Comic Revelations and Reappearances: Works by Will Bruno
Report from… Portland, Oregon
Comics With Still Life: Finding The Inevitable Place at galleryHOMELAND
September 5 through October 17, 2014
2505 SE 11th #136
Portland, OR, 402 936 1379
Will Bruno’s new art exhibition launched at galleryHOMELAND early this month to a roomful of guests. Having quit his job to head out on the road, Bruno has returned to Portland from a residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. The Center is located on the banks of the Salmon River Estuary at the base of Oregon’s Cascade Head. Created away from smog-choked corners and cosmopolitan saloons, Bruno’s new works suggest keen effect of setting and season where south winds blow cool and flowers perfume the air. Made in flashe, oil, watercolor, acrylic, ink, graphite, colored pencil, and variously mixed media (wood, beach wood, flowers) the works evoke a clear sense of the artist amid deserts, beaches and untamable lands, open to the daily variations of light and landscape, engendering at all times the potential for revelation.
This exhibition of light-filled landscapes, interiors, portraits and still lifes is not without its avant-garde turns, with traditional painterly qualities augmented by wilder intervening abstractions and use of different media (even video). The show’s presentation adds to its variance, with canvas works hung on nails and dispersed, watercolors tacked in rows, comic works set behind glass, and spaces fashioned keenly to showcase installation pieces, both upon floored pedestals and dedicated wall-abutting shelves. GalleryHOMELAND curator Reese Kruse did a marvelous job of leading the viewers through, from work to work, with variations spread about the space.
A cataract of three diminutive dusky aquarelles with a fragmented comic aspect begins the show; entitled Wendy (2014), they share page-space with naturalistic paintings of burnished and slung fruits. Set to deckle-edged off-white papers and behind glass, the latter still lifes are situated below highly finished ink compositions — comic scenes of a people Bruno has named “The Oogleheads.” The recurring characters are a fictive “band of roguish villains that had nowhere to turn after all else in their lives went sour from thievery and inbreeding.” The en plein air elements of these works are wrought in gouache with opaque layers that give a sense of unrestraint and presage the exhibition’s abstraction.
At 42-by-44 inches, the show’s largest painting is Beach Comber With Still Life (2014), hung near the gallery’s entrance. At the center of the composition is a still life of a succulent on a table covered with a patterned yellow cloth, while a candy-striped mock drapery hangs behind it. This flashe-and-oil painting on canvas features the comic figure “The Beach Comber,” who furtively lurks behind the drape with his stylized silhouette repeating in orange upon the yellow tablecloth. The large striped curtain is modeled from a simple, iconic dishcloth Bruno had been using at Sitka. This elemental juxtaposition, with its muted green and white as the perfect backdrop for the brighter paint of the succulent and table, calls to mind the summerhouses and figures of Fairfield Porter, but more sinister, and with none of their pastiche, These are examples of the confluence of mundanity and grandeur, silliness and beauty seen throughout Bruno’s art. The tablecloth and its reappearance have little deeper meaning (a simple texture) but one could discern a deliberate nod to ordinary life in lieu of sophistication.
The still lifes, discursive comic narrative elements, warped landscapes, and mixed media works give impressions of locales found during Bruno’s journeying in Oregon, the Olympic Peninsula, Canada, Glacier National Park, Moab, and a stay in a straw-bale lean-to off the grid in Taos. There are painted dreamscapes that abandon hierarchies of nature, self, and other. There’s the 20-by-16-inch Windows (2014), an iconic three-window oil painting on canvas depiction of, in Bruno’s words, “the perfect gradient sunset,” with which Bruno realized the power of memory to augment the work “when paint’s not working the way I need it to.” This painting is unlike the rest, in that it has the sunset light seen in certain of his aquarelles but instead of a human figure, the architectural triptych of windows serves as the figures, and finely so.
Inspired by Porter, Andrew Wyeth, David Hockney, Bruno’s greatest influence was the land and working or wandering through it; his signature is the recurrent objects, figures, and combinations of detail seen throughout his career to date. Bruno’s work, while possessing the spiritual sublimity of natural landscapes, resolutely flips the hitherto precious and othering view of nature on its head, with a declaration that “we are the Earth; it’s not a separate thing.” His painted works playfully poke fun at astonished reverence seen in the work of earlier artists, with what he describes as a practice of “ironic sincerity.”
His view of the everyday amid the majestic intends, Bruno says, “to decode life around me.” He asserts that “creating confirms existence, and drawing things I see every day helps to see how they fit together, to reconnect patterns.” On the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007, Bruno found and re-enlivened the old world and common object: a boot, a truck, and a port-a-john, amid astonishing sunrises and a lushness that is quintessentially Western. Such images and objects are found in his new show, but with more of the surprising juxtaposition seen in works like Beach Comber, and the restrained continuity of the comic fragments, all of which differentiates the old-fashioned Impressionistic handling seen here, from the experimental flourishes of the avant-garde.
Correspondences throughout the exhibition offer strange (never weird-for-the-sake-of-weird) juxtapositions and splintered narratives, populating the paintings in the way many of us inhabit our dreams. To Bruno, the fragments are “more like life than linear ones ” seen in naturalistic narratives and history paintings. There’s In The Field (2014), an en media res dog’s-eye view of an old janitor in very large trousers, inexplicably mopping up a fallow, sloping field. There’s no context here but a figure (one who never reappears) in the landscape, and no perceptible reason for the mopping of earth, but the effects are both equanimity and disquietude: the mopping man seems calm in aspect and activity, but the perspective of him and the land are absolutely warped. The acrylic and oil brushstrokes look both fast and slow; and the light is distinctly thunderstorm, rumbling with doomy purples and grays and the chill of a haunting tale.
Images appear throughout this exhibition, and gather the way people do: often spontaneously. There are, visible in the works of Comics With Still Life: crustacean leitmotifs, collections of ephemera set in windowsills, architectural forms, geometric shapes, and old philosopher types fitted together with no reason but surprise. For Bruno, emblems are frequent but remain unconscious and sometimes unnoticed.
A final set of seven watercolors in purple with ink, Windowsill (2014), fills a large portion of a wall at the end of the show, with the white of the canvases furnishing their lights. Figures reappear in this abstract series, with portions painted with the sureness of ink-stroke seen in hanging scrolls by Japanese artists from past centuries. A magnificently plain ping-pong player seen from behind hangs below a still-life canvas with a giant rabbit. Another of the sequence sees the reappearance of a mustachioed giant peering beneath a magic rock: its magic is the addition of salt set into wet pigment to make it glimmer, a technique put into practice a handful of times in this series. Other watercolor-ink paintings in this cycle include a patinated arabesque and a series of abstract grisailles, which, like other works of the exhibition, supremely compliment the consummately diverse mood of the show.
Toward the exhibition’s end are more watercolors of snow-covered peaks, painted during Bruno’s time in Banff. He and his companion visited Canada to backpack along Lake Minnewanka, where “we heard a bear grunting outside our tent and ran the five miles back to the car in the middle of the night.” His ideas about man and nature are by no means spelled out plainly, but a study of the works within galleryHOMELAND show an artist with a congenial place in, and understanding of, nature. Bruno’s plan was to spend concentrated intervals in practice, and carry his tiny still lifes and sketches into new lands. The fruit of his adventuring is a collection emblematic of an inner, as well as outer, exploration.