New York

Christopher Le Brun

Is Christopher Le Brun the new Morris Graves, the horse his self-symbol, the objective correlative transcendentalizing his unconscious? Certainly both strike the same Symbolist note: the attempt to make a work of art with which one can once again cathect, to which one is willing to commit one’s all. But in Graves’ work the cathexis is predetermined by the conventional symbols he uses, while Le Brun’s desire for cathexis determines his choice of symbol and, most important, his need for the convention of the symbol at all. Also, for Graves the symbol begins in nature; for Le Brun it begins in myth. But it finds its way into painting as a new myth, a new basis for “expression.” Le Brun revives the ancient idea of art as a magic act making an outward representation of an internal psychic process—an idea that is the root of the conception of art as imagination rather than imitation, as vision rather than object. Risk must be constantly redefined in Modernism, and finally there is no better way of doing so than to take the route of the Symbolists who are at its source: to make vision subjective, seeking a sense of the art object as an effect rather than a cause of subjectivity. And Le Brun’s use of traditional, para-literary symbols as a way of articulating the subject is also a high-risk enterprise.

The subject these days is a slippery fish, which has escaped even the tightest nets formed by the codes that brought it to consciousness. For Le Brun, those codes and the anxieties they arouse are overcome by painting. A painting for him is what the psychoanalyst W. D. Winnicott has called a “transitional” object, the blanket or toy with which he repetitively interacts “to appease the most primitive and powerful of fears, the fear of ‘not going on being,’” which is induced by the codes which separate one from one’s being in the very act of giving it to one. By painting, Le Brun effects his own separation from those codes, achieving a mythical sense of selfhood which he embodies in symbols. He renews the sense of the heroism of being Modern through the oldest Symbolist methods; indeed, his legendary heroes, and the images in Pillar, Banner, Fire, 1982, and Tower, 1982, are Symbolist symbols, just as his technique of obscuring forms until they become evocative of another world is at the heart of Symbolist suggestiveness, a poetic strategy for outwitting this world. There is no vapidity in this, only the urgency of a need for wonder and mystery, a sense that the world has a secret that only art knows.

There is nothing secret about Le Brun’s demonic color, which has a Turneresque dimension. The touch is finally more gritty than creamy, but Turner’s sense of the adventure of color is there, and John Ruskin’s belief that, “if the colour be right, there is nothing it will not raise or redeem,” and that, “everything must be sacrificed to it.” Le Brun doesn’t quite do that; “distinctness of form” is not sacrificed to color’s “richness,” as Ruskin thought Turner did. But there is a sense, as in Turner’s work (when he allowed form to remain distinct), that both color and that distinctness are more than natural, and there is the same ability to make color and form simultaneously intoxicating and intimidating. Le Brun continues the tradition of the best English Modern painters, from Turner through Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, who for all their differences make paint seem psychotropic, and the experience of it a way of reintegrating a damaged self.

For Le Brun the anxiety of painting is once again an issue. Under the aegis of paint’s purposeful vagueness he recreates, in the terms of a modified—radically transformed—English landscape painting, Harold Rosenberg’s sense of the dialectic between the self and the act of painting. For Le Brun the canvas is less an arena of action than an abandoned amphitheater, waiting for a forgotten tragedy to be played. His painting is one of those sites in which one recovers a tragic sense of self and a sublime sense of art’s profound usefulness. Painting becomes once again an aegis for self-consciousness, under which it can recover an unprogrammed sense of existence. And Le Brun’s works will finally be idolized for their beauty, which is only appropriate, since they rebuild the idols by which the soul declares its freedom.

Donald Kuspit