Michael Brennan, "Blue Practice Painting," 2010. Oil on canvas, 20" x 16."
I've heard it said that the vast majority of abstract painting is landscape in disguise, and I've always been inclined to agree with this view. Certainly, Michael Brennan's paintings have traditionally courted a landscape reading, particularly in his use of horizontal formats and long horizontal stripes, as seen in his last exhibition at 210 Gallery in Brooklyn. In his new solo exhibition, however, landscape gives way to a reference seldom seen or felt in "pure" abstraction: portraiture.
The eight paintings in the show are all in vertical orientation, around the size of a head, and are hung at eye level. All but one feature a single central "figure" derived with various strokes of a palette knife in oil paint (hence the show's title). The spectral figures never exactly coalesce into a face or head, but the reference is strong enough that it raises a raftload of tantalizing issues. You simply can't approach them as you would a more traditional abstraction even though the pictures remain non-objective in the strictest sense.
A big reason that abstract painters have resisted portraiture is because it's quite difficult not to address and evaluate a portrait psychologically. A painting whose primary thrust is shape, color, light, and space will quickly find those issues diminished by the presence of a human face - the viewer will inevitably begin to look for emotional content in the eyes, the expression, and the mode of representation, rather than in the paint. But in a kind of deft slight of hand (and knife) Brennan uses the reflexive search for a face as an excuse to roam around the varied textures of paint; sometimes dry and showing the canvas texture, sometimes wet and ribbon-like, sometimes textured like brains or broccoli. There are no eyes or ears in the pictures, but enough things that begin to look a little like them to keep you searching, and the search is a grand tour through endlessly interesting paint applications - a kind of crafty aesthetic bait-and-switch. The relatively small scale of the pictures invites you to step up and get a really good look at all the nuances in that paint.
Brennan's pictures court a paradoxically photographic look - the facture is quite evidently paint, but the impression they give is often that of black-and-white photography, and the tension between those two readings has always been one of my favorite aspects of his work. The strong pull that these pictures display toward portraiture, coupled with the highly muted monochromatic palettes, stark white framing devices, and relatively small scale, call to mind photographic portraits, specifically those associated with cinema; I'm thinking of the black-and-white stills that were traditionally released by film studios in advance of a new release prior to the days of the internet (Cindy Sherman famously found inspiration there as well). The drama and subtle humor that these photographic and cinematic references add provide another layer of interest to these pictures. Not surprisingly, Brennan is something of a cinephile.
In the end, the pictures are visual - paint on canvas. If any of these sly references overcame the paintings and became subject matter, the pictures would suffer. But the tightrope act they walk, making veiled nods to cultural referents outside of the frame adds an irresistible richness. I really liked these pictures.
The show had six "Razor Paintings" and two "Practice Paintings" (these titles were appended by the color used and with a number if there were more than one with the same palette). Five of the "Razor Paintings" fit the description above, with "White Razor Painting 1" being my favorite. The low contrast made the picture just a little more spectral and slippery than the darker incarnations. "White Razor Painting 2" broke out of the portrait mold just a little by presenting a row of marching "X" shapes across the bottom center - an unexpected device that pushed the portrait-like figure back into the space. "Graphite Practice Painting" was much more stark in its dark/light contrast and presented a figure that looked like it might be speedily escaping the frame. "Blue Practice Painting" moved away from the muted palette that specifically courted the resemblance to b/w photography. The "figure," central and resting on the inside bottom of the white frame, was much more self-consciously volumetric than in the other pictures, and created a shape that could be construed as a hand or crown or flame. The electric blue was glowing, fluid and transparent, a real grabber.
210 Gallery is located at 210 24th St. in Brooklyn and is open Friday to Sunday from 12-6 or by appointment. The show stays up until Halloween, which seems oddly appropriate for these pictures. I highly recommend it.