Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s Otherworldly Treasures

In King of Lesser Lands, an eclectic but focused exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery, we are introduced to the world of self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein by a long row of erotic pinup portraits of his wife. As intriguing as they are awkward, these photographs are almost generic compared to the visionary works that follow. Von Bruenchenhein proclaimed that he was of noble descent but also referred to himself as a visitor to this world, theorizing that there was a “First World” that Earth had splintered from during a cataclysmic event. In light of this, many of his works can be interpreted as documents and artifacts of this fantasized world.

Von Bruenchenhein’s vision is most fully realized in his paintings—Technicolor skyscrapers and otherworldly landscapes that evoke popular science fiction imagery and Charles Burchfield’s more mystical works. The imaginary vistas and aquatic microcosms depicted in paintings like To The Endless Span of Creation (1954) and Sea Fringe (n°882) (1960) radiate with frenetic energy. To achieve this effect, the artist worked quickly and spontaneously, using his fingers, combs, crumpled paper, and sticks to manipulate the paint—scraping, pushing, and fanning out the oils in vibrating, electric patterns.

Von Bruenchenhein’s sculptures are evocative of unearthed royal treasures: miniature thrones intricately constructed from painted chicken bones, leafy ceramic crowns and vessels, arrowheads fashioned from broken glass (not exhibited here), and large-scale concrete heads that lined his house like spiritual guardians. All of Von Bruenchenhein’s works were made entirely at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he even hand-dug the clay for his ceramics and fired them in his coal-burning oven—and they remained there during his lifetime.

Photographs taken of the artist’s home shortly after his death document the overwhelming accumulation of artwork and bric-a-brac. His ramshackle palace was an extension of his art and a kind of museum in its own right: the exterior was a patchwork of color, doors and walls were painted with scenic and abstract imagery, and placards with handwritten poems and theories hung throughout. His paintings and sculptures are presented here in stark contrast to the way that Von Bruenchenhein lived with them and, though that may be unavoidable, some of their power is lost. Nonetheless, we should be thankful to behold such curious and forceful treasures.

Top: Untitled, 1978, Oil on cardboard, 29 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches; Middle: To The Endless Span of Creation (detail), 1954, Oil on board, 24 x 24 inches; Bottom: Installation view, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, King of Lesser Lands, March 24 – May 8, 2016, Andrew Edlin Gallery, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

The Shape of Light: Ellsworth Kelly’s Photography

For this exhibition, which is the first to focus solely on Ellsworth Kelly’s photographs, Matthew Marks Gallery compiled images that were taken over thirty years and printed shortly before the artist’s death this past December. Though Kelly did not use his photographs as direct sources for his paintings, they share a striking emphasis on geometric forms, from simple squares and triangles to skewed diamonds and rhomboids. These images are revelatory not only because we are unfamiliar with Kelly’s extraordinary work in this medium, but they also provide a context for and a contrast to his colorful abstract paintings.

Kelly spent the last forty-five years of his life in rural Upstate New York and the images in this show are a reminder that even though the hard-edged minimalism of his works can seem urban or industrial, he more frequently found inspiration in the pastoral. Two early photographs from 1950—one of curling tendril-like pine branches, the other of re-bar and concrete—call to mind his elegant contour drawings of plants and flowers. These images are outliers though; overwhelmingly, Kelly’s photographs are preoccupied with how mass and volume can be suggested by light and shadow.

Potato Barn, Southampton, 1968, Gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 13 inches; Above: Doorway, Belle-Île-en-Mer, 1977, Gelatin silver print, 12 7/8 x 8 1/2 inches. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

Kelly was especially attracted to the simple architecture of barns and the shadows cast by their gabled roofs and large doorways. In Barns, Long Island (1968), one barn abuts another perpendicularly, creating an intricate stacking of linear structures, but the eye is drawn to the starkly white fragment of sky created by the roof’s peak. Often, these negative spaces and shadow forms act as referents for Kelly’s canvases, as in Movie Screen, Waterbury (1982), in which a drive-in screen creates a diamond-shaped white void against the backdrop of dense foliage, or the jewel-like shadow in Doorway Shadow, Spencertown (1977).

With these black-and-white photographs, Kelly—an artist so famous for his use of color—was able to visually compress and distill the three-dimensional world into a flattened space, emphasizing the forms he spent his career examining. When taken collectively—especially as viewed on the gallery’s website (as seen below)—the photographs read as an index of Kelly’s visual vocabulary. Perhaps more importantly, they provide a context for his abstractions, one that is based squarely in his lived experiences.

Screen capture showing thumbnails of Ellsworth Kelly's photographs on Matthew Marks Gallery’s website, www.matthewmarks.com.

Balancing Act: Peter Fischli and David Weiss at the Guggenheim

With subversive and deadpan wit, the collaborative Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss made a career of exploring the mundane as well as the profound. In How to Work Better, the Guggenheim’s comprehensive and immensely enjoyable retrospective, this dichotomy is perhaps most evident in the massive presentation of Suddenly This Overview (1981–present), their ever expanding collection of rough-hewn, unfired clay vignettes and figurines. As with many of the duo’s works, the project is a fool’s errand—an encyclopedic attempt to document earthly matters and concerns. The subjects depicted range from the personal (Fischli’s first day of school) and commonplace (a loaf of bread) to the esoteric (Lacan’s mirror stage) and historical (George Washington crossing the Delaware), and also include the sub-series, “Popular Opposites.”

When pleasurably lost amid the dizzying forest of pedestals, it seems like this installation of diminutive clay sculptures could continue spiraling up the museum’s iconic ramp without end. Instead, the exhibition winds down with several galleries devoted to the artists’ polyurethane sculptures—meticulously crafted objects presented in trompe l’oeil installations that suggest spaces in transition. As they progress up the ramp, the polyurethane arrangements become increasingly spare and Fischli and Weiss’ simulations merge with the architecture and operations of the museum. The exhibition comes to a close and fades to black with Questions (2000–2003), a darkened room illuminated by a slide show of handwritten texts and the occasional doodle—the artists’ humorous take on the inquisitive, but slightly dreadful, thoughts and anxieties that can keep one awake at night.

Nocturnal reflections, such as “What does my soul do when I’m at work?,” “Does a ghost drive my car at night?,” and “Am I asleep?,” bring us full circle from the two subtly animatronic sculptures positioned at the bottom of the ramp—sleeping miniatures of the duo’s alter egos, Rat and Bear. These recumbent figures, as well as the “disappearing act” of the polyurethane installations, provide a stark contrast to the elaborate, big-budget spectacles other artists have presented in the Guggenheim’s cavernous rotunda. The exhibition as a whole serves as a bittersweet memorial to David Weiss, who died in 2012, and an understated celebration of a thirty-three year collaboration between two beguiling and irreverent pranksters.

Images (top to bottom): Installation view of Suddenly This Overview, 1981–present, with “Mick Jagger and Brian Jones Going Home Satisfied After Composing ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’” and “Ancient Fertility Symbol”; Installation view of Untitled, 1994, Painted polyurethane, 19 parts, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery; Installation view of Questions, 2000–2003; Rat and Bear (Sleeping), 2008, Cotton, wire, polyester, and electric mechanism, Dimensions variable. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

On View: Sharon Core at Yancey Richardson

As she did with her still life photographs, which I included in Nature Morte, Sharon Core continues to blur the distinction between nature and artifice in her new exhibition, Understory. What initially appear to be details of a forest microcosm are actually documents of a meticulously researched and cultivated environment, created by the artist within a geodesic dome built on her Hudson Valley property. Like an environmental display at a botanical garden, Core’s “forest” is both real and fabricated—it is a living ecosystem that is controlled and isolated from external influences (though she did source insects and other natural materials from surrounding woodlands). Core used her own garden to grow plants and flowers for her earlier still life and floral arrangements, so it is no surprise that she went to such effort to create a living stage for these photographs.

Using photography to examine the still life genre, Core has previously found inspiration from artists as diverse as Raphaelle Peale and Wayne Thiebaud. Here, her chiaroscuro images loosely reference the work of Otto Marseus van Schrieck, a 17th Century Dutch painter whose depictions of thriving forest floors were rife with the type of symbolism and meditations on mortality usually found in a vanitas still life. Appropriately, the forest floor is teeming with death and decay but also rebirth. Due to their subject matter and art historical references, Core’s floral images occasionally flirted with being too beautiful, but this exhibition is very much about what lies beneath the beauty—the death and decay that enable life to thrive and keep the cycle moving.

On view through May 7

Yancey Richardson Gallery
525 W 22nd Street |  Chelsea
www.yanceyrichardson.com

Top: Untitled #4, 2015, Archival pigment print, 30 x 20 inches, Ed. of 7; Bottom: Installation view with Untitled #1 and Untitled #11, Sharon Core, Understory, Yancey Richardson Gallery, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

"On View" posts highlight current exhibitions featuring exhibited artists.

Waiting and Aging: David Byrd’s Hospital Paintings

Fourteen small-scale paintings by David Byrd, who worked in obscurity for most of his life, were recently included in The Patients and the Doctors, a two person exhibition with Peter Gallo at Zieher Smith & Horton in Chelsea. The two artists were brought together because of their shared experience working with psychiatric patients, but their work—while equally compelling—could hardly look more different. Dripping with paint, scrawled text, and images of lilting clipper ships, Gallo’s tumultuous and violent works appear to channel the psyche of a patient. While Byrd’s more subtle paintings offer an outsider’s account, his muted and sympathetic portraits piqued my interest in this unknown artist.

David Byrd, Waiting and Aging, 1989, Oil on canvas, 23 x 33 inches; The Patients and the Doctors, Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

Though Byrd lived most of his adult life in various upstate New York towns and spent periods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, this was his first exhibition in New York City. He studied with Amédée Ozenfant and made paintings and sculptures for over 65 years without any attention from a gallery, or very many people for that matter. It wasn’t until Byrd’s neighbor, artist Jody Isaacson, discovered his work and introduced him to her dealer Greg Kucera that Byrd secured his first solo exhibition. The exhibition, Introduction: A Life of Observation, at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, featured nearly 100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and opened just weeks before Byrd’s death in May 2013 at age 87.

Byrd’s spare, washed-out paintings look like they are about to evaporate, but his imagery is heavy with the weight of anger, despair, and confusion. Most of these emotions can be attributed to his subjects: psychiatric patients at the Veteran’s Administration hospital he worked at for thirty years until retiring in 1988. Still, it is hard to imagine that Byrd did not empathize with the patients on a very personal level considering the care and skill with which he repeatedly captured their anguish and weariness. Even long after retirement, Byrd would continue to paint scenes and images from his time at the hospital—sometimes from memory or from sketches he made at the time.

David Byrd, Mopper, 1998, Oil on canvas, 20 x 26 inches; The Patients and the Doctors, Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

Several paintings depict the type of ordinary interactions that Byrd must have witnessed daily—orderlies administering medication, patients struggling to dress, a janitor mopping the floor—but the focus on these banal routines do not diminish the intimacy, anxiety, and pain that pervades his work. In some cases, it is the commonness of the scene that makes it so tragic. Though the patients in Line for Meds (1989) are anonymous and stripped of any distinguishable characteristics, their ennui and despair as they wait in line for medicine is apparent. Here, as in most of Byrd’s hospital paintings, emotion and personality are communicated with body language, through slumped and writhing figures.

Some of Byrd’s figures are rail thin, stretched like Giacometti sculptures, and others are twisted up like roots. To study the figure and its contortions, Byrd frequently returned to the ritual of dressing, portraying patients struggling to put clothes on or take them off. He depicts his subjects in a moment of frustration, trapped and bound by their clothing, neither naked and free nor clothed and secure. One example, Arising (1972), was included in the Zieher Smith & Horton exhibition, but paintings such as Man Undressing Shirt (1994) or Man Unbuttoning His Cuff (1986) more acutely capture the anxiety and frustration of his subjects, as well as their liminal state.

 David Byrd,  Patient in Corridor , 1976, Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches;  The Patients and the Doctors , Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

David Byrd, Patient in Corridor, 1976, Oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches; The Patients and the Doctors, Zieher Smith & Horton, NY. (Photo: Chris Murtha)

Though Byrd’s expressive figures are the main focus of his hospital paintings, his depictions of the confined spaces of institutional architecture are integral to the work’s claustrophobic tone. Several paintings evoke the melancholy of Giorgio de Chirico’s austere and desolate dreamscapes. In Waiting and Aging (1989), patients fidget and pace within an indeterminate space that seems to be folding in on itself. The solitary figure in Patient and Corridor (1976) is drowned in muted yellow and orange washes with two triangles, delineating the ceiling and floor of a long hallway, meeting at the patient’s shoulder. It's as if he’s being pulled into the vanishing point.

It is important to mention that Byrd’s paintings do not feel exploitative of his subjects. It is clear from this body of work that he was very affected by his interactions with the patients but also sensitive to their condition. Considering how frequently he returned to this subject, it appears that Byrd was wrestling with how to most honestly tell this story on behalf of the patients. In Patient Homeward Bound (2013), the most recent painting in the exhibition, a patient is seen running through an arched passageway (again recalling de Chirico), casting a sideways glance over his shoulder. It is unclear whether the subject is gleefully returning home, escaping early, or—given the white minimalism of the painting—this is a vision from a dream, a premonition of release. Perhaps Byrd, through his restrained yet affecting art, was searching for a similar sort of release.

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You can view images from The Patients and the Doctors, which was on view from November 19 through December 24, 2015, at Zieher Smith & Horton. Additional works can be seen at Greg Kucera Gallery and the Estate of David Byrd.