In physics, a system is said to be symmetric when its essential features remain unchanged under various transformations. Judith Braun, the ever-mutating, contradiction-embracing, Bad-Girl feminist and high priestess of monastic discipline, is just such a system. This is an artist who, having begun her career as an accomplished realist painter and subsequently moved into—and mastered—at least three antipodal genres, has maintained a singularity of purpose uncommon to careers of such breadth. Braun is in essence a contemporary seeker—not of some otherworldly dimension, but of the perennially elusive nature of selfhood. With two concurrent shows, both featuring drawings related to her ongoing “Symmetrical Procedures” series, we have a rare opportunity to see something of this dynamic unity in action. Separated geographically by a river and thematically in tenor, the exhibitions probe distinct aspects of the human psyche and, when considered together, make a powerful statement about the complexity of human identity.
On ViewMckenzie Fine Art
March 20 – April 24, 2016
On ViewSimuvac Projects
March 11 – April 24, 2016
On view at McKenzie is a wonderfully diverse range of Braun’s meticulous, small-scale abstract drawings dating from 2004 to the present, along with a large-scale installation featuring one of her celebrated fingerprint drawings. A contemplative mood prevails here, owing to both the spare aesthetic and the rules and rituals that govern Braun’s process. With all of her Symmetrical Procedures, Braun follows a three-fold directive: symmetry, abstraction, and restriction to carbon-based media such as graphite and charcoal. Adherence to the first and second elements means that any intuitively chosen mark made on one side of the paper must be ritualistically rendered on the other; the carbon imperative orients the work toward universals (carbon being one of the essential elements of life). What results is a profusion of self-organizing forms that range from the crystalline to the calligraphic to the vaguely vegetal and floral. Radial bursts abound—often accompanied by eerie glows suggestive of deep cosmic space—as do shapes resembling the strange attractors of fractal geometry. While some drawings are starkly graphic, others are softer, with subtle tonal variations or lines so delicate as to be barely there. All are rendered with exquisite skill and calibration. Symmetry being so prevalent in nature, the drawings exude a kind of ecstatic organicism. One thinks of Gaudí, whose embrace of natural form was driven not by an impulse toward mimetic ornament but rather by a deep desire for communion with nature’s hidden order.
As much as these drawings point away from human ego and toward identification with a larger whole, it is the human presence behind them that gives them their emotive charge. Subtle fluctuations in the lines and marks betray the source of their facture: a hand, eye, and mind working with an intensity of focus that, given the work’s astounding precision, beggars belief. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the exhibition’s hybrid wall installation. Presiding over the gallery’s main space like an homage to the circle, four framed orbital bursts hang at even intervals atop an expanse of arching semicircles drawn directly on the wall, each composed of smaller semicircles formed by impressions of the artist’s charcoal-covered fingers. Redolent of human individuality, the fingerprints offset the sidereal otherness of the smaller pieces while reminding us that the latter, too, are hand-made. After all, the impulse toward self-transcendence, so palpably central to this show, presupposes the persistence of a self it can never fully extinguish.
Over at Simuvac in Brooklyn, this self emerges—and with attitude. Here, a kind of playful irreverence collides with rigorous solemnity in seven drawings whose symmetrical forms are variants of the words “crazy bitch.” Larger in scale and softer in tone (all are 40-x-33-inch charcoal drawings), these works take Braun’s monk-like focus into the realm of psychic cacophony—which is to say everyday life. While the text elements read as the rude slurs that they are, the strange configurations they form range from the geometrically austere to the weird, wobbly, and voluptuous. In Crazy Bitch #8 (2015), one of the stand-outs, the word “bitch,” mirrored and doubled, suggests a towering array of mysterious silos abandoned in some post-apocalyptic scenario. As ever, the drawings are rendered with consummate skill, giving them a formal beauty that utterly belies their semiotic content. The tensions are rich. Weaving elements of personal identity into the elevated orientation of a purist aesthetic would be one thing, but here the allusions to personhood are so absurd that they can’t be taken at face value. In this riot of antitheses, “crazy bitch” becomes a metaphor not just for the persona Braun occasionally assumes but for all personae: the multiple, shifting, and often contradictory identities we wear that are emphatically not our “real” selves.
What is the “real” self, that self of selves that has been the subject of so much pained human pursuit? In a culture increasingly obsessed with the baser aspects of self, it’s an especially fertile question for artists, those indefatigable Argonauts of the interior. But while other metaphysically inclined artists have taken this on by turning to nature or cosmos alone, Braun’s refusal of a single trajectory is significant. Why, after all, should the self form a pyramid, a skyward structure made up of lowers, highers, and ultimates? In the light of Braun’s practice, another model suggests itself. Perhaps the self is more like a crystalline sphere, both infinitely faceted and devoid of center. It’s a paradox we might do well to embrace.