Energy is a kind of tangible intangible in painting. You know it when you feel it.
It’s as crucial to a minimal work, like a Robert Ryman white painting, as to a maximal one, such as a Ryan McGinness image filled with pictographic images and decorative motifs. The manifestations of energy in art are many — from the way a surface shimmers to the way forms relate to one another to the way paint covers a canvas. Art historian B.H. Friedman’s called his biography of Jackson Pollock “Energy Made Visible” for good reason.
So, when an artist’s work seems to possess this ingredient, attention should be paid. And the paintings in San Diego artist Kelsey Brookes’ new exhibition at Quint Contemporary Art fit the bill. “Bigger, Brighter, Bolder” is its title, which seems about right.
That said, though, the paintings are a case of too much voltage going in too many directions. The exhibited selections present potential unrealized.
The show itself divides into three loose groups of work:
1. Round or tondo canvasses: These paintings coalesce better than the others. Brookes has a penchant for tiny recurring forms: creatures with boxy mouths and big ears, sea creatures, scattered words and other things, done in a cartoonishly surreal style. Sifting through these little images is a pleasurable process.
These circular compositions have names like “Explosion (Red)” and “Explosion (Blue).” Brookes herds all the tiny images into the outer portion of the picture, as if they were in orbit around the central form, consisting of thin rays of varied colors emanating like spokes of a wheel from a central point. The symmetry is effective.
2. Animal and figure pictures: The body of each animal or female figure is constructed of many elements. An elephant, for example, is built up from strips and swirls of pattern, and daubs of paints. The eyes bulge and the tongue, a bright pale red, extends lifelessly. The words that make up the title, “Goofball Gobbly-Gook,” wrap around the animal’s neck like a large collar.
Brookes’ elephant looks weirdly lifeless, while the title is offputtingly loopy, It’s more like a festive-looking corpse of a chosen creature. But it’s not all that clear if that’s what he’s trying to convey. Mystery is often desirable in art; murky ambiguity isn’t.
This problem becomes more apparent in his image of a female nude, “The Red Queen.” Her body is a swirl of color and her face has a black hole for each eye and for a mouth. She’s then surrounded by an wreath-like border of small forms similar to those that populate his “Explosion” pictures. As a figure, the “queen” is fairly lifeless, and as a form alone, she isn’t terribly interesting or innovative. The painting, in short, is at cross purposes with itself.
3. Poetic landscape: There is a tiger’s head visible among trees. The complexity of the forest is evocative. The tiger is inspired by William Blake’s “The Tyger,” but the palette of the picture looks garish. Blake suggests a fiery palette. His style of lettering and text is more organic here, since the painting works from the poem.
This exhibition may have more downs than ups, but I remain convinced that Brookes is an artist whose work is worth following in shows to come.