Critical Distance

Languages of sign, medium and figure: Derek Brueckner
April 12 – April 30, 1994

a response to the exhibition by Bev Pike

Imagine Harold Lloyd hanging precariously from the top of an American highrise in the 1920’s silent film Safety Last. Wearing a suit, he’s trying to climb back up into a window – with split-second timing he grabs one thing after another, almost falling dramatically with every move he makes. I believe this film was staged and directed by Lloyd, and was made while he was hanging off the side of a real high building in a real windy location. The precision with which his hands and feet found and clung onto ledges, and clock parts even, was breath-taking. In the end, it was his attention to physical details, and his extraordinary skills, which saved his life and made a fabulous movie.

My own work has always been about creating sites of safety and refuge. Brueckner’s latest show clearly emphasizes how essential the search for physical and spiritual safety is to the creative process. In my work, I try to build safe havens, whereas Brueckner’s paintings seemed to be depicting unnamed states of being in the middle of a fearful environment, as seen by a witness. I thought it was edging towards the notion that, in the chaos of life, the strength each of us finds within our own body is the final sactuary. Hanging onto the precipice, its all we have left.

This is a group of large unstretched paintings showing naked figures isolated in the canvas space. Most of the bodies are contorted in an undefined space, some together, some alone. Brueckner uses coloured chalk to describe the bodies, one colour for each body, and draws the background in very vaguely with another colour, incorporating washes of paint. The women and men kind of float, without a sense of gravity. Some are standing, some are sitting, some are bendig over or crouched. One guy is screaming. None are looking at the viewer. Many of the hands are like claws, with the fingers scrunched up in half-point positions. One man’s hand grabs the flesh of his own back. One interesting standing woman seems to have three arms. They are recognisable images of anxiety to say the least, tortured, in pain, even ill or disabled (deafness is suggested by the use of American Sign Language). The titles allude to emtional situations, some referring to the patriarchy.

There is a lot of disintegration in this work because of the use of the visual language, the combination of traditionally ill-fitting elements. Only Brueckner knowns the deliberateness of the combination – its not for me to say. The first thing I react to is the acidity of the colours – a purple body combined with a a chrome green background, or red and bright yellow figures – jarring to my particular sensibility. The power of colour as a prompter of deep murky emotions is still there, but very odd. It appears like an overlay on the forms. Strange as it may sound, a red naked person sends a different signal than a yellow or purple one. It is like the power is turned on and left floating like a live electrical wire unconnected.

All the fractured building blocks produce a quality of studied ambivalence that I respond to in the work. The people are naked in ambiguously-defined locations, and seem artificially human, disassociated from the media used in their representation. Especially missing is the visual sense of something being of one thing, since the halves become so divided by the contrast caused by harsh studio-type lighting (a leg divided in half, a back…). Further, the chalk won’t sculpt the forms beyond each colour’s tonal range, and the bumpy canvas surface erodes each stroke put down. I react to the use of colour in the same way – that they are combined to undermine each other, to flatten the space and the forms and to be completely unrelated to the content of the flesh. The relationship between the body and the context is dissolved by the disparate elements half-meeting in the vortex.

The unnatural type of light also makes it difficult to integrate the subject, or object depending on your point of view, with the environment. It is discordant to see humans in this context of benign academic life-class style drapery. Even further, the people themselves are alienated from one another, and in the narrative betweem the paintings in the installation. They are all curled up in individual anguish, caused perhaps by the absence of context, transplanted, out of element, disassociated from the viewer. I think the work depicts the figures’ angst as being undirected, undescribed, and the source of it unimplied. Some figures look to be defensively writhing in some kind of un-pinpointed unhappiness, in anti-gravitational relationships. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t feel that I am the recipient or target or participant of their drama. It is more like I am watching a film that has nothing to do with me.

With regard to images of naked men and naked women, my view is that their interpretation is not equal on the picture plane, because the history of pornography and representational painting. I notice that all the women are young, slim, sexy, and rather beautifully posed; whereas the men – who are old, young, and not particularly handsome – are way more twisted up. I don’t know how appropriate this is to Brueckner’s work because it’s an intensely private concern, nonetheless it seems to me the task for male artists who want to paint naked women is really one of depicting their own sexuality. If they could do this from within out, they would be rid of that nasty social problem of publicly fetishizing the bodies they are attracted to. That is to say, heterosexual men should try what many women artists are working on these days, which is finding a new visual language for all the feelings inside their bodies. Relationships between male artists and their female peers will be strengthened by these new insights, rather than tenuously held together by women’s tolerance or suppressed discomfort.

In consideration of the awful situation we’ve inherited, artists have to work particularly hard to find their own voice to represent their emotional and physical selves. Our task as I see it is to recognize when it is in fact a safe enough environment within which to push the limits of one’s own perceptions through risk-taking in one’s art. Which brings me back to the question of safety. I saw this body of work as being, in one was, a search for a haven within ambiguity by reference to a lack of context or sense of place. In Languages of sign, medium, and figure, I thought Brueckner’s work may be contemplating the crossing of this threshhold – towards finding the personal symbols arising from the absolute dissolution of their academic use.


Bev Pike is a painter living and working in Manitoba. Her most recent exhibition was a collaboration with Leila Sujir at Ace Art in October 1993 entitled
A Dialogue: Reconstructing the Decorative.