Vittorio Brodmann, Anyone May Add More Testimony, 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas, 17 3/4 × 21 5/8".

Vittorio Brodmann, Anyone May Add More Testimony, 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas, 17 3/4 × 21 5/8".

Vittorio Brodmann

Kunsthalle Bern

Vittorio Brodmann, Anyone May Add More Testimony, 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas, 17 3/4 × 21 5/8".

In an article published in 2015, Hans Ulrich Obrist declared that “at the beginning of the year I could have been convinced that really everywhere in the American art scene, people were talking about the Swiss painter Vittorio Brodmann.” This statement could almost be a line from one of Brodmann’s own jokes. The subtle undercutting of the statement with the modal verb could suggests the possibility that Brodmann wasn’t really famous: It was all a setup, an elaborate prank. It would be poetic justice if Obrist’s caution turned out to be well founded—if Brodmann’s fame were the product of an elaborate practical joke.

Brodmann is a kind of abject expressionist, his paintings echoing the faux naïveté of Tala Madani, the chromatic frenzy of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and the automatism of André Masson. Brodmann’s process takes off from arbitrary marks, followed by careful extrapolations. He starts out as a patient, with a slip of the tongue, and ends up as his own Freud, following the implications of that slip to the bitter end. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his paintings are populated by anamorphs, melting figures, grotesque hybrids that recall the figures in traditional Japanese Yōkai prints, and half-recognizable cartoon figures. At the same time, Brodmann sidesteps the role of psychoanalytic judge by slipping into the role of comedian. He says his paintings are structured like stand-up jokes. Except they aren’t funny, at least not ha-ha funny. They’re more funny-weird. His globby creatures, born of a seemingly arbitrary distribution of pigment (done just a little too well to be genuinely amateur), often look surprisingly glum about the world they’ve been cast into.

In his earlier exhibitions, Brodmann kept to relatively small formats, as if a humble scale was necessary to keep the melochromatic agonies of his characters bearable. For several works in “Water Under the Bridge,” his new show at Kunsthalle Bern, however, he scaled up to the spectacular. Ist die Katze aus dem Haus, tanzen die Mäuse auf dem Tisch (If the Cat Is Out of the House, the Mice Will Dance on the Table; all works cited, 2016) is so large that the canvas had to be supplied by a firm that makes backdrops for set painters. The logic might be Woody Allen’s: If you are going to reveal a tic, a neurosis, you might as well blow it up to the size of a cinema screen. But the symptom is not uncontrolled. The handling of the paint is a little too competent, the visual intelligence a little too palpable for that. The same went for the works’ installation. Brodmann clearly agonized about the placement of each painting, lining up the eyes of his creatures in an enfilade of sideways glances, as cues to help guide the absentminded viewer through the exhibition—even though he placed an intentionally badly carved sandstone sculpture, Chain of Events, at the entrance, with its back rudely turned to the audience. Likewise, the emaciated porcine sculptures called Squeeze Machines may suggest a pigsty, but were positioned with excruciating care, like objects in a Fifth Avenue shopwindow, arranged under the eyes of a deformed Medici in the painting Extending the Frontiers. Brodmann’s stand-up comedy routine is also suitably dark and confessional. It ushers us into an anxious little hell, in which the artist sometimes seems as uncomfortably constrained as one of his own painted characters, pressed in by the frame.

Adam Jasper