Salem, OR

Michael Brophy

Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University

Largely unknown outside the Pacific Northwest—barring recent appearances in the touring West Coast survey “Baha to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art” and on the cover of Sleater-Kinney’s album The Woods (2005)—Portland painter Michael Brophy achieved a career milestone with this twelve-year retrospective. Organized by the Tacoma Art Museum, Washington, the exhibition included twenty-six of the artist’s signature works: landscapes dominated by second-growth forests, fields of stumps, and slash heaps of logging detritus. Accompanied by curator Rock Hushka’s lengthy essay, the show successfully captured the evolution of an ambitious, romantic vision informed by a wry sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of regional history.

In paintings such as Earth, 2000, and Measure, 2000, both riffs on Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, ca. 1818, a lone figure appears, back to the viewer, facing the sublimity of Mother Nature in the form of an uprooted stump and a blank wall of fir trees. In Brophy’s depiction, however, Mother Nature is no longer a sentimentalized, virginal subject but rather a largely man-made construction, shaped and reshaped by generations of exploitation for resources and recreation. In National Recreation Area, 2002, Brophy’s recurring Friedrichian protagonist dons a golfing outfit and tees off toward arid mountains. Melancholic and darkly funny, these images—along with others of scenic vistas clogged with visitors, and chainsaw sculptures of local historical figures—form a deadpan commentary on the often-indistinct border between nature and civilization. What is a city, Brophy seems to ask, but a reconstituted forest? And what is a forest but a grand cultural spectacle?

In the show’s most recent work, a triptych titled The Royal Court, 2003–2004, Brophy imagines the interior of the long-since-burned-down Forestry Pavilion, a palatial lodge constructed of old-growth timber for the 1905 centennial of Lewis and Clark’s arrival in Oregon. Two panels depicting elegantly charred stumps in studio settings flank the main image, a spacious colonnade of giant fir trunks made mysterious by a ghostly figure in the middle ground. The vanished building’s wood grain echoes the stumps’ blackened bark, and the grouping serves as a reminder that all living things eventually end up as gray ash.

It could be argued that Brophy’s work is consistent with the art world’s recent surge of interest in the social construction of the American landscape. This trend is detectable in the work of artists such as Jules de Balincourt, Melissa Brown, and Allison Shulnik, all of whom, with varying levels of sincerity, touch on the strange suburbanization of what was once wilderness. But unlike these younger, more urbanized artists, whose influences tend toward the Pop-ish and faux outsider, Brophy sinks his foundations into painting’s historical loam, tapping unfashionable veins of German Romanticism, Renaissance portraiture, and the landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church. With its narrative drive and grand social ambition, the work approaches the territory of William Kentridge and Robert Colescott, confirmed craftsmen who also successfully reinvigorate politics and power as subjects for art. These forces are responsible not only for a vast absence in the region that Brophy knows so well but also for providing him with a potentially inexhaustible subject.

Jonathan Raymond