Eugene von Bruenchenhein: Looking Beyond the Mirror

at Carl Hammer Gallery,

through March 16

Roger Brown

at Phyllis Kind Gallery,

through March 5

By Fred Camper

It’s a classic story of the outsider artist: a retired Milwaukee baker with no art training, who never finished high school, dies and leaves behind a small house crammed with paintings, photographs, cement sculptures, ceramic pots, constructions of chicken bones, and reams of unpublished poetry and other writings. After Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s death in 1983, neighbors and family brought his work to the attention of art collectors. Some is now owned by museums, some by individuals, some by Carl Hammer Gallery, which mounts periodic exhibits. The present show includes 63 works in a variety of media.

According to a plaque he made and mounted in his kitchen, von Bruenchenhein was a “Freelance Artist / Poet and Sculptor / Innovator / Arrow maker and Plant man / Bone artifacts constructor / Photographer and Architect / Philosopher.” He apparently believed that he and his wife Marie were descended from royalty; he wrote that he “always felt” he was from “another world.” But then one of his theories was that earth was torn from a larger planet years ago–the “First World,” from which many of our life forms are descended. He also saw humans as neurally interconnected. In one essay he claimed that the brain was a long piece of carbon wire that “can run back as far as twenty thousand years, increasing from one generation to the next,” each generation inheriting all the knowledge of the previous one. But only “one in a million” of each generation “could force the brain to give up the many secrets it had inherited.” He seems to have believed that he himself was one of the few.

Von Bruenchenhein’s work shares much with 20th-century “high” art: a visionary near abstraction, the use of natural forms, a restless experimentation with diverse materials, the use of multiple media to create an encompassing environment (his home). But because von Bruenchenhein lived in a very different world from the one most of us inhabit and saw connections everywhere, in his oeuvre media as different as photography, painting, and sculpture don’t have the ontological differences they usually have in mainstream art. In the superb installations of Annette Messager now at the Art Institute, the photographs are clearly depictions, the plush animals actual things. Von Bruenchenhein’s kinky photographs of his wife, the sculpted ceramic crowns that seem intended for her though they’re too fragile to wear, and the tiny thronelike chairs made of chicken bones are all part of the same fantasy world. Von Bruenchenhein didn’t see the sharp boundary most of us do between symbol and actuality; a crown that Marie could actually wear–which he also made and photographed her in–was not much different, apparently, from these symbolic ones.

His paintings offer a spectacular skein of connections, both visual and conceptual. He took up painting seriously in 1954, making forms inspired by H-bomb mushroom clouds. The paintings in this exhibit, from a few years later, are composed of multiple interwoven layers of plant and animal forms. We see long strands of green, eyeballs, dragons. The patterns often resemble explosions: strands seem to burst from a single area, like lines of force or rays of light. In von Bruenchenhein’s pantheistic universe everything seems alive, charged with a strange power.

One of the strongest paintings shows a kind of underwater jungle. This untitled work, No. 4 on the exhibition checklist, contains tendrillike shoots and long tubes with raised ribs on the top that suggest a fish’s backbone–or a dinosaur’s. Is this the prehistoric past, the present, an imagined future, or a scene from some other planet? The bright colors and strange shapes reminded me of science-fiction illustrations, but formally the image is complex. Shapes passing in front of and behind others make a kind of tapestry, and the surface is densely worked. Von Bruen-chenhein prepared boards with an off-white ground, then squeezed paint directly out of the tubes and worked it with his fingers. Later he used sharply pointed tools, among them a baker’s comb, to both add and subtract paint: many of his shapes contain the same color in different densities, occasionally revealing the ground. The closer one looks, the more the surface reflects a process of accretion and removal, of growth and destruction. The image seems less a unified composition than a record of natural processes, less a self-contained work of art than an entree into some alternative system of thought. Just as great religious paintings functioned as advertisements for religion, von Bruenchenhein’s bewildering array of creatures and forms may inspire the viewer to learn more about his thought.

The cynical viewer might be inspired to crack a few bad jokes, however, about von Bruenchenhein’s thoughts after seeing his strange nude photographs of his wife Marie. She’s generally bare-breasted, covered only by a skimpy cloth around her middle; she seems to display herself for the camera. But von Bruenchenhein achieves a remarkable variety in the 13 untitled photos on view here. In many Marie wears pearl necklaces, sometimes draped around her with a faint suggestion of bondage. Sometimes she appears before a floral backdrop; in No. 23 she wears an elaborate crown that seems to echo the patterns in the backdrop and in the cloth draped over her torso. In No. 26 her head’s superimposed on various tree forms, a free spirit somehow linked with the plant world. In No. 21 we see two of her in the same pose, montaged side by side in printing, as if she were an elemental force capable of self-replication. And in fact her husband wrote under some of her photos “Desire of Nature,” “Desira,” “Universal Desire.”

The ceramic vessels and crowns displayed between the photos and paintings gain from that context. Their repeated leaf shapes, for example, link them to the growth patterns in the paintings. The crowns are surely meant for Marie, often depicted as royalty in the photos. More anomalous are two large painted concrete heads, Mongolian Male Concrete Head and Concrete Head, inspired by reproductions von Bruenchenhein had seen of pre-Columbian sculptures. In fact these heads, with their almost sphinxlike features, have a distinct Olmec look; by referring to that ancient Meso-American civilization, von Bruenchenhein connects himself–and us–to our history.

My favorite works, the chicken-bone sculptures, are surprising for their perfect order. Von Bruenchenhein found matching sets of bones to create almost perfectly symmetrical miniature chairs. Small towers are constructed of one kind of bone repeated again and again, glued together in spirals. These rhythmic chairs and towers, painted in mostly bright colors with a brush that included strands of Marie’s hair, have a surprising delicacy: the bones become the skeletons of everyday forms, dematerializing them. The chair seats are full of empty spaces, and the towers spiral around an empty center.

The large Bone Tower carries the delicacy of von Bruenchenhein’s sculptures to a deeper level of complexity. A cylindrical base about 16 inches tall, constructed of various bones and not rigidly symmetrical, supports a rising spiral of similar height. The whole is painted in a variety of colors, among them gold; the dominant theme is ascent. Von Bruenchenhein had seen a photo of sculptor Simon Rodia’s famous outdoor Watts Towers, made of found objects; one also thinks of Babel. The differently colored bones’ repeating shapes create a variety of rhythms, and the empty space at the center etherealizes the bones, remaking them into pure rhythm. Using the materials of his lower-middle-class existence, von Bruenchenhein aspires to the higher reality he felt could be approached by only a few.

I found it a bit sad to see von Bruenchenhein’s works again offered for sale. Most are elegant, many are beautiful–yet each finds its greatest meaning in the context of the others. The ceramic crowns gain from being seen near the photos of Marie and near the paintings’ plant forms: they indicate the special place von Bruenchenhein saw for Marie and himself, as royalty apart from their peers and integrated with nature. One can only imagine the context that their cluttered and elaborately painted home, now destroyed, would have provided. The photos make us wonder about their marriage; the paintings invoke von Bruenchenhein’s strange scientific theories; the ceramics could be vases or incense burners; the concrete faces have the incantatory power of icons. Galleries and museums by their nature display art in a kind of aestheticized isolation: there the art object can’t be used as it might have been originally. Gallery visitors may read about von Bruenchenhein and read some of his writing in the desk copy of an out-of-print catalog, but the possibility of seeing this work in situ is lost forever.

Many current artists, Roger Brown among them, are disturbed by the tradition of the isolated, aestheticized object and are attempting to recontextualize their art by working in series, by combining media, by creating installations. I’ve always liked Brown’s paintings–their odd mixture of almost cartoonish colors and forms with a visionary light suggests a kind of comic book of the apocalypse–but his 16 new works at Phyllis Kind at first threw me for a loop. Each painting has a shelf at its bottom with one or more objects on it, mostly pottery of various designs. Visually the pots often detract from the paintings, though in fact such found objects partly inspired Brown’s work.

An Alabama native and longtime Chicagoan who now lives in a small town near Santa Barbara, Brown was one of a group of Chicago artists who came of age in the 60s and were inspired by pop culture–advertisements, comics, kitsch objects–as well as outsider artists like Joseph Yoakum. An inveterate flea-market and thrift-store shopper, Brown collects all manner of objects that many would regard as junk, including the objects in this show. In Virtual Still Life #15: Waterfalls and Pitchers, two rows of several hills each have waterfalls coursing down them, and the six pitchers seem potential containers for the water, though they’re obviously too small. Curved handles on each pitcher could be seen as echoing the hills’ curves. But the pots are all different shapes and colors, while the same hill and waterfall repeat many times; the pots are also three-dimensional, and the painting two. On a visual level, painting and pots never reinforce each other.

Some of the smaller works are more unified and coherent. In Virtual Still Life #10: Nemadji Earth Pottery Framed in Candy Apple Red, abstract curved red and brown shapes in the painting mirror in a more controlled way the wildly curved streaks of red and brown on the two pots in front of it. Virtual Still Life #3: Teapot With Tempest places a painted tornado directly above a covered teapot, seeming to grow out of it. Here the artist seems to be playing, trying out different ways of connecting pot and paint, folk art and his art, the world of things and the world of paintings.

Larger works like Virtual Still Life #14: Pots and Piedmont and Piru don’t cohere as well visually: rows of brown hills echo a variety of pots on the shelf, but the 11 pots attain none of the rhythm Brown builds up in his painting. Tiny silhouetted figures on three of the hills create another kind of unity, however: their shadows establish a light source for the picture that’s just about where the viewer would stand, reminding us that only a viewer can bring a picture to life. Brown suggests that only the more active viewer, not the one looking merely for visual coherence, is going to make sense of these pots.

The imprecise relation of the paintings and the pots suggests the messiness of Brown’s diverse sources. The shelves also suggest the homes of those most active of viewers, collectors, in both the good and bad senses: a masterpiece might be just another tchotchke hidden behind junk, but in a good collection it can draw nourishment from the objects around it. Brown’s pots have both effects. Context can enrich, but it can also diminish; wider contexts for art are often but not always helpful. Perhaps it would have been impossible to really see von Bruenchenhein’s crowns in the clutter of his home.