New York

Paul Brach

Lerner-Heller Gallery

Of his newest paintings of horses running beneath mountains and mesas, Paul Brach wrote last summer, “During the 9 years I spent in California, my paintings evolved into abstract landscapes evoking the silent spaces of the Southwest. Upon my return to New York, the covert landscape became overt. These new paintings are about a dreamspace—mountains, mesas, grazing and running horses—an ideal place distanced by reveries and memories of boyhood summers on a ranch in Arizona.” We can infer a good deal about these pictures from the fact of Brach’s return to New York, which seems bound up with their two most obvious aspects: their eccentricity and their being of and about the West.

Brach says the paintings began with those of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs that show the sequential movements of horses running. The two earliest new Brach pictures do show a fairly close relation to Muybridge—in them, the running horses move along straight horizontal lines that are stacked one on top of another. But the resemblance to Muybridge’s rationalistic, analytical lyrics ends here, and in some of the subsequent paintings Brach has the horses superimposed on each other to form a herd. Everything is suffused in a pale blue, orange or pink mist, and the mountains and mesas that loom behind each scene are faint, not stark. In fact, everything about these pictures conveys nostalgia, and they verge on being cloyingly pretty and vapid.

The general softness and mistiness of these pictures has been transported directly from Brach’s previous work, which involved pale, shifting fields of color; what has been added is the horses and mountains, and it is in this sense that Brach speaks of an abstract landscape becoming clear and tangible. The new pictures also have very prominent borders, though, which his abstract ones went without. As much as four inches wide, at times, these margins emphasize the theatricality and fictiveness of the dreamy vistas they contain. Although the borders are based on Navajo patterns and have much of the sweet, nostalgic sense of the horses, they may help to keep Brach’s new paintings on this side of empty sentimentality.

It is difficult to say just what the hard element in the pictures is. A number of aspects suggest themselves besides the borders, and the almost ironic frame in which they set Brach’s dreaming. The material of which the paintings are made is literally hard—wood with dully gleaming enamel on it—and that helps, as does the repetition of the horses’ forms. Although they are not actually stenciled, the horses are identical in three or four types, and can’t help recalling the grand ironies of such redundant imagery as Andy Warhol used to make. By these small devices Brach holds back from a plunge into dreaming; they seem to help him acknowledge a difference between the experience of longing for the past and the act of making a picture—to allow him and his work to keep a foot in the present time. I imagine that viewers of these paintings will argue for some time about whether Brach has been successful at playing so close to artlessness and raw, unreflective feeling. It would be impressive if he won; at the moment I am not sure whether he has.

Leo Rubinfien