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Manic Expression

Baltimorean David Brewster Brings Uneven Zeal to His Bleak Scenes

FORGING A HEAD: David Brewster's "Slaughtered Range Cow" is a Marked Departure from the Artist's Tamer Landscapes and Interiors.

By J. Bowers | Posted 12/15/2004

David Brewster: New Paintings

At C. Grimaldis Gallery through Jan. 8

Light and dark loom large in David Brewster’s world. Heavily reliant on nigh-gothic purples, muddy greens, and generous lashings of black, Brewster’s landscapes and interiors tread a fine line between abstract expressionism and concrete representation, obscuring shorelines, furniture, windows, clouds, and all other recognizable elements with irregular streaks of color and bold patches of bright white light.

Notoriously prolific, the Baltimore-born Brewster offers 29 new paintings at C. Grimaldis Gallery this month—all variations on his penchant for alluding to objects and physical features instead of merely depicting them. There’s a touch of van Gogh in Brewster’s silent, uninhabited rooms, and a hushed allusion to John Folinsbee’s later work in his sweeping, angular landscapes. But more often than not, Brewster’s diluted oils seem too extreme, and a little more focus would go a long way.

More like exercises in color manipulation than showcases of narrative or line, Brewster’s landscapes can seem somewhat redundant when viewed en masse, and the Grimaldis show is almost claustrophobically packed with the artist’s latest work. Some pieces, like the uncharacteristically subdued “Oasis Cement Truck” and “Colrain Wagons,” up the intrigue ante by adding less-than-elegant subjects to Brewster’s trademark hallucinogenic settings. Instead of playing it safe with trees, rocks, and other traditional landscape features, the painter lets horse trailers, cement mixers, and drab piles of detritus take center stage. It’s an undeniably modern take on landscape, and one that seems to pick up where the likes of Folinsbee and Jack B. Yeats left off.

But that said, Brewster’s seaside landscapes often meander dangerously close to art that matches the sofa. Pieces like “‘Sunken Lands’ Killala Bay” (say that five times fast) are minimalist in composition—only hints of sand, water, and sky are readily discernible—but almost trite in terms of palette and application. Brewster’s brushwork is mercifully light, however. Rather than succumbing to the Pollock-influenced urge to create thick layers of paint, he uses a thin, watercolor-like touch. Still, no matter how delicate his technique might be, pieces like “Killbride Master’s Cottage” feel bottom-heavy, with the bulk of the composition pushed toward the lower regions of the canvas, creating a confusion of abstract forms. Overall, Brewster’s hills, shores, and skylines—bland despite his efforts to tap into grand landscape/abstract expressionist traditions—seem innocuous next to his more ambitious interior works.

And it is with interiors that Brewster really breaks new ground. His dark, forbidding kitchens and sitting rooms belong to a world completely removed from his landscapes. In “McCane’s Chiffonier,” an overturned table and a hastily rifled dresser seem almost sinister, rendered with hazy smears of turquoise and beige. There’s an elegant, genuine sense of movement to the inanimate elements, as though the parties responsible for the wreckage have just crept offstage. “Yellow Wind” has a similar crime-scene aesthetic: Red-browns and rich purples dominate an angular composition, drawing the eye toward a sickly yellow swath of curtain that seems to invade the room, complementing the light that slashes across the foreground and giving the piece an insidious quality. Though Brewster’s inanimate elements present only the barest suggestion of narrative, the results are frequently more compelling than his murky landscapes—and indeed, one of his most successful compositions, “Outside Killbride,” seamlessly combines his yen for swirling phantasmagoria with his skill at rendering a darkened room. Viewed through a black-wreathed window frame, the swirl and chop of the sea in “Killbride” is delightfully kinetic.

One of the paintings featured in the Grimaldis exhibition, “Slaughtered Range Cow,” finds Brewster breaking the landscape/interior mold in favor of a single subject: the severed, rotting head of a longhorn steer. While there’s undoubtedly an element of shock value at work here, Brewster tempers the sensationalism with realistic draftsmanship and attention to detail. Using reductive techniques, Brewster scrapes away thin layers of paint, revealing the grain of the canvas and delicately delineating the curvature of the steer’s horns. The back of the animal’s head is a smudged, troubling blossom of blood red and purple, shot through with blue, veinlike details. And there’s a certain poetry in the way that Brewster hints at fur without painting fur and smudges the steer’s snout into the horizon line. In a sense, “Slaughtered Range Cow” is a landscape painting. Brewster treats the cow’s gaping wound the same way he would treat a swirl of storm clouds, and it works. Produced in 2003, the work is not indicative of a new direction, but perhaps it should be. Easily as intriguing as Brewster’s interior works, “Slaughtered Range Cow” makes the surrounding landscapes seem passé. More, please.

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