Contemporary visual artist, Greg Breda’s solo exhibition ‘Still’
Greg Breda’s solo exhibition ‘Still’, his second with Patron gallery in Chicago, is a welcomed reprieve from the ongoing and forthcoming dreary scenery of another Chicago winter. The exhibition consists of seven paintings each made with acrylic paint on vellum. Unlike the drab world outside of the gallery, the paintings are warm portraits, made of greens, browns and blues; unfolding loose and layered patterns; and lovingly painted textured hair.
All seven paintings are framed with a thin white moulding, white matting and under glass. The exhibition title ‘Still’ partially refers to the fact that all of these portraits are film stills and secondly speaks to “the meditative and spiritual connotation of stillness” as stated in the gallery guide. The gallery itself is still and spacious. Their potted monstera plant and other greenery serves as an entrance to the gallery and also complements the artist’s palette and the rhythms of the organic patterns found in the figure’s clothes. Contemplation is the overall mood of the show. Without hesitation, I immediately feel drawn to look closer at work. The artist’s color palette sings from the depths of the rooms. The shapes that make up the faces almost seem extracted and rearranged like a collage from a distance but begin to hover less and recede, behaving more like stained glass when you move closer. The paper each painting is made on is partially backed with a panel that lifts it a quarter of an inch or so, giving it room to float in its frame. The backing panel is smaller than the paper’s surface creating an equidistant border that is more transparent. Breda’s love for transparency is everywhere in the paintings and it is furthered by this subtle framing move, it immediately brings to our attention that the paintings are made of contemporary materials and specifically chosen materials that allow for shining through, layering, opacity shifts and letting the light in.
A frame always creates a barrier no matter the type of glass or lighting in the room. The reflectivity of the glass creates a distance between us and the image as well as the touch of the maker i.e. the texture of the paint. Catch me on a visit to any museum in the world and you will observe me shaking my head at the glass frames that keep me from my beloved paintings, trapping them somewhere between the pages of the books where I first adored them and this opportunity to be face to face. Of course it is understood that the glass is there to protect but it also keeps our kinesthetic memory from activating. Similarly to how wearing masks complicates human communication by having to rely purely on words spoken instead of incorporating the richness that facial expressions add to a conversation. Of course beauty and personality seep through our K95s and so does the beauty of Breda’s paintings in these slick frames but you have to work harder for it.
For me the most exciting part of looking at paintings is observing a painter’s decisions. And the visual surprises that reveal themselves if you look long enough. There are many of these moments to be found in Breda’s portraits: like the butterfly tied to string in ‘When the Wind Comes Again’, 2021, also the purple ridge along the tops of some of the mountains, the wisps of smoke curvilinearly pushing forward from this mostly jaggedly constructed picture, or the opaque slip of crimson lining on the inside of the white collar. John Berger says that the impulse to paint comes from “firstly the affirmation of the visible” and to give “what is seen” permanence. All of which would be unnecessary if “the visible itself would possess the surety which painting strives to find”. Moving pictures are perhaps the most visible of images of our current time; abbreviated filmic moments are reused and repurposed all over social media, streaming series at epic lengths are watched on a daily basis and 125 years worth of feature length films are available for our choosing. Life in comparison moves more slowly and with less precision and choreography, slices of it are documented readily, archived on social media or on our phones to savor it for even longer.
It makes sense to me that the most fleeting of moments is a cinematic moment. A film moves continuously; we can't linger without manipulating its intended time. Pausing, rewinding and skipping ahead all take us out of the films time, in the theater you can’t do any of these things. At home we can pause a scene 20 times and get 20 different compositions. All films are choreographed and designed to move. A film still is still, it is silently imbued with its narrative. Taking it out of its moving context creates mystery and mystery engages us emotionally. Each of Breda’s seven portraits come from a different film. I wouldn't say any of the resulting images are particularly cinematic, their paper shape takes that away instantly. Except for perhaps the close cropped view of a young man in a hoodie lying on his back with his hands covering his ears in ‘You’ll be ok’, 2021. Putting us in this position, hovering from above, also the pictures scale and its horizontality creates that movie theater screen similarity and a filmic type of intimacy close but distant. As a painted image I think about the artist as much as the image. I think about the time he spent looking, looking at this man in a hoodie covering his ears and all of the associations that come up. I also think about every little namable thing like the metal zipper, the chain link fence and the concavities between the hood and the man’s head. I wonder when chain link fences were invented. Looking at this man with eyes closed and hands over his ears I think about how the nose has no bridge. I think about how the gently rendered eyelashes try to ground the eyes but how they drift, how the lips seem float free and why is this portrait so unstable? What does it all mean?
The gallery statement says all of the chosen scenes depict a revelatory moment, a moment of interiority where the character is experiencing self-reflection and contemplation. The films from which the stills are made span more than half a century of American cinema: The Landlord (1970), Miss Sepia (1957), Feeling Through (2019), A Warm December (1973), This Where it is at (2021) and It’s December for Me (2021). I have yet to see any of these films and knowing that leads me to wonder how someone who has would communicate with the paintings differently? Would questions of why the artist chooses this particular moment, what about it moves them and how they infused it with their perspective be more revealing? Would the recognition of specific characters, actors, plots inspire more connection or deeper empathy? Or does none of that specificity matter at all? I imagine that what every painter wants is for the viewer to experience a revelatory moment reached through self-reflection and contemplation of their artwork. Is this a strategic mirroring? It gets me thinking if we are presented images of people experiencing revelation can we by osmosis be brought to that state? It reminds me of a documentary about the musician Scott Walker that I saw a while ago. I was particularly moved by and still moved by the feelings I had when watching people with headphones listen to a particular song they chose by him- the camera filmed, there was no sound for us to hear, just the body language of the listener listening. There was contemplation, self-reflection and revelatory moments. I longed to listen with them. But, as the viewer, I was outside looking in. I again feel that I might be outside Greg Breda’s intentions without having seen what he has seen.
There is no question of the artist's singular vision and idiosyncratic method of organizing his responses to the chosen images with his brush. The majority of the paintings are made with a big flat brush. The portraits are chiseled out with this brush with brown pigments that shift cool to warm and are paired with a bright luminous medium pale blue. The beautiful color combination is a luscious way to visualize the planar shifts in the volumes of the head and neck and also depict light. It is no wonder that the painter uses this strategy again and again. The brushwork is loose yet angular and directional in nature. The intervals between the brush marks reveal the spaces between them creating moments where the milky paper tone or underlayer color can shine through. The way the man’s ear in ‘Feeling Free’, 2021, is broken down into facets brings to my mind the painter Lynette Yiadom Boakye her gestural and painterly figures done quickly and with spontaneity. Comparatively the overall speed of mark is slower in Breda’s work and the result more graphic. What the two painters do have in common is narrative and mystery. Breda’s seven works gain their mystery from being removed from their film and also from the tension the broken brushwork creates, the instability and movement in each still portrait. Breda’s figures are full of opacity shifts, they are made up layers that peel away like onion skins and build up like layers of overlapping ribbons, disjointed and slipping but still expressing.
The features get different attention than the heads of which they occupy, eyes, noses, mouths, eyebrows, teeth, mustaches, eyelashes and hair seem to have more solidity. It’s as if they have appeared or are in the process of appearing and they are specific. When looking at the young person in “Love covers all offenses”, 2021, I see an incredible translation of photographic light. The passages of paint are moodier here and that letting the light in that I mentioned earlier is at its apex in this painting. The window appears as if we could lift each layer of paint to peel it away toward an unmuted glaring light source. Something about this particular painting lets me in a bit more than the others. It could be the averted eyes or the femininity of youth. I find a nervousness in their gesture that I relate to. The massive hand and blocky fingers meeting an earlobe, turn my tactility on. The specificity of the portrait, the wonderful eyelashes, the lone fingernail, the almost miniature planar shifts in the reflection in the eyes all seem to belong to a particular individual. My gut tells me that this shifting in attention from general (heads, hands, foliage, miscellaneous objects) to the specific in the facial features is about likeness. It tells me that recognition matters.
“What is likeness? When a person dies, they leave behind, an emptiness for those who knew them, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person's likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly”(John Berger). Characters in movies don't disappear when the movie ends, they live on lingering in our memories and can be reborn by watching again. Some characters leave a strange void when a show is over, like your house feels emptier. Others call you up out of the blue “hey remember me” and you wonder what movie was that character/actor from? In Breda’s case they have seen and painted these men and women in hope of not forgetting them or perhaps for what they stand for and to make them permanent. The images are of not only a person but of a stilled moment being observed, remembered and reimagined into paint. Perhaps the artist finds a familiarity, pieces of themself in these men and women. Maybe he wants to encourage people to watch these films and discover each image’s total meaning, maybe not. Maybe the necessity is up to you to decide. You can visit Greg Breda’s paintings at Patron now through Feb. 26th.
Event: Greg Breda, ‘Still’ Info
|Date||Dec 11, 2021 – Feb 26, 2022|
|Address||1612 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622|
|Hours||Tue–Sat, 11–6 and by appointment|
|Telephone||+1 312 846-1500|