AT MARLBOROUGH GALLERY
by Miles Mathis
I was in London last week for the Michelangelo show at the British Museum and I happened to walk by the Bravo show while I was strolling New Bond and Albemarle streets with a friend afterwards. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t spend much time in the gallery. I didn’t count the number of pieces exhibited or measure them or get a list of titles or prices or any of that, so many are going to think me a rather accidental critic. I did, however, develop a very strong opinion within seconds (as will surprise no one). It is that opinion I wish to sell here, not the work of Bravo or Marlborough.
I think there were about 20 works, all similar in size (4 or 5 feet tall) and nearly identical in subject, that subject being brown paper packages tied up in string. Not, mind you, packages painted from different angles and in different light. Nothing that blindingly poignant and interesting. No, simple straight-on blow-ups of photographs of packages, such as one might see decorating the walls at Starbucks or United Parcel Service. These, however, were not photographic enlargements, they were paintings made to look like photographic enlargements. Wow, you say. A philosophical conundrum. A deep statement about reality and art and modern society, framed as only a great artist can frame it. Or, as Spanish art critic Francisco Calvo Seraller put it in the catalog, “the multiplication of meanings—awakening and evoking different feelings with a simple wrinkled sheet of paper.”
Perhaps, but honestly the first thought that sprung to my contrarian brain was that Bravo had at last reached the age of Alzheimer’s, and that for some reason beyond the ken of science he had encountered a permanent feedback loop—a loop limited to songs from The Sound of Music. I imagined that his next show would be huge blow-ups of raindrops on roses, followed by whiskers on kittens, then bright copper kettles, and finally warm woolen mittens. His swansong would of course be schnitzel with noodles. Contemporary art is so comforting when the dog bites, when the bee stings.
Why else would anyone bother to go to such trouble to paint such a thing as brown paper packages tied up in string? Even more, how could a brain that was not in some terrible hell of repetition and closure stand to paint such a thing not twice, not three times, but over and over and over without variance? That brain must be compelled by some Rodgers and Hammerstein obsession, moving it like a child's poppet.
In fact my theory is supported by other material from the gallery, which tells us that the paper packages are “a theme he started working on at the end of the ‘60’s.” The Sound of Music debuted in 1965. Coincidence? You decide.
Poor man, to be in such a loop for 40 years. He must feel like the man who has been hiccupping for half a century. And here I thought it was old age that had brought it on. The von Trapp family seduced him early and has never let him go.
But this explanation, as powerful as it was, didn’t quite cover all the facts. For it didn’t begin to explain how Marlborough Gallery had got caught in Bravo’s feedback loop, how the director and all the sales staff had succumbed, how the buyers had succumbed, how the critics and magazines had succumbed, how the majority of foot traffic on Albemarle Street had succumbed to Bravo’s private nightmare. Was some worldwide Muzak being piped into all the ears of the earth save mine? Had The Sound of Music soundtrack really taken over the governance of the zeitgeist, forcing it by subtle whisperings to follow motions that must seem alien to me?
I leave that all as a distinct possibility, not to be dismissed simply because it is absurd. These days, the more absurd an explanation is the more likely it is to be true. But I do offer a second explanation, and I aim this one at my fellow realists. In previous papers I have commented on Bravo in passing, and there I stated that for all his technical skill Bravo had always seemed to me to be in want of a subject. Even back when he was painting things unprompted by Julie Andrews, he was lost when it came to content. He could always paint anything he could see, but he could never imbue it with any emotion or depth. He could not choose an expressive model, a passionate pose or a revealing light. His paintings never had a mood.
This newest work is just the bottoming out of a long slow decline from a hill that was not tall to begin with. This current show acts as nothing so much as visual proof of my previous critiques. In fact, this current show acts as nothing except that. If my thesis were not waiting to be proved beyond a doubt, this current show would a total loss to the universe. It is an artistic nullity not to be out-nulled by anything the avant garde has ever done. Doubtless this is why Bravo is attended by great wealth and fame: he has achieved, via realism, a void as fully relevant to the confusions of modern art criticism as any broken urinal or set of soiled toothpicks.
Why this is aimed at my fellow realists is that many of them are on the same long slow decline from nowhere to east-of-below-nowhere. Like Bravo they are caught in some technical obsession, and they use that obsession to mask the fact that they have absolutely nothing to offer the world beyond shiny paint. They spend the better part of every day and year discussing mediums and varnishes and tricks and methods and edges and nanoballs and lord knows what else, but they don’t spend a minute or a second trying to find a meaningful subject—a face with some expression, a pose with some subtlety, a scene with a strong mood, a story with some strength. They seem to think that all these things can be added later with a fancy set of lightbulbs and reflectors, or by oversaturating all the colors, or by painting everything backlit by a sunset or a pair of ornate candelabras. In this they become absolute masters of the inessential while remaining blind to the essential.
As painters of the visual we must know our craft. There is no getting past that. But the craft, the technique, of painting is only the first step. It is the means to an end. What end? This is the question that the realists must ask themselves.
I maintain that verisimilitude is not
the answer. It does matter what
you paint. The bulk of the art is in
the content, not in the technique.
Therefore a man who chooses to paint high-detail paintings of brown
paper packages tied up in string is not choosing to create art. He is choosing to remain a technician. He is choosing not to go beyond the first
step. He is not a “preciosista”, as
Bravo claims that he is content being.
A precious painter would be one with excessive refinement. But there is nothing to refine here. It is flat-out impossible to “awaken and evoke different feelings with a simple wrinkled
sheet of paper.” A person who has
feelings awakened by a photocopy of a sheet of paper is not precious, he is
addled. Such a person could be made to
hear Mozart by rattling his head with thimbles, or made to see heaven by. . .
what? I can’t think of anything less
evocative than a wrinkled piece of paper, especially painted as Bravo has
painted it—drained of all possible interest.
I have seen some beautifully painted pieces of paper in old master
paintings, but Bravo doesn’t even allow himself, or us, that pleasure. No, his paintings are lit to look like
magazine ads. Like those scary
Coca-cola bottles, dripping fake water, everything brightly lit and antiseptic
and false, false, false. The feelings
evoked in me by these pre-packaged things are the same feelings evoked by
formica countertops and orange highway cones and silicone breasts—either
nothing or absolute and utter horror. A
painter who is genuinely attracted to such things is not precious, he is
shallow, boring, and pathological. He
should not be showered with accolades, he should be avoided as a vexation to
the spirit, as a daemon from a parallel universe, as a podperson posing as a
human being. Or
at best as a lonely goatherd marionette in the grip of Rodgers and Hammerstein,
odelay, odelay, odelay hee-hoo.
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