Phyllis Bramson

Dart Gallery

Phyllis Bramson’s recent paintings are impetuous and risky, willfully skirting the edge of visual glut. Her allegorical images hover between the personal or diaristic and the social or public—between expressive and communicative imagery. Her work is driven by her consciousness of the halting and inchoate nature of figural language. There is frenzy and fury in this dilemma; in titling her exhibition “Vicissitude,” Bramson acknowledges the swirling ambiguities of her problematic.

The six large paintings dominating this show use identical sizes and formats but still manage to provide a plethora of choices. Each square central image is surrounded by a rather wide border, largely comprised of anonymous cut-up paintings that Bramson finds in thrift shops around Chicago. These endlessly repeated images of clowns, schooner seascapes, vases of flowers, ballerinas, still lifes, oriental fantasies, paint-by-number landscapes, and bits of odd decorative trim constitute a visual overload, both exposing and reinforcing the bankruptcy of artistic hierarchies. Bramson cuts and pastes this raw material in a quiltlike patchwork; she also repaints parts of some of their surfaces, to weave them into her own paintings. They are used as a kind of pictorial shorthand, or as fragments of signs standing in for nature, art, or personhood, and, like charged predellas, they are very cleverly tuned to Bramson’s larger gestures.

Four of the paintings are dedicated to the seasons; Spring, 1991, has a border of incident derived from nature, augmented by Bramson’s complex iconographical scene at the center. On the left side of this painting, what must be the cold blue arm of winter is attached to and pushes a male suitor forward toward a female figure, who is likewise propped up and joined to arms, which extend from a warm sea of pink. The suitor brings a tree/arm toward his consort; blooming from its fingers are symbols of other choices—love, play, nature, etc.—from which she selects a flower. In a manner reminiscent of the myth of Persephone, or of Botticelli’s Primavera, ca. 1480, Spring becomes a ritualized courtship dance, implying aspirations of sexual and natural fecundity. Fall, 1991, is more straightforward but no less poetic. Over a loosely brushed field of autumnal orange and red, a figure is hurled downward in space toward a presumably unhappy landing. It pointlessly grasps two garlands as it falls, bits of nature unable to impede the descent. The forced gaiety of nine images of clowns at the border of this picture act as a foil for the general abandon. There is almost a surfeit of pictorial richness in many of these paintings, a mannerist muddle of swirling, interlacing iconography that requires and rewards close inspection. Bramson’s furious repertoire of imagery doesn’t coalesce, but it does propose a metaphorical parallel: she layers visual data as if she is desperate to communicate something of import but doubts the ability of any system of language to make her meaning legible.

James Yood