Los Angeles

Playing Paint: The Video Art of Brian Bress

In Partnership with MOCAtv
MOCAtv is a new, contemporary art video channel, developed as a digital extension of the education and exhibition programming of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

By Lex Brown

In Brian Bress' one minute and ten second video, "World Report" (2006), Bress sits onscreen dressed as a news reporter, rhythmically chanting "Bangladesh," until he changes the words to "dish, dish, this your dish, this your dish it's super delish." As his words change, so does the image in the top left corner from a picture of Bangladesh to a picture of a plate of food. Bress continues to morph the words through improvisation and repetition, and the visual elements of the video respond in kind. With the words "delete these files," Bress invokes the disappearance of his image entirely and the video ends soon after.

This early work is short and easy to overlook amongst Bress' numerous other pieces from the same year, yet "World Report" serves as a compact and potent example of some of the ongoing concerns of Bress' work: namely the agency of a performer within a fully realized visual environment, play between real-time and post-production, outlandish characters looking for meaning, and the production and productivity of artists working in the studio. Consistent throughout Bress' work is his manipulation of the perceptual mechanics of video through perspective, camouflage, and visibility. Bress began creating the tableaus that would eventually become his sets because "everything in [his] studio was more interesting than the paintings."

"I tried a lot of different ways of making paintings. I would find collage material and figures in the photo material, and I would print graphite on the back and trace over it and create this Henry Darger-esque, complicated world of figures moving around. [Others were pieces where] I would paint onto these images and try to interact with these found objects to change these images. I would go thrifting and I would find these objects and I didn't know why I was drawn to them, but I would bring them back to my studio and I would set them in front of a painting, and hang something in front, and it started become like a tableau and a painting was just secondary, it was was a backdrop."

"Under Cover," 2006, image courtesy of the artist.

Using the tableaus as settings for improvised performance, Bress began composing single-shot videos meant to function as paintings. Ultimately, he found that audiences were not engaging with them as such because the work was still presented as a projection in a dark room with a defined starting and ending point. Realizing that he had to shift the formal context in which his work was seen and take his work into the light, he began to present his works in seamlessly installed, framed flat screen monitors. This translation from projected image to autonomous object was a key turning point in Bress' practice.

"Fancy Dress Ball," 2012, image courtesy of the artist.

Each video only exists in two editions: an artist's proof and an edition for display. "I like for them to exist in the same way paintings exist, in a very singular way. When you see a painting you're like, 'Well, that's the only time I get to see this painting,' you walk away from it, you hope that maybe you'll get to see it somewhere else and I think that feeling that you get have you look at something."

To display a video like a painting is concept whose strength is in its literalness, and with that there is a risk of gimmicky appeal. However, the richness, complexity, and reflexive humor within the construction of the videos steers Bress' work clear from novelty while also setting up up several subtle but important peripheral tensions within his work.

First, there is the alternately futuristic and familiar feeling upon encountering one of his videos on the wall. On one hand, a viewer can recognize the ubiquity of the flat screen, the beyond-normalcy of the television's displayed image. On the other hand, the flat screen is a literal embodiment of digital compression, of technological progress that puts an interesting spin on the notion of progress in painting. To think about these works within the long view of painting is to become acutely aware of how far in the future we live. And then, with a second kind of tension, Bress' work brings the viewer back to the present with its robust materiality, unpredictability, and collage aesthetic.

"What I sort of enjoy about presenting these slick objects is that the things that are photographed are also really handmade and really cruddy, and there's still drips from glue and there's this sort of disconnect between the way the thing is presented and the thing that is presenting it."

"Relatives," 2012, image courtesy of the artist.

Texture, color, movement, and dialogue are used with decisiveness and restraint within the "infinite" space of video to create compositions that are intricate yet accessible. In his 2012 solo show, "Under Performing," Bress' focus was on creating performance with as little movement as possible.

"In a lot of the other videos I was improvising so much and it was so dense with those moments that I was making so much noise and so much improvisation and so much was going on that there weren't a lot of entry points. And now I think that [viewers] are first of all watching other people do some more quiet things and the improvisation is really small so there's a point where they can imagine, 'Oh I would put that block there,' and it's just a little slower."

In most of Bress' work, a character -- either played by himself or by another performer -- wears an elaborate mask or full-body costume, often blending entirely into the environment or sticking out like a sore thumb. With a determined set of objects, costume, or situation Bress makes a preliminary set of conditions for the performance, and then lets the improvisation go from there.

"Creative Ideas for Every Season," 2012, image courtesy of the artist.

"It got to a point where I knew sort of what was going to happen and I knew the videos were going to be dramatic and crazy and people were going to be like, 'that's absurd!' and I'd be like 'yeah!' and they'd laugh and go about their business and I think what's more fun as an artist is watching it evolve and letting other people participate in the videos and seeing what they do when I give them the opportunity to be the last piece of the puzzle."

While Bress' humor remains as witty, bizarre, and enjoyable as in his earlier works, it has also become more precisely executed. Much of this humor was present in "Under Performing" -- so-titled for its tri-fold nod to the expectations people come into the gallery with, the subtlety of the performance, and the economics of being an artist. "I thought it would be nice to give it a title that was immediately a little self-deprecating, like 'this is not quite resolved, don't get your hopes up.'"

In the video "Sleeper II" (2012), a female character whose face and surroundings are painted in a pre-modern style dozes off to sleep within her own painting as the viewer watches -- a playful commentary on the experience of viewing a painting. "Sleeper" is a particularly good example of the vocabulary that video adds to painting: the movements within it are so slight that the painting's element of duration fades in and out like the sleeper's own consciousness. The video is neither a moment frozen in time, nor a meaningful sequence of events: it is an extended moment, infinitely looped. And while the work is structured so that viewers can enter and exit the piece at any time -- so that it doesn't "hold the viewer hostage" -- it certainly benefits from an inherent sense of anticipation produced by the moving image.

"Sleeper," 2012, image courtesy of the artist.

In a new video presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art's online channel MOCAtv, Bress gives the backstory behind two more video works from "Under Performing." Both characters emerged from two-dimensional sketches: "The Cowboy" from a sketch on graph paper and "The Architect" from a collage. In both videos, the characters are extruded from two-dimensional form into three-dimensional performance, and compressed back again into the two-dimensional screen. Each character blindly performs the actions used to create himself: the Cowboy appears to doodle on the monitor, while the Architect stacks oddly-shaped objects.

Both of these works are examples of Brian Bress' great panache for visual punning and his ability to generate a wealth of work from even the slightest of source material. Within this work, there is a fusion and confusion of materials, of language and image, of the non-sequitur and the meaningful. Bress is an artist who mobilizes all of these elements to dismantle the distinctions between drawing, painting, video, and object with both levity and sincerity.

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About the Author

Lex Brown is a sculptor and video artist who graduated from Princeton University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in art. Upon graduation she was a resident at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. Shortl...
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