David Brothers of SLC evokes dark, dingy worlds through the derelict sets he builds. Photos from his latest project, Peed Upon, offer a dire caricature of our current times.
Siloed in his warehouse studio on Salt Lake City’s Westside, artist David Brothers evokes dark, dingy worlds through the looming sets he builds. “Derelict” is a favorite word of his to describe them—and it perfectly encapsulates not only the blight of these environments but the temperament of the characters in his latest project, Peed Upon. Brothers, who constructs sets from upcycled and discarded materials, distills acted-out, character-driven scenes with photography. The narrative continuity between photos creates bridges within Peed Upon’s conceptual geography. And it’s ridden with motifs of debasement, indigence, delusion, violence, and the Old West—a dire reflection of contemporary America, warts and all.
An unsettling sense of betweenness takes hold upon entering Brothers’s studio, pulled between a movie set and a carnival. An old-timey wagon coming through town plops between rundown business façades. The town’s signs promote the absurd—“Excitations Healthyness Clinic,” “Village Electrotic,” and the wagon’s “Mr. JC Dithers Speaks with the Dead, Deaf & Dumb, Affirming a New Think System Bestowing Spiritualistic Bang: Electroplasmic Signifying.” Ads and other detritus litter the floor. Overall, Peed Upon’s setting satirizes a sadly persistent reality.
That is, someone’s always trying to sell you something.
“It has to do with class, basically [the] dystopian future of capitalism and the worst of human nature—and a little bit of existential angst,” Brothers says. “I guess what it is now—it’s a little more scary because we’ve given such a voice for conservatism… is it getting worse; is it getting better? This is a result of, ‘Oh, god, it’s getting worse’—and this is what I think it’s going to be!”
Peed Upon’s squalor underscores the rancor and ire found in its characters. The photos posted on Brothers’s Instagram page depict the aftermath of violence, often with a harmed body on the ground. Amid characters’ apparent poverty and humble wardrobes, the omnipresent forces of capitalism virtually wallpaper around them being at each other’s throats. This cultural irony, Brothers feels, mirrors the rabid, bellicose populism we see throughout America while corporations continually dominate and feed upon a vulnerable poor who’s forced to consume.
Brothers doesn’t consider Peed Upon to comment on or resemble Salt Lake City or Utah, specifically. The set’s world both eulogizes and caricatures small western anytowns past their prime. Yet, despite Peed Upon’s specific setting, its overall dynamic would seem widely applicable within the United States at large.
“Basically, you’re living in your grandfather’s city,” Brothers theorizes. “It becomes your city—and it starts to stink: it sucks! Now that it’s so-called ‘my city’—though I have absolutely no say over any of it, obviously—the sense of wonders is gone. Everything becomes, ‘Oh, that used to be where the whatchamacallit was, and, ‘Oh, that was so beautiful—people used to go there drinking, dancing, smoking’—which immediately dates it. Now it’s just condos or whatever.”
Essential to Brothers’s creative practice is his cavernous studio space, which he funds himself. As tawdry gentrification bloats SLC and threatens his ability to work there, however, the conceptual connections between Peed Upon’s fictional world and our real one begin to materialize.
“It’s almost like my grandpa’s city became… this,” continues Brothers, motioning toward the Peed Upon set. “The reality of it is that that city that we just have to drive through every day is going to become—at least in theory—this. It won’t look like [Peed Upon, specifically], but—with these new condos that are popping up all around… those will become derelict pieces of shit in twenty, twenty-five years.”
While photography presently constitutes Peed Upon, it doesn’t encompass the project in its totality. The true essence of the concept lies within the environment itself.
“To me, we’re in it—right now, me and you—but nobody else but me and you will see that,” he says.
Brothers used to build sets then tear them down. He’d photograph and generate visual narratives for projects a couple weekends in one month, as opposed to his more intensive process now.
“[My first sets] didn’t have a purpose… nobody saw them,” Brothers continues. “I finally figured out a way to channel that need to build something, to having a final product—sort of—but it’s still really vague… eventually, there will be a film, and it’ll be feature-length and it’ll be narrative, but I hate it when people say I’m making a film because, somehow, film sucks out all the air of photography or sculpture or painting. Because I actually look at it [as] more painting than a film.”
Brothers’s development of Peed Upon is similar to his penultimate project, The What a Show Show (2019), where he built a glossy game show set whose emotive, character-based photographic direction evolved the game show set into a film. Brothers’s prior project, Rolithica (2016), was host to a familiar derelict landscape but was also home to unnerving puppets. Peed Upon seemingly synthesizes aspects of both predecessors as Brothers picks back up with his penchant for blight.
“It’s comforting—it’s just like home,” Brothers says. “And it’s easy, and I know how to move quickly in it.”
In the background, Brothers has been writing a story that undergirds what we see in Peed Upon’s photographic narrative. His elevator pitch?
“An evangelist and his wife return to town seeking revenge from a small shopkeeper who burnt the wife’s head off,” he says.
But in its present form, Brothers distinctly flips the switch on storytelling by privileging narrative over overt story. Where a book or film usually comprises a concrete plot, Brothers’s backstory writing instead amplifies and democratizes viewers’ capacity for how we identify with Peed Upon’s static photographed characters, à la photographer Gregory Crewdson. This dynamic, in turn, invites us to imagine and participate within the grubby world of Peed Upon.
Brothers’s other career is working as a key scenic—or “king of the painters,” as he puts it in layman’s terms—for film and TV sets. There, he upcycles set materials that productions would otherwise discard, then reuses them. Much of the Peed Upon set comes from The What a Show Show.
“[For] this set,” he says, “I don’t think I spent more than fifty bucks.”
Brothers subverts the sense of acrid capitalism he critiques through this repurposing. He usually doesn’t even necessarily end up with a commodifiable end product that audiences can buy. The unfinished and worn-down veneer of his sets lends roles to the set pieces just as much as his actors. A kind of zeitgeisty shadow emerges from this process, one that finds home in Brothers’s nihilist artistic personality.
At the time of interviewing and writing, Brothers is still developing Peed Upon. Stay tuned to his website and Instagram page for how he’ll ultimately convey this world to audiences—unless it bubbles over and consumes us first.