Matthew Brannon: Portikus Frankfurt am Main
2010, Issue 138, by Amanda Coulson, Frieze Magazine
What do ‘Coronet Brandy’ and ‘El Producto Cigar’ have in common? Certainly they’d make for a nice combination, but their logos were both created (in 1941 and 1952, respectively) by the legendary American graphic designer, Paul Rand. Beginning in the 1940s, Rand is known for having revolutionized graphic design, producing globally recognized corporate logos for the likes of IBM and UPS. The works on view in Matthew Brannon’s solo show, ‘A question answered with a quote’, appeared at first glance to be an homage to this venerable star of advertising and communication: simple images, clean lines, bright block colours depicting consumer items in cleverly stacked graphic collages. From a distance they seem to be vintage ads, something Mad Men’s Don Draper might have thought up.
The items depicted in Brannon’s letterpress prints – exhibited here on tilted wooden stands resembling rudimentary drafting tables – are straight out of a fashion or luxury lifestyle magazine. Lobsters, wine glasses, ladies’ stockings, a Rolex watch and the inevitable array of super-sexy ‘i’s – iPod, iPad, iPhone – all look glossy, vibrant and attractive. Yet the discreet texts underneath, where one would expect a catchy slogan, turn out to be unexpectedly caustic: some imply a blackly humorous narrative while others make mordant observations on modern life.
Indeed, while most of the depicted objects are lusted-after luxury items, many are actually in a state of decay – worn, used, leftover – adding a kind of jadedness or shabbiness to the scenes. The champagne bottles and glasses, indicated by simple black profiles, are always empty and tipped on their sides (such as in Ladies Choice, 2007, or Regrets Only, 2008). The dark-red rose, which also looks like a full glass of red wine, in A Difference of Hours (2010), is past its peak, the leaves are beginning to fall and the petals will soon follow. Excerpts of text – ‘Dress Rehearsal/Closing Party’, ‘Cancelled Reservations’, ‘Who killed who the night before’ – imply shattered hope and disappointed expectations, just as the rose-as-wine-glass conjures images of the jilted, lonely drinker. These verses deny any of the relaxed sophistication one might have imagined and instead replace it with a sense of desperate striving to attain or maintain a certain social level through constant show and consumerism.
In the corner of the exhibition space, set off by Brannon’s two-tone graphic wallpaper, was a sculptural/sound piece comprising a white pedestal with black cubic speakers on either side – like a kind of sculptural Malevich – and a black record player with a white vinyl record on the turntable. A small shelf holds the white album cover with the piece’s title: Gag. Again, Brannon uses language to both emphasize and confuse: is it all a joke? Or is the gag a metaphorical restraint, or does it all make you sick?
Brannon’s barbed narrative texts are, according to the press release, meant to be a critical comment on ‘Immoderation, greed, excesses, and most gravely, indomitable hedonism.’ The artist is therefore making a criticism of the consumers’ world with the very means intended to make the punters buy. It sounds clever and subversive but somehow the visuals are simply too pretty or too catchy to really deliver a hard punch. One needs to remember that Brannon is selling something too – not only his work but also the intellectual ideas behind them, and it’s ultimately highly ironic to think of one of these prints ending up on a wealthy collector’s wall.
Rand struggled to bring elements of high art to graphic design and advertising, to lend it credibility and depth. Brannon is doing the reverse: taking the shallow language of advertising and trying to make it deeper. The show’s title ‘A question answered with a quote’ implies another kind of shallowness, an interrogative hoping for a profound response answered with a glib one-liner. Maybe, then, the best way to conclude is with one of Rand’s famous quotes: ‘Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.’
Read the entire article
MATTHEW BRANNON: A question answered with a quote
by John Beeson, Spike Art Quartlery
Just inside the entrance to the gallery of Portikus, a multicolored letterpress print entitled Regrets Only (2008) introduces several tendencies in Matthew Brannon’s repertoire. Hanging down from the top of the page are two ghostly legs—below, an overturned champagne bottle, a radio, and the line of text: »Not another word.« An implicit reference to suicide is a fitting preface to this exhibition, which, with a forked tongue-in-cheek, often smuggles harsh language and macabre subject matter in the form of charmingly illustrative imagery.
Altogether, twenty-four prints in a similar format are positioned on eight wooden, viewing structures, as if providing a compendium of instructive parables; images and texts sit on white paper, set in black frames against a painted black surface, tilted back to promote direct, individual viewing. Supplementing these printed works are a decorative wallpaper along the back wall, a hanging sculpture of a light bulb painted black, and the sound installation Gag (2010)—gulps, coughs, and gasps resounding throughout the space with only moments of intervening silence. Stifling, disturbing, and arresting, the soundtrack speaks to the printed works’ didacticism and is only one example of the exhibition’s constant, self-reflexive interplay between consumption and excess.
New York-based artist Matthew Brannon (*1971) comes from a background of painting and book design, and his subjects and styling have drawn references to authors and filmmakers—from Capote to Calvino, Saki to Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Freud and, regularly, Jean Renoir—as well as to 50s American advertising-chic. Brannon’s sensitivity to detail can be seen in his flawless employment of traditional letterpress printing; that selfsame sensitivity to detail also motivates the total, aesthetic nature of the exhibition. From the elegant design of the print-viewing structures to their eccentric, off-axis arrangement in the space, this site-specific installation underscores the material and social attentiveness that Brannon’s work embodies and critiques. While standing in front of More Than Enough (2010)—a print depicting three iPods—viewers can glimpse, against the wall behind the print, the electronic equipment producing the sound installation. Creating a formally striking composition, the lustrous, black record player stands in stark contrast to the pure white of the record and the deep red of its label; this chic, minimal arrangement connotes material and social means at the same time that it displays an aesthetic that is popular in installations of contemporary art.
In the printed works, the broad array of iconography composes a real-life variety of personal possessions, from the tawdry to the extravagant. Although forms and references are often abstract to the point of evoking association, their consistent stylization specifically recalls the artist. Sometimes Brannon’s images and texts would seem to reference his own experience, or one like his, such as when he narrates the self-conscious thoughts of a professional artist in an art supplies store: »In front of you the undergraduate with a shopping list. Behind you the retired hobbyist.« The various texts’ constant oscillation from a voice of self-doubt, to one of cynicism, to one of resolution constitutes an earnest, effective humanity. Sometimes addressing viewers, sometimes provoking them, and sometimes speaking on behalf of them, the field of subject matter can be consuming, and its tone can evoke an emotional response, drawing the viewer into its reality. Nevertheless, in the last print in the far corner of the gallery space—once again, More Than Enough (2010)—Brannon addresses the ever-present possibility that he is presenting artifice: »So I finish my story and he says, ›wait, is this second hand information?‹« One can sense Brannon everywhere but, perhaps, never see him. What is most poignant and magnanimous in this offering is neither the abstraction of his visual language, nor the beauty of his stylized material, but rather the work’s candor, which collapses the distance between it and reality. So beautifully produced and installed, the art, itself, embraces indulgence but remains, in its textual referents, always self-conscious and critical. Brannon’s work speaks neither purely from a position of submission, nor from one of pure incisiveness, but of a consciousness of better habits. Here is a penetrating cross-section of contemporary life—distilled, made aesthetic, dramatized, and reified. After all, as one text concedes:
Read the entire article
matthew brannon - hyena
Matthew Brannon (b. 1971) grew up surrounded by the death rock and punk scene of Los Angeles. Opportunities to simply and quickly produce advertising and informative material such as posters, postcards, flyers and fanzines were utilised in manifold ways in this subculture, and were a definitive influence on Brannon's artistic socialisation. He now lives in New York and works in both the high- and low-end production of prints and posters. His tapestries and prints are produced using classic printing processes, the nature of which is often contrary to the dreary images they create.
Brannon's elegance and formalism is contrasted by consistent eerie content. Thus the supposedly easy-to-consume surfaces are overturned by the use of sinister, sometimes surreal-seeming texts, as seen in the series of two-colour silkscreen prints in the exhibition. Stylish graphic depictions of plants hover above the titles "How it all ends", "Hair of the Dog", "Police Officer Giving up" and "Sick Whore".
Following the thematic guidelines of "Penetration" (Brannon's last show at Jan Winkelmann / Berlin) "Hyena" extends his focus on the issue of the frailty and vulnerability of the human psyche. The constant and more or less present fears that sometimes allow a glimpse into the deepest of human abysses. Often these lead to what the artist calls "personal pathologies", i.e. substance abuse, alcoholism, sexual misadventure, careerism and megalomania. Best seen in the two new letterpress pieces, which balance between prose and poetry.
In addition to the already mentioned print series, two new large-format tapestries will be displayed. The oversized, almost iconic eels echo both graphically and conceptually the image of a whip.
At the centre of the "Hyena" exhibition is the piece of the same name. Composed of a phonograph record of a hyena barking and the drawing of a whip it is as atmospheric as it is absurd. The noises made by the restless, rambling, caged and panting animal mingle with the clanging of gates and audience chatter. The harsh maniacal and hysterical 'laughter' leads into the cracking sound of breaking bones.