Ralph Michael Brekan owes his art career to stuff being tossed away.
“I would be on a film set or a stage set,” says the sometime actor and former theater technician. “The grips would be throwing away these beautiful gels after every show wrapped,” Brekan recalls, referring to the theatrical lighting filters used to change the color of stage lights. “They’re really pretty, made of polyester. I said, ‘Guys, roll these up, let me have them!’”
Brekan had been creating large-scale photographic portraits on photocopiers for some time. “This was before oversize printers were an everyday thing,” he remembers. “So I was making these portraits by tiling 11-by-17 prints, then hand-coloring them.” Brekan discovered he could overlay the gel cellophanes onto his assemblages.
“I began to layer it and layer it, between layers of Plexiglas and UV-resilient epoxy. It brought a whole other dimension to the work. That’s still the technique I’m using today.”
His assemblages layer these lighting filters onto pop star portraits and landscapes. The 1992 graduate of McClintock High School has exhibited internationally, in 13 cities, seven countries, and on three continents. A new exhibition at the Tempe History Museum will collect a new series of portraits as well as other pieces made by Brekan over the past 25 years.
Much of Brekan’s work is done in what he calls “pre-production,” a term more often heard in the film industry. “I carry over a lot of what I learned in film when I’m making art,” he admits. “I de-saturate the image to make it look solarized, then I do an epoxy pour on top of that.”
He was influenced by Andy Warhol, by rock-and roll-album covers and by Canadian landscape artist Steve Coffey. “I’m interested in the influence of pop stars on our psyches,” he says. He likes to reimagine national icons as popular celebrities. “I did a series on Lady Liberty that was influenced by Peter Max.”
His more recent work depicts iconic local buildings including the Westward Ho and the Luhrs Tower at Central and Jefferson. He was inspired, he says, by the gentrification of parts of Los Angeles and Phoenix, and the resulting loss of a lot of famous pieces of architecture. “The whole point of this new series is to capture these beautiful, contemporary buildings before they become archeological artifacts,” he explains. “My dad was an appraiser. I know how progress goes.”
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When he’s not making art, Brekan, who’s 42, works as a film actor. Blink, he says, and you’ll miss him.
“I’m just doing character roles,” he says. “One liners. Handing drinks to the star of the movie in a scene. It’s fun, a cool little side hustle. It beats driving an Uber, it keeps me connected to the industry, and allows me time to make my art.”
One imagines Brekan, between shots, cadging colored gels from the lighting crew.
Ralph Michael Brekan’s new exhibition opens May 11 at Tempe History Museum, 809 East Southern Avenue. For more information, visit the Tempe History Museum website.