The Clayton Brothers Take Us Inside their Thrift Store-Inspired World

Artsy Editorial
Aug 18, 2014 10:48PM

Christian Clayton estimates that he and his older brother Rob have been collaborating since his birth. The artist duo, known as The Clayton Brothers, share a Pasadena studio where conversation provokes an intuitive, symbiotic practice. Each work is a unique blend of both brothers’ creativity and contemplation. Growing up in Aurora, Colorado with their father, a photographer, the brothers grew up skateboarding, building ramps, listening to punk rock, and designing flyers and t-shirts for friends—always with a camera in tow. Art school followed for both brothers and a collaborative career in art making was a natural progression.

Inspired by public spaces and the objects and individuals that inhabit them, the artists have homed in on local thrift store, Sun Thrift, for their new show at Culver City’s Mark Moore Gallery. Titled “Open to the Public,” the show features vibrant drawings, paintings, sculptures, mixed media, and video works embedded with rich narratives and a cast of characters that could only be realized through two minds, and two sets of hands. We spoke to the brothers in anticipation of the show about their process, thrift stores, and the origins of “Open to the Public.”

Artsy: Can you tell us about your process? We’ve read that you’re never both working on the same work at once. How do your works come about and how do you collaborate on a single piece?

Rob Clayton: We just start to have conversations; sometimes it will take us a few months, going through what we're interested in working on. We’ve opened up to a lot of different mediums over the years, like drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, film. And this current show that we’re doing, “Open to the Public,” is something we’ve been working toward for maybe three years, four years now.

Christian Clayton: Yes, [Sun Thrift has] been a muse of ours. We go in there and think about everything, and come back to the studio and have these conversations, threading narrative and bits and pieces of things that we’ve found. As far as our collaboration goes, the studio is an open, organic environment. We leave things out for each other to see what the other guy might respond to. We refer to it as an abstract narrative; it might start with a conversation about somebody in the thrift store and then end up about a certain material that was in the thrift store. Then there’s this whole course of producing and editing.

Artsy: Have you been visiting thrift stores for all of your lives? Is there a history there?

RC: Yes, we’ve always been interested in them. It’s interesting to go to different thrift stores in different communities throughout the United States. You see these eclectic, curatorial-type atmospheres.

CC: [Sun Thrift] is the best thrift store we’ve ever been in. It’s always evolving and changing. Even though everything there is the same—in the same place—the products and things go in and out.

RC: But there tend to be a lot of the same people going.

Artsy: How often did you visit Sun Thrift to prepare for this show?

RC: We both go there pretty much every other day. There are two aspects to this show: one side of it is the store itself and the employees that run it, and more importantly, the other side is the people that go there to get things they need. Over the years we’ve been very interested in places visited by common people. We did a piece called Wishy Washy, which was based on a laundromat here in our neighborhood. They’re sort of universal zones for people of all demographics or cultures; there’s no hierarchy to it. 

Artsy: Is this series as much about collecting actual material as collecting narratives and making connections with the people at the thrift store?

RC: Yeah, we’re kind of voyeurs. We interact with people there and get in conversations. We document things a lot with our cameras. People are usually curious about what we’re doing and why we’re shooting so many pictures. I think they’ve come to recognize us when we come in and out. We’ve had a few conversations with the management, but it’s more us observing. 

Artsy: What do you look for when you visit the store?

CC: We’re always looking for things that people have created. When we come across a piece of art that somebody made—maybe it’s a kid’s pot or an old painting—that really stops us. And so we’ve been buying those and bringing them back, looking at them closely, and actually collaborating with them in some cases.

RC: It’s sort of an inspiration thing, too. We get lost in the narrative behind who might have made this piece of art. And then we get sad at the same time, because somebody gave it up, or didn’t believe in it enough. So there’s that whole idea, too—the neglected creation.

CC: It’s interesting how the employees of the store categorize things—the way they stack paintings against each other and which ones they pull forward.

RC: Or the lighting section, where they stack these table lamps and lights. It’s very eclectic; all these colors clash. There’s gold and chrome, steel and ceramic. When you first glance at it, maybe you feel overwhelmed or depressed—as the colors are kind of drab. But the more we worked with it, the more inspiring [the store] became and its color palette started to infiltrate our own. So colors that once were not really appealing to us have become very appealing to us.

Artsy: There seems to be a lot of interest in organization and categorization—is that reflected in your works and the show?

RC: Yeah, [it will be] almost as if we’re the employees doing the install on our show. There is the relationship between drawings; certain drawings talk to one another. And we always feel like it’s kind of a game with our viewer…the deeper they look into it, the more they try to process it, they start to connect the dots. Also, we’re putting in things that academically would be deemed a failure, or not very well composed, or bad color, or not painted properly. We’re putting that in and saying, “Here, take a look at this. It’s open for your feedback. Is it right or wrong?”—that’s why the show is called “Open to the Public,” because we’re welcoming everybody into it no matter what level you’re at, how much schooling you’ve had (or not had) in art.

We’ve pulled from a store that’s not your typical, beautiful store to venture into and make art with; it’s kind of benign and uninteresting. And we’re taking these ideas that are in that store and trying to elevate them back into the mainstream.

Casey Lesser

The Clayton Brothers: Open to the Public” is on view at Mark Moore Gallery, Culver City, Aug. 16th–Sept. 27th, 2014.

Watch The Clayton Brothers in action at Sun Thrift in this short documentary.

Follow Mark Moore Gallery on Artsy.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019