Le Brun’s paintings have always treaded diverse stylistic ground. They’ve explored classical literature, Wagnerian music, poetry and history through quintessentially romantic “subjects” like, forests, knights, adventurers, horses and gallivants. Whatever the subject, with Le Brun’s work we find ourselves in that misty area where what is represented is not actually portrayed. A type of art, and I’d argue the best type, that incorporates internal negation – it seeks to show by concealing.
Contrast this with another form of negation that proliferates in post-modern (or whatever) art: irony. Le Brun laments that visual art is “swamped with irony”. Of course, the typical response is to refuse to enter the swamp and seek visual experiences through distraction, celebrity or entertainment, often cleverly disguised as visual art. Le Brun is not only aware of this crisis in art but tries to affect a change. Somehow, his confidence is appropriate when he claims his art is “what art should be: man and the world and metaphysical things. A serious, adult act.”
His new work at Friedman Benda is the most abstract he’s shown. These paintings are ostensibly related to abstract expressionism, and while the motivations might be similar, the context differs. Well, a 67”x59” vertical oil on canvas with thickly applied black, greys, greens and red recalls Clifford Styll in the weightiness of the craggy stalactite like black form. The black, however, isn’t as assertive as Styll, with hints of the red layer beneath it peaking through. The gentler Gather evokes landscape with its miasma of blues, whites and low horizon line. It’s reminiscent of a later Turner where color, light, and paint diffuse into pure atmosphere. Others, like Roma Amor, recall Bernard Newman’s zips, vertical lines defining special elements.
These New Paintings can be celebrated in their own right as explorations in distilling gestures into the smallest amount necessary to achieve an effect. For me though, they are even more interesting when compared to Le Brun’s entire oeuvre. Thinking about the continuum of his work I can’t help but recall Robert Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition. His paintings, particularly in light of this newest abstract work, fit squarely within the thesis of that book; namely that abstract expressionist painting was not so much a product of French based abstraction, from Cezanne to Picasso, but of the northern romantic tradition from William Blake, through Friederich and Munch (for example).
Le Brun’s earlier atmospheric representations of forests, horses and towers, in which something “metaphysical” is shown by concealing, are historical precursors to the recent abstractions in which layer after layer of paint are “revealed then covered.” These distilled abstractions are each like mini-epiphanies about what a painting can be once simplified. Most of the work, the recent abstractions included, is marked (paradoxically, when thought about in context with the distillation) by a primeval immensity and sublimity that are also hallmarks of romanticism.
This brings us to the roll of history in Le Brun’s work. First, and most simply, his work operates as a reference to the history of English painting, from his use of symbols a la William Blake and Phillip Otto Runge, to the atmospheric, near empty, diffuse landscapes of Turner and, to a lesser extent, Constable. The work also speaks to the larger sweep of history, a narrative if you will, that goes beyond mere art history as it’s commonly understood to encompass history in the grander, teleological sense. It reasserts the possibility of contemplation and concentration, and even mystery, in examining the visual world.