Gary Brewer: Infinite Morphologies
Marie Baldwin Gallery
to February, 3rd with an artists walk-through on February 3rd at 5pm
By Betty Ann Brown
“Habituated to the Vast” ~Samuel Coleridge
Gary Brewer is an astonishingly gifted painter who creates visual juxtapositions that are both intimate and awesome. Several of his 2017-2018 works continue the pictorial vocabulary he has employed previously: fastidiously detailed depictions of Phalaenopsis or “Moth” orchids, with their glorious and sometimes surreal shapes and surfaces; red coral limned to emphasize its almost muscular striations; ghostly, convoluted coral skeletons; and shimmering curvilinear shapes that echo scientific depictions of dark matter, the hypothetical energy/material believed to comprise up to 85% of the universe. While the orchids, coral, and skeletons are earth-bound and small in size, the dark matter is vast beyond imagining. In pairing precise images of organic entities with riffs on scientific imaginings of infinite space, Brewer engages the historic binaries of earth vs. heaven or body vs. soul that have been fundamental to Western culture. And he does so with a resonant sense of wonder.
Brewer is postmodern in his elision of conceptual oppositions. The orchids are rendered with the exactitude of botanical illustrations. In contrast to these tight, almost photographic depictions, the painted backgrounds present swirling, amorphous, often translucent realms. The scale shifts are remarkable: Tiny blossoms loom over the cloudy nebulae that explode into immense space.
Brewer’s work also echoes Romanticism’s quest for the sublime. In 1757, British critic Edmund Burke began to use the term “sublime” to refer to the awe and terror experienced in our encounters with massive mountains, violent storms, and volcanic eruptions. (The European Romantics were reminded of nature’s life-threatening power by the 1748 discovery of Pompeii, a vibrant Roman city completely ravaged by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Vesuvius erupted six times in the eighteenth century; British painter Joseph Wright of Derby painted it frequently.) In today’s era of global warming, as hurricanes, typhoons, and tornadoes lash at our coasts and fires rage through our forests, we are similarly–and often painfully–made aware of nature’s destructive power.
Gary Brewer lifts the sublimity of nature to a poetic, metaphysical level. We can appreciate his paintings on a totally formal level: The technique is exquisite, with his wet-into-wet painting creating intriguingly blurred contours: His colors are rich and varied; His shifts in scale and focus are always engaging. Beyond the formal, Brewer explores the transcendence of our existence. We may be minute specks of carbon spinning through space on a relatively small rock-and-water planet. But as we look out at the almost inconceivable expanses of the universe, each of us also holds all of it inside of our awareness.
For this writer, the most exciting examples in Brewer’s current exhibition are the large paintings that eliminate both flowers and corals in order to to shift perspective toward the vastness of space. Pieces like Ultraviolet Mystery (60″ x 48″, 2018), Metaphoric Fire (84″ x 30″, 2018), and Gravity’s Rainbow (84″ x 30″, also 2018) are notable for their scale and for their lush, varied palettes. (Oh! Those blues! Those oranges!) Their soaring uplift is seductive. They function as pictorial abstractions–the dark matter allusions aside–and their almost human scale invites viewers into a phenomenological encounter. (Here I am thinking about the work of French twentieth century philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who analyzed the “primacy of perception.”)
Brewer engages the multivalent range of our experiences with nature. We can hold orchids in the palms of our hands. They are grown in greenhouses, genetically manipulated, and sold at grocery stores. In a sense, they represent how nature can be controlled by humans. But space is beyond our control: It exists on a scale that we are only beginning to understand, much less master.
In 1781, British Romantic scientist William Herschel built a large telescope that multiplied our understanding of the immensity of space. Studying the night skies with his newly designed device, he was the first to see Uranus. Herschel’s discoveries prompted British poet Samuel Coleridge to refer to the moon, planets, and stars throughout his oeuvre. The title for this essay comes from one of the poet’s letters. Like Coleridge, Brewer engages the sublime vastness of nature, as well as our fragile place within it.
Marie Baldwin Gallery