Evolv­ing into spon­tane­ity


Brent God­frey’s in­ti­mate paint­ings of child­hood, fam­ily, and other sub­jects de­light with touches of hu­mor but of­fer more to the ob­server who wants to go deeper. God­frey dis­torts and ob­scures im­agery through a fu­sion of ab­strac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion, pro­vid­ing his works with a feel­ing of nos­tal­gia and of mem­o­ries blurred by time. Na­ture/Nur­ture, a show of re­cent works, opens on Fri­day, June 26, at Le­wAllen Gal­leries. On the cover is God­frey’s Up­stage, an oil on linen from 2015.

Some­times, even a slight de­gree of ab­strac­tion can change how we per­ceive a nar­ra­tive or fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing, and it can also al­ter what we make of its mean­ing. Like de­te­ri­o­rat­ing pho­to­graphs from an old fam­ily al­bum, Brent God­frey’s im­ages de­pict do­mes­tic life, chil­dren, and an­i­mals, their faces ob­scured by streaks of paint that sug­gest fad­ing mem­o­ries. A fig­ure’s dress, the back­ground and fore­ground im­agery, and other de­tails all smudge and blur, bleed­ing into one another. While God­frey’s use of ges­tu­ral brush­work, drips, and flecks of color re­calls the im­promptu na­ture of ac­tion paint­ing, there’s a logic at work here — ab­strac­tion in the ser­vice of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. “The marks that cre­ate and en­com­pass my fig­ures and the ob­scure sur­round­ings in which they are placed have sev­eral pur­poses,” God­frey told Pasatiempo. “They im­ply time and sug­gest one is view­ing a thought, not sim­ply a place or event. The marks them­selves be­come metaphor, lay­er­ing the con­tent with emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual am­bi­gu­i­ties that lie out­side rec­og­niz­able form.” Na­ture/Nur­ture ,an ex­hibit of God­frey’s paint­ings, opens Fri­day, June 26, at Le­wAllen Gal­leries.

God­frey’s paint­ings are of­ten can­did and in­ti­mate, like fam­ily snap­shots. Far from be­ing for­mal por­traits, they cap­ture mo­ments that feel nat­u­ral, par­tic­u­larly his im­ages of chil­dren. “All of my fig­ures and con­tent are au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal,” God­frey said. “Of­ten­times, the child/sub­ject in the paint­ing is me.” In the paint­ing Pluck, an in­fant in di­a­pers plays in a gar­den. He’s snatched a flower from the gar­den and holds it in one hand. In the other, he holds a feather ap­par­ently plucked from a nearby rooster. To a child, per­haps, it’s all the same. “My fig­u­ra­tive works are usu­ally inspired by pho­to­graphs I have taken or photos that I am in. This evokes mem­ory which in­fuses my paint­ings with the un­ex­pected. Mem­ory in­cites emo­tions and trig­gers un­fore­seen thoughts.”

Chil­dren in God­frey’s work can be cruel. Up­stage, a hu­mor­ous paint­ing, shows a lit­tle girl push­ing a fawn out of the way with her hand so she can be the cen­ter of at­ten­tion. The fawn is from a se­ries in which nu­mer­ous de­pic­tions of the same deer are ren­dered in dif­fer­ent styles and placed in dif­fer­ent con­texts: post-Pop, re­al­is­tic, and vary­ing de­grees of ab­strac­tion; pas­toral set­tings, desert land­scapes, and ci­tyscapes. The se­ries shows some of the range of his abil­i­ties as a pain­ter. The works in Na­ture/Nur­ture also dis­play a broad ex­panse of artis­tic tech­niques, of­ten com­bined into a sin­gle can­vas. His mash-up of gen­res, too, makes his work dif­fi­cult to clas­sify but a con­sis­tent el­e­ment is the in­ter­play of ob­jec­tive and nonob­jec­tive im­agery. “My mind doesn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween fig­ures/ob­jects and ab­strac­tion when I am paint­ing. Ev­ery­thing is equally ‘real.’ Light and shadow cre­ate form. Line di­rects the eye. Color is con­ceived as pur­pose­ful re­la­tion­ships to se­duce and con­jure rec­ol­lec­tions.”

Noth­ing in the paint­ings feels forced. The in­ter­ac­tion of care­fully ren­dered and free-flow­ing marks works har­mo­niously, giv­ing the paint­ings their full ef­fect. “I be­gin with pur­pose­ful­ness and evolve into spon­tane­ity. Start­ing in con­trol, I quickly fall into servi­tude, re­spond­ing to what is on front of me. I find that rigidly ad­her­ing to a pre­con­ceived idea cre­ates te­dious paint­ings. Spon­ta­neous, sub­con­scious in­ter­ac­tion be­tween an ed­u­cated, ex­pe­ri­enced artist and his can­vas is what cre­ates an en­dur­ing al­lure.”

God­frey’s can­vases are full of con­trasts. The hu­man form in Testos­terone, for in­stance, is painted in near-monochro­matic hues while a vi­brant use of color de­scribes the en­vi­ron­ment that sur­rounds him. The paint­ing’s flex­ing male sub­ject seems culled from a by­gone era. Bunny Boy, how­ever, is marked by a the­matic con­trast. The boy of the ti­tle is dressed in a bunny cos­tume. It’s a com­mon enough im­age of the sort par­ents take of their kids at Hal­loween, but the child is hold­ing a gun. Some­thing “cute” thus be­comes some­thing more am­bigu­ous, a thought re­in­forced by the sug­ges­tion of a night­mar­ish face to the boy’s left. “Lay­er­ing con­trasts, both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal, is in­te­gral to my work,” God­frey said. “The ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ence of my paint­ings is usu­ally friendly and invit­ing. Peo­ple can stop there and en­joy them on that level if they wish. Com­plex­i­ties lie be­neath for those who like a chal­lenge and en­joy dig­ging deeper.”

Among the works on ex­hibit are a pair of paint­ings from his se­ries Per­sonae, which show a nude male fig­ure travers­ing a land­scape and the faint im­age of a bear echo­ing his move­ments, sug­gest­ing an an­i­mal power or spirit re­sid­ing within him, per­haps as some­thing sub­con­scious and in­stinc­tual. In this con­text, the nu­dity is fit­ting. The man is closer to his nat­u­ral state. Howl, a pow­er­ful im­age from the se­ries, was inspired by the Del­more Schwartz poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me,” sub­ti­tled “The wit­ness of the body.” Ac­cord­ing to God­frey, the paint­ing is about ap­pre­hen­sions sur­round­ing our phys­i­cal­ity. “I pho­tographed my model from dif­fer­ent an­gles but chose frontal nu­dity be­cause I wanted him more than naked; I wanted him ex­posed. It also forces view­ers to face their com­fort is­sues with bod­ies. He is pur­posely sex­u­ally de­sir­able. The ‘for­est’ he wan­ders through is groomed. It is mainly of his own mak­ing. Most of the angst we ex­pe­ri­ence is in our own backyard.”

Na­ture/Nur­ture is light in tone, if you choose to see it that way. Up­stage is a whim­si­cal paint­ing. In the Be­gin­ning, por­tray­ing a fa­ther and son, is ten­der and sweet, and Search 2, show­ing a group of kids on an Easter egg hunt, has an air of nos­tal­gia for the in­no­cence of child­hood. “While I am very se­ri­ous about my art, the work is rarely heavy. There is nearly al­ways a thread of hu­mor. The first glance at my work of­ten brings a smile or a chuckle. Hu­mor is of­ten based on things that make us a lit­tle un­com­fort­able.”


Brent God­frey: Na­ture/Nur­ture & John Fincher: Botanica Re­cep­tion 5 p.m. Fri­day, June 26; ex­hibits through July 26 Le­wAllen Gal­leries, 1613 Paseo de Peralta, 505-988-3250

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