No question, America has seen its share of interesting pop culture trends in the past decade or so. There's the birth of reality TV, the death of the CD at the hands of digital music and the rise of the coffee shop as social habitat, for starters.
Jonathan Brilliant is fascinated by the third. In fact, he finds the social dynamics of coffee shops so interesting that he creates massive sculptural art installations using items related to commercial coffee consumption. His most recent effort, "Stick Stack Show," opened last week at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.
"I could take or leave the coffee. I just like the fact that there's a place that's designed for sitting and conversation," Brilliant said. "Work that could easily be done at home is dragged to the coffee shop, where you work on your own work and ignore the person next to you. I find it interesting. I don't know what it means, but I feel part of it."
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Brilliant finds coffee shops, or "laptop farms" as he calls them, more organic and nurturing than our natural environment.
"The seed for this series of work was planted during a time when I was creating art using natural materials," Brilliant said. "Trips into the woods felt less natural than my natural environment, which is the coffee shop," he said with a laugh.
He also draws inspiration from his fellow coffee-shop patrons.
"I like to observe other people interacting with a to-go coffee cup, how they handle and interact with the materials," he said. "It's not just my experience."
The artist finds there's a "ritual and routine" to his installations. Stirrers are the central component in the works because, he said, "they're the easiest way to draw my way around a space."
His works also incorporate sugar packets, sleeves, lids and other coffee-shop accouterments.
By the time Brilliant completes an installation, he has spent more than 100 hours weaving 30,000 to 60,000 stirrers in place using only tension and compression, in other words, without adhesive.
Brilliant, who turns 35 on Wednesday, is the Visual Arts Center of Richmond's 2011 Artist in Residence. He traveled to Richmond from his home in South Carolina in late October and spent more than two weeks building "Stick Stack Show" for the center's unique space.
"It's a pretty epic gallery space," he said. "When I first saw it, it was breathtaking; multiple rooms, white walls, exposed beams, polished concrete floors. When installation artists dream at night, they dream of having this kind of space."
Caroline Wright, the center's director of exhibition programming, finds Brilliant's work exciting in that he takes simple materials and creates a relatively new form of sculpture.
"He's chosen materials from our 'caffeine culture,' " she said. "We're familiar with these materials, and many of us handle them daily. With simple stirrers, straws and lids, Brilliant creates sculptural work that has tremendous visual and spatial impact and at the same time, in my personal interpretation of his art, at least, points to our consumerism."
Brilliant is quickly gaining a national reputation. He was named the 2012 South Carolina Artist Fellow in August and awarded a prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant in October.
"He's now well on his way to being an established, nationally known artist and we're grateful to have him here at VisArts at an important turning point in his career."