The oil paintings of Bex Freund vibrate with vitality and decay in a way that is somehow joyous, revealing connections between life and death, between bodies and the world. They are portraits of a reality that is stranger and more perishable than we—in Western culture at least—tend to look at until we have to. But in Bex’s work, it’s impossible to look away. Her paintings unfold with all the humor, tenderness, energy, hope, darkness and transformation of a great novel. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Bex has recently turned her gift for narrative towards making comics as well, and an epic graphic novel about a fictional city.

We were lucky enough to talk with Bex via email from her home in Berkeley, CA, about perishability, ordinary magic, an extraordinary ‘side project’ she created on a boat in the Arctic Circle, headless creatures, and lots more.

Bex FreundBex Freund, photo by Jane Hartman

Your paintings are both very surreal, and very familiar – which feels like an accurate representation of reality! And indeed you said somewhere that much of your inspiration comes from reality, because “nothing is weirder or more fantastical than the real, if you keep looking.” Can you elaborate?

Reality is a treasure trove of weirdness, in both the micro and macro. It’s largely a matter of perspective—take ourselves, for example. At face value, or as a face in the crowd, we humans might at times seem quite boring, easily overlooked, and overused in art. But physically, we’re sticks of bone wrapped in meat driven by electricity and chemical reactions, clinging to a giant rock spinning through an incomprehensibly vast nothingness. And inside our brains, the imagination creates its own unseen universes. When put like that, suddenly we don’t seem so mundane after all.

Bex Freund Ultimate AutolysisBex Freund, Autolysis, 2011

Cities make fantastic petri dishes for cultivating the magic and weirdness of the ordinary. There’s this certain streetlamp on a corner that I frequent often, and it took weeks of walking past this ordinary streetlamp before I noticed that there was a tiny block of wood screwed to the base with a little gnome painted on it. Isn’t that marvelous?

The condition of being perishable is a recurring theme in your paintings. How did this become your subject matter?

I specifically try to paint pieces that I hope hold up a reasonably accurate mirror to the nature of the world. I had always been a conspicuously morbid child—I was especially intrigued by roadkill. As a kid, when you see something that was once alive and is now turned inside out, rendered inert, it’s such a jolt to your comfortable sense of reality. I was drawn to that specific feeling, and I still very clearly remember the first time I saw pictures of Pompeii victims’ bodies and really understood that our lives were finite.

Bex Freund Ultimate Disgregation smallBex Freund, Disgregation, 2010-11

When I was twelve, I went to Kenya. It was my first time being out of the United States. I was a city person my whole life at that point, so being out there in the bush, meandering around giant termite mounds and picking up zebra jawbones (to this day I still collect bones)—it really spun my head around. I would spend hours just sitting on top of a truck, watching the uncomfortable truths of life play out all around me. I remember watching a lion hollow out the neck of a zebra while a circle of vultures slowly closed in with little jagged hops, only to frantically fall back every time the lion looked up at them. There was one day when I was hanging out with my brother, and we saw something in the distance. It looked like a dead zebra—there were a lot of corpses about, as it was the dry season. So we hiked down there, and oddly enough, we never found a zebra, but we did find a huge headless water buffalo by a dried-out watering hole. I remember looking inside the body cavity and seeing the plants underneath growing up through the holes in the skin, and poking at it with a stick. Such moments really cemented my interest in the perishability of the world.

After being a painter all your life, you began making comics about 2 ½ years ago, and they’re extraordinary. What got you interested in comics?

Comics are what got me into comics! I had always tossed around the idea of writing a book, but reading exceptional comics such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Dave McKean’s Cages made me gradually realize that I could absolutely combine my interest in storytelling with my art practice. I was also fortunate in that my college offered a graphic novel workshop, which is when I really started learning the ins and outs of the medium.

In your most recent comic, Burning, you include parts of your notebook, and it’s riveting, and feels deeply personal in a way that people can really connect with. Was this material you knew you would allow others to see as you were writing/drawing them, or how did this comic come about?

Burning was an exorcism, and was a method that allowed me to talk about very emotionally difficult subjects without feeling as though I was uncomfortably or inappropriately oversharing. I’m an intrinsically private person, and yet I must be capable of sharing subterranean parts of myself in order for people to relate to what I make. It’s a fine balancing act. When I’m making art—especially comics—I’m always aware that people are going to be reading them. The nature of art (especially comics due to their intimacy) necessitates an audience. No escaping it unless you’re Henry Darger.

Bex Freund hardest day image Bex Freund, from The Hardest Day

I read an interview with you, from a while back, where you said that you’d never directly addressed your deafness in your work. But in Burning, you do. Or rather, it appears there simply as something not left out, in the intimate and normal way one refers to oneself in a diary. Was this the first time you’ve included the fact that you’re deaf so directly in your work? If so, what was that process like for you?

I believe you’re referring to the interview with Eclectix in March 2014! That interview was conducted roughly nine months before I made Burning, and was in reference to my paintings. Since Burning is autobiographical, it would have been impossible to avoid dealing with the subject. I was careful to not make it the central theme, but it does unavoidably have an impact on the nature of my interpersonal communications, especially when it’s about living in cramped quarters with other people on a ship carrying less than forty people. I do believe it was the first time I’ve directly addressed my experience as a deaf person in such a public manner. It was surprisingly painless for me, perhaps because it wasn’t forced at all. Comics can be very much like writing or reading a diary, so your description of the intimate handling is quite apt.

Bex Freund Burning image 2Bex Freund, from Burning

As personal as it is, Burning also seems to point to a larger narrative of ecology, and ecological trouble (not least because of the title). It documents your experience in a residency, sailing around the Arctic Circle with a group of artists. Reading this part, I suddenly felt I understood, in words, what your paintings say over and over: “The world is a series of events all happening simultaneously and affecting each other. Layer upon layer of those events in time and space. Sediments and strata. Young layers are vast. They have absorbed all of the previous layers into themselves. The world digests itself, shits itself out.” There are echoes in this of Deleuze’s concept of the diagrammatic, or Timothy Morton’s work on ‘dark ecology’. What are you referencing here, and where does your ecological thinking come from?

The purpose of the Arctic Circle Residency is for artists to create and develop projects relating to the massive changes in the environment there related to climate change. Burning actually wasn’t the main project I was there to work on, but rather was a secondary project that developed very quickly and organically, rooted more in my own personal turmoils while on this trip rather than specifically addressing climate change. Though, as you’ve said, my work does very much revolve around perishability, and that Burning quote is rooted in it. I wasn’t so much thinking about referencing an extremely specific thing or idea as I was thinking of history, evolution, environment, sociology, practically everything, although of course, such a thing as big as the world itself can’t be generalized. The text’s certainly open-ended enough, but it’s also referring to the nature of my current project, a graphic novel, which I’ll address in the next question.

You’re at work on a graphic novel about “the psychogeography of a fictional city.” Can you tell us about it?

My graphic novel, Fever Dreams of the City that Never Was, will have to be published in increments of roughly a hundred pages each, since it’s so ambitious (and long!). Each increment will be its own individual story, so the graphic novel will function very similarly to a short story cycle. There are ten stories that slowly reveal themselves to be interconnected, and each one follows a different character in a different version of the titular City. The City in question has awakened to self-awareness, and takes a young woman as a vessel, roaming its own streets to understand the experience of being alive. Each story explores the personal impact that the City has on all those she comes across, whether it be for the better or worse.

Bex Freund Graphic novel imageBex Freund, from Fever Dreams of the City that Never Was

We can’t wait to read it! What stage is it at?

I’m almost halfway finished with the first volume, and I need to finish it before I start approaching agents and publishers, so it looks as though I’ll be trapped in my studio for quite a while…slowly metamorphosing into a Morlock.  

We first met Bex when she took our Comics: Art in Relationship course offered through California College of the Arts. To learn more about Bex Freund and her work visit her website.