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Motion Pictures

Jason Bryant’s Farewell Show is a Snapshot of an Artist in Flux

CHIN DOWN: In paintings such as "Bank Account Balance," Jason Bryant zooms in on only parts of faces.

By J. Bowers | Posted 1/12/2005

Baltimore is facing a serious Jason shortage. Mere weeks after local art darling Jason Hughes said his goodbyes and set off for the Big Apple, fellow Maryland Institute College of Art grad Jason Bryant is having his last hurrah at Hampden’s G-Spot, showcasing 13 of his most recent attempts to leap the gap between film and painting.

In a sense, Bryant’s new works represent a risky foray into indisputably clichéd territory. The uneasy dialogue between motion pictures and “still” art began as soon as the first projector clicked to life, and the tension between the two art forms was rather aggressively explored throughout the 1960s and ’70s, especially through the likes of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” and Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests,” which filtered traditional portraiture through cinematic reference points.

But while Warhol and Sherman chose photography and videography—two media intrinsically related to film —Bryant uses oil paints and an ongoing fascination with the extreme closeup. In contrast to his earlier work, which relied heavily on readily recognizable movie-star cameos and opaque letterbox framing to draw parallels between the canvas and the silver screen, Bryant’s new portraits present themselves as oversized film stills—fleeting, occasionally unfocused glimpses of necks, chins, lips, and eyes, carefully cropped to maintain mystery.

At their best, Bryant’s portraits really do seem like freeze frames, ephemeral images captured just as their subjects turn their heads away from the camera, with natural-looking fuzzy colors and blurry outlines. “Bank Account Balance” highlights Bryant’s bold, ambitious use of color and contrast, portraying the mouth, chin, and upper torso of a young woman with dark purple-red lips, clenched teeth, and a garishly airbrushed T-shirt. Very contemporary in subject and style, the piece seems tailor-made for the MTV generation, and makes it easy to see why G-Spot curator Jill Sell cites Bryant as a consistent best seller at the gallery’s annual Starscape art tent. “Public Relations Agent” seems cut from the same rock ’n’ roll cloth, as Bryant depicts the pout, chin, neck, and bottle-bronzed torso of an icy, severe-looking blond woman—and imparts these basic personality traits with little more than tightly painted lips and a knowing, rich use of color. “Bad Snapshot,” by contrast, takes Bryant’s cinematic style into Handicam territory, cropping in on the hastily shaven, troublingly bumpy chin of its male subject.

Though these three pieces hint at virtuosity, others suggest that Bryant’s close-cropped technique might have emerged from a necessity to mask major draftsmanship deficiencies. With “Insomnia (Full Screen),” an affecting, Tarantino-esque letterboxed profile of a man’s furrowed, bloodshot, and downright desperate-looking gaze, Bryant proves that he’s no slouch when eyes are the focal point of his composition. That said, he tends to shy away from them, and “A Glimpse,” the show’s lone attempt to render the entire human face head-on, seems to use its vibrating, out-of-focus conceit as an excuse for disproportionate features and lackluster, unconvincing lines. Nothing about the square-jawed, watery-eyed female subject seems genuine, and the result, while certainly disconcerting, isn’t troubling enough to feel intended.

Similarly, Bryant’s monochromatic pieces, most boldly represented here by two more chin-shots, “Two O’ Clock Appointment” and “Mr. Bloom (1998),” clearly have their conceptual roots in the grainy, fuzzed-out look of dilapidated film-noir reels, but the painter seems held back by the limitations of his chosen medium. Bryant’s attempts to duplicate the texture and tonality of black-and-white film are stymied by the opacity of his oils, and as a result the images never quite stand on their own—they feel like imitations of film stills or photographs, not paintings in their own right.

While Bryant’s apparent desire to distance himself from obvious visual connections to his motion-picture muse is well worth applauding, his aesthetic works best when he allows himself to indulge in a little AV geek fun. The crisp black letterboxes framing “Father Merrin,” “Regan McNeil (1973),” and “Insomnia (Full Screen)” might seem ridiculous, but they’re right on. And the distressed, grainy effects throughout the last of these could seem too obvious at first glance, but Bryant renders them convincingly enough to suggest a tantalizing commentary on the rapid decay of celluloid.

Despite these brief flashes, however, the 13 Bryants on offer at G-Spot betray a painter in a state of flux. Radiating youth and ambition, Bryant clearly wants to embrace his cinematic impulse, and he genuinely impresses when he gives himself over to it. Still, his recent work seems disconnected and unedited, a random series of stills from five or six different movies, all rescued from the cutting-room floor. Some are remarkable. Some feel rushed and somewhat pedestrian. But with a little focus, Bryant should find his happy ending.

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