Sunday, November 16, 2008

Michael Brennan at 210 Gallery and P.S.1

Michael Brennan, "Twin Stars with Sirius White Line," 2008. Oil and wax on canvas, 21" x 32."

I've been a fan of Michael Brennan's paintings for a long time, and have always felt that he was generally under-recognized. Brennan is a painter who came of age during the lengthy "painting-is-dead" era, but recognized that there was still a lot of usable stuff in the wreckage of modernism; his work looks back on the history of 20th century abstraction, but has always belonged to his own time. It's a rare treat to be able to see new work in two places at once, but now's your chance, with one show hanging in Brooklyn and another in Queens.

To my eye, a primary aspect of "Twin Stars with Sirius White Line" and "No Second Troy" at 210 Gallery, and "Double Daimajin" at P.S.1, is a fresh take on Hans Hofmann's famous "push/pull" theory of abstract pictorial space. The theory is simple enough; the inescapable illusionism of painting is constantly counterbalanced with and undermined by motifs that aggressively emphasize the two-dimensionality and materiality of the picture plane, and, when deftly assembled, continually toggle between these two states in the eye of the viewer.

The horizontal bands on the bottom of all three pictures provide the lion's share of the "pull" up to the picture plane, doing all of the modernist stuff that stripes do: emphasizing flatness and echoing the top and bottom framing edge. The "push" is what make Brennan's paintings distinctly modern. His illusionism stems from a mysterious process of paint and wax application that at once identifies itself as a kind of gestural abstraction and simultaneously achieves an oddly photographic, back-lit spatial illusion. The swirling ghosts in the waxy upper portions of the paintings clearly organize themselves into figure/ground groupings; one on each side with a space in the center. This is a nice visual surprise, because the figure and ground, such as it is, is made of the same stuff, and the ribbons of that stuff are roughly equal in scale. What at first appears to be pure gestural improvisation reveals itself to be something more rigorous than meets the eye.

And there is another layer of illusion to Brennan's paintings aside from the pictorial space articulated by the gestures: The surface that the viewer is pulled back to doesn't give a stable account of itself as Hoffman's canvas and paint, but quickly transforms into the picture plane that looms largest over our era: the screen. The small scale of the pictures squarely references the ubiquitous laptop, and the liquidy, dissolving forms created by Brennan's process strongly evoke the CG aesthetic without specifically looking like a Pixar movie or video game.

Gestural abstraction is notorious for being a metaphor for the artist's interior state; the ultimate self-portrait. After the second generation of abstract painters (the so-called "Tenth Street" painters), the enterprise was largely condemned to ridicule, the pictorial equivalent of over-acting. Michael Brennan belongs to a small group of painters who have managed to reinvent gesture in such a way as to completely circumvent the agony content and make it function with the formal efficiency of geometry. In his pictures gesture is a motif instead of an autobiography.

The swirls in the pictures don't necessarily look like they were created by a person. They could easily be imagined as a natural occurrence (like oil dropping into water) or as a photographic, mechanical, or computer process. The benefit of this level of remove is that the viewer is able to engage the picture as opposed to the artist. Paradoxically, I think this makes for a greater intimacy; the viewer can relate directly to the thing itself instead of seeing it as a surrogate or stand-in for the maker, and can feel the freedom to explore its space, surface and contours without a biographical sub-text. And the viewer's uninfluenced gaze is richly rewarded; within the confines of these small-size pictures there's an awful lot to look at.

"Simple" at 210 Gallery is up until December 5th, and the gallery is located at 210 24th At. in Brooklyn. "Minus Space" at P.S.1 is up until January 26, and the museum is located at 22-25 Jackson Ave. in Queens. I highly recommend both.