[In foreground: “Mr. Blah Blah Blah” (2009), wood, hardware, & acrylic paint. “Me, Me, Me, You & Me” (2009), wood, hardware, & acrylic paint. “Different Perspectives” (2009), wood, hardware, & acrylic paint.]
Stark, black and while works—wall drawings and wood sculptures—make up the core of Olaf Breuning's exhibition, “Small Brain Big Stomach,” which is up at Metro Pictures through December 5, 2009. Based on the content and imagery of his small, childlike pencil drawings, they “speak about the simple questions one could have about life.” Typically produced in concentrated episodes of self-imposed isolation, these drawings are translated to a larger scale. (Prior to “Small Brain Big Stomach,” Breuning spent five days alone drawing in his room aboard the Queen Mary II.) In this larger form, the artist's humorous and earnest philosophical aphorisms are presented with a poignant directness faithful to their source drawings. The wall drawings use broad black lines painted directly on the white walls: Their sculptural complements are three-dimensional drawings made of wooden blocks painted black. There is “Me, Me, Me, You and Me,” depicting a human head in profile “adorned” with illustrated egocentric thoughts (a dozen “me’s” and a single “you.” “Yesnoyesno” confronts the viewer with a wall of indecision.
Contrasting sharply with his black and white works, the third gallery is devoted to “color studies,” a series of works based on paint and primary colors. These sculptures and photographs document Breuning's play with dripping, splattering, and spraying paint. Experiments begun as diversions in the studio evolved into an active engagement with painting and abstract art—something Breuning never considered before.
Like a squirrel hoarding nuts, the Swiss-born Breuning has stored away a plethora of cultural references appearing in his works. These references emerge from a number of directions. Breuning’s absorption of the esoteric and sophisticated body of work by Talking Heads—made up of artists David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison—is obvious in the pithiness of his installation. The Eurythmics—a British duo formed by Annie Lennox and Dave Steward known for their innovative production technique and raw visual presentations—are also in that cache with stylized contralto vocalist Grace Jones.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) definitely comes to mind as an influence though the techniques attributed to him were accomplished earlier and better by former Dadaist and photomontage master John Heartfield (1891-1968) whose work for Willi Münzenberg (1889-1940) at Berlin’s Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung or AIZ (The Workers Pictorial Newspaper) set the stage for “street” photography and “real life reportage.” Cindy Sherman’s penetrating conceptual portraits, Robert Frank’s influential “outsider” views of U.S society, Jeff Wall’s large-scale and backlit cibachrome photographs, and Jeff Koons’ oversized reproductions of banal objects are other inspirations to Breuning.
Breuning has shown his work at the Migros Museum (Zurich), Het Nieuwe Stedelijk (Amsterdam), Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil (Mexico City), Musée de Strasbourg, MAGASIN: Centre d'Art Contemporain (Grenoble), Chisenhale Gallery (London), the Swiss Institute (New York), Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, MoMA, the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Hayward Gallery (London), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, as well as in a number of previous solo shows at Metro Pictures.
Small Brain Big Stomach: Olaf Breuning
Through December 5, 2009
519 West 24th Street, New York City 10011