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The Radial Blooms of Brandon Donahue

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Brandon Donahue is all about connection. The prolific visual artist has built a career out of making that connection material, through painting, sculpture, and assemblage. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Donahue was a three-sport athlete in high school, playing football, basketball, and running track. These days, during long hours in the studio, Donahue deconstructs and then reassembles basketballs and footballs, rearranging them into radial blooms in order to trouble stereotypical ideas surrounding sports and identity.

However, his art practice—and his practice of social connection through art—began at age 12 in Memphis, when he was introduced to airbrushing by an uncle’s coworker. Every weekend, Donahue apprenticed in the craft under Tony “Fuma” Tunstall, a pillar of the community and the man called on to employ his talents at birthday and graduation parties, festivals, and all kinds of children’s events in the neighborhood. “I was interested in how fast the airbrush could paint, it could make something happen,” Donahue says. “And the fact that he was painting without actually touching the T-shirt—there was this magical distance between the brush and the surface.”

The pressurized marking tool was Donahue’s original artistic instrument and the primary mode he used to connect with people early in his life. Like many airbrush artists, Donahue functioned as a “stylist” for friends and other members of his community, airbrushing their T-shirts, jackets, and shoes. “Art wasn’t art to me, it was airbrushing, it was about connecting with people and being social,” Donahue says. “In high school, my mom’s living room was the hangout spot. People would hang out and wait for their T-shirts to get made.” This work as a stylist, which often included memorial T-shirts for deceased loved ones, helped Donahue see the transformative power of personalization and repurposing.

 

“Collecting things, finding things, working from things that are in the vernacular, I think I got that natural.”
Brandon Donahue

There’s simply no way to overstate the impact airbrushing had on Donahue’s career and artistic approach: “All of my works originate from the communal aspect of airbrushing,” he says. It remains a consistent component of his work. His 2018 solo exhibit titled R.I.P. at Elephant Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, was an airbrushed memorial to victims of gun violence from the previous two years in Middle Tennessee and included airbrushed T-shirts and canvases. One of the pieces, titled Rest In Paradise 2, depicts a lush red and yellow sunset behind blue and red water and palm trees leaning on the shore. The water—red closest to the horizon turns blue nearest the shore—comes to a point as if flowing into a smaller body of water between the palm trees, signaling, maybe, the start of a journey.

Although he began by airbrushing clothing, Donahue quickly transitioned to painting and airbrushing found objects, further entrenching his philosophy of layering and customization. “Collecting things, finding things, working from things that are in the vernacular, I think I got that natural,” Donahue says. He describes watching his grandfather improvise fixes for door latches and extra security bars for the windows around the house. “They were not being fixed to OSHA standards, they were make-shift. When you don’t have a lot you make do with what you have.”

It wasn’t until graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that Donahue began charting new ways to connect with others through art, this time through object making. Donahue turned toward assemblage and sculpture work and began incorporating vacuum forming into his process. One piece, titled Hubwoofers, from a 2013 installation was made of vacuum-formed hubcaps with polystyrene and spray paint. These striking black boxes, placed one on top of the other, are reminiscent of stacked subwoofers at a house party or club.

While attending the University of Tennessee, from which he received his MFA in 2013, Donahue’s process was pushed forward and redefined by a studio visit from Willie Cole, the artist also known as “The Transformer.” Cole transforms women’s high heel shoes into African masks and sculptures, and Donahue internalized Cole’s advice “to listen to the spirit of objects, let them tell you what they want to do. They already have a history.”

 

Like his grandfather’s household fixes, all of Donahue’s sculpture and assemblage work is inflected with a spirit of improvisation and repurposing, and it exists within a long tradition of Black survival and innovation.
Jalen Eutsey

Like his grandfather’s household fixes, all of Donahue’s sculpture and assemblage work is inflected with a spirit of improvisation and repurposing, and it exists within a long tradition of Black survival and innovation. Like enslaved Africans and their descendants, who turned the discarded parts of pigs and oxen, and leftover greens and root vegetables into a world-renowned cuisine known as soul food, Donahue breathes new life into everyday discarded objects with his Basketball Blooms series. Although the series can be traced back to 2012 at least, new iterations always offer fresh thought-provoking associations.

Donahue finds, searches for, and collects discarded basketballs before deconstructing them and reassembling them with shoestrings. Some of these deflated basketballs are found abandoned at local parks and courts; others he receives through partnerships with local gyms and recreational centers, thereby embedding social connection into every step of his artistic practice. Donahue shapes these deconstructed basketballs into “radially symmetric, mandala-like blossoms.” The mandala structure is a spiritually significant structure that can be interpreted either as a visual representation of the universe or as an internal spiritual journey. Spirituality is important to Donahue, and these symmetrical blossoms speak to “deep connections in the micro and macro,” he says.

No longer an athlete, or even a die-hard sports fan, Donahue is more concerned with the storytelling aspects of sports. He uses these found and sought-out objects to excavate the history of a community, of a place. “I think of these objects as rubber and leather, but also as things that have been touched and are charged with communal history and memory,” he says. A 2018 iteration of the Basketball Blooms series from his exhibit Outta Bounds at Vanderbilt University included a muddy deconstructed basketball at the center, making the lived-in, repurposed quality of his work even more explicit.

Reminiscent of Cole’s work, some of Donahue’s Basketball Blooms take on a mask-like quality, and they speak to the rich, multifaceted experience of Black life in this country. In one such example in 2019, the center of the mandala blossom is a blue basketball with two symmetrical eye-like cutouts, and “NCAA” appears at the top of the basketball. This calls to mind the exploitative nature of the NCAA’s version of amateurism, where head coaches can make millions of dollars while student-athletes, up until very recently, remained completely uncompensated for their outsized role in generating revenue.

 

Looking at Donahue’s assemblage and sculpture work more broadly, one’s mind can’t help but meander from what is thrown away to who is thrown away or rejected by society, who gets to transcend their past, their history, their skin. Donahue’s Outta Bounds exhibit also featured basketballs propped atop increasingly taller wooden posts. The lower halves of the posts are painted red and the basketballs display different hairstyles, such as braids, dreads, and a mohawk. Looking at these leather spheres, I’m pushed to consider the adoption and commodification of Black hairstyles and aesthetics, as well as the condensing down of Black life and identity to a handful of signifiers. Although Donahue may never have intended to drum up this particular image, if I stare at this somewhat playful installation long enough, I find myself unsettled by the much darker association of the auction block. You could say Donahue’s work sneaks up on you.

Donahue moved to Maryland with his wife, the artist Jessica Gatlin, in 2019, when she accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Maryland. During that time, Donahue served as the David C. Driskell Artist-in-Residence while the couple lived in a sabbatical home in Hyattsville. After a year’s worth of date nights in Baltimore, the pair moved to the city in 2020. “The city felt familiar in a Southern-city way. The pace, the people, the culture, it felt like love,” he says. In 2021, Donahue joined the UMD faculty as an assistant professor of art.

 

Donahue’s latest exhibit, Rebounds and Assists, opened on March 11, 2022, at Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia. The exhibit includes new iterations of his Basketball Blooms series and a new series of screenprints titled Coach’s Playbook. The latter series illustrates the floor plan of a judicial courtroom with drawn-up, overlapping basketball plays. Donahue says he’s working through the similarities between basketball courts and judicial courts by “referencing the performance, awareness of showmanship, and strategies used by both the offense and defense.”

Donahue’s work is a manifestation of a philosophy of layered transcendence. “What you think of as waste is not waste. What you no longer use can be transformed into something that holds new value,” he says. His process and philosophy remind me of Kiese Laymon’s theory of radical revision, in which the writer argues that a sustained practice of repetitive attention and revision on the page can teach us how to revise our lives, creating better selves and hopefully a better world. With every stroke of his airbrush, with every deconstruction and reassembly, Donahue turns waste into cultural weight. He transforms found objects into artifacts by simultaneously illuminating and recontextualizing their histories.

“Customizing and personalizing things are to me a rite, and I believe in the ability to transcend the original state and meaning of things,” Donahue originally wrote in an artist statement around 2013. “I see myself in the work and realize that I, too, have potential to change.” Donahue is consistent and meticulous about his practice of social connection through art, but it is not free of critical reflection. If we remain open to the conversations Donahue’s work engenders—open to the playful yet needling double entendres, the demands to reconsider and reimagine—we too can be changed.

 

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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