I had never met Farrell Brickhouse, the painter—much less had I seen an extensive sampling of his work. I liked the sound of his name, even though it was not Italian. In fact, it had a literal English sound, which I nonetheless found intriguing. The opportunity to correct this deficiency was presented over the past summer by the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York. Two artist-friends had suggested that I go there specifically to see Brickhouse’s work. Somehow I sensed something important, if not urgent, in their tonal inflection. After a brief deliberation, I took their advice, rented a car, and drove up the Taconic Parkway to see it.
Brickhouse paints in small scale—at least, in the exhibition of work I saw on the top floor of Davis’s carriage house (an amazing place, by the way, as long as you watch your head walking between the hard oak beams). From the beginning, as I ascended the rungs of the old wooden stairway, there was an immediate gravitational pull. “This is serious stuff,” I muttered to my companion. From then on, there was little to say. I caught a glimpse of “Petey Walks on Water” (2007)—a small brushy painting in which a bandaged hand extends upward between two feet. The point kept recurring in my mind, as I looked at this painting, that lyricism in art is the result of a trance-like overdrive combined with a subtle, if not deft handling of the medium, namely, the paint. Through the paint, a curious psychology defiantly conjures the figurative reference. The magical light appears out of nowhere, as if suddenly exhumed from a hidden source of unimaginable color. In another painting, titled “Follow You,” (2008) a female head reclines peacefully atop the male head beneath. Gentle nerve-endings are compulsively yet intelligently formed, as if the surface just came into being without a trace of surreptitious angst. The entire exhibition was filled with an aura that suggested an intensive mind/body synapse.
Here is the proverbial painter’s painter who knows how to evoke an allegory of daily life without a theoretical handbook. Here is an artist who takes it upon himself to simply paint and stay focused on the act of painting until it is time to let go, essentially, to let it be. Brickhouse paints like a fox—un renard dans l’art—in a way that only those who know the interior sense of a painting will understand. Upon viewing the brilliant “Blind Man’s Bluff X” (2008), I decided that if Ensor could paint himself as a tormented martyr in 1888, why couldn’t Brickhouse paint a softer, contained version in which manhood is congealed into an organic, rhythmic wad of coiled energy, rather than split between macho despair and a twisted, hemorrhaging affectation? “Castaway for Andre” (2008) has a similar tendency, but more boyish, more hermetic, given to dreamland and susceptible to the Furies of delight and starstruck images borrowed from another galaxy.
Indeed, there is something childlike in the paintings of Brickhouse. (I recall in Klee’s journals the desire to paint like a child again, which the Swiss artist tried to achieve throughout his career.) Childlike implies innocence—where the Furies fly in the face of night, where the tempest rings true in spite of the arduous rite of passage necessary to attain mastery in the craft of artful dreaming. Brickhouse reveals the darkness as well in “Ghost II,” where above a painted brick wall in a field of brushed golden ochre—the color one might experience during a howling sirocco of wind and sand pulled together by ambient sunlight—a window with an unknown head appears as a guardian from an unknown past. This kind of painting—what Brickhouse, in fact, achieves—is an invented allegory that appears half-conscious, yet in full control. A few strokes here, a dab of color there—but ultimately, a specter-like definitiveness about the image that doesn’t get away. The indeterminacy of the artist’s brush combined with an eye for specificity caught at the speed of light lends a modulation to these small surfaces that transmits intimacy as only painting can do. The secrets of the soul are in these works. Their somewhat miniature containment lends a new, yet plausible, meaning to the term “heroic” in expressionist painting today.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.