JOHN BROSIO: AN ANXIOUS REALISM
By Peter Frank
Realist painting in the United States has a not wholly deserved reputation as exacting of hand, faithful to the eye, and placid, or at least reassuring, in subject. Even the grandeur-filled landscapes that documented the opening of the West would seem to present themselves as lucid and triumphant, declarations that nature was to be bent to man’s will. Nature doesn’t bend all that readily, however; behind every mountain lurks an avalanche. In fact, American realism is shot through with unease, with a sense of strangeness, alienation, and peril. The luminists, for instance, gave their gentle prospects an eerie glow, and the trompe-l’oeil still life painters proposed an uncanny visual condition. In the modern (and postmodern) era(s), this edge becomes sharper. The 20th century, and now the 21st, after all, have only delivered continual disaffection and turmoil. The Machine Age became the Age of Anxiety, and the Digital Age, with its Big Brother eye, threatens to become the Age of Vulnerability. American representational painters, no matter how reliant on Surrealist tropes, have reflected the nervous grasp their countrymen and -women maintain on life. If the economy don’t getcha, their pictures posit, climate change will.
No current painter more expresses, even relies on, such peculiarly American “anxious realism” than does John Brosio. His now-iconic renditions of looming tornadoes bearing down on blasé, unsuspecting suburbanites conflate classic and contemporary sensations – very American ones. After all, there is no natural disaster more American than the tornado – and, if we regard the tornado as the harbinger of ecological calamity, the short-term symptom of long-term collapse, then the blissful ignorance of the doomed bungalow-dweller tidily represents the blind eye we’ve cast for decades upon the warning signs of environmental change. In his tornado paintings Brosio (who spent three years “chasing” tornadoes across the Great Plains) presents us with a here-and-now proposition: we as Americans – and as humans – have every right to be anxious, we’ve earned it.
Brosio’s oeuvre sprawls over a far vaster plain of events than that struck by tornadoes. And within his wild, often improbable mix of motifs and treatments, the artist changes his focus radically, going from the banal to the awesome, the quotidian to the dreamlike (not just nightmarish), the matter-of-fact to the impossible, the childlike to the virtuosic. In one series, he fills the skies over scenes of middle America with images of dinosaurs – crudely rendered images, that is, which turn out to be precise recapitulations of drawings Brosio made in his childhood. Several related works advance this logic in directions both understandable and unanticipated, by turning the reptiles real and menacing, as they now take the form of giant lizards and sea creatures. Again, the humans on the ground, caught up in their tasks, give no mind to the Godzillated crabs and iguanas destroying their world.
The oblivious people also seem to ignore the fact that their built environment, as Brosio would have it, is as treacherous as the natural one. A motif he has recently introduced into his paintings reduces the ranch houses and clapboards of his American residential streets to two-dimensional cut-outs, ghostly outlines of dwellings penetrated only by a door and/or window that betray the faux maison as a paper structure, practically a mirage, an interior-less shelter that can house nothing and no one. This cipher travels readily from plain to forest to village square. And in the process, its exterior trappings – the vegetation, the outdoor furniture, the very streets – turn to playthings as well. The American Dream, Brosio avers, isn’t all it’s cut out to be; in fact, it is an illusion of security, a child’s dream from which we can only awaken in dread.
That dread spreads evenly and surely throughout Brosio’s art. The politics implicit in his painting are just that, implicit; for all their social frisson, it is the ominousness of the moment(s) the paintings depict that question and compromise our comfortable fantasies about life, American or otherwise. What is “American” about Brosio’s anxious realism is at least as much its tenor – and its appearance – as its subject matter. It seems an American attitude to regard the physical world as no more dependable than the social one, that betrayal can come from the earth or the skies as readily as it can from the neighbors. People are a nuisance; the landscape is dangerous.
Brosio’s influences, from Dutch 17th century painting to jazz, are also characteristically American. His spaces are poised between the intimate and the grandiloquent, wholly admitting neither to the sublime nor the domestic. In this regard they echo the landscape painting of the Dutch golden age (in particular the more expansive, later-17th-century landscape painting of Jacob van Ruysdael and Meindert Hobbema, as well as the interior painting of Pieter de Hooch). Bebop and free jazz, postwar phenomena, underscore the mid-century atomic-café fear that pervades Brosio’s paintings (even though he was born well after duck-and-cover). The flip side of that fear, the rampant consumerism that has driven American culture for a good century, also makes itself manifest in these richly painted depictions of real estate, food outlets, and automobiles – everything turning into toys. Brosio studied with Wayne Thiebaud, taking on not just something of the northern California master’s rich palette and luscious brushwork, but of his rendition of our surroundings as celebrations of gluttony and desire. Brosio tempers this caustic evaluation with the fluid, fantastical atmospherics he learned from his other major pedagogical influence, Richard Bunkall. While Thiebaud’s own anxious realism permitted Brosio to stylize his own landscapes, Bunkall’s has allowed Brosio to conceive of his human communities as integral spaces, not just dreamt but sited for dreaming. Where Bunkall imagined an urban classicism submerged in fantasy, however, Brosio brings harsh reality – or even harsher fantasy – down upon such visions.
John Brosio would seem to be trying to tell us something. But if he is, he is telling us something we already know, however difficult it is to admit we know it. Brosio’s paintings do not in fact “tell” anything; the pictorial experience they impart is too vivid and affecting to come across like finger-wagging. The personal earmarks and indulgences that inflect Brosio’s work, bespeaking his personal character and his artist-personality, are what drive his art and make his visual conceits so persuasive. The “anxious realism” his work represents fits a time and a place, to be sure; but its angst no less than its realism testifies to the individual imagination and experience of the artist – and to ours. Brosio’s realism may be disquieting, but it has been lived.