When the Leaves Come Down
August 8, 2019 – September 15, 2019
For me the mystery of alchemy is more appealing than its promise of truth, and Kyle Breitenbach's new paintings in When the Leaves Come Down at Shrine NYC appeal for a similar reason: their obfuscation and obscurity is deeply compelling. Using oil paint and a "secret" layering technique, the surfaces of his pictures appear alchemically transformed into copper, or bronze, and silver, resembling light refractions on gasoline. Gradually, the underpainting bleeds through in unexpected ways, creating new forms on the surface.1 In this sense Breitenbach's latest body of work transcends him.
The ten paintings and five small drawings in the exhibition are a leap away from his previous work exhibited at Shrine, which was more abstract than rendered, primarily gray and seemed informed by color theory. Here, Breitenbach achieves a very delicate balance between abstraction and pictorial representation. The images are folklore inspired, dancing on the edge of direct reference. While the imagery is fascinating and lends itself to many interpretations, it seems dependent on the technique to unify the disparate scenes, which would otherwise appear stylistically to be from different bodies of work.
As time erodes each scene, they will grow distorted and become more unstable. Shadows Never Move, An Image for Longing, and Where the Leaves Come Down (all works 2019) are examples of this already: they remain allegorical while edging into unrecognizability. Shadows Never Move is a series of vignettes stacked vertically on a single canvas, representing a dark forest where various creatures act out a fairytale. But the tale is strange, and the characters are lost in the thick tangle of branches as night falls. Deer, bears, and fairies can be made out conversing in the blotted copper mass. An Image for Longing is much simpler, merely a large solitary figure in long robe and wide-brimmed hat, resembling a hermit, a priest, or an alchemist. However, as one looks closer the figure appears to disintegrate into a topography of discrete territories separated by crimson borders. Even less can be discerned in When the Leaves Come Down, the largest painting in the gallery. Just right of the center of the picture, surrounded by shimmering darkness, an androgynous face peers out, smiling, head cocked, an eerie likeness of Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist (1517). Unlike the mysterious 16th century painting in which John points up to heaven, Breitenbach's figure points in opposite directions, neither toward heaven nor hell, but to the sides of the composition where crags and pathways lead to dilapidated villages in the distance. This figure is like the Cheshire cat, or a trickster in general, posing a riddle without solution.
In the five small drawings Breitenbach reveals a lost hermit's landscape. The most striking drawing in the group, The Passing of Time has a wanderer in medieval European garb stepping forward, their face and torso literally burned out of the page. Behind the singed hole a tiny but expansive landscape is revealed with a winding path leading into it. The wanderer could be one with the landscape or eviscerated by it. They hold a heavy tome and seem to step with a slow deliberate pace. It reminds me of the stumbling figures in The Parable of the Blind (1568) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with capes and clumsy feet. In relation to these two also, I am reminded of a contemporary reproduction of Bruegel's painting by Cindy Ji Hye Kim from The Celibate Machine (2018). Kim's version removes the bodies, leaving only clothes—oddly the leggings are missing too, as though it were too much body, or too fine a line to draw between fabric and skin. Breitenbach appears to belong to the same moment as Kim, drawing on 16th century genre painting for its backwoodsy and darkly imaginative character. In this sense fairytales and alchemy are not contradictory, their mystery and wonder hearken back to times of strange beliefs and wholly other conceptions of nature than are popular today. In that world secrets are buried rather than hidden, and the woods are filled with magic; but that is not to say any of this has truly disappeared.
Everything has an origin, and Breitenbach looks to be building on a moment in contemporary art that turns away from prasing artificiality, futurism, and technology, in favor of old materials, pastiche, and a return to natural landscapes—the work of those that would prefer to wander in the forest.
The technique most likely involves a precise mixture of water, gum arabic, and gold and silver leaf into the paint along with the right solvent, maybe one that is alcohol-based, causing effects as the water separates from the oil. The same effect can commonly be seen in printmaking, and when gasoline is added to water.