New York

Troy Brauntuch

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

The paradox at the center of Troy Brauntuch’s pictures is this: on the one hand, the very muteness of the images provokes the viewer into trying to make them talk; on the other, attempts to get the work to confess its secrets are made to seem bruising, exertions of undue force—in effect, fascist. To begin with, although the technique is “realistic,” details are so indistinct that representations verge on or pass into the inscrutable. As with the enlargements in Blow Up, looking so hard generates doubts about what is seen; as in recalled dreams, the more intense our pursuit of a scene, the farther it recedes. In addition, the pieces lure us on with intimations of significance. Each formal manipulation insinuates its portentousness. Some arrangements of these panels are like altars—a long horizontal piece is flanked by two high verticals—and they reek of ritual, miming theology, a system offering precise exegesis. There is consistent fragmentation, combined with repetition. These emphases smell like so many clues.

In fact, they offer little or no information. In one triptych, for instance, the horizontal section reproduces two photographs on a red field. Left: two men seen from the back. from the shoulders up, in a vehicle approaching a building in the countryside; right: the building, isolated. The two guardian uprights are mere streaks of white at the bottoms of shafts of black. The taciturnity of the whole is unbroken. A sectioned circle suggests . . . a Mercedes? A gunsight? A compass? The countryside, or rather the building, seems European, a chapel probably, since a (bell?) tower fronts it; one man, at least, wears something resembling an aviator’s cap, from around the ’30s, and this, the white streaks, and the church belfry converge in an incongruous impression of lift-off, a techno-religious ascension scene. Another, related piece hangs away from the first—an enlargement of one of the heads.

This is, I think, as far as an uninitiated viewer (one who has been willing to override Brauntuch’s caveat that reading is a problematic endeavor) could take things. But even the uninitiated will eventually recognize a consistency of theme in a squatting GI and a standing Japanese soldier, in Third World citizens literally carrying burdens on their shoulders, in the heavy use of black, in the way figures frequently dwarf and compress beneath an immensity of negative space. The theme is fascism, totalitarianism, oppression. In one of Brauntuch’s drawings of sculpted body parts a large head is out of proportion to the hand that, one assumes at first. made it. The hand, however, is also a sculpture. The head has the monolithic look of official state art, the hand the life-in-death quality of Thomas Pynchon’s aptly named Nazi, Captain Blicero (Blicero, the blankness of destruction). A troubling equation between art and fascism—based on the rigidity of fixing impressions, imposing point of view—is hereby introduced (in the past Brauntuch has copied Hitler’s drawings). Then there is the effect for which Brauntuch is, perversely, most famous—that of seeing oneself reflected in the surface of his glassed-over drawings, the seer conflated with the seen, i.e., with misused power.

Thus, as all endeavors to locate meaning also come to feel like repressive control—while at the same time the pressure to interpret exerted by the work never abates—perception, visual and cognitive, becomes a guilty activity. If Roland Barthes’ jouissance, pleasure of the text, was prelapsarian in its polymorphous perversity, Brauntuch proclaims that there are no innocent pleasures. Not only the play of the mind, but simple looking is for Brauntuch an act of intrusion, and what is witnessed is, like the primal scene, construed as violent, as an “overpowering.” One of the most mysterious of all the pieces in this show is an ambiguous tangle of these motives. Overwhelmed at the base of enormous palm trees (tropics: read passion) are three figures: a woman and man propped against each other, he faceless, a naked torso, but covered with shadows or stripes, maybe flogged, hence inflecting the tableau with the suspicion of sadism; behind them a statue—man, woman, child, Pan, cupid, stage manager, audience, what you will—but definitely implicated. For Brauntuch there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.

Jeanne Silverthorne