New York

Brett De Palma

Fawbush Gallery

Brett De Palma works in the Surrealist tradition of the poetic object, but with a fresh sense of intimacy of scale and ease of creation—of unforced combination of incongruent (often found) objects. His works have a whimsical irony to them, as though not certain whether they wanted to be taken seriously or to function as toys. But as Charles Baudelaire reminded us over a century ago, toys are quite serious forms, even epitomizing imagination; and as Donald Winnicott has told us in this century, they are “transitional objects,” simultaneously fantasy and reality, and as such epitomize culture. The toylike aspect of De Palma’s works is used to sneak in and to cover for a serious heroic/mythological content, implied by the titles. It’s as though the Greek hero Achilles and the Egyptian god Ra could only exist in our secular world in the cunningly abbreviated form that De Palma gives them. In this sense, they seem to have risen out of the ashes of the world and to have become hallucinatorily visible in the playful art objects constituted by its debris.

Despite their convincing character, one senses an easy come, easy go—easy to make, easy to discard—aspect to De Palma’s objects: a sense of transience, verging on the morbid. His creatures—swan, goose, hawk, winged serpent—have a certain excited elegance, but one suspects that they could quickly turn into decorative old heirlooms. De Palma’s work is informed with post-Modernist nostalgia, a sense of shipwreck and relics, but it is less a nostalgia for form than for meaning. The bricolage esthetic is familiar; the entire range of historical possibilities seems covered. As is typical of such work, the tension between art and artifact in each piece—uncertainty about which it is and which we want it to be—is strong, perhaps even carried to the extreme of strain. But what really counts here is the evocative power of the work, the way it means to make a claim on our professed familiarity with old mysteries of meaning, old notions of significance. De Palma wants to go back to a prelapsarian world of instinctive meanings—a preanalytic situation in which we not only trust our beliefs but will them. I suppose this is what I admire most in De Palma’s work: the willingness to trust the alchemical moment of profound meaning—the moment of uncanny revelation that comes from concentrated meditation on the oddly bizarre ordinary object.

De Palma’s enterprise is perhaps best summed up by Paddle, 1987, which consists of a worn wooden paddle, its blue paint flaking, mounted on a shiny gilt base in the shape of an inverted lotus. It seems to combine folk art, readymade, and abstract art ideas. On one level it is a monumentalized and isolated “zip,” bearing a certain perverse resemblance to Barnett Newman’s Here sculptures, 1950–71. On another level it is a clumsy object fraught with personal iconic import. On still another level, it is a Duchampian demonstration of how easy it is to make art: just declare the object art. But what counts most is the patina of time that gives the work an archaeological aura, as though it were found, but in the psyche rather than in the material world. It seems a materialization of some unverbalizable “idea,” which we conveniently call a paddle. We are back to Newman’s notion of the primordial cry of recognition and creation, prior to all use. Indeed, De Palma gives us a work called Scream, 1988. It makes the point that objects can also be screams, “aggressive attacks in situations that preclude other forms of effective attack and/or flight” (M. Nina Searl). De Palma reminds us that to scream in impossible situations may be a major function of art objects, whatever their style and however innocent their appearance.

Donald Kuspit