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Pickett's Re-Charge

CAC Exhibition Spotlights Painter's Emergence Through Reduction

 NoDef Art Writer Kathy Rodriguez deconstructs the diverse set of drawings and paintings in an exhibition of Brooke Pickett's work that is on view at the Contemporary Arts Center, The Center Cannot Hold.


Brooke Pickett’s 2005 painting, Everybody Wants You to Be Special, lurks around a corner in her exhibition The Center Cannot Hold at the Contemporary Arts Center. The focal point of the piece is a large, brain-shaped field of pink oil paint slicked into thickly textured strokes. That pink is total Philip Guston – the renegade painter who left abstract expressionism to seek truth in then-degenerate figuration. It is bright, fleshy, jarring, delightful and verges on painful.  Earthy browns and yellows offset the bruised violets and deadened grays that further emphasize this area, recalled the muted palette of the Abstract Expressionist Guston work that hangs in New Orleans Museum of Art. Pickett’s painting is like a memorial to him.


The Center Cannot Hold, Paintings and Drawings by Brooke Pickett
Where: Contemporary Arts Center, First Floor Galleries
When: Thurs. - Sun., 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.; thru September 25

Guston is special. He is somewhat recently regarded with the art-world adulation that he left with his official exit from abstract expressionism in a controversial 1970 show at the Marlborough Galleries in New York.  That show featured abstract figurative works saturated with pink – and creamy white, red, yellow, and black.  Caricatured heads, cigarettes, shoes, eyeballs and light bulbs dominated his iconography, resulting in highly personal allegory. Pickett, who is from New Orleans, cites Guston as a primary reference, though more so as an ideological influence.  She admires his willingness to go into the unknown, viewing painting as a journey or process rather than a certain language.


Pickett’s painting is a record of her own intrepid forays into art-making.  Collectively, the work is extremely large, rising up to ten feet in height. She fills these vast picture planes with various rhythms, in both the stroke of her brushes and the texture of the paint itself.  Her marks blend and cross-hatch into thick, interwoven fields. The paintings are abstractions of photographed found objects, apparently stools, wires, slatted blinds – anything Pickett finds to be aesthetically challenging or pleasing. She has, in the past, arranged the objects as painterly installations themselves, though in smaller scale than those of Judy Pfaff or Jessica Stockholder (whom Pickett also references). The paintings of the objects allow Pickett to further abstract and flatten them into large but controllable space. 


Choosing your Home Plans, a series of minimalist walnut ink drawings on paper, is the extreme opposite of the paintings.  Each of the ten drawings depicts an isolated section of a home: a railing, a window, unfinished sheetrock. In one, a cabinet or cellar door becomes a wedge of cake. That inventiveness is enabled by the stark abstraction of the work.  The palette is monochromatic and unified, the scale and subject matter are drastically reduced, and line alone shows the variation of texture and value that Pickett achieves in the paintings with a multitude of oil strokes. She absolutely controls the image in these works despite her wavering line quality. Pickett dissects her process and reduces the composition to its essentials in these drawings.  They are an anatomical study – the images obviously relate but are strikingly separate, like each individual letter in an alphabet.


This, again, is a bit like Guston. He relied on an invented iconography – a visual lexicon – a set of images which he combined into evocative and extremely personal statements. Pickett deconstructs a familiar icon – the home – to better understand its parts.  She seems to work in reverse, intimidated by the consuming scale of the paintings. As the most recently completed works in the show, they suggest a current need to reduce the complexity of the painting to find new comprehension in the work.


Additionally, Guston’s later work shows an assuredness in line, color and shape, the fundamental building blocks of any composition.  It is the result of continued, undaunted practice, like saying the same word in a new language until it is perfectly pronounced. Pickett seems still to be learning her visual language.  She strategically approaches this challenge with a variety of techniques, palettes, compositional choices, and processes.  Sometimes the result is joyous harmony, as in the Guston homage. Other times – as in Flotation Devices – the combination of colors and textures results in a garish imbalance. Hot red and orange clash in their complementary relationship with purply ultramarine and cobalt blue.  Orange- brown, like old varnish, overlaps and almost seems to eat its blobby compositional companions.


Maybe this is her point. With the extreme disparity of form in the show, she says that whatever the process or approach, the journey to whatever finish may occur is simply uncharted. This was an essential part of Guston’s practice – the acknowledgement of not knowing.  And, it is a difficult but key aspect of making things that every artist must contend with and eventually embrace.   The exhibition is an honest portrayal of the artist’s struggles and triumphs with the medium of painting, and a nod to the reality that a return to basics can be the most profound and effective way to understand her work.

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