Chicago

Phyllis Bramson

The Renaissance Society

Phyllis Bramson straddles two worlds that are far apart, her private domestic life and the public, artistic one. She engages in a balancing act while juggling responsibilities. She has to bend over backward to make these ends meet. These are the postures that the women in her paintings also assume.

In the earliest pieces this retrospective contained, which were done over a decade ago, Bramson seems to have been searching here, there, and everywhere for her style. She left behind one experiment after another, the way someone searching for the right pair of gloves might leave behind rooms full of disordered drawers because he or she is late for an important appointment. But gradually, out of the welter of images and emotions, a central drama—or perhaps it’s a vaudeville or circus act—began to take shape. Just what kind of theater it is isn’t important. I think Bramson feels that she has gained from the dualities in her life a unique insight into the relations between men and women in general. That insight, rather than her particular circumstances, are what the paintings are about. Similarly, the circus performance is only the metaphor, a pretext for creating the incredible positions and attitudes that are the paintings real subject.

Bramson’s paintings deal with engagement rather than fantasies of escape. The women in them, and sometimes the men, go through excruciating contortions in order to make contact. In Acts of Ardor 3, 1984, a man and a woman, each balancing precariously on several balls, manage a wobbly nuzzle. The woman is also performing an improbable backbend, a pose that first appeared in Bramson’s work at least six years ago. All this takes place in an exotic setting at once desolate and brilliantly colored. (The desolation is the outward form of an ordinary, middle-class existence; the color, its inward form.) The landscape itself seems to embody the extremes that Bramson feels in her life. The figures perform their acrobatics while suspended above a flood, or in the middle of a desert. A gifted colorist, Bramson can drain all the moisture from a red or an orange, a yellow or a blue, the way the dry light of the desert can.

The clothes that the women wear, like their hairdos, look as if they’re from the ’40s. This makes me think that Bramson’s paintings are visions not only of the present and her own marriage but of the past, her childhood, and her parents’ marriage. Bramson is only now in mid career, which she has entered with the energy of one of her gravity-defying acrobats. Like a figure in one of her own paintings, she has managed to stretch herself across the gap that separates memory and experience, respectability and passion, art and life.

Colin Westerbeck