Gritty, overwhelming reality and the business of its staging, at Galerie Bernhard, Zurich
As soon as we are inside, Max Brand offers us a drink. Painted directly onto a wall is a bottle of bubbly, plonked on a counter top. Behind it, against a yellow backdrop, a wispy stick figure rises upwards – past a run of loosely described tiles, towards a frieze of blue flowers above the door. Colours seem to move outwards across the room, encircling viewers in a maelstrom of forced jollity. The tumult covers every wall of Galerie Bernhard’s first room, its bright patterns and stripes extending onto boards placed over the hessian carpet.
The second room has a darker energy, expressed in tones of deep purple and ochre. There is chequerboard patterning here, sponging there. On one wall is a fantastical organic landscape of coral-like forms; beneath it, a face looks out, expressionless. Unlike the first room, this scene is not all-encompassing, with the flooring left mostly bare. In the final room, accessible through a painted gauze curtain, a thick black cloth is draped across one wall, like a dust sheet protecting against the mess of rubbish and discarded materials that are strewn across the floor.
In this framing, which highlights the process and spatial dimensions of his medium, Brand resurrects the old adage of the painter as recorder, decorator or creator of visions out of chaos. Yet the canvases that hang within seem, at first, to refuse any part in painting’s aesthetic discipline. Six untitled works, each 1.8 × 1.4 m and completed in 2018, are spread throughout the three rooms. Each has a dense mixed-media surface made by scrawling, scratching, cutting, pasting and spraying; the resulting compositions are less descendants of art history than enlarged versions of graffiti-covered schoolbooks. The elements that recur most frequently are human faces or figures, but we also have bees, flowers, a ball, insects, a bicycle. The majority of these subjects, objects, swim on the works’ surfaces, but occasionally a figure falls back, painted onto fabric that has been pasted onto the reverse of the canvas and is visible through a small window cut into its surface. Seen frontally or in profile, these figures are emblematic – a man, a woman – but rarely do they become dynamic or specific.
Brand studied under Michael Krebber at the Städelschule and, in keeping with his mentor’s influence, his paintings have continued to shed layers of composition ever since he left Frankfurt-am-Main in 2010. In these new works, foreground and background are scarcely discernible; only from a distance can one distinguish some note of proportion and perspective. In fact, seen in reproduction, the majority of the canvases become messy abysses viewed by the characters that congregate at their edges. In one instance, a lanky, knuckle-dragging figure walks across a makeshift stage to the right of the canvas, like a Giacometti moocher. Look closer at the bold, graphic marks and nods to Keith Haring or A.R. Penck become evident; Hans Hofmann’s early work may also be an influence. Brand’s canvases are distillations of the last three centuries of Western painting, even if they masquerade as wild, puerile rejections of its edicts. In this, they also say something about artifice and the translation of experience into painting. The artist – that figure who moves on the cusp of these various worlds – is caught between gritty, overwhelming reality, and the business of staging that reality, creating sense from so much visual noise. From that point of view, the overarching theme is not what a painter might be, but what their audience expects of them, and how they must walk a tightrope to deliver it.
Max Brand at Galerie Bernhard, Zurich, is on view until 20 April.
Max Brand, installation view, 2018, Galerie Bernhard, Zurich. Courtesy and photograph: Galerie Bernhard, Zurich