I like to imagine myself into old paintings. In the quiet confines of a museum or a gallery, I am able to empathize through space and time, and for a brief moment “understand” the perspective of a figure in context. I have done this as “hanger-on” in Gericault’sRaft of the Medusa, and as a strangely static athlete in Henri Rousseau’s The Ball-Players. I like to lean into a painting and become invested in the triumph/plight of the figure.
This narrative game becomes strange and unsettling when playing it with Brandon Downing’s BETA PEARLS collages. Old illustrated characters are thrown into bizarre contexts. Archetypes are created and then deformed into shifty narratives. In The Dots (I), a contemplative man (with a tumor) ends up in the foreground of a connect the dots sunset surrounded by a huge beer bottle and a cornucopia of Norman Rockwell-ish figures and expressions. In almost all of Downing’s collages, “ordinary” illustrated people and animals are discombobulated in explosions of form and emotional tone: a small yellow robot is analogous to a kitten in a Scottish suit.
My favorite collages in this show are the least busy and complex— I like the quiet associations of boys carrying rocks and the submarine qualities of water boilers in Horizontal Tubular with Mud Drum and Steam. When more images are piled on— as inThe Dot (I and II)— there is more to deal with as a viewer, the logic becomes scatological, explosive, and humor seems to be the prevailing force behind the compositions.
Downing’s art exists between a vast spectrum of subtlety and humor that is also way evident in his writing and video-making. But, the transitions and blending of disparate elements in Downing’s videos occurs with cinematic conventions and digital fades. This is not possible with collages— the images and connotations are all on, all the time. Downing plays with this relentless aspect of collaging: he is out to organize the overflow of American stuff and make sense of the garbage and effluent that seems to be bubbling out of every yard sale and thrift orifice known to man. With a seemingly endless cache of book illustrations, manuals for outdated activities and contemporary glossy images— like a boy in a snail suit or an American Girl doll on crutches— Downing is reordering the stream of illustrated conventions, commercial photography and hand drawn lines, resulting in new, weird connections that alter the past with humor and levity. When each cutout image is working in harmony with the next, like inCellulose is Born, the result is a feeling of being “moved” by a static thing. The individual elements of the collage blend together, transcending what they once were and the viewer can rest in this poignant invention.
Brandon Downing "Cellulose Is Born"
C.S Ward is a poet and video maker living in Whately, MA. His most recent work appears in American Letters and Commentaryand Action Yes! magazines and can also be found at csward.tumblr.com