Categorized | Reviews

Tony Berlant @ Brian Gross

by David M. Roth

“Lucky Shot”, 2011, 23 × 20”

For more than 50 years, the LA-based artist has transformed found and fabricated pieces of tin into “paintings” that seamlessly annex large tracts of art history while retaining a signature look: a crazy-quilt cut-up of snippets affixed to panels with small brads. In 2009, after a trip to Aix-en-Provence, Berlant added yet another dimension to an already complex technique: photography. Previously, the artist used tracings of photographs as visual guides for his compositions, but the photos themselves were never visible. They are now, and they compete for our attention, exponentially increasing the surface tension in pictures that are bolder, wackier, more abstract and spatially more complex than anything he’s shown to date. 


Using blurry, indistinct photographic swatches of landscape as grounds for his improvisations, Berlant has shed, at least for now, a defining feature of his oeuvre: a one dimensionality that is the unavoidable the byproduct of hammering tin onto wood. Where much of the action in Berlant’s work once resided on the surface, it’s now dispersed at varying depths, owing to differences in the size, shape and pictorial perspective of his source materials. His pictures are still collages.  But with their photographic backgrounds exposed, the painted tin that Berlant attaches to them seems to leap off the pictures as if extruded by an unseen force. The most memorable among them (Beside Myself, The High Spot, Some Other Place, Lucky Shot) evince a psychedelicized Post-Impressionist, Pop-inflected approach to abstraction. In the details of his pictures you can spot many familiar things – cars, airplanes, fish, flora and vestiges of commercial signage and packaging – but overall, the paintings look like nothing you’ve ever seen. Berlant remains, as always, sui generis.
“Fast Forward”, 2011, 75 ½ × 32”
Running through several pieces is a strong current of Eastern mysticism.  In these long, vertical pictures whose shapes recall Chinese scroll paintings, Berlant, who knows a worthy found object when he sees it, employs a B&W photograph of his studio floor in three different guises. The most beguiling, Goddess, features that photo without any overlay of tin. We’ve heard of Christ on a tortilla and the Virgin Mary appearing on the sides of buildings. Well, in this blurry, photogram-like image, the same kind of Rorschach dynamic is in play. You can see warriors, temples, monsters and probably a lot of other things if you look hard enough. Alternately, in Fast Forward, Berlant partially overlays the image with dancing shapes to create a sort of animated Thangka painting. Tigertail, an allover painting, has white and gray pieces of tin completely obscuring the photo. The effect is akin to a snowy Asian landscape, except that there are no explicit references to topography, only shapes whose studded edges betray the artist’s hand and some faint tree-like imprints: machine-made artifacts of the process the artist uses to manufacture the raw material. 
When it comes to material invention, Berlant has always pushed the limits.  With these new works he raises the stakes on the game he invented. Piling up references to thousands of years of art history, from cave painting to Pop, they give back in direct proportion to what you, the viewer, give to them.
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Tony Berlant: “New Works” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through July 1, 2011.
About the Author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder

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