The lyrical gestures of Abstract Expressionism, the mysterious “inscapes” of Surrealism, the opulence of Pattern and Decoration and the pastiche of Postmodern Appropriation pack the rich canvas surfaces of Benjamin Britton: Your Apprehension Is Noted at Marcia Wood Gallery, through October 18.
At first Britton’s eclectic paintings appear confusing and crowded. Look awhile longer and you’ll discover that both their imagery and their facture reference landscape, cityscapes, pop culture and private narratives while they index the history of modern painting.
A love of this moment made this moment possible (2010) might seem a dramatic title for the unassuming abstraction that introduces the show, but follow the translucent green and rust-colored line as it snakes through the center, over and under a pillow-shape of wide, blue-green brushstrokes. The thinly brushed blue-green form should appear almost transparent compared to the meandering rust-and-green line, but the line completely disappears beneath the wide blue-green strokes.
Pink and pale orange background show through portions of the otherwise opaque blue-green marks, further confounding the viewer’s expectations. A calico pattern in the lower half “describe[s] the condition of covering and uncovering” according to the artist, “mirroring the application of paint itself.”
Now the title makes sense: the artist delights in the complexity created by his playful manipulation of painterly effects.
The much larger Double Horizon (2014) shows Britton’s continued fascination with combining painterly abstraction and illusionistic imagery. This time viscous flows of blue, green and black paint encircle an orange object, which the artist describes as a “buoy.”
Brilliant beams of white, yellow, orange and red emanate from the buoy and flow upward against a deep black, star-specked background as if it were floating through space in a sci-fi scene that’s been invaded by webs of Abstract Expressionist paint.
The juxtaposition of disparate images with graphic renderings in an ambiguous, illusionistic space in Burns to Breathe (Gotta Have a Better Attitude) (2014, 40 x 38.5 inches) recalls the “inscapes” of Surrealist painter Roberto Sebastián Matta, who combined unexpected imagery with unconventional painting techniques to create fantastic landscapes intended as landscapes of the mind.
Perhaps Britton plays his hand in titling one of his compendia of modern painting techniques and illusionist tricks Throw me the idol, I’ll give you the whip (2014). The line from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark is the guide Satipo’s false promise to Indiana Jones. Britton taunts the viewer with illusionism, promising legibility but delivering deception.
The exhibition title is similarly tricky. Apprehension can mean understanding or grasp, but it can also mean anxiety or fear.
Viewers may also find Britton’s embrace of the “decorative” disconcerting. Though often a put-down today, the term had an entirely different meaning to fin-de-siécle painters such as Paul Gauguin or Henri Matisse. “Decoration” liberated them from imitating the appearance of reality. It allowed them to explore the potential of art as art, and express their personal response to nature.
Britton is a painter’s painter. Each of his visually absorbing and intellectually evasive canvases offers entry into a personal, imaginary narrative as well as a history of painting.