Feature Piece:

Michael Brennan: Late Spring


It might be that when I dispose of unnecessary intentions, and can just simply be “natural,” then it is possible for me to manifest “the profound” that encompasses everything. I hope to touch that “profundity” over a long passage of time, and through my daily act of applying paint to my paintings.
-Tomoharu Murakami, Bijutsu Techo, February 1982

Late Spring, Michael Brennan’s latest solo exhibition, is currently on view at Minus Space. It's a small venue with oddly a lot to do with reductive art in a bustling setting. It is, after all, located in DUMBO - three white walls juxtaposed with the struts of the Manhattan Bridge, along with all the picture-takers therein. The contrast is quite nice. The place is chapel-like and, as a result, cavorts around in the history of spaces similar to it. It’s where to go in order to breathe, to focus a little bit, as if an integral stop among many for the pilgrimage ahead. A pilgrimage, that is, of a lived experience. Such is art, as well as life, in the making.

The show is composed of fourteen monochromes arranged equidistant throughout the gallery. They are polite in size, comparable to a notepad or a book. The elements are minimal and well-articulated. There is carefully gessoed canvas, with special attention paid to the edges; there is a single pigment per surface, of blues, reds, greys, and earthy tones mixed with silver, chosen in regards to their mineral quality and grit; then there remains the implement, a palette knife, wielded to navigate the space between them. The press release indicates that these works are often completed in one sitting.

Though numerous, the format enables quick reads, effortless transitions, and ample opportunities to revisit and linger. Eleven feature white bands at the bottom, a hallmark of Brennan’s oeuvre. They have developed over time, the result of carefully scaling down so that the working surface might better fit the gesture. They remind of Polaroids yet are easily conceived as key-frames to a larger narrative. Soft Sorcery and Soft Sorcery with Skull lend credence to this, given how close they hang together. They exist much more explicitly as a pair. Their contents - areas left plain, others pulled bald of pigment, and a few patches thickened like clay flung or slid into - move from one edge to the other, as if to indicate a sequence.

Gestures, then, compose the chain as well as each canvas. The mono is made up of moves which are innumerable and innumerably read into. Like words or syllables that compose a sentence, the actions have a familiar, almost colloquial, cadence to them: slicing into, smoothing on, sputtering out, all which range from the tenacious to the tentative. Silver Scrape, for instance, sits as if obliterated, save the traces on the canvas and the dribbling trail that dances on top of it. Gun Metal Stars appears the opposite, lathered up and irregularly caked. It draws attention away from the void and directs instead to palpable substance. It's a nuanced result to Brennan’s aim in the press release: “What can I find between the white ground and the top coat of paint?”

In a tradition hounded by various dictations (Rodchenko’s “death of painting” stands out, in particular), Brennan’s work contests the monomaniacal with gestural variety.  While tangible in paint, each mark happily alludes elsewhere. Imagery is invited by the shapes, similar to the shapes that compose an inkblot test, yet the maneuvers themselves appear to be the main takeaway. A hay-maker and a flick of the wrist exist in the same toolkit and thus perform together on the surface. Accident and intention are allowed to commingle as natural extensions to an entire spectrum of signals. Some are learned, others are improvised.  Gesticulations recorded in paint, as if to remind of what happened prior and inform the next session going forward.

It is telling that Tomoharu Murakami is mentioned in one of Brennan’s titles. His paintings, also monochrome, are known for their rigorous approach to both material and method. Murakami builds up the surface with a nuanced mix of oil and charcoal powder and works them over weeks or months in a monastic fashion. There is a deliberateness to these works that appears just as well in Brennan’s, with a few notable distinctions. The handling, for instance, is a matter of cutting into the pigment present, rather than accumulating it layer by layer. Instead of a meditation over separate instances, Brennan punctuates each painting in a single stretch, as if to give the moment it’s due and let the rest of life shape around it, unimpeded.

Soft Red (for Tomoharu Murakami) is an exclamatory mark to an energetic showing. The jig is present, what with impasto slivers of pigment that seem to float between opaque smoothness and the stained weave of the canvas. With that said, these gestures are unmoored within a shroud-like atmosphere. The band is gone and the sense of time along with it. The white surface, what the artist describes as “the point of departure”, is obscured. It’s a bit unnerving, akin to the point in a journey when a storm rolls in and, looking back, the shelter prior has disappeared from view.

Late Spring reminds of the current season, one that is as much defined by swings in temperature as it is by the actions accomplished within it. While the climate was and continues to be tumultuous, the acts that make up our person are well within reach. It is profundity that is simple enough to forget if not for both rigor and flexibility. Brennan seems to understand this well. Such is art, as well as life, in the making. Process made palpable, whether through painting or by getting up each morning.