Gallery, Art Basel Miami, Miami, FLSolo
2004I Come From Here Mackey Gallery, Houston, TXSolo
2004Tall Stories Wignall Museum, Rancho Cucamonga, CAGroup
2003Six Foot ElevenLa Luz de Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles, CA 2001Solo
2003Green Pastures La Luz de Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2003Raising The Brow Earl McGrath, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2003The Drawing Show Sixspace, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2003Assembly Front Room, Brooklyn, NYGroup
2003WM3 Benefit Exhibition Sixspace, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2003The Burbs DFN Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2002Decipher Eighth Floor, New York, NYGroup
2002Project Dime Bag New Image Art, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2002The Panorama Project 69a, San Francisco, CAGroup
2002Superhero New Image Art, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2001Collaborations New Image Art, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2001The Last Show Mendenhal, Pasadena, CAGroup
1999Move 2 New Image Art, Los Angeles, CAGroup
1998 Tribute to La Luz de Jesus Gallery, Track 16, Santa Monica, CAGroup


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