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Susan Brenner: Putting Planning into Abstraction

by Joshua Peters

August 23, 2015

 Photos: (Top to bottom) Susan Brenner's Natural Histories L1002; Natural Histories 137 and Natural Histories 132.

Susan Brenner’s resume is almost as deep as the visual depth present in many of her works. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Grant and has been a practicing, professional artist for more than 20 years. She exhibits nationally and has also received a Southern Arts Federation/NEA Regional Fellowship Award in Painting and Works on Paper, two North Carolina Artist’s Fellowships, and a Regional Artist Project Grant. She received her MFA from the University of Southern California. She serves as an Associate Professor in the College of Arts + Architecture at UNC Charlotte and her work, mostly consisting of what amounts to abstract painterly compositions, has surprising depth and character. Continuing their trend of excellence this year, Central Piedmont Community College has gone on to quietly offer the work of some of the most talented and compelling local fine artists — including Brenner and her latest series, Natural Histories.

This latest offering from CPCC’s Ross Gallery — unlike their last exhibition with Shaun Cassidy, where the work was immediate and clever and pleasing — is, in a word, dense. Brenner’s work doesn’t suffer for it. More specifically, her artwork brings into question dozens of decisions she has made within a unique, constructed, abstract design space. Her artwork is dense in that, unlike many of the artists who occupy the vague genre of abstract expressionism, Brenner makes a huge number of extremely deliberate aesthetic decisions which manifest in vast expanses of layering and intricacy.

Natural Histories compels in the little places. There are small moments throughout Brenner’s offerings where colors clash or complement, and where patches of twisted distortion coil up, creating lines so torqued that it feels as though they might break loose from their cosmic tension and burst out, forcing themselves violently back into their natural order in retaliation. Much like the clouds of billowing smoke that many of the pieces within Natural Histories resemble, their elements are in a constant state of roil and expansion. Brenner’s works are the product of compositional struggles for space, emphasis, texture and color. It feels as though elements of her works are trapped, unable to right themselves within the confines of their placement. Paint pen, marker, and pencil marks crowd on top of one another, unable to get of each other’s way, gliding in and out of parallelism and over and under washes of often abrasive color pairings.

It’s in these places of conflict where we must consider Brenner’s decision-making. The artist’s choices are so important in work like Brenner’s because, as suggested above, abstract artwork often gets simple aesthetic assessment and not much else. Jackson Pollock picked a color scheme and began splattering paint on canvas; the results can be read into as deeply (or as shallowly) as art historians care to dive. But the total number of decisions Pollock made, as far as his compositions go, was a much smaller number than those made by Brenner when she constructs her abstractions. Her work generates a prerogative of understanding within her audience — like all good art should. 

Our line of consideration must begin with her process which, again, unlike much of abstract expressionism, is a long and winding one. She begins with photographs that undergo a process of digital “weathering,” rendering them twisted and knotted skeletons of their former selves. Brenner takes what she calls the archeological “skeletal remains” of these photographs and begins to layer on structure in the form of color, line and shape. The results are abstractions like Natural Histories L1002, which guide the audience on a sort of archeological dig, hunting for something recognizable in the underlying elements.

What makes this whole archeological experience such a joy is that it monopolizes our focus for longer than you might expect. Brenner’s work simply cannot be disregarded. Like a complex, swirling abstract Where’s Waldo? page, Brenner’s work locks you in for the long haul until each tiny space and each mark and each decision is explored. The time spent in the construction of these works is directly proportional to the time the audience spends caring about them. The decisions Brenner makes — whether its long, winding cable systems of lines of seemingly infinite variations in width, or placing fields of teal next to fields of green — are so interesting because it’s clear that these works were not some product of lackadaisical chance. They are deliberate and thus they generate a cyclical desire to know WHY? And that might be one of the most powerful effects art can inspire.

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Tags: Abstract Expressionism, painting, Natural Histories, Ross Gallery, Susan Brenner, Jackson Pollock, CPCC

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