New York

Brian Alfred

Haunch of Venison

On the evidence of this exhibition, “It’s Already the End of the World,” and of his 2005–2008 series “Millions Now Living Will Never Die!!!,” Brooklyn-based painter and filmmaker Brian Alfred seems to have not only a distinctly apocalyptic bent but also a belief in the continuing power of the individual to steer both art history and history tout court. Picturing an assortment of (for the most part) widely known heroes and villains alongside key sites and signs of sociopolitical flux, Alfred also portrays (albeit at smaller scale) some of his own personal guiding lights—studio mates and other youngish contemporaries whose wider influence has yet to be seen. Typically reworking found or photographed images on a computer before translating them into flat, Pop-ish acrylics and collages, the artist presents a vision of a culture in thrall to the charismatic and the iconic.

There is, then, a posterlike boldness to paintings such as Diego (a monumental portrait of Diego Rivera) and Aung San Suu Kyi (a depiction of the Burmese pro-democracy activist in similar style) (both 2009) that brings to mind numerous famous examples of visual propaganda, from Alberto Korda’s adoring shot of Che Guevara to Shepard Fairey’s social realist–inspired poster for Barack Obama. Alfred pares down each face and figure to the essentials, then adds graphic touches, like the rainbows of color that surround Angela Davis and David Koresh, or the repeated quotation from the Bhagavad Gita—“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”—that halos the controversial bomb-maker J. Robert Oppenheimer. However game changing such figures may have been, the specific implications of their beliefs and actions are not at issue here. Alfred refuses any explicit moral or political engagement with his subjects in favor of the deadpan, even cynical demonstration that any amount of passion may, via technological mediation, be collapsed into a single more or less resonant image. It may be a message, but it isn’t news.

If Alfred’s portraits have a numbing and—given their tight compositions—claustrophobic impact, larger paintings like Bienvenidos, 2009, in which a podium and microphone await the arrival of Fidel Castro, and Attica, 2009, which imagines the scene of a notorious prison riot in upstate New York, at least concede some space. The World Upside Down, 2009–2010, in which miniatures of each and every national flag are scattered across one wall in the shape of an inverted map, and Liftoff, 2009–2010, in which a rocket bearing the flags of the G8 nations is shown (at epic size in the gallery’s towering reception space) blasting away from its home planet, pull the focus even further back but fail to capitalize on the opportunity offered by a broader perspective.

Finally, in the digital animation for which the show was named, Alfred presented a coolly dystopian vision of simmering urban violence. The sun rises behind a billboard; a shadowy figure appears in a high-rise window as an airliner passes overhead; a sign flashes the admonition FIGHT!!! as a hand, its nails polished red, grips a pistol. Presented with eight different musical accompaniments by eight different collaborators, the video recalls Sarah Morris’s mesmeric films of Los Angeles and Beijing and Kota Ezawa’s stylized animated takes on previous films and filmed events in its oh-so-smooth aestheticization of the most disorienting and disturbing realities. The sound tracks, which range from Ezekiel Honig’s sliver of lulling electronica to some darker ambience by Ghislain Poirier, generally serve to enhance the work’s (counterintuitively?) dreamlike atmosphere. If this is indeed the end of the world, Alfred makes us feel more than ever like detached spectators standing by as the apocalypse plays itself out.

Michael Wilson