Justin Brennan seems to melt right into the floor of his studio. His pants and studio shoes are riddled with every color imaginable, just like the protective cardboard on the ground. The workspace smells of linseed oil and prolific productivity. We are impressed by the sheer chaos.
The artist has just laid out 30 paintings that need honing down to 20 for his latest solo exhibition at BAYarts. They are all singular portraits that span the time from July 2017 to the present, and a move away from the pure abstract work we are used to seeing from him — although they aren't that far removed.
The title of the exhibition is Ego, from the Latin, meaning 'I.' Of course, the leap toward the Freudian is not difficult to make. Brennan exposes the underneath of the individual, adding and subtracting layers to find the essence of his subjects. "I started the collage pieces using photos from the web. I have always been up front about that."
We are standing before a portrait that started with a photo of a Civil War soldier. Its ghostly facade has a macabre beauty. We ponder the life of this man — sunken-eyed and tight-lipped — being trailed by a gray-green cloud. Then there are the two dandies, gentlemen from the 1800s who inspired more than one presidential portrait. Here Brennan matures and tightens up his blurred visions with solid background color.
As the collages advanced, Brennan started taking his own photographs, self-portraits and those of people he knows. There's Bobby, the guy he works with, for example. The cheeky black-and-white photo lays atop a Pepto Bismol pink color field. "He's a cook," Brennan says. "He's got a history, has spent time in prison, but he's a super nice guy." Brennan has painted a black sports coat over Bobby's T-shirt. Bobby looks grizzled yet serene.
It's easy to see the parallel between Brennan's current portraiture and that of Francis Bacon, with a little Gerhard Richter thrown in. "I was showing some of these pieces at an art fair and people didn't know how to take the work," he says. "They would call me a serial killer and say I was copying Bacon. It was funny at first but, coming back to Cleveland, people are still talking like that and it kind of sucks. The Pope portrait didn't start out as copying Bacon. It's more of homage. In fact, the title is 'Homage.' This was painted during the latest Catholic Church scandal. Twelve years of Catholic school, the discussion affects me whether I want it to or not." The bright white hat, collar and liturgical stole pop out over brick red. The Pope seems to smirk at us with its smug, rosy smile.
It's easy to dismiss an artist's work when one doesn't understand the process. "I don't need to do this, it just happens. I don't know why it happens," he continues. "I'm not copying anyone, I'm just painting." That's what Brennan does: He paints. Nothing is laid out first, there are no preliminary drawings. He's mostly self-taught, which is impressive when you see the trajectory his art has followed.
There's a portrait of the great Mexican wrestler, El Gordo, his mouth blurred out with charcoal under his white luchador mask. The eyes tell all. Further down the wall, Brennan shows us a self portrait, with a fleshy, pinkish latex-like impasto mask. "This painting speaks about the facade we wear when trying to hang with younger people," the artist laughs.
"The portraits are kind of unsettling and over-the-top," Brennan admits. "I don't want to scare the more conservative audiences."
Sometimes an artist's audience needs an ego check.