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Back to Reviews 98


painting on the cusp:
michael brennan

by Dominique Nahas  

Lyrical Nitrate


Installation view
with Submarine Bells in foreground

Installation view
with Deeper into the Movies, right

Installation view
with (left to right)
Pearl and Fixing a Shadow
   Michael Brennan, in his new oil-on-linen paintings at Lucas Schoormans, pulls out all the right stops to lure the viewer to look at each work with scrupulous attention. At first glance, the paintings in this exhibition seem relatively straightforward and unencumbered with stylistic flourishes. Yet, much to the artist's credit, what you see isn't what you see. After spending some time with these works, the eye picks a wide range of nuances in structure and painterly handling that isn't readily noticeable.

What is immediately apparent, is Brennan's enlivening use of flat, brightly colored bands, usually painted on three sides of each painting. He creates these frames with high-pitched reds, oranges and greens. Frequently he also suggests a more subtle fourth band at the top margin of the paintings through a layering of brush strokes. A more evanescent framing device than its counterparts, this band is seen as a shimmer of linear activity that is interpreted by the eye as a band of light or shading .

Trapped within the interior areas of each painting is an allover field of minute, black and white brush strokes that seem to squirm and quiver -- a flurry of desiccated gestures that reminded this viewer of distressed or frayed scrims. The thin, dry painterly strokes are remarkably mutable; they waft in and out of focus, simultaneously allowing the eye to thrust and parry into a very peculiar type of infinite space. By framing an indeterminate, painterly central area with the kind of saturated, flat colors found in advertisements and corporate logos, Brennan dramatizes a play of oppositions and gives the work enhanced optical impact.

In one of Brennan's most dramatic and smallest works, Lyrical Nitrate (1998), it seems as if the viewer is peering in through a narrow box of space (as if through an eye slit of a prison door) that is surrounded on all four sides with an expanse of thickly applied red oil paint, a moist counterpart to the dry and involuted black and white interior comprised of tiny overlaid semicircular gestures.

Brennan's confident visual control over his materials is seen by the way he enfolds substantiality and insubstantiality, by the way aspects of the contingent, the planned and the unforeseen ebb and flow in his works. For example, while the central rectangles of the paintings are remarkably dissimilar in weight and density, their allover surfaces are surprisingly similar in emotional tenor, in equivocalness. Set up by the implacable calm of his bright painterly framing devices, Brennan's gestural areas are perpetually on the cusp of brittleness and flexibility.

They are undeniably beguiling because they seem, finally, so utterly provisional (compared to the forthright muscular opticality of the frame areas). They appear at first to be so tentatively painted they resemble "fill-ins" for the idea of infinite space expressed through the gesture and for the idea of the over-all; similarly the infinite and depthless space that is referred to by Brennan's gestures is sensed as an interlude between infinities rather than the thing itself.

Yet, after a while, the febrile contingency of his centers take hold of you. Laxness becomes a strength. What at first seemed substantial -- the colored borders -- start to lose their presence and weight. By contrast, the center areas begin to become increasingly authoritative and finally dominate the coloristically vivid areas that surround them.

Brennan's reductivist paintings, while they seem at first to suggest a face-off between the rhetorical poses of gestural abstraction and the poker-faced detachment of Minimalism, end up thrusting and parrying between these two reference points. They subsume the greater visual pleasures of the captivating play of shifting optical intensities and spatial involutions.

Michael Brennan at Lucas Schoormans, Apr. 28-June 13, 1998, 12 East 2nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10003.

DOMINIQUE NAHAS is a New York art critic.