Create! Magazine is pleased to share an exclusive interview with painter Bruce Dean. This feature is part of our recurring series of in-depth conversations with contemporary artists generously sponsored by Altamira.

Artist biography:

Bruce Dean received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Otis Art Institute in 1974 with a major in painting and a minor in drawing. Bruce has worked as an exhibiting abstract artist; editorial, corporate and advertising illustrator and international poster artist for over forty five years. As an illustrator he received a silver medal from The Society of Illustrators and numerous awards of merit from national and international publications. His fine art posters and illustrations have been featured in numerous books and magazines. He has participated in over forty solo and group gallery and museum exhibitions nation-wide. His work includes projects funded by grants from the Department of Education and the Foundation for Global Community. Bruce's studio is open during the spring and fall open studio events at the Brewery Artist Complex in Los Angeles or by appointment.

Bruce dean contemporary painting
Bruce Dean, Transit

Your painting "Transit" was the most upvoted on Altamira in August. It is part of a surrealistic series of crane paintings. Can you tell us more about this body of work? How did it start?

After more than 40 years of focusing exclusively on abstract painting, I made several trips to Europe to visit my daughter, who was living in Rome, and it completely changed the nature of my work. The change began with a series of figurative paintings that were profoundly influenced by the works of the Renaissance. These were followed by a series of quiet empty interiors, including stairways, empty chairs, windows facing out to other windows. Every painting incorporated abstract elements—a great deal of mark making. In every case the intention was to underscore the absence of someone. As an example, one painting featured an unmade bed with an open window revealing an empty bench, lit by a streetlight. I was considering what we think about when we are alone, without influence, without interruption.

The first Crane painting also featured a room with an unmade bed and an open door, but there was a bird in the room, turning, taking in its surroundings. Over time, it occurred to me that the painting was about feeling uncomfortable or displaced in familiar surroundings. I concluded that the pandemic had begun to influence my work. A series of crane paintings followed; in every case, the setting was a familiar human environment with elements that continued to underscore the absence of people, but now the birds were featured, often in pairs or groups. They were taking over. “Transit” offers a change. While the birds are still the only living element, and somewhat of a surprise, I feel they are welcome, and the space can be shared. For some reason, I find it hopeful.

What are some of the other subjects you explore in your work?

I think all of my work, including the abstractions, share some elements. It’s probably important to understand that the imagery comes first and that I begin to develop an understanding of what it means, sometimes as I proceed, and sometimes after the work is complete. Mystery is always at the core. I believe the abstractions suggest there is some truth, but it is elusive. Perhaps there is some memory, but it is imperfect, or just beyond reach. With all my art, including the empty interiors, I am suggesting that there is a narrative, but the story is incomplete. I always assume that the viewer will participate in completing the narrative: What came just before or just after? What lies at the top of the stairs or just beyond our vision? I believe, as humans, we share a great deal, perhaps even a portion of our aesthetic, that may stem from a pre-language existence. I learn from people who view my paintings. I present the images that I find compelling, without necessarily having a complete understanding of what to conclude. Over time, it is revealed.

Bruce Dean, Main Street

How do you continue to challenge yourself as an artist? What keeps you excited about painting?

The answer to that question has changed dramatically in the last five years: Early on, like every artist, I was learning about elements; line, color and composition. I very slowly, over time, learned what story I was trying to tell, how my paintings reflected who I was. I had graduated from Otis, which at that time, might have best been described as an academy. We learned to draw, paint, and sculpt the figure. I began my career as an illustrator. When I became a gallery artist, despite having been trained in the skill set to make art that was "realistic," I chose to make abstractions. I honestly didn't know what I wanted to say with realistic subjects. It felt limiting, too specific; perhaps my focus might feel naive. Of course, I was also influenced by the art that was being produced at that time. As an abstract painter, I could focus on my understanding of the universe, and my place in it.

I have now concluded that all the art I create doesn't have to address "This is who I am, and what I believe, or what I stand for." Art can be about sharing what I encounter, what occurs to me, what we may have in common, what the world has offered on this particular day. As I get older, I realize I have things to say. I have many questions and perhaps some answers. There is much yet to explore.

What would you consider some of the highlights of your career?

There are many moments that have stayed with me over the years.

As an illustrator, It was always a bit of a thrill to see my work published nationally. My first job was for Psychology Today, a magazine that I personally enjoyed and respected. I did a number of illustrations for them, which I am sure, encouraged others to publish my work. At that time, if you were an illustrator in Los Angeles, one of the clients you sought out was the National Football league. It was so exciting to have illustrations appear in their publications. It is a highlight because I had so much admiration for the illustrators they published.

Other highlights include:

- Winning a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators for an illustration published in Human Behavior Magazine.

- The moment an art consultant, for whom I had a great deal of respect, told me she would love to represent my abstract paintings.

- My first solo show with Jan Turner's first gallery in Los Angeles, a year after graduating from Otis. Jan's career as a gallerist profoundly influenced many upcoming artists in the city.

- My first solo show with Mirage Gallery, which later became the Karl Bornstein Gallery, and the recognition and reviews in the LA Times that accompanied every show.

- My first solo show, where completely unexpectedly, every painting sold before the official opening date of the show.

- When I moved to the Brewery Art Colony, a new friend and an artist, twenty years my junior, whose work I respected, told me he had decided to become an artist after encountering my work in various magazines and art annuals

I have sold work to many international clients like the Banque Nationale de Paris, the Tokyo Golf and Country Club, and the American Trade Center in Moscow. However, I most enjoy when my work is collected by an individual with whom I am familiar and whose work I admire. These include Christopher Cross, Anne Baxter, Marcel Marceau, Kenny Hahn, Llyn Foulkes, and Chuck Palaniuk. Recently, I sold a piece to the President of CalTech, and it currently lives over his mantle at his CalTech campus home. Somehow, that one makes me feel a little smarter.

Bruce dean orpheus
Bruce Dean, Orpheus

One piece of advice every artist starting out should know? How has teaching influenced your personal art practice?

There are two ways to interpret the first question; one way is to give advice about making the best art you can make, the other is give advice about managing to survive and make a living in the art world. My answer to the second interpretation may be outmoded. The world has changed  significantly since the time I began my career. Back then, some diligence, a bit of creative thinking, and a degree of self- assurance, along with some talent, might get you into the art world. I, personally, was profoundly influenced by people whom I came to trust: my remarkable art consultant who essentially changed the direction of my career, my Illustration rep who was able to take a completely naive illustrator and find the right clients at the right time, and my gallery owner who had a great deal of ambition and decided that I, along with others, could help him achieve a degree of success. Today, I honestly have no idea. I imagine social media plays a role, but even that may be naive. I expect that young people entering the art world have a better idea than I do.

I am inclined to answer the first interpretation, making the best art that you can make, by saying that my one piece of advice is that every student must read Sister Corita Kent's, “Ten Rules.” Each is important, But I will share three:

- Consider everything an experiment.

- The only rule is work.

- Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes.

To her rules, I would add;

- Don't be uncertain - I found that uncertainty can be debilitating. It is important to learn from mistakes, to recognize that mistakes actually present an opportunity.

- Don't be certain, certainty can be somewhat limiting. Don't forget, everything is an experiment

I love teaching art, although It is both daunting and exhausting. Finding verbal inroads to someone's art has been challenging and very interesting. I find that I choose to apply some of the same thought processes that I require of my students to my own work.  Sitting with a student and staring at a work in progress on an easel for a period of time, being patient, waiting for a comment is a remarkable experience. Invariably, one of us will find something. The enthusiasm and confidence I feel, that a solution will be achieved, carries over to my assessment of my own work. And, most importantly, I often learn from my students.

How long have you been using Altamira? What has been your experience so far with the platform?

I was invited to participate on the Altamira platform at the beginning of December, 2021. So, it has been less than a year.The platform feels oriented toward increasing opportunities for artists. The people involved seem interested in increasing the visibility of the art, expanding the audience, and positively influencing the career of each artist. The inclusion of art writers and galleries, as well as artists is terrific. I am especially pleased by how many artists have responded to my work, with comments and upvotes that I very much appreciate. I have had the good fortune of having many reviews of my shows over the course of my career, but I have never had individual paintings analyzed and discussed in a public forum. The critiques have been in depth, thoughtful, and informative. There have also been comments by individual artists that were insightful and personally revealing. They remind me of the class critiques we had when I was in art school.

I made a conscious effort to compete for one of the monthly prizes and ended up posting many drawings and prints that were from different times in my career. It was an absolute pleasure to have this work seen and discussed, in some cases decades after it was created.

I very much look forward to continuing my relationship with the people involved and with the platform in general.

Bruce Dean, Intersection

What critics are saying on Altamira:

"Bruce Dean’s Intersection is a poignant and timely painting that captures many of our contemporary concerns and anxieties while harkening back to the mysterious compositions of Surrealist masters.

Of late, the world has been at an intersection of the familiar and the unknown. The pandemic has completely upended our world. Within only a few days the most basic aspects of our lives, things that felt set-in-stone, completely and fundamentally changed. Before the pandemic, it was easier to imagine war than the surreal (I mean, is there a more apt descriptor?) world we now live in. We are undoubtedly at a historical crossroads where, for better or for worst, nothing will remain as it did before.

Everything from global affairs to our personal lives has been irrevocably upended. Like intersection’s flock of birds, we have felt alone in disconcertingly empty landscapes, aside from a small “pod” of people with whom we can (sort of) safely mingle. To be outside but to feel alone, to be with a group but to feel isolated, desolate streets which only a short time before teamed with life, and a collapsing of individuality behind masks can all be found in intersection. The work’s vacant street has become a familiar sight to all, so to the pack-like mentality of fraternizing with a singular chosen group and the uniformity of their appearance. The painting does not seek to cast judgment in one direction or the other, but, instead, to capture the ethos of the time and the universality of our concerns.

The direction and purpose of the birds are of tantamount importance when viewed through the lens of societies’ present predicaments. Are the birds escaping or returning? On the individual level (those lucky enough to have options) are faced with the decision to escape the virus or to remain in the thick of it. As a society, we wonder if we should attempt to return to the pre-pandemic world or if we should advance into a new one. We further wonder if a return is even possible. Beyond these parallels, our reaction to the painting can be revealing about our state of mind. As I initially contemplated the picture, I found a sort of wistful envy overtake me. To go about my normal existence, unworried by the many problems facing humanity, and, untouched, fly above today’s environment of upheaval seemed so wonderful and liberating I could not help myself from briefly entertaining the thought: “I wish I were a goose.”

The painting is positively rich with allusions to Surrealism. The barren road is instantly reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s eerily lifeless streets. Intersection is suspended in some indeterminate moment, neither night nor day, while a sole red stop light and a vacant phone booth create a ghostly aura of a human presence without a human touch. These same motifs and provocations are found in René Magritte’s paintings of simultaneous yet opposed times of day presiding over empty streets lined with phantom lights and houses that give both the impression of life and the total absence of it (checkout Magritte’s masterpiece The Empire of Light, II in the Museum of Modern Art, New York). The incongruous presence of the birds in their decidedly human surroundings and the surreal sight of their very physiognomy replacing our own, calls to mind Salvador Dali’s and Leonora Carrington’s (if you don’t know her, look her up; she’s the gift that keeps on giving) evocative and often humorous use of animals in their work.

So much of Surrealism boils down to strange bedfellows. The visual contradictions, and the thoughts they instill in us, caused by placing discordant things within the same picture inspire a host of conclusions that otherwise would have escaped us. By drawing our attention to and forming connections with the overtly surreal, these artists lead us to consider our lives in a new light and reveal the quotidian or wide-reaching absurdities of existence. Animals constituting the only lifeform in an area designed by and for humans, night and day becoming one, an absence where there should be a presence and visa versa, and technology operating for a phantom audience are the things that form the visual foundation of Surrealism. It does not have to be overtly political, and it loses its surreal air if it makes obvious and concrete points; it is sustained by mystery. The power of surrealism is the power of incongruity; the feeling that something is terribly out of place and the mirror these inharmonious pairings put in front of reality."

-Written by John Crowther

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Alicia Puig has been a contributing writer for Create! Magazine since 2017. Find more of her work: