New York

Farrell Brickhouse

Pamela Auchincloss Gallery

Farrell Brickhouse is clearly unafraid to make a mess. In a statement about one of his paintings a few years ago, he spoke of a “need to dive into the muck to come up with my jewel of truth.” Somewhere along the line, Brickhouse’s brand of gritty yet lyrical gestural painting went out of fashion, probably because too many of its practitioners seemed to have convinced themselves that pushing paint around was enough. Brick-house clearly knows better. His impasto shows signs of both unaffected self-indulgence and genuine struggle, but usually he stops short of letting either one become an end in itself.

One of the more interesting aspects of these paintings is that Brickhouse paints on wood panels that are not quite rectangular. Angles are a bit askew, edges curve, but the works don’t read as “shaped paintings.” So right from the beginning, Brickhouse alludes to the strictures of convention, pays his respects to them even, but is not quite bound by them. The panels have the feel of things you might pick up in a dumpster or an empty lot, and so for all the romanticism of what happens with the paint that goes onto them, they lend the paintings something of the battered dignity of a boxer’s broken nose. Funny thing is, it’s also hard to see the irregularities of shape as just givens; they’re where the physicality of the paint turns illusionistic, because the bowing and flexing rhythms of Brickhouse’s impetuous brushwork are strong enough to subsume the sway of the paintings’ edges in their own directives, to convince you that the overall shape is yielding to the force of the paint and not vice versa.

Along with being not quite rectangular, not quite shaped, these paintings are not quite abstract, not quite imagistic. Certainly it would be legitimate to read the small dark shape at the bottom of Atlantic Beach, 1992, as the silhouette of a head and shoulders. This would even have the charm of turning the painting into a homage to Caspar David Friedrich—solitary humanity upright against the magnificence of a stormy sky. But stormy though it may be, all that juicy brushwork, which more or less is the painting, doesn’t seem willing to resolve itself into something even as vague and suggestive as “sky.” It’s just too enamored of itself as paint.

A word about color in these paintings—it’s refreshingly unformulaic. Although a kind of pearly gray morning light, behind which all colors can commune without conflict, seems to be the base of this painter’s palette, he can cut through it with fierce noonday reds or plunge it into nocturnal darkness. In fact Brickhouse has a deep fund of painterly ingredients for someone who doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he might to redefine his art. Perhaps more concerned to elide existing definitions than to propose new ones, Brickhouse isn’t trying to fracture painting or turn it inside out. Rather, as the very shapes of his works suggest, he’s gently but quite effectively pushing and pulling it along its edges.

Barry Schwabsky