The Mimesis and Diegesis of Paul Brainard and the Void of Substance
BY GREGORY DE LA HABA, NOV. 2014
Paul Brainard's latest charcoal and pencil drawings are now on display at The Lodge Gallery, located at 131 Chrystie Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Part of a two-person exhibition with German artists Ulrike Theusner, their show “Les Fleurs Du Mal” is titled after Charles Baudelaire's groundbreaking poem published in 1857. The Press Release states: Ulrike Theusner and Paul Brainard explore the dark meanders of the human mind, the immoral side of urban life and the gross lack of empathy that continues to mar western culture. The depictions of sexual perversion, corruption, and mental and physical illness, so prevalent in Baudelaire’s poems, find their contemporary reflection in the drawings by Theusner and Brainard. Whitehot got a chance to speak with Paul, who stands 6'5", the week leading up to his November 6th opening, which by-the-way, was packed-full of art-loving entusiasts and loyal fans of The Lodge and its proprietors, Keith Schweitzer and Jason Patrick Voegele. As for Ulrike, from Leipzig, we're hoping to meet her November 13th when the gallery hosts an artists' talk with acclaimed author Robert Kolker. The show is truly worthy an encore.
Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there,
wondering, fearing, doubting,
dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.
-Edgar Allan Poe
The French literary giant who coined the term modernité and translated Edgar Allan Poe into French, Baudelaire's most famous work, The Flowers of Evil , influenced an entire genration of writers and poets -in particular Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. These fin-de-siècle French poets, who critics call Symbolists, favored in their art not reality or the natural world but those halucinatory-like visions found in dreams and the associative powers of one's imagination. In this regard, they were similar to the Abstract Expressionists -digging deep from the well within. Rimbaud described art as the access to greater truths via the “systematic derangement of the senses”. Paul Brainard's work falls very much in line with the Symbolist's, for his represents an amalgam of form and feeling, a synthesis of contemporary reality mixed with his own subjectivity. His drawings cryptic, recherché, personal and abtruse that, like the Symbolists before him, evade clear and finite interpretations.
Yet Paul Brainard's drawings are familiar. In a strange way. They tend to mimic dreams we're able to recall but not in their complete entirety, not quite clear as day. As if the lines of sleep's subconscious got crossed during morning's newly minted reality -come rise and shine, we've forgotten something: a few clips, a verse or two, a missing subsection lost forever in the dream's dormant dialogue that we make an maddening attempt to fill the missing pieces in over coffee, frustratingly, as we recant this episode -this last-night's-dreamy-adventure- to ourselves or our bed partner (providing they're still around). But with memory compromised, we become the unreliable narrator to our own story: the recall button pressed hard to no avail; the vision blurry, muted, obscure, but surprisingly the feelings experienced while sound asleep are not. Those felt good (or evil). We can still feel them. Lingering. Powerful. We wish a return to bed to get back to that place - to wherever that place was. We make a mental note in regards the dream, and to the strong attachment for the elusive which we're only reminded of long after we've forgotten about it and when we happen upon some-thing or some-one, or some-place that proffers the mind's cerebral databank a calming deja vou moment: "I was here before". Because knowing one's place is a good thing.
Paul Brainard, as narrating draughtsman, draws attention to the vacuous in western society, to the loss of a moral highground (if ever there was one) and, seemingly, maps our collective actions, worries, fears and feelings as they correlate with the decline of humanism in western culture and the fall, for many, in the belief of the American dream. Both commentary and critique, Brainard seeks to identify and proclaim -via his heavily worked-on, worked-over and etched into works-on-paper drawings- the last remaining tidbits of soul in contemporary culture. They act almost as signage on the gallery's walls, signage as beacons to alert those drifting off into the void that the days of unfulfillment are numbered. Because despite their 'mal' infused subject matter -half the drawings are based on Robert Kolker's NY Times best selling book The Lost Girls, the moving and tragic account of five young ladies, all supposedly call-girls, murdered, and whose remains were found strewn buried along a stretch of Long Island beach, and their still-at-large serial-killer, Brainard's drawings somehow manage to provoke a sense of optimism. His drawings have a magnetic pull: 'Look here,' they seem to say, 'all answers are within or in front of you.' Paul's work begs us to remember who we are and -just as importantly- where we'd like to go. But as it is with dreams (American or otherwise), we're left with few concrete answers. Afterall, life is a tricky journey that keeps locked many of its mysteries. But this is why a sign along the road helping to point one in the right direction when lost is so comforting. Or a sign recalling a place that we'd very much like to revisit in the near future: our own familiar dreams. Back in time. Back to when dreams were everything. Brainard's work speaks to that inner voice that never forgets the earliest of life's awakenings, those impossible and juvenile figments of the imagination, and they remind us, ever so eloguently, that we're on the right path. And that we should stay there.
GdlH: Do you see any parallels between your work and that of the Symbolists?
PB: Yes, I have always been very influenced by the spirituality and brutal mortality in many of the late nineteenth century/early 20th century artists: Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimpt, Edvard Munch, Arnold Bocklin to name a few. Much of the work in the show deals with our collective spiritual existence and how it is conflicted and compromised by contemporary life. One drawing, “I Sleep Under A Sky Of Extinguished Stars” is a posthumous portrait of Jessica Taylor, a murdered prostitute thought to be one of the victims of the Long Island Serial Killer. The stories of all of the escort girls are discussed at length in Robert Kolker's book “Lost Girls”. I found the book to be very compelling , thougtful and considerate in its handling of a very delicate subject. We'll be having an artist talk November 13 with the author, myself and Ulrike Theusner, from 6 to 8 pm. We' ll discuss how the artwork in the show relates to larger issues that are touched upon in Kolker's book.
GdlH: Tell us one of those 'larger issues' that you and Kolker share in common?
PD: Exploitation. And in Robert Kolker’s book, he discusses how the interaction of the internet and Craigslist integrated “the worlds oldest profession” into something far more vulnerable and dangerous. I am looking forward to the panel discussion with Kolker to see how our different perspectives integrate together.
GdlH: In your Artist Statement you write: "The emotional despair in the drawings stem from a distinct lack of spirituality that is very representative of today’s society." Tell me about that 'lack of spirituality'. What do you mean by that?
PB: By “lack of spirituality” I mean something as a societal problem, a “soulless existence” in which all things bohemian and spiritual are destroyed by gluttony and greed. It's interesting to note many artists, Baudelaire and Francis Bacon among them, spoke of ennui as something that inhibited the creative impulse, killed the soul. I feel it is our job as artists to make art work that has grit and soul and is not merely decoration or design, that's very important for me. I want to leave behind something of substance and weight and to have it valued by others. I hope my work provides a voice that will speak long after I am gone.
GdlH: Yes, you truly are a poet, my friend. So you think about death often?
PB: Since the time I was a child, I've been obsessed with Halloween, skulls, and death. I once spent an entire summer researching an old abandoned church in Plum Borough outside of Pittsburgh and where I grew up. The overwhelming sadness of seeing long forgotten graves grown over with grass and weeds had an powerful effect on me, like Mozart’s Requiem mass or Slayer. The intensity that you experience in post-punk , gothic , heavy metal and many other dark expressions really set the mood for me. It is either my Scandinavian blood or my Scorpio moon or both.
GdlH: You state in your bio: "The drawings evolve as I follow my intuition and by altering the image through elimination, embellishment or eradication." Tell me about your days in the studio. Your working habits.
PB: "Violent Dreams , 2014" originally started as an abstract drawing. I start many drawings in this manner and intentionally keep the figure out. Later, the figure is added after the abstraction is moving along well. Sometimes they are drawn or painted over. I work on these drawings for a long time and they go through many compositional changes along the way. I was very impressed by the working process of Willem de Kooning, how he would work for a long time on one work and drastically alter it’s composition at the 11th hour. In working on compositions this way, it creates a lively and somewhat radical, always-on-one's-toes, mentality in the studio. The drawing process I employ is something like a reverse etching where soft graphite interacts with a linear element from a harder pencil.
GdlH": The Symbolists' rejection of naturalism and narrative in favor of the subjective representation of an idea or emotion would have a significant effect on the artwork of the twentieth century, particularly the formulation of German Expressionism and Abstraction. Any art forms you reject?
PB: I reject much of the conservative “casual abstraction” that is everywhere these days. Laziness personified in art. It seems the more sophisticated the city, the more galleries in those cities sell this sort of void-of-substance work. Is it because they have to pander to the unsophisticated tastes of their collector base? Or is it because they themselves never had any taste to begin with? This market driven disaster is not a good situation for any kind of artistic expression, it just creates another Wall Street Whorefest.
GdlH: What art show have you seen lately that you love?
PB: I really loved the Robert Gober show at the Museum of Modern Art. I worked with him years ago at Matthew Marks Gallery when he curated a group show in 1999. This group show is re-created in the current installation at MOMA. His sense of diversity and intelligence in juxtaposing the figurative paintings of Joan Semmel with high modernism of Annie Albers work was something that left a lasting impression on me. Gober’s work is always painstakingly labor-intensive and highly personal. These are two things I respect a lot when encountering someone else’s work. It's what I aim for in mine.
GdlH: The imagery in the show seems so random and chaotic. Tells us about your selection process and what you are trying to say with the juxtapositions in the show?
PB: I like when art mirrors the chaos of existence. At the Lodge Gallery, the juxtopositioning of the art and images is to expound on that idea, placement and image to help provoke a dramatic response. I want to place portraits of intimate friends alongside more tragic images in a way that makes one appreciate the short time of our existence. I have always been drawn to art that is more humanistic and philosophical and less design or conceptual oriented. I can only hope that my work speaks to others in a similar same way.
We're left wanting more after leaving The Lodge Gallery. By not replicating nature like many of today's representational painters, Paul's art parallels nature and turns dreams inside-out, and into pure works of poetry. Baudelaire and Poe would be proud. In fact, they'd rave. WM
Gregory de la Haba is an artist and writer from New York City.view all articles from this author