The Eyebrows Say “Whoa!” Justin Brennan at HEDGE
Paintings can foreshorten and remake experience, transcribing in a directly sensual, primal tongue. This ambitious undertaking is often bitter and disappointing — but pocked with thrilling episodes. It’s a search for the kind of truth that immediacy conveys, a body-to-body, first person narrative approach to communication. Either there’s no room for error, or (more likely) the error is all the room you can find. When the artist succeeds, the difference between looking and touching begins to blur and melt.
Certainly that’s what the painter Justin Brennan is up to in his urgent search for ever more direct forms of visual/tactile speech. Like certain drugs seeping past the blood-brain barrier, Brennan’s paintings bypass the usual systems of absorption. At their best they awaken the eye to new awareness as they stir some forgotten patch of the unconscious mind, delivering a moment that seems to be part of more vividly real world. A sample of his recent works are on view in General Maintenance, January 13 – March 5, 2021, at HEDGE Gallery.
During the past year most people around the globe have been perversely, reluctantly united by an awareness of a common enemy. COVID-19 has changed the way that many humans negotiate their imaginative relations with daily life, forced into semi-hiding, altering patterns of behavior and cloaking all but the most private hours of the day behind a mask. We notice different things, we are more aware of our life-in-death situation. Getting through the day can be like texting at a funeral. Brennan’s paintings are of a piece with that warped state of affairs.
Brennan’s fifty or so recent works are spread loosely around Hedge’s interconnecting rooms, gathered into smaller groups as style and subject move toward tighter focus. The most striking cluster is made up of smaller portraits, hanging in a space that opens onto 78th Street Studios’ second floor hallway. One or two of these paintings are self portraits — fast-moving, gesture-filled works showing Brennan’s face, with glasses and mustache playing hide and seek, interrupted by swooshing lateral swipes or broad strokes of paint. Their strategy is to reveal and conceal, alternating between obfuscation and hallucination, like a face coming together in the clouds, or like a UFO hiding behind them. Experimental in their risk-taking, these works are sharply imbued (even more than this artist’s work in earlier, not un-angst-ridden times) with the genuine, harshly sour flavor of our claustrophobic era. Brennan pushes and scrapes at those special surfaces that every person knows and loves, the faces which reveal and conceal the inner lives of our family members and ourselves. His speeding, skidding painterly movements are fueled by contemporary pent-up energies, jammed in the quarter inch of safe space between the mouth and the mask.
“Mass Hysteria” (2020, oil on panel, 20”/20”) is a study of a young woman’s head, staring straight into the viewer’s reality from her own startling blue eyes, fixed beneath a black line of eyebrow. Her pale face set against a blank white background is topped with a dense blur of black hair. Features and contours are stretched sideways to either edge of the panel by scraping or wiping, making the full-sized head freeze a moment of raw psychic intensity. It’s the blue eyes, and a little lower down the red smear of mouth, that make it stop, freezing a transcendent, crowd-sourced identity. “You know me,” say the eyes.
“Berlin” depicts, or posits, an androgynous white-haired person with thick black eyebrows. Black eyes seem to peer up to the right, while plastered over the mouth and chin a tangle of short blue brushstrokes curls messily over the green background, curling down the collar of a white blouse; a tendril of blue runs up the side of the figure’s cheek and temple. It’s hard to say why this unreasonable oil doodling should achieve any synergy or traction, as it defaces the already wiped and scraped anterior image. Again here it may be the eyes, or really the eyebrows, acting like a brake. Maybe it doesn’t work, but if it does it’s because everything gets in the way of everything else, stopping the image just at the point it might coalesce into a more familiar visual statement. The eyebrows say “Whoa!”
Brennan’s show is titled General Maintenance, which echoes with the gear-grinding uncertainties and epic icky-ness of this past year. Tightening the bolts and nuts of the human soul, it has sent many artists back to the mechanics of their art practice. Time will tell, but the results may turn out to be pretty worthwhile. Anyway, making plenty of new art to fill the void where “normal” ought to be has been one productive way to stay sane: checking the levels, filling the tires up to spec as the seasons change and road conditions go straight to hell. Justin Brennan for his part has used the time to head toward a better place.