New York

Christopher Le Brun

Christopher Le Brun is an unequivocal master of surface texture. He can play a painting's surface as though it were both the flute of Pan and the lyre of Apollo. He can seem to flay the surface with a deft touch, or luxuriate in it with a voluptuous one. His sensitivity and range of touch are extraordinary—meticulous yet intense, detached yet intimate. Just when one thinks he is becoming facile, a new difficulty declares itself, a fresh sense of the painting's surface as an exposed nerve or a flexed tendon. It is as though Le Brun were performing a life-or-death operation on the painting, every touch giving it life while risking its death.

What is interesting about Le Brun's new paintings is that they have moved away from mythological subject matter toward pure abstraction, and without losing their visionary quality It may he that allusive imagery meant less to his paintings than was generally supposed. Certainly touch always seemed as close to their essence, assuming they have to have only one meaning. The sense that mythological imagery—winged or unwinged, the horse in particular—has been displaced from the center of Le Brun's interests may have to do with his more open brushwork, and a generally less inhibited touch than before, a touch that, while not completely impulsive, seems more flexible than ever. In any case, if we compare Victory and Drummer and Shadow, both 1985, with Clearing, 1985–86, and Branch Heart, 1986, we find a thinning out of the image, until it becomes almost indeterminate. The change is even more to the point in the contrast between Union, 1984, and Open, 1986, where the two discs in the former have now been reduced to one, and the latter is less heavily painted, and while becoming more spherical, more painterly it has lost the stark clarity of the discs in the earlier work. In Open the touch is, indeed, more open, more softly atmospheric.

The same thing occurs, in a subtler way, in the shift from Wing to The Sense of Sight, both 1986. The relatively well-defined wing in the former has been changed into the more obscure presence of the latter, which tends to dedifferentiate, as it were, forcing us to fall back on our sense of sight rather than on the assumed reference to an object. The object has been blurred into the surface, while in the former painting it seems to stand out from it. Which is more ecstatic, epiphanic?, Le Brun seems to be asking. Le Brun's wing, incidentally like Anselm Kiefer's, is not only a symbol of artistic inspiration in bad times but a kind of abstract metaphor for the mystical, “feathery” act of painting itself. Are both asking whether painting can once again become “angelic”? There is less cultural ballast to Le Brun's wing than to Kiefer's, and the sensibilities that inform them are radically different. Yet both are making the same point about the anxious yet insular position of art in the contemporary world—a position even more insecure and hermetic because that art is painting, which, in a world seeking a photo finish, seems declasse and overly traditional.

Donald Kuspit