Brett Cook Reflects on 30 Years of Socially Conscious Art

In the mid-’90s, Cook became part of the first wave of Bay Area aerosol artists to exhibit at larger, well-respected institutional spaces, along with Barry “Twist” McGee. Those years were especially vibrant: Cook worked at Southern Exposure as a curator, created murals in Mission District alleys and elsewhere around the city, and still painted at the railroad tracks. “There was a really diverse way of understanding what it meant to be an artist,” he says. “(You) didn’t have to just be a writer, didn’t have to just do portraits, didn’t have to just be in the nonprofit system. That, I think, is part of how I got to manifest in the complexity that I am now.”

A portion of Brett Cook’s ‘Young Ghosts,’ at YBCA. (Eric Arnold/KQED)

Voices of the people

Intentionally, Cook’s portraits at YBCA aren’t overly photorealistic, which would perhaps conceal the human essence of the subjects, the seeming imperfections which reveal character and intangible qualities. Instead, though his portraits utilize photos as starting points, the finished images contain vibrant color palettes imbued with dynamic energy that become windows into the souls of the people Cook paints. The Young Ghosts – all of them joyful and filled with vitality – will be remembered as they were on their best days.

This empathetic connection with his subjects stretches back at least three decades. One of Cook’s first major installations, Homelessness, was completed in 1993 on the exterior of YBCA while the center was under construction. By all accounts, that project – photos of which are included in the current exhibition – was a turning point for the artist.

He recalls applying for the project (“at the time, no one was doing construction walls”) and being accepted, along with Michael Rios and Barry McGee. In those years, SoMA “was really an extension of the Tenderloin at that time,” he says, with working-class and immigrant families alongside unhoused people, who in the public’s perception were an eyesore but not yet an epidemic.

A portion of ‘Homelessness,’ from the YBCA construction wall site.
Spray enamel on wood, Third
and Howard Streets, San Francisco, 1992. (Courtesy Brett Cook )

Initially, for the project, Cook “was just going to do portraits with statistics about homelessness, or being unhoused — we didn’t even use that term then. And then somewhere in the process, I got this idea to actually interview the people and use their voices, their quotes. And really, that was the beginning of my 30-year practice.”

After graduating from college, Cook moved to New York City in the late ’90s – a vibrant time for the city, with all kinds of cultural immersion opportunities. Headquartered in a live-work loft that he used as a studio, as well as to throw memorable all-night parties, he eased into the NYC art world and was embraced by the city’s hip-hop community. He took part in the first hip-hop exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and later exhibited in Europe with Sanford Biggars in another hip-hop-themed exhibition.

While his art eschews hip-hop cliches, incorporating hip-hop’s social and cultural sensibilities lent Cook agency. “Doing a project in hip-hop in Brooklyn in 1999, it was an investigation for me to realize like, yeah, really, hip-hop is me,” Cook says. “It’s my culture. It comes from me, from being a Black American exposed to the kind of aesthetic cues and the postmodernist sensibility of what it was and really the expression of my voice at that time.”

A public project with photos from the 6th Street photography workshop and the Luggage Store. Spray enamel on wood, San Francisco, 1993. (Courtesy Brett Cook)

Cook’s approach may not sound like the revolutionary counternarrative that it is. “In the history of Western art,” he explains, “the model almost never has a voice. …When you see Gauguin paint those naked ladies in Polynesia, even when you see someone doing a character on a wall somewhere, it’s usually through the filter of the artist (that) you’re hearing about that person. What started for me 30 years ago, and now has kind of evolved, is recognizing that actually, this is an opportunity to magnify this person’s voice, both literally and using quotations from interviews with them.”

Examples of this technique inform nearly every aspect of Reflection & Action. Some of Cook’s subjects are well-known, with a degree of familiarity, celebrity, or at least expertise in their fields. But the majority are unsung figures like Oakland muralist Melanie Cervantes, grounded in community sensibilities and/or a personal aesthetic, who will be unfamiliar to many viewers.

Brett Cook with his portrait of Oakland poet and Cultural Affairs Manager Robert Bedoya at YBCA in San Francisco. (Eric Arnold)

Encountering Cook’s portrait of Roberto Bedoya, the viewer is led to contrast the portrait with its source photo, but also to balance the visual image with quotes about belonging, equity, and culture as important societal values. Awareness of Bedoya’s long history as a progressive Chicano-Latino poet, cultural policy advocate, and current Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland aren’t prerequisites for allowing his words and likeness to resonate.

“When I think about the conventions of the way people are trained to come into a museum or come into a gallery, there’s not the expectation that they’re supposed to do anything other than consume these passive objects,” he says. His work, however, has been informed “by the crucible of the Bay Area, of having a social justice sensibility, for so much of my life that it wasn’t just enough to make an object.”

Brett Cook’s portrait of Little Bobby Hutton, accompanied by the 10th point of the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program, as part of a 2012 Oakland Museum of California installation in collaboration with Life is Living/Reflections of Healing. (Courtesy Brett Cook)

Art as a healing force

Healing urban communities of deep-rooted trauma has been a recurring theme of Cook’s work long before “The Black (W)hole.” Reflection & Action includes a series of portraits done while Cook was living in Harlem in the late ’90 and 2000s that show everyday denizens of the New York neighborhood, which first appeared as public art installations intended to foster an authentic sense of community. Cook’s “Reflections of Healing” series from the 2010s immortalized local legends like former Black Panthers Lil Bobby Hutton — depicted as an angel, with wings — and Joan Tarika Lewis. This series was displayed during the annual Life Is Living festival in West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, which Cook assisted in curating, and has appeared on the exterior wall of the Oakland Museum of California, facing traffic on Lake Merritt Boulevard.

Addressing trauma remains a common theme in hip-hop as well, whether expressed through R.I.P. T-shirts, mural memorials, rapped eulogies, or turf dance tributes. Urban dwellers often have to maintain positivity in less-than-ideal living and environmental conditions, address social, cultural and economic inequity in positive ways, and claim identity separate from being othered.

An installation view of ‘Reflection & Action’ at YBCA. (Charlie Villyard/YBCA)

But while hip-hop has leaned in on social, economic and environmental conditions as causes for trauma and PTSD, considerably less emphasis has been placed on finding ways to heal. Cook doesn’t necessarily have all the answers. But he believes members of urban communities who can relate to the struggle do; they may just not know it yet. This is where the “Action” in Reflection & Action comes in. Cook’s art is not intended to elicit passive participation. It’s a call for an intentional response; to find answers by looking at static-seeming fields like policymaking with creative eyes.

Cook explains how, a few years ago, he was involved in a collaborative project with SF State and the Health Equity Institute, “looking at public housing in San Francisco and what art and healing existed there, with the idea to support funding and programs through the development of these public housing projects, to give people more access to those things.”

The experience cemented a core belief in Cook’s work, and the way art interacts with the world. “I don’t think it’s just about developers,” he says. “It’s policymakers, it’s politicians, it’s educators. Within all of these different sectors, there is the possibility to be more creative with the way that we work.”

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