Roland Brener

Entering the massive steel doors of the gallery to see Roland Brener’s recent exhibition, I felt a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. On the floor, a few feet beyond the entrance, lay the spectacular, schematized head of a wolf biting the nose on a similarly oversize cat’s head. Carved and hollowed from two huge blocks of laminated plywood, the figures in Wolf and Cat, 1999, look like monochromatic cartoon characters, their faces marked by horizontal cathodelike striations. At the opposite end of the cavernous space, a chubbily misshapen and slightly sinister-looking businessman, made of the same material, was sitting on a swing like some pendulous Tweedledee. On the walls were three computer-aided drawings, two depicting similar businessmen fused together, the other featuring an Escher-like spiral staircase.

For some time now, Brener has employed the computer as a primary tool for his artmaking. But instead of using it to alter an extant image or to realize a preconceived plan, he harnesses its horsepower for some mental off-road riding. Also in the exhibition were three wall-mounted sculptures, distorted section views of a house based on prototypes first developed in 1997. Collectively titled Houses of DigitalHouse of Bloat, House of Pinch, House of Blinch, 1997–99, each domicile is a three-dimensional molded-wood model whose design incorporates a generic layout manipulated by Photoshop, with “Blinch” being the result of combining two such layouts. “Blinch” demonstrates that, as might be expected, merging “bloat” with “pinch” does not cancel either term; rather, it gives rise to a strange, multifaceted hybrid.

The giddy disorientation offered by these works turned to introspection in three audio sculptures in which language is more ambient than expressive. A small chairlike structure with attached speakers, Searay Talks, 1999, features a monologue written by Brener’s friend and former student Charles Ray that begins, “I live with a common mental disorder . . . I basically run the whole show . . . I read the mail, I smell all the dinners.” In Three of Us, 1999, a pair of similar chairs are arranged symmetrically on either side of a flat wooden platform, and three different voices utter alternating verbal appeasements such as “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?” The lightly accented voices (French, Japanese, and Brener’s own South African inflection) sound formal and detached, but the overall effect is oddly soothing, almost wistful.

The same is true of Hello Mister Roland, 1999, a modified oak armoire painted yellow that opens to reveal colored lights flickering inside. Wrapped around its exterior are sixteen white desk lamps that shine into it. Speakers hidden within the wardrobe emit swishing, splashing sounds and a medley of voices, some gently inquiring, “How’re you feeling? How’s your head?” to which the artist responds, “I feel all right, just the same as yesterday.” Both light and sound suggest that this is the calm after the cataclysm. Coincidentally, this work was conceived just before the artist suffered a seizure that rendered him without language for a period of time; the audio component was recorded after his subsequent hospital stay (the verbal exchanges resemble a patient’s dazed replies to the consoling queries of visitors). Evidently, Brener is an artist for whom the suspension of language is ground zero for meaning—leaving this body of work to speak for itself.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark