Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College
January 30th - March 27th, 2017
Speculative Fiction, a solo show of paintings by AM DeBrincat now on view through March 27th at the Martin Art Gallery of Muhlenberg College, poses many thought-provoking questions. The eleven works on display highlight the unique visual lexicon that DeBrincat has created: a mixed-media technique which combines painting with the manipulation of digital photography to underscore the complexity of identity in the Digital Age. That the artist has crafted a nuanced language of sampling and remixing is obvious from first glance at the work, since the paintings all present as portraits. But it immediately becomes clear that the artist has expanded the language of figurative painting to include photography, along with patterning normally associated with the decorative arts, and even occasionally abstract mark-making.
Delving deeper into the work for a closer look at each painting’s surface, one can appreciate the uniqueness of the artist’s process. The press release describes DeBrincat’s approach as combining “colorful detail with lyrical brushwork interspersed by layers of collaged photography and transfer prints.” Layering is the name of the game in these visually dense, tightly constructed paintings.
What emerges from this unique process are mixed-media paintings that pay homage to art history’s long legacy of portraiture without becoming beholden to it. The lush, sensuous oil painting which renders the subjects’ facial expressions contrasts with the mechanized trace of digital photography that is used to render their bodies. In some pieces, for instance, the digital photograph is left in stark black and white or very sparsely colored, which further underscores the contrast between the digitally drawn figures and the bright, lushly-painted faces.
So what is AM DeBrincat getting at here? This is undeniably artwork where the medium underscores the message. The way each canvas forces the digital and the analog to sit side-by-side, and often to layer and intermingle, offers a significant clue. The way these paintings are constructed, moreover, becomes a parable for the way our contemporary lives are constructed, as the boundary between on- and offline grows increasingly porous. From looking at these paintings, it is also often hard to parse out what exactly is either digital or painting, highlighting the ongoing negotiation of where those boundary lines lie. And if they are even important anymore, we have arrived at a cultural moment where the individual presence both on- and offline are practically indistinguishable.
Paul Nicholson, the Director of the Martin Art Gallery, offers further elucidation of AM DeBrincat’s thematic concerns: “Historical kitsch intermingles with contemporary advertising, which is further obliterated and adapted. DeBrincat’s images challenge nostalgia associated with halftone by vividly augmenting pattern and images with flourishes of paint.” These paintings seen throughout Speculative Fiction are participants in the long tradition of portraiture, while also deconstructing this tradition from the inside. Even though DeBrincat’s canvases have the weight of art history’s long tradition of portraiture behind them, their academic references are not dragging them down. Instead, this work feels fresh and contemporary, and one cannot shake the feeling that the work is both culturally significant and devastatingly stylish, a hard combination to pull off. It is refreshing to see painting that tips its hat to art history while its feet are firmly grounded in the present.
Mike Dale Johson, New York