Chicago

Phyllis Bramson

Marianne Deson Gallery

Phyllis Bramson’s work always presents lots of stuff and lots of activity—both almost a diversionary tactic. Her 1974–75 icons had a heavy, gross assertiveness. Dedicated to various artists, they were assemblages of made, found, bought and altered objects in which bangles and Christmas wrappings decorated “kicking” imagery like piggyback figures, legs outspread. The accompanying studies featured flickering chalk lines and object-laden shelves glued to the bottom of each sheet of paper, and these were only a little bit tamed by being flat against the wall.

Her shelf pieces came in 1976–77. No longer dedicating work to other artists, she produced “metaphors to myself/myshelf”—combinations of assemblage and collage divided into levels or shelves, each displaying some purported aspect of myself/shelf. That these were hardly about Bramson, but more likely a vast and elaborate cosmetic, or excuse for visual chaos, added to a certain grotesque humor of loudly stressing the trivial. Bramson used to be a window designer, and her work continues to allude to fakery, hoax and disguise.

In her current show of six new large collages in shadowbox frames, each has its own separate shelf below. A one-word theme is inscribed upon each shelf: Boa, Palette, Shoe, Fish, Puzzle, or Mask. Objects on the shelf, ranging from white mannequin heads to Art Nouveau fish, demonstrate the word while the collage simultaneously illustrates the concept. Trivialities are given an emphatic stress—more of Bramson cackling at overstatement. The fakery persists: drawings of masks, hands peeling back filmy curtains, and wiggling figures in Chinese robes—there’s even Shoe imagery in Fish, a mocking of the separate, essential themes. Frequently, the compositions are divided into rectangles resembling rooms and mirrors, a pseudo-organizing tactic, which often only complicates the imagery. On one side of the dividing line Boa is black; on the other white. Which is the true and only Boa and what does it look like?

Some of Bramson’s imagery has been called “woman’s imagery”—make-up mirrors reflecting birds, flowers exploding out of house facades, ladies dancing with headless men, females shoelaced to males. But she persistently denies that her work is specific to women, saying instead that it’s representative of universal themes. Assuredly, her paintbrushes screwed into ladies’ torsos aren’t very “feminine,” but if it’s a universal world view she’s putting forth, I guess it all might be summed up more like wiggling figures kicking around in a puzzling sea.

I don’t want to make Bramson’s art sound stronger than it is, because all her formal and imagistic hubbub really makes no crucial statement. While visually commanding, intense and original, her best work still lacks much intellectual depth; and therefore, even her most nicely worked out concepts run the risk of becoming window decoration. At best, she comments upon the way the world feels; at worst, she only loudly trumpets a facade.

—C. L. Morrison