MARCO BREUER The Nature of the Pencil
VON LINTEL GALLERY | OCTOBER 14 – DECEMBER 4, 2010
When I saw Marco Breuer’s show, Nature of the Pencil, at Von Lintel Gallery, I was still visually hungover from seeing my first ever Dreamworks animated movie, about a boy who trains a dragon. Its euphoric pleasure lasted for a couple of hours and quickly dissipated, leaving me empty, as if Jeffrey Katzenberg had opened up my head, strummed my pleasure nerves for two hours, then sewed me up and left without cuddling.
In Nature, Breuer strays from his standard gallery presentation by placing each work irregularly within a soot-gray band of paint, adding chalk marks that make a clear reference to a blackboard. This enveloping motif suggests an experimental relationship between the classroom and the darkroom as it relates to Breuer’s photo-based work. Most of the chalk marks are cryptic: the word “extraction,” some Twombly-esque scrawls, several half-erased schematic marks around framed art works. There’s some German text that translates to something like “what’s important is the white between the words.” Though one can try to decode these words and glyphs, their real function seems to be symbolic, to be seen and felt rather than read. Kind of like the work we were required to show in math class to let the teacher know we weren’t using a calculator to get the answers.
Breuer’s individual photographs are mysterious and seductive even if you don’t know how they came to be. Though “how” is integrally tied to “what” in his work. I won’t reveal how certain images in this show, his fifth at Von Lintel, were made, because as a viewer, guessing their nature is part of the experience. In the past, Breuer has burned, cut, shot at, and otherwise maimed photographic paper to create imagery. Unlike Alberto Burri, who embraced the brut rawness of, say, a burned piece of plastic, Breuer’s work uses violent and unorthodox actions to transform his materials into more refined visual delectations.
This can be a boon or a bane, depending on one’s interests. By invoking the motif of the blackboard, Breuer seems to want the viewer to see further into the crucible than in previous exhibitions. And who can blame him for going to lengths to emphasize the poetry between his destructive processes, and the surprisingly elegant results? This is a poetry that takes a certain amount of effort on behalf of the viewer, so one has to determine how much is too much. As a viewer, I’m somewhat ambivalent about such guidance: on one hand, in this case, it provides context for someone unfamiliar with Breuer’s work. But I also think, with a little faith in the audience, the same could have been accomplished on a white wall, hanging at 58 inches on center, with three feet between each work. Then again, if everyone were still reeling from seeing Shrek, they might need some additional assistance.
The title of the show comes from William Henry Fox Talbot’s book The Pencil of Nature, which is another cue to Breuer’s interest in experimentation. Talbot was one of the pioneers, if not the inventor, of photography, and his investigation into the medium reflects Breuer’s own interests in the mechanics of the photographic image and the development of cameraless photography.
The experimental bent of Breuer’s practice is revealed slowly and surely as one sees more of it. A single photo might be a cousin of Andreas Feininger’s image of the lights of a Navy helicopter; another might be an Uta Barth, or a photo of a bacterial culture stolen from a microbiology laboratory. But as a whole, the seduction of the images gives way to the integrity of Breuer’s search itself. This abiding experimental spirit is as important as the images formed from the manipulated emulsion. The experimental impulse is the common ancestor of contemporary art and science. Unfortunately, the two disciplines have diverged dramatically. As a portion of the scientific world has become more and more proficient at reverse-engineering the mechanics of human emotion, and devising formulas for manufacturing popular entertainment, art has taken on an antagonistic role in order to keep things unfamiliar (Victor Shklovsky) and new (Ezra Pound).
Thus, we get bloated, soulless entertainment with the power to transfix and opiate, and art that is often as preoccupied with its opponent as it is by its own creative obligations. The reason Marco Breuer’s work can be an antidote to a saccharine animated film about dragons isn’t because it’s less flawed, more transfixing, or more morally upright; it is because it’s full of flaws and indulgent curiosity. His work is built on scrapes and scars; indeed his work is the scars of experimentation that represent the will and drive to make something unique.