Flipping the Script: Brent Houzenga Takes a New Approach

Christy Lorio talks to artist Brent Houzenga about his yearlong project to produce one drawing with his non-dominant hand each day.

Brent Houzenga, Day 5, July 16, 2016, 2016. Pen and marker on paper. Courtesy the artist.

Try writing your name with your non-dominant hand. Shaky, yet doable, right? Now try to draw an entire portrait. Much harder. And if you’re up for a real challenge, draw one portrait every day for a year. Artist Brent Houzenga is doing just that, and his show “Left Handed for a Year,” which opens July 15 at TEN Gallery, will feature all 365 pieces.

Houzenga, who typically works with stencils and painter’s tape to create bold, graphic portraits, started the experimental project due to his interest in psychology and brain function.

“I didn’t have any rules [aside from using my left hand], I just wanted to draw everyday. But they all ended up being portraits because I just like to draw portraits,” Houzenga explains.

By reconsidering each step of his process, Houzenga hopes to tap into a deeper artistic well of knowledge. “I know drawing, shading, color, and design, but it always comes out my right hand. The hope is that I’m somehow rewiring parts of my brain to connect with wherever this comes from. It’s kind of a weird science experiment on myself, and it’s kind of scary because I don’t know what I’m doing; I don’t know what this is going to do to me.”

Through this project, Houzenga has refined his work by relearning how to capture the subtleties that portraiture demands. “It was really labored at the beginning. It would take me three hours and now it’s 20 minutes, sometimes an hour. It’s really broadened my perception of painting and using color.”

Brent Houzenga, Day 71, September 18, 2016, 2016. Pen and marker on paper. Courtesy the artist.

“Left Handed” is a departure from Houzenga’s main body of art—stencil drawings based on one found antique photo album—which he has been focusing on for the past ten years. (In 2015, Houzenga decked out my car in a similar style of vivid colors, stripes, and squiggles as part of his Fossil Fueled initiative to visually transform ground transportation in New Orleans.) Portraying people he knows and admires is a more personal process than creating his anonymous photo-album portraits. But Houzenga is quick to point out that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion of idols.

The Left Handed series includes friends, musicians, authors, celebrities, and pop-culture icons including everyone from Houzenga’s family members and New Orleans-based musician Chris Rehm of Caddywhompus to hip-hop artists Nas and A Tribe Called Quest, director David Lynch, Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, actor Steve Buscemi, Queen Victoria, and Philip K. Dick, Houzenga’s favorite author.

Brent Houzenga, Day 307, May 12, 2017, 2017. Pen and marker on paper. Courtesy the artist.

The drawings will be displayed on a wall for the show at TEN Gallery, but Houzenga worked on them in a set of notebooks. Imagining flipping through each book makes the project feel like peeking into a diary. Most days, the sketches reflect whatever was going on in Houzenga’s life, be it a song he heard, a movie he watched, or a current event that affected him.

No matter what, Houzenga kept drawing. In April, a staph infection sent Houzenga to the hospital, and he was unable to walk for two weeks. He kept the dark blue pen with which the doctor marked his knee in preparation for surgery and began using it to keep making portraits. In November, a close high-school friend died. “That had never happened to me,” Houzenga said. “[Jake] was like 32 years old, so I drew him.”

While the project has helped him grow artistically, Houzenga looks forward to its completion. “I’m excited to be almost done with it because it’s a fucking chore to have to do it every day,” he said.

He hopes that others might be inspired to take on similar challenges and wants visitors to the gallery to know “that you can do anything you set your mind to. It’s kind of a corny cliché, but [Left Handed] started as a really personal thing. I didn’t know if I was going to put them all on the Internet or have a show when it first started.”

Left Handed isn’t the only project Houzenga has been working on this past year. In addition to earning his MFA in studio art from the University of New Orleans, he presented “BATJUJU,” a Batman-themed show of photographs and paintings at the pop-up Shinebone Gallery. And on July 13, Houzenga’s series of Hank Williams portraits will be on display at Gasa Gasa for a tribute night featuring the Rayo Brothers and Gal Holiday & the Honky Tonk Revue. “Somehow I keep cranking out all this stuff.”

Editor's Note

Brent Houzenga’s “Left Handed for a Year” opens July 15, 2017, at TEN Gallery (4432 Magazine Street) in New Orleans.