Recently there’s been a lot of chatter on the internet about a series of self-portraits that Bryan Lewis Saunders drew/painted/etched while he was on a whole potpourri of different drugs. My friend Kelly sent me the link because the day previous, I sent her a video of some chick on YouTube describing the experience of turkey-bastering DMT up her butthole. That her brain connected Bryan Saunders with that video should give you some idea as to what his work is like.
These portraits alone, though, are hardly interesting enough to merit Bryan any additional attention. It wasn’t until I realized that these 32 paintings comprise only 1/250th of a 16 year self-portrait project that I decided to spend a Sunday afternoon Skyping him at his home in Johnson City, Tennessee. As our conversation teetered between horrifying and hilarious, I realized that--although colossal--the self-portrait project is only a fragment of his dense portfolio of other equally involved multimedia projects. Bryan’s hermitic, Appalachian livelihood fostered an unarguable talent for embarking on extremely bizarre and elaborate artistic undertakings.
What started as a simple conversation about self-portraits spiraled into a cordial chat about crystal meth, Chinese standup comedy, blood, obese girls who suck dicks for attention, the process of getting severely overweight dead people out of an apartment building, and a few other equally engaging topics. By the end of our two-hour chat, I decided that Bryan Lewis Saunders is a living manifestation of Xenia, Ohio in Harmony Korine’s film, Gummo. And now he’s my friend.
Vice: We might as well get this out of the way early, since it’s the whole reason I found out about you in the first place. Tell me about the self-portrait series that you did on drugs.
Bryan Lewis Saunders: Well, I was just living in a big government building with a lot of disabled and sick people and stuff. There were a lot of pills and a lot of people on drugs, and I’ve had a lot of tragic things happen in my life, so…
I mean… well, I’ve had a lot of awful things happen to me personally, but at that time I was having a lot of tragic things happen to my friends. One of them died in a house fire, then another one shot himself in the head. The bullet went through one temple and out the other and he survived, but was permanently in a state of confusion. He could only respond if you whispered to him, and he would see leprechauns on your shoulder and would make strange requests about… I don’t want to get into it. Anyways, after I went hiking in the woods for a few months I came back and decided to try this project because I’ve never really been into drugs.
So you don’t usually do a lot of drugs?
No. I have a fragile brain chemistry. I don’t even like to take Aspirin and stuff. So, I thought I was just going to do a different drug everyday and draw my self-portrait since I was drawing myself everyday anyway. I did 18 drugs in 12 days, then my friends got kind of concerned because I was definitely starting to look like I had Down syndrome. First my forehead got bigger, then my face got flatter. By the time I got to the Robutussen (two bottles), you could definitely tell I was starting to get something like Down syndrome.
As awesome as it is that you went to such an extreme to make that series work, I still think it’s kind of dwarfed by the fact that you’ve done at least a self-portrait everyday for the last 16 years. Crystal meth and prescription tranquilizers just don’t compare to the magnitude of that kind of project. How did it originally come about?
Well, when I first started drawing my self-portrait I just wanted to see something different in myself everyday. The artist sees the world, represents it, then puts a part of themselves in the representation. I didn’t want to be like many artists, who seem to only have a very specific style. I felt like that’s not totally real since people change everyday.
And you’ve literally done one of these every day since? I’m sure you’ve run into some boundaries.
Yep. I can do them with my left hand, both feet, mouth, in my sleep, during drunken blackouts, and even with a sharpie sticking out of my asshole. Once I did a whole month completely blind. The only way I can’t do one is if I'm in a coma.
Even though your drug portraits aren’t necessarily my favorite part of your portfolio, I do think it’s indicative of the dedication to extreme weirdness that you seem to give all of your projects. For instance, the one with the bloody feet, Toetem/Totem. What can you tell me about that?
(Laughing) I was walking by a dumpster on the way to a convenience store and saw all these boxes filled with pictures of messed up feet. Apparently this foot clinic hadn’t been paying their bills, so all of their stuff in storage was being thrown away. I took all the pictures with me and bought these family frames to put them in. You know, those frames with little circles for where mom and dad and the kids are supposed to be? I arranged them like the ingrown family, and the family with extra toes, and people kept coming over to my apartment where I had them all lined up over my couch. Everyone thought they were dead people because they had the person’s name below the toe, and looked like toe tags, so people kept getting really freaked out. And I thought that if it bothered people that much, then I should probably make some sort of totem of it.
OK. What about Fuck Paintings? What’s that all about?
Oh. I did that in school. The project was called “Get your feet wet.” It was some type of project where you were supposed to just attack the canvas or something. So I had sex with it and took pictures of myself afterwards. The teacher was like “Oh, I really like the way you violated the canvas,” and I just thought it would be neat to take it to the extreme. I don’t know.
Photo by Alice Lane
In another one of your proposals, there are some pictures of what looks like you sewing your mouth shut. I take it you really did that as well?
Yeah. It was for a photography student’s project. A couple of the photography students were using me as a model, and I had to outdo the other one. Eventually a girl took pictures of me sewing my mouth shut. Then Princess Diana died with the whole paparazzi problem you know, and I thought “Man, I’m going to set my cock on fire.”
I was going to set my cock on fire since the cock can get you in just as much trouble as the mouth, and I was going to invite all my friends and all the school to come and take pictures like the paparazzi. But then when the teacher found about it, she called the ACLU.
That’s too bad. I’m sure that would have been a pretty interesting exhibit. You know, it’s interesting hearing you talk about this, because as much as there is a major shock factor to most of what you do, I wouldn’t really call you any sort of shock artist. It seems like you just think in a really extreme way.
Right. With the standup tragedy, I use shocking images or parts of the story to try and bring people to a certain state of awareness, so that I can just jam ‘em with emotions real hard. Kind of like a certain hypnosis or something. Like if you shock them to the point of being a little numb, you can jam whatever you want in there.
I guess it’s just that you use shock value for a bigger purpose than just to be shocking. Speaking of, how exactly did the standup tragedy stuff come about? It’s an interesting take on performance art, since the whole point seems to be as devastating as possible. It doesn’t really seem like something that people really feel inclined to be a part of.
Well I wanted to be a famous comedian in China. I was living in my aunt’s trailer in Virginia, and the family was having a lot of problems. One of my cousins was on meth. My great aunt had Alzheimer’s. Another one had a stroke. It was a lot of confusion and constant arguing back and forth, so I just thought to myself, “well I’ll be better in China.” I spent like six hours a day, seven days a week for like nine months straight teaching myself Mandarin. I thought that I’d go to some cities in communist China where they don’t have any tourism, and I would do standup comedy there. I figured within one year I’d have my own sitcom, then I’d be doing blockbuster features in China, and then I’d be a big international superstar. I went and did a Chinese wedding in New York City, and it went pretty well, so I went to Fujo to become a superstar. After like the third day, I met a guy who could speak English pretty well, and he told me that they didn’t have stand up comedy in China. I was pretty devastated, so when I was forced to leave I thought, “Well hell, Tennessee is pretty cheap, so I moved back here and decided that I’d just do standup tragedy and try to make all of these strangers cry instead.
How does that work? I guess there are a lot of ways to make people cry.
One of the first ones I did was about overweight girls sucking dicks to be accepted.
Yeah, that’s a pretty heavy topic. Is there a specific reason why that was the one you started with?
Well, I’m not obese myself, but uh… I don’t know. Growing up in northern Virginia, there was a girl who was overweight. She didn’t want to eat anymore because she was so upset, but the doctor’s said they wouldn’t wire her jaw shut if it wasn’t broken, so one Friday night, after everyone had just gotten out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, we all went to Dunkin Donuts and she signed the back of a take out menu that said “I’ll give anyone 35 dollars and permission to break my jaw.” You wouldn’t believe how many people lined up out back behind that Dunkin Donuts trying to break her jaw. Then there was this one guy who called himself Psycho who went and got a baseball bat, and I just left. I don’t know what happened. I never saw that girl again. Never knew if her jaw got broken or anything.
I have a CD called Busting Open because in my building, when someone dies, if someone doesn’t find them right away their body kind of busts open. With these people that are morbidly obese, when they aren’t found the maintenance guys call it “busting open big time.” Their abdomen ruptures with a wet pop and it’s just nasty. In my building, there are people who are so obese that they can’t even leave. When they die of their obesity, the fire department has to come with an electric saw and remove an arm or a leg or something just to get them out the door. See, most people who live in big cities have no idea about this stuff that goes on in small-town America or whatever. With the standup tragedy stuff, people just need to know. There may be reality shows about obesity and whatnot, but you don’t get to really hear what’s really going on.
You sound kind of unfazed when you’re talking about people dying in your building. Does that kind of thing happen often?
Yeah. It’s a bit scary. My friends don’t like me living here, but I think it’s kind of exciting. I found a bloodbath in the stairwell one time and took some digital pictures of it. It looked just like an art installation, like someone was trying to create a bloodbath. It was like life imitating art; the most beautiful bloodbath you could ever find in your life.
Gross. So the last thing worth mentioning, because it seems to be the project that occupies most of your time these days, is the Sleepworks. I suppose on a surface level, it just looks like audio recordings of you talking in your sleep, but I’m sure there’s much more to it.
Yes. Well, I’m really tortured in my sleep. I would have terrible dreams but I would wake up and not remember them. So in the morning, I would try to write them down in a dream journal, but by the time I would start writing, I would forget like half of what happened. So one day, I had the idea that I would sleep with the tape recorder. After time, I classically conditioned myself to push the record button in my sleep.
I randomly downloaded one of them to try and make sense of the project. I think it’s called “Le Bobcat”? What exactly is going on there?
I had this dream about a bobcat that came over to our house and was interacting with us. Then it had to go to the doctor because it thought it was pregnant, and it scratched me real good on the back of the leg and I was like “I think bobcats are cute and everything, but if one attacks me I will cut it up.” Then over time, the bobcat turns into this woman, and we’re dating, and then it gets really bizarre. There’s these recordings that strangely happened the same night that say “These forward and backwards revelations are going to breath and bring the spirit world with the real world, because hierarchy’s important with them.” So what I did was take what I said, and make it forwards in one ear and backwards in the other. Then I took the sound of real bobcats in heat, then in stress, then purring, and I played them backwards. The idea was to have the listener listen to this tape on repeat with headphones while falling asleep so that the bobcat dream would enter into the dream of the listener, even though the listener is a different person with their own brain and experiences and neurons that make up whatever they’re going to dream about. Their dream would be the final work of art.
I tried to figure out if the people who bought the album listened to it when they went to sleep and if the bobcat entered their dreams, but they were all like, “Man, that was a nightmare! I’m not going to listen to that when I’m going to sleep!”