In the Louisville gallery scene, Quappi Projects is unparalleled for offering complex and challenging exhibitions. As curator and owner, John Brooks has pushed to promote both local and national contemporary artists in the small but nimble white cube space tucked away on Market Street. Its latest exhibition, and first solo sculpture show, is titled “It is What is Not Yet Known,” featuring works by Kiah Celeste.
Celeste, a New York-born, Louisville-based artist has been making sculptural works with discarded items, construction materials, and found objects since early 2019. Celeste assembles Louisville’s discarded artifacts like latex tubing, glass, pigment, and steel pipe into a delicate balance of humor, wit, aesthetics, and beauty. Blue and pink hues, deliberate signature colors, create a patchwork as you visually scan the sculptures in the exhibition.
‘Set’, wood, steel pipe, plastic, pigment, 40” L x 37” H x 4.25” W
As you enter Quappi Projects, you encounter “Set,” a piece of precarious balance. It is made from wood found curved in a half-moon that the artist painted a muted pink, and a steel pipe bent at a near 90-degree angle. The wood piece leans into the steel almost as if it created the shape by impact. This work sets the tone of the exhibit, giving you a first taste, piquing your curiosity about how these seemingly contradictory forms and materials could have found each other.
‘Baker’ on left, steel pipe, vacuum hose, pigment, 50” L x 67” H x 13” W
‘Serpent in the Sand’, fluorescent lightbulb, vacuum hose, pigment, 22” L x 48” H x 28” W
‘When the Window Cracked’, glass, microfoam, 70” L x 33” H x 12” W
The intimacy of Quappi Projects almost feels overwhelmed by the sculptures, not because of their size, but from the minimal gallery space to work in. Despite this, the show remains light, atmospheric, and cerebral. Celeste’s ability to play with physical space, not just objects, shows through specifically in works like “Baker” and “Serpent in the Sand.” This may reflect her study of photography and her understanding of the relationship between human form and space.
“When the Window Cracked,” a sculpture made from what looks like discarded glass shelves stacked with blue microfoam in a clean-cut triangular form, gives a nod to the lineage of the field of contemporary sculpture itself. Celeste’s work finds guideposts in Richard Serra’s ability to change the physical weight of steel into something experiential and light; the often overlooked and underappreciated canon of feminist critique crafted by Eva Hesse’s short-lived life and career; and the simplicity of form and careful selection of site in the environmental earthworks of Nancy Holt.
Not one of the works in the exhibition seems dense in gesture and form, nor monumental in size in the traditional field of sculpture. It makes one wonder how Celeste’s sculptures might evolve on a larger scale and scope, even beyond her previous works “Rounded Corners, Pointed Curves” and “Of Few Words” at the Josephine Sculpture Park in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Celeste’s search for the right materials and their transmigration speak to an approach similar to the frameworks of great Southern practitioners like Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley. And you can feel the intention and purpose – these are actively pursued material transformations. Each piece of discarded material offers its own narrative and lived experience. Celeste takes the time to balance materials which seem distant in nature yet are familiar in form.
Her materials are informed by the city in which she works, reflected in the type of discarded articles that others deemed unusable. Celeste’s pieces in this exhibition are part of a larger body of work entitled “I Find This Stable.” This specific series is concerned with the physical embodiment of sustainable practices and our collective environmental crisis. But the artist’s ability to see potential within the outcast gives us a glimpse into the transformative power of sculpture. Repurposing these materials provides a framework to reimagine the temporality of material in a capitalist system.
‘Bound to Bend’, sheet metal, exercise balls, latex tubing, pigment, 40” L x 48” H x 26” W
In “Bound to Bend,” perforated sheet metal is torqued, collapsed, and compressed onto exercise balls wrapped in latex tubing. Exercise balls were also a material of choice in a Quappi Projects group show “A Sort of River of Passing Events” last summer. Celeste explores the relationship manifested by the weight, shape, tension, and color of these rubber orbs and their physical tension against things like glass and concrete. Celeste has no fear of discovery and refinement.
Sadly, Celeste’s contemporary and globally influenced art-world vernacular has the potential to be lost on the Louisville public. There are few spaces to experience an entire exhibition of sculpture. Sculptural works remain foreign and little space is given to the discipline within the Louisville gallery scene which most often favors ceramic, glass, and painting. Happily, John Brooks’ curatorial vision continues to create robust, more refined, and complex shows like “It is What is Not Yet Known.”
The exhibition is energetic, exciting, and accessible in a variety of formats and gestures. Quappi Projects and Kiah Celeste’s bold and ambitious work make great strides in bringing Louisville into unfamiliar territory.
“It is What is Not Yet Known” is on view till March 6th.
We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture,“The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.
On February 28th, Quappi Projects opened an exhibition featuring nineteen artists from around the nation and world. Two days later, I flew to New York to exhibit at SPRING/BREAK during Armory week. I was in the city for eleven days; the New York fairs were well attended, but with each successive day the mood grew more worrisome. I left the city shortly before the quarantine began. After returning to Louisville, I honored a handful of appointments at the gallery until Governor Beshear’s directive to shutter all non-essential businesses. Our opening reception was well attended, but it is disappointing for both the artists involved and the viewing public that the show has been seen by so few people. This, however, seems a small concern when lives are at risk.
The current exhibition was scheduled to close April 10th, but will hang indefinitely for the time being. That sounds contradictory, but with no way to know what is to come, planning is impossible. Our next exhibition has been cancelled. The artist’s concept had a meaningful tie-in to the Derby and with its postponement we can’t simply wait for reopening. Moving forward, the rest of the schedule is up in the air. While I do feel utterly unmoored by the current reality, there is positivity in even the idea of future exhibitions. I am holding on to that hope.
Regarding my own painting practice, I still have studio access. Traveling there requires only a short drive, after which I work in isolation. It seems safe and I have spent a few days each week painting.
Photo by John Brooks of woman viewing Dorthea Lange exhibition at MoMA.
None of us know what the post-COVID landscape will look like – any prediction is just conjecture – but something will unfold. Saltz writes that Chef David Chang expects 90 percent of restaurants to close and “surmises the food world will return to the pre-internet days of the 1990s.” I can’t speak to that industry, but with regard to ours, a return to the “pre-internet” era is simply inconceivable. The internet and social media have connected us in previously unimaginable ways, and there is no disengaging from that. I have developed immensely rewarding relationships with so many artists – mostly young, mostly queer – and we support each other professionally and personally; this has felt even more meaningful throughout this collectively endured isolation.
Saltz is right that this crisis could exacerbate inequalities between winners and losers. “Losing” may now be synonymous with nonexistence. Those of us who have been functioning – and surviving – outside the art world’s uppermost echelons must continue to support each other however we can. As we always have, artists and gallerists will advocate for our position in a culture that often sees us as extraneous, but perhaps a greater appreciation for our contributions will emerge since so many have turned to the arts for solace. After this period of societal crisis and existential introspection, I hope more value and attention will be placed on complex work in lieu of the clever, flippant, and depthless. Undoubtedly, art and artists will adapt, abide. Collectors, too.
Installation is the presentation of works of art. The following is a look at museum installations in New York, London, Edinburgh and Louisville that all work well in different ways.In great installations the sequence and juxtaposition of art objects presents a silent argument, making a case for the richness or provocative value of the works laid out in a gallery.Great installations give maximum value to the artworks and exploit, to that end, lighting, wall color, spacing, explanatory labels and the placement of pedestals and gallery furniture. Great installations also require that the selection of works be judicious and sustain attention and engagement. Too often exhibitions are weakened by the inclusion of mediocre work: better the A work by the C- artist than the C- work by the artist with an A reputation.Failure to consider ways of breaking open the canon of received opinion and the inability to make surprise a component of gallery arrangements are also common shortcomings.So what works?
The Museum of Modern Art, newly re-opened in October after a major expansion, sidesteps the common pitfalls.There is an increase in the white space between works; the re-hang gives precedence to artists neglected earlier, especially women, artists of color, and artists from parts of the world other than Europe and North America.The Haitian artist Hervé Telemaque adds to the understanding of Pop Art as an international phenomenon, and the Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen expands the definition of Minimalism.In the first gallery devoted to Abstract Expressionism, the viewer is greeted by Pollock, deKooning, and David Smith – but also by Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Pat Pasloff, Lee Krasner, Isamu Noguchi and Beauford Delaney: four women, a Japanese-American, and an African-American.The matrix of art history is loosened, media are no longer separated (photography or film almost omnipresent), and masterpieces are de-emphasized in favor of a more searching exposition of the human imagination and the range of expressive solutions. The lock-step march of isms has been replaced by a meandering and discursive path.Ironically, in many instances, it is also an arrangement that fosters a situation of clear visibility – that is, a hang that makes the masterwork heroes more heroic, enhancing their aesthetic impact, while giving the supporting cast members larger roles.Picasso’s 1907 Demoiselles D’Avignon is juxtaposed with Faith Ringgold’s image of racial conflict, American People Series #20, executed in 1968. Ringgold’s image references Picasso’s Guernica, and the label asserts that the comparison intensifies “the questions Demoiselles raises about representations of women, power and cultural difference.”Success!Demoiselles acquires added complexity and the Ringgold competes very well indeed next to the early Cubist breakthrough painting.
Best of all, one-third of the MOMA galleries will be re-hung or shifted around every six months, which means a complete re-hang every 18 months.
Another model installation is the new Islamic Gallery at the British Museum, opened in the fall of 2018, which celebrates the way in which Islamic artifacts of all kinds match form to decoration.Even humble clay water filters feature elaborate geometric piercings. The uses of calligraphy, the arabesque interweaving of plant and animal forms, the multiple elaborations of geometric patterns – all are presented with a clarity that surpasses the earlier, rival Islamic art installations at the Louvre and the Met in New York. The lowest levels of the cases have ancient Persian animal figures to engage children, and there are a variety of please-touch items supervised by a museum educator at a low table. And, to add to the pleasure of the Gallery, when I visited there was an adjacent halal café with grilled figs and a spectacular lavender honey tart.
The smartest installations are often the ones in which curatorial responsibility is turned over to the artists. At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh some ancient Pict and Celt artifacts are installed against backgrounds devised by the artist Andy Goldsworthy – mud, pieces of slate and, most effectively, wooden sticks to set off the 600 B.C.E.Ballachulish figure, an Iron Age fertility figure or goddess.
Which brings us back to Louisville and Southern Indiana.Three recently opened galleries have ambitious programs and intriguing spaces which lend well to very satisfactory viewing spaces. Quappi Projects at 517 East Market Street in Louisville has high ceilings, excellent lighting and elegant proportions.The Moremen Gallery, on the second floor at 517 East Market Street, makes excellent use of the former glass walled offices and conference rooms for modestly scaled one-person shows. The Kleinhelter Gallery at 701 East 8th Street, New Albany (Indiana), is housed in a 19th Century brick building that offers the option of hanging on plain or brick walls. The loser in the newer gallery sweepstakes is the collection-rich Filson Historical Society (Louisville), which did not allow for adequate exhibit space in its recent expansion. The primary galleries are cramped, awkwardly lit, and require a staff member to accompany visitors who wish to visit the exhibitions.
Installation View, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950. (1590)
More intriguing in terms of installation is the contrast between the current exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum and KMAC (Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft). At the Speed, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 has a whopping 162 works on view, at least 140 of which depict the equine stars of the race course and breeding industry.The majority are extracted from Kentuckycollections.From a museum-strategy point of view, the subject gave the Speed an excuse for access to Bluegrass holdings that would otherwise remain behind closed doors.
Documentary but also laden with a romanticizing self-regard, the carefully delineated champions’ confirmations are emblems of the horse owners’ prestige:the nobility of the animals imply by extension their owners’ lofty status.Artists were partners in the thoroughbred and saddlebred businesses, and the story is told with panache in Tales from the Turf.In addition to paintings there are prints, silver trophies, artists’ tools, a map of the Bluegrass, a circular pedigree diagram, an example of the actual purse that was presented to a winner in the 19th Century, and a bronze masterpiece of a jockey and rider by the art moderne sculptor Wilhelm Hunt Diederich, who employed a simplifying cubist geometrification.
The introduction to the show includes three paintings by the greatest 20th Century equestrian painter, Sir Alfred Munnings. In Going Out at Epsom from 1929-1930, Munnings’s alla prima brushwork, especially in the clouds that surmount the scene, complements the energy, excitement and nervousness before a race.The three Munnings paintings are real zingers, and placement opposite the entrance to the show provides an upbeat introduction.The gallery-goer is then carried along by six different wall colors, from pale to dark blue, and a sequence of mauve-eggplant hues.Wall texts, wall text illustrations, varied rhythms of spacing of pictures on the wall, and the piped in sound of clopping horses’ hooves – all keep attention at a high level despite the show’s repetitiveness.There are also some great curatorial mysteries to be solved, for example, the detection of an American horse altered to appear to be English. In Edmund Troye, the show has a major master whose place in the pantheon of great American painters needs to be more widely acknowledged. The show concludes with three newsreels of Kentucky Derby races from the 1940s.
A complete contrast is the KMAC installation of “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville.” It is remarkably understated. The walls are off-white, the pictures are lined up with little variation, and labels are remote, printed out on plasticized sheets. The show consists of three galleries, a timeline, a video about the founder of the Musée Picasso in Antibes, France, and photographs of Picasso at work by Michel Sima.The first gallery has a reproduction of Picasso’s 1946 Joy of Life, a painting which shows Picasso in a playful, relaxed mood after the horrors of the war years.The rest of the gallery is devoted to preliminary studies for the Joy of Life, and still lifes from the same year. In this period Picasso was visiting Matisse every two weeks, and the interchange with the older master is apparent.Picasso, as he had done repeatedly throughout his career, took on the mantle of classicism: the spare graphite studies are of a centaur and several fauns, many playing the regional duale double barreled flute. They are accompanied in the studies by extraordinarily zaftig nymphs with ballooning breasts.But these mythological fantasy drawings are not easily dismissed on sexist grounds:Picasso’s lyrical line and the taut compression of his contours imply acrobatic vitality and a division of space that activates every sheet.
Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum
A second gallery has a selection from Picasso’s Vollard Suite, installed in a flat-footed manner, eight vertical prints followed by eight horizontals. Turn the corner and there is Picasso’s portrait of the maestro art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned the suite that preoccupied the Spaniard from 1931 to 1937. Picasso makes his viewers complicit in his male gaze: we are voyeurs witnessing the gaze of the middle-aged males in the prints.The linear contours of the female nudes in these prints have their clearest precedents in Greek vase painting. Sexuality, death, aggression, evil and innocence are some of Picasso’s themes: in effect, Picasso addresses the tissue of human relations, love and antagonism, with classicizing men and women, horses and Minotaurs.Blind Minotaur Guided through a Starry Night by Marie-Thérèse with a Pigeon, aquatint, drypoint, and engraving, executed in 1934-1935, encompasses the emotional extremes Picasso invested in the Minotaur, symbolizing lasciviousness but also guilt; violence but also despair.
Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum
The last gallery is reached from a corridor with a very informal Picasso timeline, a nice contrast to the buttoned-up installation of the rest of the show.A selection of prints done between 1952 and 1956 demonstrate Picasso’s experimental approach to printmaking and include lithographs, silkscreen and aquatint.
So ultimately does installation matter? In the case of the Picasso show at KMAC, the underplayed arrangement is a plus, allowing black and white drawings and prints to command center stage.The curatorial problem remains: how do you make the work of art mean more? How do you make the work of art more present and more accessible?How do you sustain attention?Each exhibition and each exhibition space demand different solutions.
Tales from the Turf: the Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 , Speed Art Museum, 2035 South Third St., Louisville, KY, 40208.Closes March 1st.
Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville, KMAC Museum, 715 West Main St., Louisville, KY, 40202.Closes March 22nd.
“In each one of us, there is a place of perfect silence. This silence is not dead. It vibrates. It has a pulse. It is the force of this silence that drives a seeker to go within.” Swami Chidvilasananda
For the past two years, L Gnadinger has been quietly making art in the wooded hills of North Carolina on a fellowship at the Penland School of Craft, an open and progressive institute nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains that offers the conditions for what the artist calls “a good, old fashioned spiritual retreat.” The explorations of this withdrawal to the woods are reflected in Gnadinger’s current solo show at Quappi Projects titled “Notably Untested Spiritual Gestures,” an ecumenical collection of textiles, ceramics, and works on paper that present their vision of a queer futurism as filtered through the visual vernacular of their Roman Catholic upbringing.
Call them gestures, call them studies, or – as Gnadinger prefers – “spiritual experiments.” A handsewn white denim lab coat, Vestment, hangs at the back of the gallery and serves as a visual and thematic focal point, setting up the interplay of science and religion that permeates the show. Tailored to the artist’s proportions, the garment has a slightly unsettling liminal quality suggestive of some unseen presence: a ghost from ages past, perhaps, or its opposite – some future being that has created these objects ahead of our present time.
Gnadinger, who self-identifies as nonbinary, thinks of this figure as quasi-autobiographical, one who cobbles together fabric and paint and clay and steel in an attempt to create something that feels sacred: “It’s not religious art in the sense that it’s celebrating something that exists,” the artist says. “It’s more about making art in the hope that I might create something to celebrate – an inward spiritual self that is viable and feels real and honest.”
“Devotional: The Cold Knob”, Ceramic tile, found plate, zip ties, plywood, mortar, grout. 14.5” x 23.5”, 2019
“A Sort of Prayer”, Ceramic tile, found plate, steel, mortar, grout. 5.5” x 23.5”, 2019
Far from rebelling against the visual tropes of Christianity, Gnadinger’s work embraces them, taking classical religious forms and remaking them in the materials of their world (not Rome’s). Two triptychs, the vertical Devotional: The Cold Knob and horizontal A Sort of Prayer, are filled with fragments of found ceramics (faucet knobs, broken tea plates, electric outlet covers, orphaned floor tiles) and the artist’s own handmade tiles adorned with painted binary code, all in close and harmonious arrangement.
“The marriage of ideas and materials is so beautifully executed,” remarks John Brooks, owner and curator of Quappi Projects. “If you count all of the individual colors in the works, the list is quite long, yet the whole show seems to vibrate in this very narrow band, as if everything is behind gauze or is slightly rubbed out.”
Like the rest of the pieces in the show, the triptychs don’t often stray from a quiet January palette of creamy whites and pale blues, salmon and apricot and copper and dirt – a far cry indeed from the red and gold and silver and brass that invest the traditional Catholic mass with so much of its visual power. Gnadinger’s religion is made from humbler stuff: the colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains in an early morning fog, the rock and clay they offer for our creative use.
In a hanging textile work, Banner, Ordinary Time, Gnadinger interweaves scraps of everyday garments, newspapers, and plastic with delicate strands of shimmering threads, again bringing together the mundane and the ethereal in pleasurable conversation. Even the title suggests a more accessible spirituality, one oriented to domestic ritual, rooted in our daily routines and grounded in our quotidian hopes and concerns, our small but personal lives.
Detail, Assorted ceramics
It is an idea that is given eloquent articulation in a collection of ceramics gathered on a white table like a band of misfit toys, roughhewn and misshapen but reverently –adoringly, even – marked and painted and glazed, as if to illustrate Simone Weil’s assertion that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” The pieces take the vague shapes of bells and horns, chalice and ciborium, vessels for communal celebration rendered in lowly materials by humble hands. What more primal matter than clay, the very stuff that pre-Christian gods employed for their human creations?
“Untitled”, Acrylic, watercolor, charcoal on paper. 16” x 19”, 2019.
Gnadinger can call forth celestial realms as well, most notably in their works on paper. A trinity named Untitled offers the show’s rare concentrated use of the color black: over layers of collaged paper painted in a creamy shade of acrylic, they rub large swathes of charcoal to bring forth the shapes and textures of moon craters, nascent galaxies and futurist geometries. In the search for something larger than ourselves, we travel beyond the limits of heaven and into the infinite vastness of the universe, to this primordial mingling of cosmic dust, these eternal materials that are then imbued with ephemeral meaning through the artist’s hands.
“Presently Undetectable Things Or Maybe Tiny Ghosts, #7 – 18”, Acrylic, watercolor, linen thread, pen, charcoal, paper, canvas. 3” x 5”, 2019.
Look closer at the works on paper – Presently Undetectable Things Or Maybe Tiny Ghosts #5, #6, #7 – and see the linen threads mechanically stitched within the works; suddenly one can imagine our creature in the lab coat as an interstellar seamstress in her celestial atelier, carefully attending to the creation of a new world. (Let the series of miniatures, numbered #7-18, stand as the thumbnail sketches she created in birthing this grand design.) In Gnadinger’s spirituality, space is not a cosmic void but a pregnant silence quietly vibrating with possibility. The dead are not tiny ghosts, but instead very real things that are simply presently undetectable through our earthly ways of seeing.
“Altar with Telescope”, Fabricated steel, acrylic, ceramic, textile, thread, books. 8’ x 3’, 2019.
Perhaps that helps explain the titular objects in Altar With Telescope, a modestly proportioned work featuring a fabricated steel altar prepared for worship with ceremonial linens, a parcel of thin paper books and a mounted telescope made from a short cuff of ceramic wrapped with handwoven cloth. The inclusion of a telescope on the altar would seem to suggest that spiritual answers may be found in the stars, or that there is some merit in skyward searching, at least.
“Presently Undetectable Things Or Maybe Tiny Ghosts, #5” behind another altar of sorts.
And yet Gnadinger’s rudimentary telescope contains no apparatus for magnification, not even the crude focus offered by a long, narrow tube: it is simply a circular frame through which to gaze. But what if that is the point? What if this collection of spiritual experiments reveals that, in fact, there’s nothing to reveal: the divine has been in plain sight all along, in the everyday vessels of our commonplace rituals, in the materials of our kitchens and baths, even here in this gallery where wine is poured and strangers gather in celebration of the communal grace of art.
When visiting John Brooks’s studio on Lytle Street, one must pass through several rooms before arriving at the inner sanctum of Brooks’s creative practice. First, one enters the ground floor of the Lytle Street building, an industrial warehouse in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville. Then, up the stairs to the second floor, one finds a cluster of different studio spaces occupied by the loose collective of artists who, like Brooks, occupy Lytle Street, among them Letitia Quesenberry, Chris Radtke, Denise Furnish, Dominic Guarnaschelli, Rosalie Rosenthal, and Jacob Heustis. Through a foyer of second-hand furniture and down the hall, there is a door to the first location of Quappi Projects.
Brooks founded this gallery in 2017 with the aim of furthering the artistic conversation amongst artists and art-lovers in Louisville. Named after the affectionate nickname of painter Max Beckmann’s second wife Quappi (a derivation of Kaulquappe, German for “tadpole”), Quappi Projects hosted numerous exhibitions at Lytle Street before moving during the summer of 2019 to its current space on Market Street. Brooks now operates Quappi Projects out of Market Street and continues his studio practice on Lytle. There, tucked within the bright, white-walled space of the former Quappi Projects, one finds a curtain. And behind that curtain is Brooks’s studio: an enclave for his paintings, collages, easels, and gathered sources of inspiration.
John Brooks, studio view.
As an artist Brooks is at home with the unknown, the ambiguous, the subtle, and the fleeting. His education had various chapters, from studying politics at the University at Charleston, to studying art at the Central St. Martins College of Art & Design and the Hampstead School of Art while living in London, England. The most lasting conceptual impact, however, came from his time spent visiting Berlin over the years and a summer spent studying under the figurative painter Norbert Bisky in 2015 at Berlin’s AUTOCENTER Summer Academy. Brooks’s admiration for Germanic artistic influences and Germany’s sensitivity to its own dark history finds its way into many aspects of his practice. He often returns to the Max Beckmann quote: “All important things in art have always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of Being.” He explains, “I came across that quote some years ago and it stuck with me because that is how I look at the world. We understand a lot, but there is also so much that we don’t understand. Or can’t comprehend…I aim to imbue my work with that sense of unknowing. My creative impulses come from that place, and from a place of longing or missing. There’s a great German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht.”
Brooks’s promotion of expansive thinking connects to his work in curation (as the director of Quappi Projects he steers the gallery’s exhibition program), and to his interest in poetry. He describes himself as “a person who writes constantly in my head as I move throughout the day.” Though it felt natural for him to eventually connect his painting to his poetry practice, the result was nonetheless transformative. The titles for his most recent body of paintings are all drawn from his poetry. His series of work, “A Map of Scents,” on view at Moremen Gallery during the summer of 2019, employs this strategy of poetically titling his pictures, as well as a fresh aesthetic that Brooks explains came from integrating his process of collage-making into his painting. Brooks previously felt he could create more freely in the medium of collage, without the historical weight of painting upon him. He had a breakthrough moment when he realized he could combine his collage and painting techniques: “After nearly a decade of almost exclusively creating expressive faces, my painting practice had reached a standstill. I did not see a way forward until it occurred to me to utilize my collages—during the making of which I do not suffer from compositional frustrations—to help facilitate composition in my painting. Through this change in method and approach I feel unbounded.”
Whereas in recent years a dreamy haziness surrounded Brooks’s figures, in his most recent works he articulates a more defined aesthetic of modeling people in light touches of black paint, with striking clarity in their gazes. These newer figures reside in a world of free-floating images pulled from magazines, websites, social media, and gestural textures of paint.
John Brooks, You Were a Night Owl But it Doesn’t Matter, 47 x 39.5 inches.
Collage allows for unexpected juxtapositions. We see this in the layering of eyes, body, faces, and limbs in Brooks’s paintings, as well as distinct swaths of color: a zone of pink, a backdrop of green, an abstracted touch of olive. Collage’s unprescribed form also allows for the use of empty space. Brooks compares the deliberate, blank areas of his canvases to the restraint used in poetry. “Good poetry says the most it can with as few words as necessary,” he reminds us. As readers we must fill in the gaps between words, accordingly there are unpainted areas between the images in Brooks’s paintings. These gaps allow the poetic elements to breathe.
John Brooks, Dark Breakfast, 47 x 39.5 inches.
This “push and pull” between the extravagance of oil painting and the discipline of poetry parallels another abiding question in Brooks’s work: how much narrative and explicit (i.e., political) content to include? While the meanings of his paintings might seem open-ended to his viewers, for Brooks the politically motivated inspiration for the work is clear. He cites making works about subjects as diverse as the legacy of World War II (Hürtgen Forest; Berlin is a Dirty Mirror), spousal abuse (Elizabeth in the Same Hour), polyamory (An Abyss of Thighs), and the consequences of queer sexuality in our culture (Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn)). In the Boldewijn painting, Brooks captures the tragedy surrounding his subject’s death in the penetrating melancholy of Boldewijn’s eyes. Only nineteen years old, the Dutch teenager Boldewijn was found murdered in 2018 following a Grindr date. Violence experienced by young queer men carries a personal significance for Brooks, who lost a friend in 2014 under circumstances to similar to Boldewijn’s (foul play following a Grindr date). Brooks explains that the name “Orlando” also reminds him of the horrific mass shooting in 2016 at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. While friends and family inspire many of Brooks’s themes, not all the subjects in his painting and poetry are autobiographically inspired. Some works (and texts) speak more generally to the state of our country, society, and the environment, aspiring to the time-honored tradition of the artist articulating universal truths.
Studio view with Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn) in foregound.
Brooks’s calculations in deciding what to reveal and not reveal through the titles and content of his work reminds me of contemporary painter Keltie Ferris’s approach to sharing parts of her queer identity. (Ferris, coincidentally, was also raised in Kentucky.) Regarding her body prints she explained, “There is something about disclosing and not disclosing, or revealing or not revealing: the unfolding…You see everything, but you don’t. That kind of controlled unfurling is queer.”
Growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky, Brooks describes espousing “a certain timidity as a way to cope and make my way through small town life in Kentucky in the 80s.” As a practicing artist, however, he argues that his work “has never been apologetic.” It’s all there for those who care to probe deeper. He describes wanting to take his stance further, saying, “Moving forward with my practice I plan to continue integrating politics and political ideas and current events into my work, but I want to do it in a way so that the work functions in a variety of ways, that it touches not just on ideas of politics but also ideas of art, too.”
Paul Valéry once described poetry as a “language within a language.” Poets nestle ideas into words in ways that defy literal and succinct description. Continuing with my Russian doll theme of rooms within rooms and languages within languages, I’d like to conclude by calling attention to micro-passages of paint that Brooks pointed out to me within his paintings. Within his newest works he inserts shapes and color that are influenced by the painters he admires. “I am thinking about specific artists when I’m pondering colors,” he explains. “Max Beckmann and Marlene Dumas with black, Cy Twombly and Ferdinand Hodler with white, Kirchner with purple and green (and Hockney) and Peter Doig, Matisse and Guston with pinks.” Floating within the paintings Bisky Says Joy Comes from the Action and The Collectors are small, variegated strokes of color comprising green leaves, crafted in the style of David Hockney. It’s a quiet, knowing gesture, an intimacy born of looking and (as Bisky says) joy.
The following three poems by John Brooks are published here for the first time, on UnderMain:
Morning is ministry,
of autumn on this
newest day. You slip
into a susurrus
of fog, become
to the now.
Leaves are lime
of Osage orange,
gasping. In rain
this slope is slick,
full of snakes aching
not to be seen
scraping in the dregs
of summer’s last
honey. Heron, Snowy
egret, Sandhill crane
forage and hover
as a trio in a shy
pond. Departing geese
are a cadent scene
in four acts. You exult
in the urgent quality
of this dying light.
Tomorrow is already
another goodbye, almost
the deep black lake
of November when
winds get wild,
the road, and dark
is a song stuck
in your head
or the mood
as you head
to the polls.
now is cause for
alarm. And that
was then. We
are even more
in our comfort
now. You know
where I live out
in the middle
all sunsets look
like bad paintings.
My kids think
at least. I float
on blue song.
guile, gave into
She was nocturnal;
for me morning
is always a hymnal
but by midday
who we are. Empires
collapse out of fear.
It’s uniform in a Kubrick,
it’s uniform in a Hitchcock.
I can’t get the monarch
to agree; he’s after
a guest in my garden
or is it the other
and who leaves
and who remains.
so of course
a culture does.
This is kind of
an old story
but we thought
Our coal trucks, our
we have cornered
ourselves into erasure.
Rockets red glare
in an elephant eye.
Rain hopes to be oil,
oil hopes to be oilier.
I don’t think
the future will be
careful with us.
The present, obviously
not. Today we are
we are empty.
Where I live
a monarch is a
To summer is
to dark so
have if he
Elizabeth in the Same Hour
In a forest daylight is
a drawback. Here is this
photograph of Elizabeth
in the same hour, head
encircled by hair as
black as wood char.
She called herself
an Indian, hesitated
to marry. Marriages
are the regrets
of spooky girls.
What tribe had
she wed? Bill
spoke to horses,
came on foot
from Missouri, drank
too much, went blind
from bile. She learned
how good touch
and bad touch
but never touched.
Her children seized
the river in her
and gave it one
She kept it spotless,
whether in town
her women had known
how to silo scars
just how to manage
were chiseled into and out