Through June 21, 2015
by Mary Murphy
The title of Frank Bramblett’s show at the Woodmere Museum is No Intention, but don’t be fooled. These seemingly odd, challenging works are full of intention and specificity. What they do not have is any overarching aim or plan – a central theme, formula, or signature style – that we usually expect in a body of work. Instead, what binds this work together is the artist’s curiosity and a spirit of investigation and experimentation. Bramblett’s intention is to inhabit experience, and the paintings seem strange because they portray a subject from the inside out, revealing how it is and came to be rather than merely how it looks. In contrast to popular culture, which disdains context and valorizes juxtaposition over integration, these images result from a particular nexus of memory and sensation that determines the artist’s materials, process, and surface. Created from repeated physical and intellectual gestures, these paintings are the visual byproduct of a process of discovery. There is no signature style because each painting involves a unique motivation, material, manipulation, and movement. A painting looks the way it does because that’s how it had to be made.
Bramblett’s paintings don’t represent the world so much as they parallel experience; they are not descriptive but interpretive. He gives us just enough of a subject’s visual-cultural reference points for it to be what he terms “fathomable, but not possible,” a believable fiction. His images reference particular things – grapes, breasts, flowers, and eyes – but never definitively. Instead, we get the characteristics of an experience or subject: its essence, but not the thing itself. For example, in Cherry Grove (1999), there are clusters of what appear to be grapes and various greenish shapes that could be construed as leaves and colored dots, all of which sit in a pool of deep blue. Our first reading may be what initially inspired the painting, thoughts of detritus on the surface of a river. But the dots don’t fit this reading because they occur in definite patterns and are flatly painted. And what are the grapes doing in the river? Why are they painted volumetrically, while the dots are not? Is that blue a river, or could it be sky? Strangely, these divergent readings, which include varying spatial strategies, don’t contradict each other or cancel each other out; in fact, they enhance one another. The painting fuses actual and imagined sensate experiences – with the footprints of Bramblett’s dog, who ran through his studio at the right time – into an intuitively, albeit strangely, integrated whole. In the exhibition catalog, Bramblett talks about this kind of resonance:
Most paintings have an image on the painting, or of the painting, it’s the magic [of two-dimensional illusion] that we see. There’s a second image, an invisible one, and this is the one you can’t think about, you can’t pinpoint, you don’t know about. It’s not about anything. It is felt; it’s the painting within the painting. That image is something that holds you to the painting, that keeps you coming back to it. It’s what distinguishes itself as something inexplicable. It’s a resource for your own conclusions if you have them, or your own curiosities, or whatever meaning you might assign to the painting.
To appreciate this one has to become invested in the painting and in the process of looking. These paintings stand in curious relationship to the concerns of the art world during the last forty years. In the face of postmodernism’s doubt, this work asserts the ability of paint to generate meaning. Instead of the art world’s schizophrenic split between mediated gestures and the exhausted vestiges of an emotionally laden mark, the surfaces here are expedient and devoid of any ideological origin. Rather than immediacy, the paintings are anchored in memory, and the sensations they evoke are physical, not virtual. There is no cynicism here, but plenty of what used to be called, without “irony,” irony.
Bramblett’s paintings aren’t narrative, or conceptual, or process-oriented, or formal; they are all of these things knit together seamlessly, even when they address subjects as disparate as Helen Keller and Marcel Duchamp (Hypothetical Marriage of Monsieur Marcel Duchamp and Miss Helen Keller, 1982), or the artist’s fingerprint and the wrinkles on his grandmother’s skin (Endurance, 1992) or biblical miracles and creativity (Walking on Quarters, 1992). As one can tell from the latter, Bramblett loves to play with language, and his titles, like his paintings, contain layers of allusions. He uses titles as an opportunity to underscore latent humor, stretch language, and bend meaning as a poet might, incorporating oxymorons (Normally Peculiar, 2001), double negatives (Knot Nothing, 1999) and double entendres (Tête-à-Tête, 1999). This last title refers to an intimate conversation between two people, but it also references physical intimacy, summoning in our minds both “tit” and “teat”. (The painting of reddish ovals with protruding nipple-like forms helps further this reading, but beware of the literal. Other possibilities continually assert themselves: soft squeaky toys; pink rubber balls; red blood cells. As usual, Bramblett gives us just enough visual information to suggest something concrete without closing off other meanings, and humor is used as bait.) The title also echoes “tit-for-tat” or this for that, an exchange, trade-off, or quid pro quo. But all of these possible interpretations suggest a physical encounter and the primacy of touch in the work. Other titles suggest meditations on the human condition, simultaneously evoking humor and pathos in a search for meaning (Wandering Wondering, 1997, and Erasing Extinction, 1998). Both of these paintings contain a circuitous line that roams over the surface like the wanderer of the title, tracing the meanderings of the artist’s mind and creating a visual analog of his musings. Bramblett refers to these works as “logic” paintings, governed by a set of arbitrary rules designed to circumvent predictability or taste, yet taking an illogical and intuitive form. The scale of these works elevates doodling to a position of primacy.
Perhaps the most interesting title (and painting) in terms of density of allusions is eyedotcom (1999), a painting of various flat gray circles mixed with occasional colored airbrushed spheres and punctuated with smaller dots that act as the “pupils” of “eyes.” The homonym of the title, with the Latin conjunction “com” literally means eye (I) with dot, which could refer to the eye (or I) of the painter, the eye of the viewer, or the forty years Bramblett taught at Tyler School of Art (eye = I = teacher, with dot = pupil = student). But most viewers will reference the Internet. For the artist, this isn’t merely an allusion to popular culture; it’s a specific linking of the eye with the mind of the artist. He believes that knowledge has no hierarchy and that the human brain functions like the World Wide Web: a vast and global network encompassing a variety of information where one element can trigger many others in no particular order of importance, and all possible paths are equally valid. This understanding of the human mind is hinted at in the earlier titles above, and presented definitively in Mind Mine, (1998), a dark painting punctuated with red dot patterns and subtle blue and black cloud-like forms. Here, “mine” functions not just as the possessive pronoun, but also as a noun, denoting a rich source, or treasury, as well as an explosive lying beneath the surface; and, as a verb, suggesting digging up or delving into or extracting something of value. A mind mine would be both process and result, in which the artist excavates his own mind for hidden yet valuable content that triggers cascades of meaning when ignited. The mind is posited as a source of infinite surprise that can’t be anticipated because it lies in the subconscious and must be evoked.
Change and time are the conditions of mortality; painting is about capturing change at a specific time. Taking a page from science, Bramblett applies pressure to a set of variables – whether materials or ideas – until they stretch beyond their original form and become something else. The sense of time in these works is cyclical; each one is generated by a specific inquiry that necessitates a unique process and results in a particular end. But every end is also a new beginning. Paintings generate new questions; questions trigger new paintings, as Bramblett has said in the catalog for the exhibition:
What’s important about anything is everything you don’t know about it. Everything that you do know doesn’t matter. What matters is what you don’t know. So it’s the search and then the ultimate find, which is what life is all about. That’s what I see painting as being about. It’s not about the explanation; it’s not about the theory. It’s about the search and the find and the next search that follows.
Mary Murphy is a Philadelphia-based painter who writes about art.