Brian Reedy: Mythology & Pop Culture in Woodblock Prints

Interview with Brian Reedy: Mastering the laborious technique of hand-carving wood blocks to create unique and remarkable contemporary works of art.

Brian Reedy is a Miami based artist well known for his creative woodblock and linocut renderings of superheroes and other pop culture references. Because of his skill in this area, Brian has been able to combine different culture themes and iconography with classic printmaking techniques. Many countries throughout the world have used this age-old method over the ages, but nowadays it is gradually disappearing from the art world. The art of Reedy is a satirical critique of contemporary society. His artwork meticulously showcases detailed cartoons and comic books. His pieces include mythological animals, apocalyptic dystopian futures, and gods and goddesses are only a few examples. He frequently includes amusing details, and his intricate pieces are full of vivid landscapes and images, fusing modern culture themes with ancient history .

Brian Reedy’s official site, Instagram, block prints, and online store

Could you share a bit about your background and how you started in woodblock and linocut printmaking? Are there any childhood memories connected to these techniques?

I didn’t learn block printing until I was in college. A visiting artist came to show us his large woodcuts and I immediately knew that technique would be perfect for the types of images I was creating. The bold, graphic quality of that style was just the thing I was looking for, and it’s been my primary artistic medium ever since! I grew up in a small town called Alton, Illinois which is considered to be one of the most haunted places in the United States. It was home to the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow. My grandparents’ house was next door to a funeral home that had a mummified corpse in their front closet. The monstrous Piasa Bird, a creature from Native American mythology, is painted on the bluffs facing the Mississippi River. Childhood memories of hometown hauntings, oddities and monsters still influence my creative process and the block printing technique serves to enhance my kind of images much more than traditional drawing would.

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© Brian Reedy

There were any specific artists that influenced your decision to pursue this style? What drew you to choose this technique as your main art communication?

My first influence came from studying Medieval woodcuts. From there I discovered the block prints of Albrecht Durer, then German Expressionists like Max Beckmann, the powerfully dynamic woodcuts of Leonard Baskin and of course classic Japanese printmakers like Hokusai. For years and years I experimented with many different types of wood, finally settling on cherry plywood because it had just enough wood grain without having to sacrifice detail. The process of carving the blocks was such a fun and exciting experience, and it made me realize that the process was just as meaningful to me as the end product. I loved the texture of the carved blocks so much that often I would paint them after printing my edition and display them in galleries alongside the prints.

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© Brian Reedy

Your style features hyper-detailing and pop culture themes. How did you develop this distinctive and unique style, and how do you choose the best themes and references to incorporate?

The detail of my designs and the pop-culture references come not from my studies of traditional art, but from my lifelong interest in comics, cartoons, movies, etc. Sometimes these influences are directly depicted in my work and at other times are vague references. For many years I was a conventional gallery artist, meaning that I had a gallery that represented me and was my primary base for displaying and selling my work. I would also find opportunities throughout the country in other galleries, museums and international art fairs. During that period I felt it necessary to only have pop-culture references subtly influence my images. Later, when my career shifted to comic-cons, industry clients and galleries that specialize in pop-culture art, did I find the freedom to explore those references more literally. It’s terrific that we live in a world where there are now so many opportunities for artists to showcase their talents with pop culture themes.

brian reedy interview
© Brian Reedy

What challenges do you encounter with woodblock and linocut techniques?

The greatest challenge for me and every other artist out there that does block printing, is how to make your work look as unique and individual as possible. When I was in college my artwork looked very derivative because I was studying other artists to learn the technique. During a studio visit from a prominent New York curator, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand because he thought my work looked too much like Leonard Baskin. I knew right then I had to do something to make the artwork look more “me”. I have quite a few friends that also make block prints with the same themes, and even though we all have our personal flair we sometimes get mixed up by strangers who don’t see the nuance. Some of the technical challenges that are inherent in block printing are materials. Years ago, I switched from wood to linoleum because I personally found it to be more convenient to work with. I can wash off the linoblocks and store them easily in flat file drawers. However you could ask 10 different block print artists what they prefer and you might get 10 different answers.

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© Brian Reedy

Could you describe your creative process from concept to finished art piece, and how long does it take?

My creative process used to entail making multiple sketches before drawing, carving and printing the block. Over the years, I’ve become much more intuitive. Like a sculptor who can look at a block of marble and see the finished piece inside, similarly I can look at the blank block and already have a clear vision of what the final product will be. When working with clients however, I don’t always have the luxury of being able to work so freely. Most times a sketch will have to be approved before the block can be carved. One of the first shirts I designed for Hot Topic was My Neighbor Totoro, and it had to be approved by Studio Ghibli. I had depicted Totoro’s ears sticking out diagonally and they wanted them vertical. Since I had already carved the block I had to digitally manipulate the image to meet their requirements. That said, I don’t mind at all making changes for clients who have specific needs that require me to make changes to my initial idea. I don’t think that affects artistic integrity in the slightest – in fact it often ends with a superior artwork! Of course, it is also nice to have carte blanche and the freedom to be autonomous in the creative process. Because I have been doing this technique for a long time, I can work very fast. Even my large 18″x24″ blocks can be carved and printed in a single day without interruptions. Sometimes I wish I would slow down a bit, because I suffer from an OCD where my brain creates phantom deadlines that compel me to finish a piece by a particular arbitrary time. Even though I am aware of this absurd behavior I’ll probably keep doing it!

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© Brian Reedy

Your work also depicts  apocalyptic dystopian futures and satiric creatures,  and integrates elements of mythology. What inspires you to explore these themes?

There are a lot of common themes in my work: Dystopian societies/futures, whimsical creatures/cryptids/aliens/dinosaurs, and elements of mythology/legends. This all starts with my love of creating narrative art without necessarily being specific. I think if I wanted to tell an exact and distinct story I would write a book. The nice thing about visual art is that it is subjective to the viewer and I don’t mind if they interpret my images in a different way than I intended. A big influence for me was the 1973 animated film Fantastic Planet, where large blue aliens keep tiny humanoid creatures as pets. It makes obvious references to caste societies but it is also so incredibly creative with its visuals. As long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs, aliens, cryptids and the mysteries of the universe. And mythology, whether it is Greek, Egyptian, Indian or from any time or place, have similar themes that capture my imagination. You take all of that source material and you will find archetypes that are universal in nature and speak to our sense of wonder. Utilizing these narrative elements and combining them in various ways gives me an unlimited source of material for new artworks.

Humor plays a significant aspect of your art. How do you balance humour and satire with the serious themes in your artwork, and what do the highlighted elements represent to you?

I’m not trying to be funny with my art but I do attempt a humorous tone by making the images as whimsical as possible. One of the first woodcuts I saw was a Medieval Hellmouth illustration of Satan and some demons stuffing damned souls into the flaming jaws of a giant beast. What was meant to invoke horror instead made me laugh with their goofy expressions and postures. So even though my images might have dark themes I always try to keep it fun. Of course I realize what might be funny to me won’t necessarily be to someone else! I had a gallery opening once where some of the attendees didn’t recognize me because they had never seen my face. So I’m standing next to one of the prints of a Sasquatch farting on a frog, and a couple looking at it were snickering because they thought it was dumb, not funny. One of them said “What the fuck is this shit??!!”, and they walked away.

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© Brian Reedy

What do you hope viewers will take away from your work, especially from the blend of traditional printmaking techniques and modern pop culture references?

On its most basic level, I hope viewers will look at my artwork and admire it for its craftsmanship and visual appeal. On a secondary tier, I appreciate when viewers enjoy the narrative aspects of the work and not just because it looks cool. And what really makes me happy is when the viewer finds something in my images that resonates and speaks to them. I think the combination of taking such an ancient art method and using it to depict pop culture references is a novelty to many people. They recognize and relate to the imagery but notice that its executed in this old-timey medium and that what makes it stick. Even people from older generations that would never hang a Star Wars poster on their living room wall might be attracted to one of my Star Wars block prints because it’s done in a medium that looks from another time. I think that society’s way of making distinctions between “high” and “low” art are becoming a thing of the past. There’s no reason why a Michelangelo and a Murakami can’t hang side-by-side in a museum. There’s room for all of us, regardless of our art styles, our techniques, our images and our inspirations.

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© Brian Reedy

Photos and images courtesy of Brian Reedy

Last Updated on July 5, 2024 by retrofuturista

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