Toronto-based artist Troy Brooks paints glamorous women who don’t smile. In fact, the Women of Troy generally maintain cold, stoic faces despite the idea that the artist captures them in transformative moments. Brooks, who suffered greatly as a gay youth growing up in Canada, channels anger and escapism ever so subtly in characters inspired by Hollywood’s golden age, namely female leads who stood up to their male counterparts in less egalitarian times. PRØHBTD spoke with Brooks about the many complexities in the stone-faced women he so beautifully brings to life on the canvas.
In one of your recent exhibits titled The B-Girls, you described it as a B-side to a series you started in early 2016 called Veiled Hearts. Tell me about the original series and how B-Girls takes it in new directions.
Veiled Hearts was a gloomy group of girls. They were either sleeping, crying, escaping or buried under veils. I think it was a study of what we keep secret and why. The veils were a good metaphor for that. I’ve used a lot of veils in my work through the years, and it just felt like dirt worth digging into. I think it’s the sense of desertion and loneliness inherent in someone cloaked behind a veil.
I work in a very intuitive way so I don’t always know what a series is until I have the first four paintings started. It just so happened that Veiled Hearts ran their course a little earlier than expected and the tone of the paintings started to clearly change. This was a little unnerving because I’d already had Gallery House, the gallery that handles my work worldwide, arrange a number of commitments for the Veiled Hearts series. The new girls were diametrically opposed to all the tragedy of the Veiled Hearts characters. I wasn’t quite sure how to talk about these new paintings since they were more or less the flip side to Veiled Hearts so I decided to call them The B-Girls. If Veiled Hearts was about secrets, fear and hiding, the B-Girls were all about confrontation, sex and revolt. Yin Yang.
With Veiled Hearts, you explored the idea of veils as metaphors. From this artistic exploration, do you feel you learned something new about the social nature of men and women?
Well, I definitely have my theories about gender. Being gay has informed me more than anything because you relate to men and women in a unique way, but actually it wasn’t until I wrote my first artist statement that I started to understand why I only painted women and the function it served. Honestly, the biggest thing I’ve learned is how deeply embedded misogyny is. It’s almost ubiquitous, even in women. For example, when a straight guy feels disgusted by an effeminate man, that’s a tributary of misogyny. If there was a true respect for women, he wouldn’t feel so humiliated at the thought of a man with feminine traits. But since my work comes mostly from the subconscious, I only really gain insight into myself maybe months or even years later. If I came away with any caveats from the Veiled Hearts series, it was how repressed I am. There’s a reason why one is drawn to a particular aesthetic. Even a lie is very telling, and my work is full of lies.
Bees appear in several of the images, and I originally thought B-Girls alluded to actual bees. What symbolism is inherent in bees, and how did you use this symbolism in your artistic narrative?
The double meaning of the bees was another reason that particular title for this show surfaced. Bees have always featured very prominently in my work. I think the metaphor started because I was so in love with the bee poems by Sylvia Plath. When the bees started buzzing around my girls, I think it just felt like an abundantly satisfying visual idiom to express anger or frustrations. The Magnus Furorem (Great Fury) painting in this series is one of the few paintings that is truly difficult for me to look at. I’m very uncomfortable with the kind of hysterical rage that is bubbling over in that one. I’m hoping it’ll mellow with age.
You diligently watched films from the Golden Age of Hollywood during your youth. What characteristics did classic leading ladies have back then that first appealed to you?
I think it was that they had mannered elements of both sexes. There was a very specific hard-boiled sort of glamour in these women that appealed to me, with their dark mouths clamped down on a cigarette and the very tailored severity of their silhouettes. If you look at someone like Joan Crawford in the 1940s with the huge square shoulders and sharp granite features, she was very imposing. Or Marlene Dietrich, who most of my faces are based on, in the top hat and tails. I guess I identified with them because I sensed that they inhabited a strange intermediate space between the sexes. They were in charge and that was very important to me because I identified with them somehow, but I was always afraid of everything. I think all this stuff sort of occurred to me intuitively, because as a kid who was literally tortured for being gay I just felt oddly validated when I saw a woman who intimidated all the guys. It’s complicated, but that’s the long and short of it.
Which of these characteristics are most common in the women you paint?
The most common feature is the confrontational aspect of them. They started out being very angry. My first series, Virago, was all black widows, women who killed their husbands, etc. There were some very complicated feelings about men that I was working through. My girls have softened in recent years, but I suppose more often than not they are still trying to instigate a staring contest with the viewer. There’s something that wants to be acknowledged and revered.
When you paint a female character, do you imagine larger narratives going on or what she might be thinking at that moment?
Despite all the smoke and mirrors, these are basically self portraits. So if I’m painting something like Resurrection from the Veiled Hearts show, it’s because I’m probably feeling the urge to escape something and start over. But the narrative is always from an emotional perspective, not an intellectual one.
You employ an element of abstract art by elongating the female characters. What about this aesthetic appeals to you, or is it designed to evoke a specific reaction?
No. I just always drew my faces too long. Every time I drew a face, I always had to erase the first stretched-out version and compress it. One day I decided to stop fighting it and just accentuate my bad sense of proportion. I suppose the long faces do make people uneasy for some reason, which is sort of amusing, but it was never intended to creep people out.
In your artwork, the eyes are a window to what?
I try to make the eyes pale and empty so that they’re more of a mirror than a window.
What are some themes in your personal life and history that come through in your artistic expression?
I guess I’d have to say anger. That's a big one. Gender is probably another. Things that deal with autonomy or freedom. When there are butterflies in my work, it usually has to do with wanting to fracture or break up something that’s restrictive, to get free of something. Those three things are probably the themes that keep popping up in my work.
You’ve been open and honest about the abuse you suffered in your youth for seeming too feminine. What advice would you give to a young person struggling with gender identity or sexual preference in the sometimes brutal environment of high school?
I have so much respect for young kids who are out when they’re young. Honestly, I couldn't even fathom that because back then it was an unspeakable thing. Most people literally didn’t utter the word, and if they did, it was with the same contempt you would use to talk about a pedophile. That’s hard for people to understand now, but I was hyper-conscious of being that unspeakable thing, and it terrified me. My art was the only thing that kept me afloat and gave me a sense of myself apart from outside voices. I wouldn’t presume to give anyone advice, but I would encourage anybody to try like hell to find something to focus on that helps define your sense of self on your own terms. There's an incredible advantage to having early disadvantages. If you have to struggle early on, you develop an ambition, special abilities and a kind of insight. Most of the people I’m inspired by had enormous challenges in their youth.
In a previous interview, you quoted Quentin Crisp, whom I love because he was such an iconic and colorful figure in NYC. Is there a specific example of something he did, said or experienced that had a profound impact on how you view the world or your own personal journey in life?
Well, aside from that brilliant book The Naked Civil Servant, it was the fact that he dressed like a woman in the streets of London in the ʼ20s. That was an almost inconceivable display of grit. He got assaulted every time he walked out his front door. Whether he knew it at the time or not, he was making it easier for everybody after that by breaking up the rigidity of gender roles. That’s a pretty incredible contribution. And there was a gentleness about him that I always thought was moving. One of my favourite quotes of his is, “My mother protected me from the world, and my father threatened me with it."
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.