Betwixt – Michael Brennan
Brent: Your work has long been understood as between a gestural prose and a geometric abstraction, and I think this continues, yet with a greater freedom, and a somewhat stronger persistence toward austerity. And, might I add, closer to the bone. Can we chart some of the background: what fuels this interest in dichotomy?
Michael: When I first learned about abstraction there was what seemed to me an artificial distinction being made between the “theological” impulse of geometric painters and the physical expressiveness of the “action” painters. Also, when I was coming up, Conceptual Abstraction was in its heyday, those painters used the formal language syntactically – imagine David Salle mixing and matching abstract motifs rather than images of porn and furniture. Lastly, I’ve always admired contrast or counterpoint in art, and the Heraclitean idea about the binding of opposites–”From the strain of binding opposites comes harmony”. With regard to austerity, for me it was always more about economy than minimalism per se, and I am interested in drawing down to the bone, my paintings at this point are literally made with two coats of paint, black and white.
Brent: Who in the Conceptual Abstraction bag, at that time in NY, are you thinking of?
Michael: Well, I was at the opening for the Conceptual Abstraction show at Janis, and it’s adjunct at John Good–I think a 20th Anniversary reprise is in the works. Stephen Ellis‘ first show at Liz Koury had a profound effect on me while I was still an MFA student at Pratt Institute. That show seemed completely on the button to me, everything abstraction could be in New York City at that exact moment, and remains still some of my favorite painting. I was on my way to see Ellis’ second show at Koury a year or two later when I ran into John Zinsser, who I was already friendly with. I asked Zinsser what Ellis’ new paintings looked like and he said something like “they look the same but the active areas are larger” which, of course, conjured up a mental image. My own image didn’t quite match what I saw, but as a young painter that image gave me something to work with for quite some time. I’m completely indebted to that group of painters because they defined what abstraction could be before the Matthew Ritchie/Vitamin P style rolled in and came to define painting in the ’90′s.
Brent: “Stylistic hodgepodge“ – where abstraction, gesture, appropriation, and a different kind of ’cool’ distanced the historical modus operandi… as it should have. You say your mental image of Zinsser’s description ‘the active areas are stronger’ impacted you. How did that work into your art making?
Michael: It gave me license to do larger areas of organic abstraction. My preoccupation with the bottom band began around then, at that time I was thinking of it as something like a second infinite. Remember too, this was on the other side of Neo-Geo, and Lyrical Abstraction was viewed as the least informed kind of painting. For me, Conceptual Abstraction revealed a successful form of reconstructed modernism where previously isolated languages of painting could be combined to enhance one another. One of the things I think that painting has always done very well historically is combine separate orders simultaneously, like the realistic and rapture scene in El Greco’s “The Burial of Count Orgaz“.
Brent: In Lyrical Nitrate, 1998 you get a fix of red, red all over, except for a narrow horizontal gap – a bar full of stormy activity. There certainly is eye-work, and mind trying to make sense of the incongruity, all harvested in a container 12 x 10 inches on wood. Maleficent 1998, a midscale painting at 58 inches across, is a horizontal panel with a band. It runs yellow end to end and sits at the bottom. There is no storm above or containment, just the impenetrable, denying the landscape conduit. Halley is in this.
Both paintings were in your show at Lucas Schoormans, 1998.
Michael: It was with this show with Schoormans where I started to get an inkling that I might be better at smaller paintings rather than larger ones. The larger paintings seemed to contract and the smaller paintings seemed to expand when usually the opposite is true, and one small painting in particular was wildly popular–these are the kinds of things you learn from showing, that can’t be gleaned from the studio alone.
I might’ve denied Halley at the time, but I did see a large black and orange painting of his with a long strong horizontal at SFMOMA in 88 or 89 that did make a deep impression on me. Not to sound like Nietzsche, but I believe the stronger artist always influences the weaker artist. I liked the conceptual and physical continuity those bands provided Halley’s work. I like feeling the painting underfoot too, and maybe I needed something like that band back then to make my paintings look smart, there was much anxiety about the dumbness of ‘slow’ paintings at the time. Of course, my relationship to bands has changed greatly over time, but I do now think this is probably how it all began. With some of the other paintings it was more about balancing the strengths of the geometry against the organic areas. I got the idea for the narrow strip from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the scene where Arronax looks into the Nautilus’ reactor wearing some kind of blast mask.
Brent: Where things come from…
With time the bars usually horizontal move around. When you add the vertical it works as a delineating structure. Second Teilhard, 2005, oil, wax and enamel on canvas, 16 x 24 inches has a wonderful vermilion looking open band streaming across the center. Horizontal format again, two closed systems perform. At the bottom you have added the crossbars. Light pours out via the spread of paint (and wax?) knifed across the surface. The paintwork effect reminds me of a scrunched up paper bag smoothed out before reusing, something Tauba Auerbach would have responded to. The black bars revisit the austerity of early European modernism, less loaded with the metaphysical, effective here as visual/style juxtaposition. The light pours, just the same.
Michael: Very astute, I often created those chaotic patterns by crunching up newsprint and imprinting the paint. Light has always been a main concern; I like paintings that give off energy. In those years I was mostly using color to create different kinds of space. The hazy areas were made with cold wax, megilp, and alumina hydrate. It’s mostly clear, but appears white where thicker. Unlike with acrylics, it’s very difficult to find or make both a clear and non-yellowing oil paint. I spent at least 10 years working with ghostly properties of that medium, which began with works on paper. A much wider gap existed between what was happening on paper versus what was happening on canvas for many years.
Brent: Working small-scale inevitably begins the train to paying attention to the object, what is, where it is, and how it is messaging. Agreed, some artists are better at this. For you what is the relation between wanting to exert a presence, a powerful memorable experience, despite how diminutive the thing?
Michael: I think a lot about my painting as (an) object, and the size best suited to the natural mark of the knife I use. I’m not interested in projecting to scale up, like Kline, Still, or Motherwell. I don’t want to work with a giant tool like Richter or James Nares.
(I think that) Myron Stout is exceptional in his use of scale; the feeling of his forms can be gargantuan even in his sketches, which are often postage stamp sized. Most viewers these days are “platform agnostic” meaning they are comfortable say watching Lawrence of Arabia on a hand-held device. I am interested in that kind of face-to-face engagement, I believe it holds people’s attention longer. I’m thinking more about the scale of hands and faces rather that bodies per se. Stout’s preferred size was often 24 x 36″, a standard paper sheet size, but his work is as heroic as any of his contemporaries because of his deft use of scale. I have a photograph of diminutive Stout at Acquavella Gallery that more than holds its own against both a larger Stella and Poons.
Brent: You moved to Park Slope, and your work added the diagonal. There is a video here, but… going back?
Michael: When I moved to Gowanus seven years ago (I’m on the wrong side of 4th Ave) I was struck by living in a basin, surrounded by bridges that were taller than the buildings, or seeing double concertinas of razor wire on top of already 16′ fences. I got the feeling that in Gowanus there was a double horizon, a natural horizon (the flatlands of the canal zone) and the manmade, elevated horizon. I showed these paintings at Minus Space, which at that time had a spectacular view of the Gowanus Canal, and all the visual referents were there to see, in the paintings, and out the window!
Brent: Was the diagonal and its referents a short stab in the history of your production, or did it carry on?
Michael: Flirting with the diagonal wasn’t as big an issue for me as surrendering to larger and larger planes of color. I was happy to embrace some new qualities into my work in response to my new landscape, and exploring the particular possibilities of one of the very first shows at Minus Space. In fact, I specifically made those works for that situation, but afterwards 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.
Brent: The works on paper at Lucas Schoormans’, 1998, are subterranean. There is an abstract vase, a base, but what stems is anything but abstract. And, of course, the scaffolding is gone, as color is (something you had been playing around with for quite some time). Here I don’t see it as a poaching or borrowing, instead en route to commitment, and with that a relinquishing, a kind of return to a singularity, which makes sense in terms of dispensing with the duality. That said, as wooly as the interpretation may be, what are you committing too, seen in the works on paper, and those works that follow, and what are you withdrawing or moving away from?
Michael: I was thinking at the time that the paintings would be about color, and the works on paper just form, or rather image. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with color, and I think what happened was that the works on paper became stronger because they became more concrete, not in the strict definition of the term, but what happened was a more direct use of material. I think paper always forces that hand; it forces one to become more direct. The works on paper were just two coats, of etching ink at first, a lamination really. I moved the ink with dead credit cards. That’s where my main interest in “how much can be done with so little?” began, not so much in the sense of minimalism, but more like “what can I find between two coats of paint?”. I was letting go, I was letting go of color, which I had been using more as an attention grabber, and began focusing on subliminal image and contrast of value. I am not concrete because I think about image and flirt with the pictorial.
Brent: The division of concrete reminds of Oscar Wilde’s “The Truth of Masks“, where Wilde moves us through Shakespeare’s aesthetic conveyed through props, costumes and masks, making us aware of the master’s use of the diminutive, the bare, and verisimilitude, along with practical considerations of the grand ellipse. Wilde’s argument is prose, using the auspices of beauty for truth. “(For) in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true”… ‘The truths of metaphysics are the truth of masks.”
Michael: In my experience people are freer with paper, less investment, less anxiety, more experimental, because behind paper is the liberating belief that one can always throw it away, which is an attitude that doesn’t come to painting so freely. I also think works on paper tend to lead the way, I always see the next phase of development in people’s drawings.
Brent: And how did this impact the newer paintings on canvas, the knife series?
Michael: I went from credit cards to knives, and gave up the brush. For something so seemingly simple, it took me a very long time to cultivate similar qualities in painting. Also, I discovered different things via paper, like how to work with the knife to create a positive image, rather than only just scraping in a negative one. It gave me license to do less.
Brent: The knifing also relates to how the borders work. They appear around the painting, which helps build a window, and at the same time brings the wall closer to the surface of the canvas, similar to how a framed drawing sits.
Michael: The white border, in its various manifestations, fixes and telescopes the image–something like what an old-fashioned stereopticon does with the photograph. And, as you framed it, it negotiates between the wall, the object, and the image.
Brent: The illusion comes across beautifully, and the bordering of parts fastidiously tuned. There is drama. Then, like earlier painting, you return to the edge.
Michael: I did, I need it. Every six months or so I make a completely organic painting and it never works, it needs that counterpoint, it’s absolutely integral. I don’t just do it out of historical genuflection, to Johns or whomever, it’s not some lazy design habit. It’s absolutely essential. Otherwise, I would have purged it, like color, some time ago.
Brent: The crisp line of the border or bar at the bottom clarifies the internal marks.
And when the occasion only the bottom white bar is present you are almost an all over painter. These internal happenings, trophies of gesture, heroic diminutives, fascinations with heraldry, Jungian subliminal, suggest, tell… or are they better understood as Freudian?
Michael: I’ve been reading the Iliad for pleasure. When you read a classic you’re immediately struck by the leveling of time. How could something ancient seem so contemporary? 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.
Brent: I like also how in some of the images of recent work you have decided to place them clearly into a space that we inhabit… humorously, art historically. You did suggest early on that we work much of our information through a screen. But not all of it! You like walking through the streets of Brooklyn.
Michael: 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. I walk in Brooklyn where I’m free to do most of my thinking I walk, but I do not strut.
*Photo credits go to Bill Sullivan, except image ‘Razor Painting #2′