Coffee Culture

In Jonathan Brilliant's hands, sticks are stirring.

Jonathan Brilliant, recent artist in residence at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, hails from the handwork legacy of coastal South Carolina, but operates with a strong affinity for the British environment artists of the 1970s and ’80s.

Artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Tony Cragg and Richard Long loosely shared an interest in using the natural environment and its materials to create site-specific installations. Brilliant started out adopting this concept and set off into the woods, using sticks and branches as his early materials, only to discover that the work felt disingenuous. Sitting in a coffee shop one day, he realized that a forest seemed more like a mythological space beyond his everyday life, while the coffee shop and its culture brought him familiarity and comfort.

So he began his ongoing series using manufactured materials from the to-go coffee cup — stir stick, cup, lid and sleeve — to create monolithic installations and related works on paper, as seen in the exhibition “Stick Stack Show” now on view at the Visual Arts Center’s True F. Luck Gallery.

Recent recipient of a Pollak-Krasner Foundation Grant and a 2012 South Carolina Arts Fellow, among other awards, Brilliant is modest and gregarious. He generously offers glimpses into his finely tuned processes, including the set of systems he utilizes to build installations stick-by-stick, and his patterning and print-making processes combining consumer materials with traditional methods.

Brilliant used two weeks and approximately 60,000 wooden coffee sticks to create the site-specific sculptural installation in “Stick Stack Show,” which is held together solely by tension and compression, adhering to the British-derived artistic premise that materials should only be altered by the labor of the artist. The sculpture spans floor to ceiling, encircling objects in the space, including venting tubes and visible wires, to create an undulating form of seeming frailty that exudes all the strength and intelligence of the biological world. The piece progressed from two sticks to thousands over two weeks of 12-hour days, in a manner resembling cells dividing to create an organ or flower. “The work leads me,” Brilliant says, not just as he creates each piece but also from space to space, where the behavior of the materials in process might speak to his next installation at an upcoming site.

Through ongoing exploration of coffee-related materials, Brilliant seeks “to explore my sense that the coffee shop and related consumer environs are more organic and nurturing than the real natural environment.” This concept expresses an unabashed suburban, retail, consumer culture perspective, particular to more recent generations of Americans and having a particular socio-economic basis. It stands in direct opposition to the view of homogeneous consumer environments with harsh lighting created to perpetuate an unhealthy preoccupation with acquiring stuff. So that the ubiquitous coffee stick suddenly demands more attention, stimulating conversation about notions of human environment and what is deemed natural. S

“Stick Stack Show” is part of Jonathan Brilliant’s Have Sticks Will Travel World Tour that began in 2009, and will be on view at the True F. Luck Gallery at the Visual Arts Center through Dec. 21. For information, go to


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