Will Bruno: Midnight River
March 30–April 23, 2023
For the European Impressionists, the method of plein air painting was meant to be an interpretation rather than an attempt at faithful reproduction. This represented a dramatic shift from earlier approaches to landscape painting which, in the absence of photography, relied on preliminary sketches, in-studio techniques, and the work of other painters to create a convincing imitation of nature. Will Bruno finds himself situated somewhere between these two approaches to the landscape in Midnight River, his current exhibition at Europa Gallery. Following quite literally in the footsteps of Georgia O’Keeffe, Bruno lives off the grid near Abiquiu, New Mexico, the location of Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe’s former home. Views of the landscape in Abiquiu are some of the most beautiful in New Mexico, making it a destination for tourists and reclusive artists alike. The works featured in this show, however, were painted variously across New Mexico, beyond Abiquiu in Calf Canyon, Hermit’s Peake, Plaza Blanca, El Rito, and Carson National Forest. Bruno carries his paints off into some extremely remote locations—there are many in a state where Google Maps will generally get one lost.
The western half of the United States, carved out over millions of years by glaciers and volcanoes, is a unique feature of North America that is impossible to fully capture. Between peace and desolation, at once frightening and awe-inspiring, the landscape transcends words. Luckily, Bruno steers clear of the sublime entirely, and strives to create immediate, comprehensible pictures in the mind. There is usually a single focus in each painting: a rock, a tree, a figure, a structure. Midnight Fire (2023) stands out as lacking a central focus, though: here tangled, charred branches block the sunset, the river, and the mountain behind them. This might be Bruno at his best. It’s difficult to settle the eye on any one point in the composition, and the cryptic text that lines the bottom of the frame makes situating oneself even more difficult. “Torch Lighting”, “Night”, “Dark” flash from the string of letters and numbers. And the sun sets somehow through the mountain. A gold duck drifts like a balloon through the middle of the frame, creating a triangular composition among branches flanked by two muddy scarecrow-like figures standing apart below. This triad might be the central focus of the painting, were it not for the allover skein of branches that enmeshes it.
To my mind Bruno is wilder than O’Keeffe, who is so serene and unified in her compositions. Bruno lets his mind wander. He is scattered, torn up, and the landscape likewise shreds itself apart in its transmutation at Bruno’s hand. While he doesn’t take the route of complete fabrication, he is, like the Impressionists before him, choosing how to represent the landscape according to his own whims. I say “whims” because enjoyment is central to the art of plein air painting and Bruno clearly has a sense of humor. As the solitary encounter between the painter and the landscape, plein air painting brings the “landscape” close to the artist through its manual reproduction. What the painter takes away when they leave is something the landscape can never actually lose. At this point of conjunction, the painting stands as an artifact of the painter’s creative journey and not necessarily a record of where they have been—at least not in Bruno’s case. So, the game Bruno plays by himself is whatever he wants it to be; the aim of the work is to capture his own state of mind on that particular day in the landscape and nothing else. He wants to find Hi-Chews in the mountains, and Jesus Christ in the snow. Maybe someone is dancing, maybe no one is dancing.
Bruno’s paintings capture at an intimate scale something of both the dangerous isolation of the landscape, torn apart by climate change and development, and the strange, hallucinatory ramblings of a hermit looking for God. But what could easily be overlooked here is that the local population in Abiquiu and its surrounding areas are mostly Pueblo peoples, artists and non-artists, that were living in the desert long before O’Keeffe made her mark there. I think it is worth noting the narrow vantage point from which Bruno paints. The act of peering into the landscape, looking for something looking back at you, waiting to find you, is the inheritance of western expansion and those that have since come to found something “new,” to have a spiritual awakening, and to escape. This is the legacy of madness or salvation in the foreign desert. And yet ultimately Midnight River is not quite as serious as all that. It maintains a light tone while summoning something darker in the fragmented picture plane, the dead and gnarled trees, the hallucinations that populate Bruno’s scenery. This body of work finds an odd meeting point between contemporary painting’s turn toward winking levity, even to the point of silliness, and the reality of forces beyond the painter and the work of art, forces that painting uniquely has the power to conjure from thin air.