Brian Lucas in Thailand: Black & White Works

Brian Lucas. <em>Thicket</em> (five panels), 2006, acrylic on canvas, 59 x 43 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Brian Lucas. Thicket (five panels), 2006, acrylic on canvas, 59 x 43 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Whenever I finish a painting I face the canvas to the window so it can look out upon and contemplate what it will never be.—Brian Lucas, May 4th, 2007

I met Brian Lucas about ten years ago when he published a poem of mine in his magazine Angle, a staples-and-Xerox affair with covers he washed in watercolors, making each one unique. Besides writing, publishing, and painting poetry, he played guitar, bass, and keys in a band called Mirza, whose album cover he’d drawn. I admired this variousness, as well as the fact that he hadn’t gone to college. He was so unprofessional, in the highest sense, the sense of being an artist, and his sustained activity in different art forms was the opposite of the dilettante. When we met, he was reading a book called The Spiritual in Modern Art, and the complete freedom of his reading, in contrast to the limited, orthodox list of authors being read in the surrounding poetic milieu, was a revelation.

In 2001, before September 11, Brian moved to Bangkok. His painting evolved in extraordinary directions under the influence of Thailand’s tropical sunlight and visual motifs. Much of this evolution—at least, from 2004-06—can be viewed on his Web site. I’m not certain the word “pointillist” captures what his art previously looked like—quite aside from the fact that he had several visual vocabularies which developed in tandem instead of sequentially—but the old French concept could usefully refer to his frequent procedure of building up a composition through meticulous yet improvised increments. His older works tend to have distinct regions of activity placed relative to one another to determine the composition of the work as a whole.

The work Brian produced in Thailand was definitely new while at the same time representing the exaltation of prior tendencies in his art. The first Thailand paintings I saw demonstrated a new and intense preoccupation with color, introducing larger structures within his smaller increments, incorporating the formal influences of the mandala or the lotus plant. Occasionally a central figure dominates the canvas, though Brian still never quite abandons his incremental techniques, creating backgrounds and borders that evoke the cosmological, a sense of figures floating in space. This aspect of Brian’s work recalls Gordon Onslow Ford, whose overlapping iterations of circle, line, and dot became the obsession that yielded his greatest paintings.

The last works Brian created in Thailand are the five-panel group of black and white paintings called “Thicket” (see below). At first glance, I was struck by their resemblance to Bruce Conner’s all-over black ink drawings—Conner’s 1960s mandalas, for example, composed of short, irregular pen strokes, or his 1970s “stars,” in which minute flecks of white paper shine through his circular scribbling. Again, the orientation here is cosmological, in the sense of a mystical perception of reality, a surreality, which unites Brian with Conner as well as Onslow Ford. The influence of Conner is overtly honored in a work leading up to “Thicket,” an ink-on-paper drawing titled “After B.C.” Yet even here, he alludes to Conner’s work without reproducing it verbatim. Only a few portions of this drawing actually correspond to Conner’s scribbling technique. Elsewhere he takes liberties Conner wouldn’t allow, rejecting rigorous, geometrical organization in favor of a freely improvised placement of mandala wheels, filling portions of the drawings with much looser scribbling—even returning to the Onslow Fordian line effaced in Conner’s work.

Unlike “After B.C.,” however, the five panels of “Thicket” are paintings, and as such have little relationship to Conner’s ink-based techniques. In fact, the more one looks at “Thicket,” the less it resembles Conner’s work. “Thicket” is all paint, black and white; no portion is raw. The five panels—whose disposition relative to each other I suspect Conner wouldn’t tolerate—are composed of improvised increments, yet in a new handwriting, the brushstrokes insistently merging and breaking, giving off an impression of a growth covering the canvas—the thicket—yet also of the ever-changing pattern of flowing water. That these impressions contradict each other logically yet co-exist imperturbably within “Thicket” provides further evidence of the surreality inhabiting the work.

One of the striking aspects of “Thicket” is the complete compositional unity each panel attains. There are regions of activity, but there’s no clear sense of where a region begins or ends. Everything connects, with this unity further abetted by the confusion of, or lack of distinction between, figure and ground. In approaching black and white works, the tendency is to see black on white, on the analogy of the page, and the left and right panels are in fact so-composed. In the top and bottom panels, however, the white is painted on top of the black, while the middle panel is white on black, with some black embellishments on the white. At a distance, the black on the top and bottom panels seems to outline the white brush strokes. But the methodological distinctions in the rendering of each canvas are impossible to maintain when “Thicket” is taken in as a whole. Still, these differences make themselves felt in the dynamic relationship between panels, creating a kind of undulation that produces a third dimension often foreign to all-over abstract paintings.

As Brian has said, he turns a finished painting to the window to “contemplate what it will never be.” At the same time, the window turns Brian to contemplate the next painting, which emerges by automatic dictation rather than painterly will. This dictation depends for Brian on the external environment. Following his departure from Thailand, where he also completed his extraordinary book of poems, Light House (Meeting Eyes/Spuyten Duyvil, 2006), Brian’s painting entered a new phase. The work has absorbed the achievements in Thailand but advances them, as most recently seen in the black and white “Bloom.” Here the Onslow Ford strain returns in the background cosmos of dots connected by lines in a barbell-shaped increment. Yet—is this background? Or is it a foreground ripped by what is beneath or beyond? The diamond shape at the center, which extends its upper and lower contours just beyond the edge of the rectangular canvas, renders these questions ambiguous: If this is a bloom in a simple sense—a flower against a sky—that flower may not be tethered to any stem.

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