Judith Braun: My Pleasure
On ViewOpalka Gallery
February 22 – April 23, 2022
Reticulating patterns of black acrylic on unstretched, bare canvas become stages for scenes of angst, pathos, and tenderness in Judith Braun’s exhibition My Pleasure. The square borders of the fifteen large-scale paintings, currently on view at Albany’s Opalka Gallery, constrict their circular compositions until they burst forward into our space, often with a deluge of oversized teardrops. We walk among grommeted canvases that hang not on the wall but from modified industrial garment racks, some double-sided. With imagery that is both personal and political, these paintings build on Braun’s decades of irreverent feminist art, as well as her “Symmetrical Procedures,” a series of site-specific fingerprint murals ongoing since 2003. But the mandala-like serenity of that series, as seen in her last solo exhibition Homeostasis (reviewed in these pages in May 2016), is gone. Now Braun mars the pristine geometry of Op art with specters of the grotesque, and when symmetries occur they feel uncanny. So much has changed since the spring of 2016, and Braun is responding, as she puts it, with “urgency” to her “fears and uncertainties.” But she does so, at times, with a characteristic humor.
The ongoing pandemic, climate catastrophe, and ever-present threats to women’s rights and autonomy are some of the crises that Braun’s work addresses. The circular head in Drip Mask (2021) stares at us with owl-like eyes whose concentric circles begin to run slightly toward us, then downward producing the implied form of a crescent-shaped mask covering nose and mouth. The unnerving Drowning Head (2021) looks like an iceberg with distorted eyes melting at different rates. Their tears, like Alice’s, feed the rising ocean surrounding the head, spelling its own doom. A recurring image in the exhibition, tears flow from the heads Psycho Tears, White Tears, and Pink Tears (all 2021). The latter’s tears are painted Pussy-Hat pink, recalling the 2016 Women’s Marches.
With maniacal star eyes, a circular emoji-like face stares at us flashing a sardonic smile of block letters, like a happy birthday banner, that reads “HAPPY BITCH,” the title of this 2021 work. The letters were made by sanding away at the black surface of the painting, creating a distressed appearance. Included in the exhibition is Braun’s 1993 mural-sized Xerox smiling self-portrait, also titled Happy Bitch. This work is made of 209 sheets of fluorescent orange paper, and comes from the same period as the photocopy works of genitals and pussy cats that Braun (then Judith Weinperson) exhibited in the New Museum’s 1994 Bad Girls exhibition. The black patterns in the 1993 version, generated by the degeneration of an image systematically copied and recopied four times at two hundred percent scale, are a precursor to the patterning in the latest paintings, but more importantly show Braun’s consistent engagement with self-portraiture, feminism, and humor.
Works like Rose Colored Glasses (2021), in which a figure sports the pink-framed eyeglasses that Braun wears in real life, are clearly self-portraits of a kind, and autobiographical themes run through many works. My Phantom Nipples (2021), based on the artist’s experience after breast cancer surgery, speaks to the uncanny sensations that still appear, like that of any phantom limb, for many women who have undergone mastectomies. The title is spelled out in bubble letters filling a half circle, and is mirrored below to create a buoyant sphere whose ironically jubilant appearance is tempered by the aggressive sanding marks scratched into the surface of the composition’s periphery.
Amidst tragedy and grief, Braun presents moments of beauty, as in The Song (2021), a frontal bust with an open, singing mouth. The radiant figure’s hair and features are composed of mosaic forms made with rectangular dry-brush tesserae, arranged in radial burst motifs or in undulating and coiling lines. Those lines store a primordial power unexpectedly paired with the delicate lace patterns embroidered into the canvas on the subject’s shoulders. The symmetrical and spiritual import of The Song recalls most closely that of Braun’s non-objective, circular, and ephemeral “Symmetrical Procedures” series. At the time of writing, Braun is scheduled to create before a live audience one such mural for My Pleasure: it will be based on the plan of Fingering #16 (2016).
Song and music, but also laughter, provide libidinal gratification. They are pleasurable. In her book Feminism & Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter, Jo Anna Isaak situates pleasure as an issue as central to feminism as women finding their own voices and reclaiming their own visual representations. Humor and pleasure come through powerfully in Braun’s My Pleasure—the mantra “WITHOUT PLEASURE, ALL WE HAVE IS STUFF” is emblazoned in three lines of black Courier typeface, hand-painted, spanning the back wall of the gallery above the configuration of fifteen mobile paintings below. (The word “pleasure” also appears on one of the ten knee-high wooden cubes (all 2021) that are arranged as seating in a diagonal line corner-to-corner and painted with Braun’s black-and-white patterns, as well as occasional neon green or orange accents.) Women’s laughter provides “sensuous solidarity” for Isaak, and this seems true for Braun’s work, which defiantly meets personal and political tragedy, fear, and outrage with the resilience of humor and pleasure.