Los Angeles

Brian Bress, Creative Ideas for Every Season, 2010, still from a color HD video, 19 minutes 58 seconds.

Brian Bress, Creative Ideas for Every Season, 2010, still from a color HD video, 19 minutes 58 seconds.

Brian Bress

Cherry and Martin

Brian Bress, Creative Ideas for Every Season, 2010, still from a color HD video, 19 minutes 58 seconds.

Self-described Abstract Expressionist painter Agnes Martin spent the last three decades of her life in the seclusion of her New Mexico studio. Though she often exhibited alongside Minimalists such as Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, Martin famously insisted that great art responds purely and unthinkingly to inspiration—a way of working only possible with a vacant mind. Such a notion may seem quaint in the context of much idea-heavy art, but it is only partially alien to the work of Los Angeles–based artist Brian Bress. In his most recent show, the requisite references, slickness, and self-reflexivity of Conceptualism posed awkwardly with the more intuitive, “untheorizable” aspects of the artistic process. Art serves as a painfully literal expressive vehicle in the video Creative Ideas for Every Season, 2010, in which a prop car piloted by a Martin look-alike crawls through a cut-and-pasted, chroma-keyed desert. The driver speaks in leaden Martin quotes pulled from various sources—a 1997 interview, a 1987 Skowhegan lecture, the artist’s published writings. Her aphorisms glance off the Muppet-like figures that pop in and out of the passenger seat. A jumpsuited human mechanic, emerging from a panel in the dashboard, is her faux-naive, pragmatic straight man. “You know, I have a hard time giving up some of them—some of the ideas,” says the driver. “Like evolution.” The mechanic’s greasy face falls as he whispers in response, “You don’t believe in dinosaurs?” The characters’ insecurities are the artist’s own; their philosophical non sequiturs reveal a reluctant and shaky sincerity.

Out the windows of the car, rich parallax badlands scroll by—a peach-and-gray marble sky collaged with black-and-white mountains, shells, fingerprints, Joshua trees, and Surrealist junk. Timeless, immobile, and vacant, the barren landscape is once more the site of existential contemplation. But in Bress’s video, the greater desert is the emptiness of art. The character-driven visual language developed in his earlier work is reduced here to the deflated projections of a resurrected modernism embodied by Martin. Bress’s creatures exist in one scene, only to disappear in the next, burdened, perhaps, by their own superficiality. The wooden car is crudely upholstered; the costumes are chunky and handcrafted. The seams of the illusion become corporeal limits—when, for instance, the driver touches the beads sewn to her passenger, pulls one off, and eats it. Sparse vibraphone and piano twinkle, a whistling wind rustles; the car plunges on.

In a series of framed video portraits in the next room, Bress’s oddball figures shimmied or rotated in front of painterly backdrops (the Martin-esque grid in Cowboy, 2012, for example), appearing as adorable and lifeless as Tomagotchis. With names like Janus (Max) and Family (Devin, John, Jason, Lewis), both 2012, these pieces fit classical portraiture into a technically and commercially savvy package without ever claiming to actually represent their effaced subjects. The exhibition’s punny title, “Under Performing,” was similarly evasive. “Under,” as in “not good enough,” or as in “supporting,” could also mean “file under” or “chalk it up to.” The staged levity of this exhibition acted as an escape hatch from the tortured inner workings of the video’s superficial vehicle. In so ambivalently illustrating contemporary art’s secret attraction to things like “inspiration,” “beauty,” “history,” and “success,” Creative Ideas parodies itself above all.

In the final scene, the mechanic turns to face the camera, and in his yokel drawl, sucking on his false teeth, sings us a cheesy song: “You know our love is like a circle / It comes around in the end.” Might the possibility of beauty or happiness hide in art like true love in music—for Martin, the highest art form? What would happen if we followed her advice and willfully stopped thinking, forgetting everything we thought we knew? And can there be earnestness without altruism? The video raises serious questions, but haunted by Martin’s dreamless confidence, it can’t charm its way out of a self-imposed loop. Ultimately, though, aren’t these vague art-historical echoes little more than empty problems? For Bress, as long as the art car looks good and keeps going, repetition is much safer than a straight answer.

Travis Diehl