In one of his poems, Charles Simic talks about stopping before a closed butcher shop on a late-night walk, where “There are knives that glitter like altars/ in a dark church.” Michael Brennan’s new razor paintings have this feel to them, that of wandering your neighborhood after dark and making it strange again and again.
It is with an eye toward reduction, scale, and color that Brennan has created these smaller, monochromatic pieces for MINUS SPACE, a gallery known for its attention to reductive, concept-based, site-specific art. Brennan moved to Gowanus seven years prior, and these paintings reflect the shift in his environment and his heady fascination with adaptive, first-strike deliberations of form and color.
Brennan has always been invested in economy over minimalism. “I am interested in drawing down to the bone, and my paintings at this point are literally made with two coats of paint, black and white,” he says. In an interview with MINUS SPACE, Brennan describes why he has veered toward monochrome. “I had to address questions of how far I wanted to go with color, and architectural forms. I really just wanted to put all of that aside and embrace some of the simpler qualities that had defined my works on paper already. It was a sorting out process that took some time.” He wanted to embrace a simpler process and to absorb new qualities into his work as a way of interacting with this new landscape. What emerged in this simplification was letting go of color in favor of honing subliminal imagery and creating an altar of sorts for contrasting values.
His razor paintings, however, are deceptively monochromatic: he has worked in a variety of greys, whites, and blacks, some of which are quietly tinted with other hues. As we’ve seen in his double-horizon paintings, color is critical to Brennan, and his paintings pay tribute not only to contemporary painting but also to historical print and film-making. Walter Bernstein, says the artist, would go to the movies, yet find himself disappointed as more and more came out in color. These seemed “paradoxically pallid” next to the black-and-white versions. “In fact,” said Bernstein, “they had no shadows. Color had diminished them; they had lost the quality of dream.” Brennan’s paintings gain this quality of lucid dreaming: the fact that they are nearly monochromatic does not lessen their impact. Brennan seeks to go simpler, more reductive, quieter. He is paying attention. He is reducing things to forms that allow the brain to settle, to sink, to mire itself in new textures that the viewers feel at their cores.
Apart from color, scale is another crucial element of Brennan’s work. The decision to go smaller was inspired, in part, by Myron Stout. He thinks about hands and face, parts of the body on a scale to which we are attuned. Stout’s work was typically 24 x 36”. Brennan’s paintings are 20 x 16 inches and 12 x 19 inches, yet, like Stout’s pieces, they have the feel of telescoped monstrosities, a kind of mountain-presence whose heft is large and deep. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what the scale of our time might be,” says Brennan. “We live in an era where an enormous amount of information is concentrated on small objects like smart phones or tablets.” What he found was that going smaller enabled him to reach a better object/painting correlation comparable to a flat screen TV or the “tricked-out tech things we are all surrounded by.” Another consideration was that many images of paintings are seen and shared online, which means the sense of scale is the first thing to go.
The writer Charles Baxter has often talked about how silence and stillness can act as intensifiers in fiction. Baxter posits that silence strengthens whatever stands on either side of it. It takes on a different emotion, a different color, for whatever it flows through or between. Brennan’s paintings can be examined along the same vein. How does this reductive stillness intensify the surrounding space, the borders, and the color? What does American culture, gadget-obsessed and screen-staring, accustomed to low-grade heroics, do when confronted with these colossal plays on scale and color? Can we look at the paintings like they are smart phone screens, altars, or butcher shops visited on night walks?
One of Brennan’s greatest qualities is his deep attention to reduction and abstraction, to pinching out aspects of scale and beauty in these variations. “I think most people think of abstraction as something striving to be apart from the world, like geometry, but nothing is entirely apart from the world. Euclid was of this world, and I often think of my own abstract painting as earthy.” Keep an eye out for what this incredible mid-career painter comes up with next, and for MINUS SPACE’s upcoming shows (next up: Michael Rouillard and Roberta Allen) as the gallery continues to grow and expand.
Maria Anderson was also able to contact Michael Brennan, engaging him in conversation about his recent work and the inspiration that fuels his creative process.
Maria Anderson: You talk about abstract painting as a form of never-ending adjustment. Can you talk more about what you mean exactly by adjustment? Is it mental, spiritual, environmental (i.e. becoming accustomed to and absorbing, in some sense, your neighborhood?)
Michael Brennan: I think “never-ending adjustment” stems from a kind of attitude adjustment—when one is working deeply with materials those materials are always revealing unknown properties, ones that an artist might want to exploit, or for a time even ignore, but alternate pathways always appear at every stage of the investigation. Even the most rigid artists often are seduced by the question “What if I tried…?” which may or may not lead them to their imagined goal. There’s just such an infinite amount of variables to painting. Even if I were to dogmatically insist, “I will now only ever paint black paintings” an artist could still spend a lifetime deciding between a chromatic black, a coarse carbon black, a copper derived black, etc. Each choice is substantially different and could potentially alter the content of the work. The paradox of working minimally is that every decision (assuming there are fewer) becomes paramount. And this of course is just the crude part, the material level. I believe, as many artists do, that everything we absorb has some residual effect. We may try to cling to some kind of cultural moment, but nothing is static.
MA: I love what you said in a Visual Discrepancies interview about lesser heroes:
‘I walk around Brooklyn a lot, and sometimes I imagine the people I encounter are the lesser heroes of another epic, that they are the same type I’ve already discovered in Homer. I figure that in this age of avatars, compromised, and de-professionalized super-heroes that this is somehow appropriate, and that kind of thinking gives me fuel for images and titles.’
Can you say more about this? Is modern man some kind of low-grade (not in a bad way) hero? I feel this way walking around Brooklyn as well, that there is something mythical about the struggle and the gargantuan effort people put forth to pay rent, be successful, and enjoy themselves doing it.
MB: This may be very old fashioned of me, perhaps too romantic, but I think that artists are meant to poetize their environment, to mythologize the mundane. I don’t live in the south of France, so I can’t realistically paint like Matisse. I spend a lot of time walking around Myrtle Ave., Third Ave., and think “What can I do with this?” because this is what I have to work with. What can my imagination do with this? I want my work, abstract as it is, to be of my own time and place, to reflect the conditions that can and do only exist now, and that means paying attention to the world around me. I think the local is generally undervalued.
MA: You also mention Philip Roth. As a fiction writer, I’d be interested to know whether you have any other literary influences, or if any played a part in your mindset when you were creating these paintings.
MB: I’m very bookish. I have fantasies about teaching American Literature (Hawthorne, Melville, Poe), I worked in publishing for a time, and have worked in many bookstores over the years. I have eighth-grade English teacher taste in books. I’m currently re-reading The Centaur by John Updike mostly because I’m interested in how he localizes mythic content. He does so in a much less grand way than Joyce with Ulysses, but that clearly was the precedent. Basically all the townie figures are gods and goddesses and Alton (“All Town” or Reading, PA) becomes the scene of a minor epic, but an epic nonetheless. I guess I use literature as parallel inspiration. It’s never a direct link. I question the use of language, the examination of culture. Maybe this will help me make better minimal paintings of mythic standing that somehow still connect to Myrtle Ave.? That’s a desire of mine anyway. I learned a few things from this forgotten Updike book.
By Maria Anderson