Drawings & photographs by Arthur Bruso.
October 15 to December 10, 2023 at Curious Matter.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Decay is captivating. It evokes nostalgia, a longing for the past, and a yearning for transformation. Arthur Bruso’s art practice includes photography, drawing, collage, Cornell-like box constructions, as well as curation, and a roving body of arts writing. I’ve had the pleasure to curate several exhibitions of his work. “Penumbra”, “Additional Narrative Possibilities”, and “Falling City” featured his photography. “A Lesser Doxology” and “Aether” included both photography and box constructions. His work is infused with a lively, vigorous sense of curiosity. Recurring themes include grappling with our existence, our place in the cosmos, the search for meaning through science and mysticism; as well as our more personal histories, and how those histories are reconsidered and retold throughout our lives.
The collection presented here features a selection from a series of mixed media drawings entitled “Portals”. Primarily oil and dry pastel over acrylic with graphite, these geometric abstractions use photographs of abandoned buildings as their compositional source material. While the imagery is rooted in photography, these drawings depart from photorealism. Bruso abstracted the architectural subject matter of the photos to further distill the compositions and rendered them with a lush application of the media. While a distillation of architectural detail might suggest a cold formalism, the apparent hand of the artist at work, and the impasto finish imbues Bruso’s work with an invigorating energy.
Bruso’s interest in the drawings of Richard Serra is apparent in how he attends to his seductively tactile surfaces. Speaking with Bruso, he shared, “I wanted the drawings to be about the textural qualities of the media. I was also looking for a more abstract language. My early work, even all through graduate school, had been photorealistic…. That was a difficult break for me. I had to learn a new visual language.”
Along with the drawings, the exhibition showcases four photographs. One of these, “My Death Series – Open Room”, was the departure point for the drawing “Portals – No. 22 – Skylight” shown in this collection. The other photographs are compositionally related and represent the artist’s framing eye, his continuous exploration of historical architectural layers, and the playful patterns in the world around us. There is a delightful musicality to these images. The graphic lines of a fire escape suggest a piano keyboard in one, while light and shadow bounce about in another. A crumbling brick wall isn’t ponderous, but rather invigorated by the interplay of streaming light.
Bruso’s formative years unfolded in Albany, New York, during a period marked by the wholesale destruction of 19th-century neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal. As a child, just blocks from his own home, he bore witness to the relentless demolition, all in service of the grand vision that became the Empire State Plaza. Later, while in college, he set out to record many of the boarded up and decaying buildings that had been designated expendable by the city. Always an explorer, I imagine those empty thoroughfares offered him potent inspiration, through the architecture, the weathered surfaces, the unexpected geometries of plywood covered windows and doors, shattered glass, and remnants of displaced lives.
Similarly, around the same period, Gordon Matta-Clark was exploring the barren streets of 1970s Manhattan — the meatpacking district, the piers, the financial district. Douglas Crimp writes in his memoir Before Pictures, “the subject and site of Matta-Clark’s art was the city itself, the city experienced as simultaneously neglected and usable, dilapidated and beautiful, loss and possibility.” Others of the ‘pictures generation’, from Peter Hujar’s deserted images of downtown Manhattan, or Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills”, found those abandoned streets catalysts for their work as well.
Parallels to Bruso’s early photographs can also be seen in the documentary images by Danny Lyon in his “Destruction of Lower Manhattan” (1969). Just as the nearby neighborhoods in Bruso’s Albany of childhood were decimated, Lyon was recording the vast swaths of downtown Manhattan destroyed to make way for the World Trade Center. Interior walls of homes shockingly exposed by the wrecking ball, revealing, for example, the diagonal patterns of stairwells or bits of ephemera left behind by displaced families. Lyon's images are more populated than Bruso’s as the dislocation of residents was still in process, but the careful framing of shapes, visual rhythms and patterns are shared.
When I interviewed Bruso for the exhibition “Aether”, he spoke of Lillian Hellman. I’ve referenced this quote in other essays, but I continue to return to it, and it resonates for the current exhibition. Bruso said, “Lillian Hellman talks about pentimento in relation to a person’s past. Pentimento is an art conservation term that describes the effect of oil paint becoming more transparent over time, allowing the changes the artist made to show through. Hellman uses the term to explain her way of looking back over a life and reconsidering it with the knowledge and wisdom of the present (‘to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.’) For me, my art exists in a continuum.”
Frequently, we are keen to learn about the latest projects of a contemporary artist. While Bruso works constantly, this expectation is somewhat challenged. He continues to draw inspiration from and reevaluate his past work and experiences. Older images might reappear in a new context. For this exhibition he has returned to his vast and growing catalog of photographs. He called upon a group of Albany images from an undergraduate photography project. He reexamined and rendered them in a new medium. Regarding the drawings, Bruso said, “They did not birth easily. I had to learn how to do them as if I were starting my art education all over again…. [T]hey were a new language that I had to learn. And there were many failures and bad directions…. I came away with a humbler expectation of my own abilities and understanding that the first iteration of an idea is not necessarily the best.”
Arthur Bruso stands as a testament to the enduring power of introspection and reinvention. His work, whether through naturalistic rendering, or geometric abstraction, is a meditation on time and transformation. With humility, rigor, and discipline, he navigates the complexities of creation, embracing the continuous quest for new perspectives. In returning to his past work, he doesn’t merely revisit old images; he reimagines them, breathing new life into the familiar. It’s a reminder that art, like life itself, is a continuum—an ongoing exploration of self, history, and the boundless possibilities of the human spirit. We can admire “Portals” for their visual richness but also wholeheartedly embrace the profound lesson they impart, one that resonates deep within our souls: that our existence is an awe-inspiring collage, woven intricately from threads of the past, present, and the eternally enigmatic future.
Raymond E. Mingst, curator © 2023 used by permission of the author
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