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Vintage Bru

Gomez Showcases a Modern-day Master of "l'Art Informel"

Action Painting: In works such as "Ulysses" (2001) Salvador Bru filters abstract expressionist imagery through mythological themes.

By Ned Oldham | Posted 11/14/2001

Salvador Bru: Paintings

Salvador Bru

Gomez Gallery through Nov. 24

In the hallway of his TV Hill studio, Spanish-born painter Salvador Bru gestures toward his "Creation of Woman." The large painting is a mélange of fleshy yet mechanical shapes in pinks and blues on a field of dark blue, purple, and black. A small yellow pyramid presides in the painting's upper right corner. "It's a complicated matter," Bru says in a thick Catalan accent. "It's not the two hands touching." Here he poses his sturdy, pale, tool-nicked hands in the famous Adam/God touch from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling fresco. "There's DNA, and all sorts of things."

Bru is a slight, elegant man with short silver-gray hair and asymmetrically bushy dark eyebrows. He speaks of his paintings with a genteel pride that would seem to be his due as a painter whose work has been acclaimed by, among others, the famous critic, poet, and composer Juan Eduardo Cirlot (author of A Dictionary of Symbols), who in 1968 called the artist "a volcano."

"And what about this one?" I ask, pointing to an even larger triptych at the far end of his studio.

"This one," he says, "is very free. I put all of my character into this one."

"Triptico," at this stage, is still in its skeletal, or maybe vascular stage, rendered in thick black lines that course with a sort of innocent opportunism, with strength like de Kooning's yet a light but vigorous Gorky-like motion.

According to Jordan Nye, friend, agent, and collector of Bru, when the painter was in his old Hollins Street studio, Bru and Baltimore-based painter/Maryland Institute College of Art maven Grace Hartigan used to check out each other's work. "Bru was the only painter she saw as her equal," Nye says. Bru does very well for himself and has pieces in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and more than a dozen other museums and public collections, yet he is relatively unsung, at least since the late 1960s. His current show at Gomez Gallery makes you wonder why.

Bru's present studio, built in 1850 as an iron foundry, is naturally lit by skylights and a big window. The main room in the back, where he does all his painting, is a generous space with a concrete floor and high ceilings latticed with exposed ductwork and plumbing. A wood-burning barrel stove clinks as the heat of a waning fire damps down in its stovepipe. When Bru stays overnight (he lives in Chevy Chase), he sleeps in a separate space at the front of the building, which is enclosed against the cold. He abandoned his previous Baltimore studio, on Hollins Street, in 1994, driven away by a fire next door and general neighborhood decline. Besides, as he puts it, "Grace ordered me to go to [back to] Spain." He returned to Baltimore full time in February.

Bru was born in Valencia and grew up in Franco's Spain. His father was a republican artist, quietly opposed to the dictator. "He was very modest," Bru says of his father. "He didn't want to go to Paris or anywhere. But he was very good. He was always with his sketchbook." Bru's mother, also a painter, met his father when she came to his studio to take lessons. His father didn't survive the oppressive conditions of post civil-war Spain. "They make him draw things he don't want to draw," Bru says.

Bru studied at the San Carlos School of Fine Arts in Valencia and later, when he was in his early 20s, moved to Barcelona, where he was exposed to artists of the Spanish Art Informel movement, most notably Antoni Tàpies and critical champion Cirlot. The term "L'Art Informel" was coined by French critic Michel Tapié to describe the European equivalent to American abstract expressionism, action painting in particular, wherein, theoretically, the act of painting is directed by the unconscious. Bru has always worked from this basic idea, occasionally filtering it through mythological themes or drawing from art-historical inspiration--from Goya's "La Tauromachia" to Mickey Mouse.

"The interpretation of the work should be sensitive and not intellectual," Cirlot observed in a short essay on Bru in 1968, "more visceral than visual. Or best, all." "Untitled #21" from the Gomez exhibit is worth looking at in this light. Asymmetry reigns. The central figure is a black horse-legged figure with two large snail-shell-like growths dominating its torso, and two necks surmounted by appendages that are knuckle-deep in a yellow globe at the edge of the canvas. Rays of purple and black connect with the shell/wings from opposing angles. The figure appears to be bound on all sides by electromagnetic or other energy forces. Two small gray figures stalk the central figure from the right side. In the smoky background, they seem to pan and monitor the action. You could look at the central figure as wavering between being electrified and electrocuted.

The other paintings are well-balanced asymmetrical compositions, and, taken collectively, seem to function as perfectly cropped details of a much larger picture. Most of Bru's legged forms--abstractly rendered yet unmistakably figurative--are cropped at the ankles, suggesting that there is no solid ground beneath the implied feet.

Many of his smaller pieces have a freeze-frame immediacy, as if the characters and their props had been hurtling along peacefully and then struck an obstacle. He exaggerates the fleeting appearance of the puppeteer figure and the torn pure black shadow of his puppets in "Chinese Shadows" with a flashbulb-white background. In this, as in so many of his paintings, Bru has used spattered paint, which in this case looks like blood flung by the torn shadow form. The black shadow, however, also suggests a deer being torn at the hindquarters, or even a dog lapping blood from the wound. "It's amazing that he gets such impact in small works," Hartigan says.

Both she and Nye characterize the Gomez exhibit as Bru's best yet. "He's really deepened since the last time he was here," Hartigan says. "He's going back and forth between abstraction and images that recur."

Bru's work is not particularly topical; he tends toward the universal, which in his case means the unfettered subconscious. One of the first pieces in the exhibit, "Untitled #3," does not have the current terrorist dilemma as an overt context, but it could be seen as dramatically symbolizing terrorism's tail-eating genesis. It depicts a gun pointed at a head. Against a field of gray singed by acid white, there are two rangy biomorphic (which is to say, Bru-like) figures: the victim, with a frightened upturned face that, despite its abstraction, echoes the expressions of firing-squad victims in Goya's "Third of May, 1808"; the shooter, on the right, is a set of legs with an arm for a torso and the pistol (cut from a magazine) in place of a head. The way the total image has been cropped raises the possibility that the two forms are connected.

Of course, any painter can only imply the things that are not on his or her canvas, but, whether consciously or not, Bru's paintings--like windows--suggest a rich context and send the viewer's mind outward. Nye compares the effect of Bru's work to that of Jackson Pollock: "Whenever I go to the National [Gallery of Art in Washington], I set aside time to look at [Pollock's] 'Lavender Mist.' There's some connection between what the eye is seeing and--I can't really understand it, but it gives me goose bumps. And I get that when I look at Salvador's work too."

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