PRINT February 2006


THE OVERTLY CONTENTIOUS, covertly symbiotic relations of art and design have had a long and complex gestation. Before weighing the merits of this union and its latest manifestations among such willfully unreconciled proponents of the interdisciplinary as, say, Jorge Pardo, Pae White, or Liam Gillick—the most direct precursors of Matthew Brannon’s own “difficult” practice—we may want to gain a longer-range vantage on the relationship. Consider, for instance, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, a detailed analysis of which opens Michel Foucault’s Order of Things. That painting, the philosopher suggests, is literally a document of the Renaissance’s division of aesthetic work into ever more rigidly determined sets of competencies. Placing himself strategically in the middle ground, Velázquez—rotating the picture plane on its axis to grant his audience a peek “behind the scenes” at what would otherwise constitute a conventional royal portrait—declares his superiority as a man of ideas rather than one who (like a designer) receives his commands from above. But his braggadocio is mixed with desperation; after all, he knows he must now compete with both artisans and entertainers to earn a living.

Brannon straddles the same line between grandeur and misery, and does so just as knowingly—interested as he is in restaging those social intricacies composing the “court” of our contemporary art world. The thirty-four-year-old artist’s recent exhibition at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles opened with Health Insurance, 2005, a framed real-estate advertisement from the ’70s featuring a melancholic “swinger” leaning against the mantel inside his well-appointed digs, obligatory martini in hand. THE GOOD LIFE, reads the text: SUCCESS IN HIS OAKHURST TERRACE PENTHOUSE . . . AN INVESTMENT IN BEAUTY AND SECURITY. . . . This sinister appropriation, with ad lingo intact, would seem to swerve Richard Prince’s paradigmatic late-’70s images of living rooms and men in suits into an even more blatant critique of the corporate fetish, one that finally is stripped of its flimsy allegorical armature when it is disclosed that Oakhurst Terrace is rumored to belong to one of Kordansky’s most important collectors. With the incredible cost of the properties noted at the bottom of the image, the promise of both “beauty and security” only corroborates the crasser aspects of the current speculative market on younger artists. Brannon’s cynical take on the state of today’s art world is underlined by his decision to cap the image with a headstone. If there’s a joke here, it’s on every one of us, artist included. But Brannon locates his best material in the reminder of art’s original divorce from design, the latter having always openly admitted to the financial stake of a client/designer relation while the former pontificates idealistically—the golden umbilicus by now fully exposed.

Brannon started out as a painter, gradually becoming more curious about the context his objects would occupy. While supporting himself for years as a book designer, he began to apply his craft within fine-art circles. Like Pae White he is often invited to contribute to group exhibitions by furnishing promotional materials (posters, flyers, and so on), the most recent instance being the book jacket for the catalogue accompanying “Uncertain States of America,” an exhibition curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo. In fact, the promotional genre has become a staple of Brannon’s work, as in his faux film posters made with antiquated techniques like the letterpress. But here again, the promise of what’s for sale is calculatedly undercut by an unseemly self-consciousness. Brannon’s works narrate their own roller-coaster ride through the public consciousness: “making it” and “blowing it” (though not necessarily in that order). FATAL CAREER MISSTEP and PREMATURE EJACULATION are spelled out in large italicized fonts underneath impeccably rendered line drawings of such things as tropical plants, knives, fighting fish, and trophies (e.g., the Oscar). The fine print, where the names of actors and producers would normally appear, resounds instead with pithy phrases like YOUR SEXUAL HISTORY and OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY.

The relation of word to image is at once cryptic and key, the language superficially revealing what the visuals ineffectually conceal. Brannon’s seemingly innocuous proposal of a fruit bowl rendered in quasibrutalist silhouette as the emblem of “Uncertain States of America” provides a case in point: Appearing on the catalogue cover and on the banners hanging outside the museum, its clichéd suggestion of easy integration (a multiculti fruit bowl instead of the melting pot—yes, we can all get along!) is meaningless until paired with the show’s title. Then its sinister connotations become clear, and on closer look one discovers the Apple logo resting on a banana. No room for individuals here, only corporations (or branded “group shows” as the case may be).

At last year’s “Greater New York” at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a silhouetted assortment of knives graced the walls, a composition that was perhaps more menacing in its immediate implications, and yet, as a graphic motif, just as symbolically free-floating as the fruit bowl. What disturbs, ultimately, is this openness to meaning: the way the very boyish “overtone” of slasher-film mayhem gradually gives way to a more adult, Martha Stewart–esque “undertone” of tranquil designerly taste. Ultimately one could skip these readings entirely in favor of the undeniable decorative appeal of Brannon’s work. The flowing tapestries, partly painted, printed, and sewn, are even more extreme in their tendency toward luxe et volupté. Language-free, they engage instead in a play of ultrachic styling that conflates, for instance, the Arcadian longings of William Morris’s organic patterning with the arch machineage geometries of the Wiener Werkstätte, protopsychedelia and retro-futurism, accentuated with the exposed seams of early-’80s DIY pop culture. Whatever arguments modernist painting might have mounted against “good design,” that notorious Greenbergian no-no, are swiftly neutralized here in order to speed the work’s access to that once-maligned spot above the couch. But, for Brannon, this is precisely where things get interesting.

His modes of production and distribution may vary, but the content remains on point. Consistently, Brannon deploys the idea of a “graphic identity” as stylish armor as well as a foil for what lies beneath: identity as such. Also at Kordansky, for example, was 23 Never 24, 2005, a poster whose textual fragments convey the story of a young star’s rise and fall in Hollywood. The actor’s name has been withheld, though any pop-culture enthusiast will quickly recognize River Phoenix (who never made it to age twenty-four). Nearing the conclusion, a passage reveals the provenance of Brannon’s copy: the Internet. CLICK TO VIEW THE COFFIN—WARNING EXTREMELY GRAPHIC!!!!!! No less than six exclamation marks all in a row—the literary equivalent of a time-stretched vocal that trails off into silence, because, of course, the image remains inaccessible to us, cultishly sealed within another medium. Then again, in the absence of Phoenix’s moldering corpse, the marks themselves become “graphic”: lines atop dots, ones and zeros, the i inverted, the antisubject.

Brannon’s macabre sensibility doesn’t end there; it extends to a series of posters inspired by horror films—twisted to show that a young artist’s fear of failure should pale beside his fear of success. These are dominated by black-and-white photographs of empty gothic interiors overlaid with bold titular exclamations such as GROTESQUE DESPERATE or, again, PREMATURE EJACULATION. (Brannon likes to carry over elements into different contexts without ceasing to think site-specifically; repetition becomes a reflection on those parts of the art world that are always the same.) In conversation, he has invoked the structure of the haunted house narrative as an allegory for his own conflicted relation to wealth. Typically, the artist is invited into the spaces of privilege as “medium” to establish contact with the past, either to be chased away, or else to be destroyed by it, or even worse, to be integrated at the cost of his or her sanity. Oakhurst Terrace is just the sort of a place that one is condemned to endlessly occupy, like The Shining’s Jack Torrance in the Overlook Hotel. In such a stultifying environment, the transition between tongue-tied exuberance and moribund silence is made in the blink of an eye; the intermediate opportunity to acquire a self-sustaining voice is forever missed.

Jan Tumlir is a critic based in Los Angeles.