by Mark Van Proyen
Normally, exhibition catalogs function as documentary sidekicks to temporary exhibitions. Michael Brennan turns that frown upside down with the publication of Pandemonium, a book containing 151 images of paintings executed over the past seven years. He also staged a week-long pop-up exhibition of those paintings to celebrate the publication. Of that, I’ll say more, but since the book is the main event, I’ll start there. After all, when the hubbub around any temporary presentation of art subsides, the catalogue certifies a show’s durable eventhood.
In various and different ways, the images in the book celebrate the idea of the circus, in most cases transposing it onto portraits of well-known artists, writers, gallery directors, curators, collectors, and random raconteurs who have been mainstays of the Northern California art scene for decades. The collection can be seen as a kind of rogues’ gallery, striking an uneasy balance between honorific and gently satirical, showing its sitters alongside self-chosen props that attest to some private information about them. For example, former gallerist and current film producer Diana Fuller is pictured wearing a tiara in a diptych panel set next to another featuring Percival, her beloved canine companion. In another work, Paul
Kos is strait-jacketed in advance of Houdini-style escape attempt, while ceramic sculptor James Melchert is pictured spinning a plate on the tip of a slender rod. In the cases of gallerist Cheryl Haines, painter Mike Henderson and conceptual artist Tom Marioni, they are presented in their respective guises of frontwoman/singer in a rock band, blues guitarist and stand-up comedian. Indeed, from the vantage of Brennan’s portrait series, life in the Bay Area art world is a cabaret, or at least it was, up until the point when quarantines, there’s-an-app-for-that-nik toilers in the social media vineyards and the sheer unaffordability of the place conspired to undermine the authority of museums, galleries and the city centers that hosted them.
Brennan’s circus portraits hark to Jorg Immendorf’s Café Deutschland paintings from the early 1980s and further back to Max Beckman’s circus performer images from the 1930s and early 1940s. Subject matter and dramatic lighting certify these associations. One can also connect them with Guillermo del Toro’s 2021 film Nightmare Alley insofar as they reveal a world of cheap carny tricks masking darker and more mysterious goings-on. But lest we think of this collection of images as being wholly focused on the chummy, self-congratulatory relationships between the people pictured, we can also note that there are others depicted who march to very different drumbeats. One that stands out is John Law, a legendary prankster and renegade culture jammer who has lurked in the underground shadows of San Francisco for decades.
As funny as some of the portraits are, I still cannot help but note the overarching elegiac mood of the works in the book. In many ways, it reads like a commemorative yearbook from the Last Year at Marienbad, a wistful remembrance of bygone ballroom days. Peggy Lee’s song Is That All There Is? provides an earworm that is its silent soundtrack. In some cases, the images serve as eulogies, depicting people who have recently died. One is Wayne Thiebaud, shown with one of his trademark confectionary paintings subtly reflected in his eyeglasses.
Another is William T. Wiley, who looks beleaguered and put-upon, even though he is crowned with his conical “Mr. Unnatural” headgear. Hung Lu is presented holding a panda bear prop, memorialized by her broad and generous smile radiating kindness and compassion. Constance Lewallen is still among the living, but she shares her picture space with a grisaille image of her longtime partner Bill Berkson, gone since 2016 but not forgotten. Robert Bechtle is pictured wearing a stovepipe hat while clutching a yellow ball with a Watchman-vintage happy face, but he still seems withdrawn and resigned.
Although the paintings in this collection are undated, Brennan’s dedication of the book to Bechtle makes clear that his portrait was the first in the series. Brennan credits his friendship (and mentorship) with Bechtle as life-changing, exerting an influence evident in these paintings. Someone who flips through the pages of Pandemonium could be forgiven for suspecting that everything in the book was formulated in Photoshop layers, but that presumption was belied by a face-to-face viewing of the pop-up exhibition at an abandoned, mid-Market Street retail space. Indeed, they were all painted in oil, using a photo-based technique very similar to the one that Bechtle perfected. Even the paint spatters are rendered in a tromp l’oeil technique.
Interspersed throughout the cycle of portrait paintings are others that move in the direction of Pop Surrealism, almost all partaking of dark humor and wicked satire. Mishappen clowns and familiar cartoon characters are frequently featured in these works, which bespeak the end game of a culture in the throes of amusing itself to death. One of these features Tweety Bird discovering an engorged condom in a carton of popcorn, while another wedges a cartoon elephant with a phallic nose between two balloons that look like triple-D breasts. Intellectual property proprieties discourage me from citing the title of this painting, but rest assured, it is not Motor Boat.
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An exhibition of Michael Brennan’s paintings from “Pandemonium” is at Modernism West, April 7 to May 30, 2022.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.