Michael Brakke

Marianne Deson Gallery

Combinations of photography with painting seem to multiply daily. Michael Brakke’s photo-paintings differentiate between the two media; their formal raison d-être seems to reside in that difference and in the possibility for reversals. In an earlier series, the 6-foot, 6-inch-tall artist pitted photographs of himself against drawings of a tall black water tower—both a personal emblem and what Jack Burnham has called an icon of the prairie. In this group the drawn tower remains in adversarial juxtaposition with richly orchestrated black and white photographic panels.

The group of large panels can be read as a kind of sequential drama achieved by complex layerings of images made by photographing projected slides. Brakke sets the scene by photographing himself against and in the folds of a billowing tent dramatically lit by strobes. In their expressionistic turmoil of gestures, lines, and subtle passages of light and shade, the photographs become painterly; their energy suggests action painting, but is anchored by the accompanying deadpan oilstick drawings of the water tower. The obvious reversal is that the paint gives an impersonal, dispassionate, specific image while the photograph, often considered documentary, here becomes pictorial, illusionistic, and ambiguous.

Ruthless Exploit is the least agitated piece, the water tower bowing toward its grainy and dappled photographic counterpart. Battle lines are drawn in Uncompromise, in which Brakke’s shadow looms agonistically like a giant trapped by or perhaps dancing with the voluminous folds of the tent. Again the baroque or histrionic quality is pulled up short by the tower, reticently veering away from the violence of the adjacent dance.

The sensation of antagonism or conflict is underscored in Defend the West Part I and Part II. (The title raises the question of who the enemy is, and is also a wry comment on regionalism.) In Part I the photograph shows the tent gaping open. The battle metaphor is suggested by a slide of a United States helicopter projected on the wall behind the swollen, billowing tent. Brakke’s theater of war is his studio, where he pits himself against his process of making art and against his own ideas and images. There is also a confrontation between the controlled drawing of the phallic tower and the out-of-control, threatening, female tent. In these private hostilities a bright-green pointer, a triangular patch of paint surprising in this black and white work, becomes a diacritic calling attention to the leg or support of the tower. In Defend the West II, Brakke has deflated the tent, which now behaves like a flag whose diagonally striped pattern is contrasted with the diaphanous, collapsed white form.

All of this Sturm und Drang, or staged artistic turbulence, culminates in the eccentrically shaped 67-by-146-inch panel, I Am the Diceplay of the Cunning. The presence of the artist in this work justifies the tensions and ambiguities, the Laocoön-like posturings, in the other works. It is as if the drama had finally found its subject so that the work can recapture the poignancy and personal charge of the 1980 pieces where the artist related his body directly to the tower. Now Brakke’s tall figure, a powerful sleepy-eyed somnambulist superimposed on the disturbing shadows of his dreams, confronts the viewer. The elaboration of photographic images, slide projections, lighting effects, and shadowy passages has all been resolved in a composition that swirls around the artist/protagonist, whose dominance is established. Even the stoic tower gets its comeuppance in this work as a jagged blood-brown vertical line crosses it, asserting the artist’s mark. I Am the Diceplay of the Cunning is an authoritative work. Paradoxically, the emotional and visual intensity Brakke achieves depletes the symbolic force of the tower. What had been a central motif, a controlling metaphor, now seems a mere counterpoint to a more pressing exploration of the meaning of artistic activity.

Judith Russi Kirshner