David Kordansky Gallery is pleased to announce its participation in Art Los Angeles Contemporary 2016 with a solo project by Matthew Brannon, who has developed a new group of unique works on paper and sculptures especially for the occasion. The artist has recently turned his attention, and his unmistakable visual style and wit, to the impact of the Vietnam War on the American psyche. Transposing his long-standing interest in repressed desire and cultural anxiety into a new register, Brannon offers a Freudian look at the intimate spaces, both physical and psychological, lurking in no less a site than the White House.
Each of the works on view depicts some aspect of the settings in which Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon contemplated the major decisions that brought the United States into and out of the Vietnam War. Desks (and the personal effects that cover them), towel racks, lunch order slips--Brannon restores agency to objects that mutely surrounded the powerful men who arranged, handled, and gazed upon them. He also gives viewers conjectural images of what the world looked like through the eyes of these presidents as they sat in their offices, or visited their bathrooms, deliberating events that would usher in a new era of American foreign policy.
The results of a mounting body of research conducted by the artist, these works bring together the banal minutiae of daily life and the signs and symbols of geopolitical drama. The works on paper, for instance, include images of everything from Johnson's preferred soft drink, the personal letterhead of General Westmoreland, and the western novel into which Eisenhower might have dipped to escape the pressures of his position, to tactical maps of Vietnam and Kennedy's desktop photo of his wife. They also document changes in design aesthetic from one administration to the next. The styles of the telephones are indicative of the way each president communicated with his staff (and therefore represent the structure of governance itself). The overall palette of the blotters, office supplies, and other ephemera reflect the microclimate of midcentury visual culture that has also served as one of the artist's main thematic concerns since the beginning of his career. As his subject matter has evolved, so has his technique: Brannon made these works using a variety of processes including letterpress, silkscreen, and hand painting. They are testament to his ongoing interest in treating oft-marginalized media like printmaking as primary vehicles for formal innovation.
In the accompanying sculptures, Brannon focuses on the unlikely and intimately tactile form of the towel rack. Highly private and yet oddly anonymous, suggestive of the body and its functions (the bathroom providing a secluded interior space, where one is undressed of power and confronted with one's reflection), but also the product of industrial processes, these objects are uncanny stand-ins for the presidencies that generate their imagery. Each rack has been imagined, designed, and fabricated by the artist. One, inspired by Johnson, includes hand-monogrammed towels covered with campaign buttons, each of which Brannon reproduced himself; the other, dedicated to Nixon, features towels embroidered with cartoon elephants originally found on commemorative plates issued by the Republican party for the 1968 and 1972 elections, as well as hand-engraved copper discs affixed to the rack structure. Richly layered works dense with allusion and born of the highest degree of material precision, the sculptures communicate the depth of Brannon's commitment to making the seemingly impersonal sweep of history as personal as possible.
President George W. Bush wasn't the first president to take up oil painting. Eisenhower did it while in office, not because he liked to paint, it's said, but because it provided him an excuse to be left alone. And a person with the trigger to thermonuclear holocaust in their pocket needs time to think. In a 1955 national security meeting with the Atomic Energy Commission, Eisenhower asked how many atom bombs it would take to knock the Earth off its axis. Such were the thoughts in his head.
I believe many artists are subconsciously drawn to their profession because creativity requires undisturbed seclusion. Ask artists and most will tell you that their favorite time is their time alone in the studio. But what if the reverse was entertained? I've recently stated that I wanted to shift my focus from asking "Why are we our own worst enemies?" to "Why is America its own worst enemy?" And so I asked myself if I could use my own art-making solitude to consider historical events, political pressures, and the ego-threatening decision-making that is involved in U.S. foreign policy. Could I, as an artist, psychoanalyze the American identity as it developed from the time of my coming-to-be? Could I become a scissors-and-tape Gore Vidal?
I've chosen to focus my attention on the American/Vietnam War for the next five or so years. The central trauma for the American identity of the last century. The ugliest consequence of our transition from our supposed pre-war anti-colonial stance to the post-war anti-communist position. A rupture in the U.S. identity that extended from the State Department to the kitchen table. My generation's inability to relate even the basic facts of America's longest conflict outside of pop culture storytelling is a shame. As psychoanalysis teaches us, a trauma that hasn't been dealt with always finds a way to return. If one's goal is to understand where and why we went wrong, we couldn't do better than to familiarize ourselves with the context and events of the American/Vietnam War. I've initiated my project with research, and thousands of pages and hundreds of hours of film later I've only scratched the surface.
Presented here is a suite of artworks on paper and two sculptures that revolve around Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. The war itself is a backdrop only hinted at. The works shown suggest the contexts for decision-making within the Oval Office and the bathrooms of the White House. Each commander-in-chief in his own moment inherited the problems and perceptions of the others and responded in ways to differentiate himself.
Presidents. As they're connected to each other, we are connected to them. In a sense they are our parents. Resentment and trust, fear and security rock back and forth on the front pages of newspapers and inside our heads. Their decisions are echoed and morphed through the nightly news and the opinions of our own parents. And the words they use and the things they autograph have an effect on people across the planet. The desk is the physical site of much of their thinking, as my studio is the site of mine. -- Matthew Brannon, December 15, 2015
"No, because what is commonly assumed to be past history is actually as much a part of the living present as William Faulkner insisted. Furtive, implacable and tricky, it inspirits both the observer and the scene observed, artifacts, manners and atmosphere, and it speaks even when no one wills to listen. So as I listened, things once obscure began falling into place. Odd things, unexpected things... Perhaps it was also to remind me that war could, with art, be transformed into something deeper and more meaningful than its surface violence."
-- Ralph Ellison, 1981
Matthew Brannon (b. 1971, St. Maries, Idaho) has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Marino Marini Museum, Florence (2013); Portikus, Frankfurt (2011); Museum M, Leuven, Belgium (2010); the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria, New York (2007); and the Art Gallery of York/University of Toronto (2007). Recent group exhibitions include The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project Exhibition, LAND, Los Angeles (2015); Trapping Lions in the Scottish Highlands, Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2013); and Brannon, Büttner, Kierulf, Kierulf, Klipper, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway (2012). His novel, An Irresponsible Biography of the Actor Laurence Harvey, was published by Three Star Books, Paris, in 2014. Brannon lives and works in New York.