Art in America: Michael Brennan

Shotgun Review

Art in America: Michael Brennan

By Maria Porges October 25, 2015

In Michael Brennan’s Art in America, references abound—to art and artists, but mostly to popular culture of all kinds, reminding us of the overwhelming glut of objects and images that compete for our attention daily. Brennan’s vivid, surreal canvases and found-object sculpture bring together a cacophonous view of the cheerful excesses of capitalism—the driving engine of the U.S. economy—linking it to the fever of commercialism that has permeated every corner of the art world in recent years. With a theatricality as deft as it is perverse, Brennan has transformed the “big box” of one of San Francisco’s largest galleries into a veritable wunderkammer, topped with an enormous American flag that billows across the ceiling. A yoke of rope binds one ragged end of its vast expanse, as if to suggest the hog-tying and capture of its values and principles by the free-for-all of consumption pictured in the room below.

One large wall is entirely covered with canvases, their varying sizes fitted together like puzzle pieces. Sean Connery/James Bond pops out of one image; nearby, strippers pose listlessly in front of McDonald’s golden arches, while another picture shows a close-up of urban detritus including a page from a children’s book, a discarded cardboard air-freshener tree, and a hypodermic needle. Everything—cars, toys, women, cityscapes—is rendered with a kind of hallucinogenic, photographic perfection, though closer examination reveals splashes of pigment and impasto textures that make it clear these are paintings from start to finish.

Michael Brennan. Jack in the Box, 2015; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and White Walls Gallery, San Francisco.

Such a “salon style” hang was once common, but Brennan’s version of it seems like a riposte to the spare, fetishizing kind of installation now conventional in contemporary galleries and museums. This impression is reinforced by a startling sculpture consisting of a haphazard stack of paint-covered canvases, topped by a classical figure with a Jack-in-the-Box head. On the other long wall, not quite as densely covered, groupings imply possible meanings, mostly without spelling out any single interpretation—though, in one picture, a Mickey Mouse statuette sinking through a mysterious amber liquid clearly refers to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987). Other works evoke Salvador Dali or Jeff Koons, two art-world operators who loom large in the popular imagination. In one canvas of a cherub-as–sad-clown, a reflection of a balloon dog can be seen on the clown’s shiny globe of a nose. Nearby, a classical bust of a woman sporting a similarly bulbous schnozzola rests atop a graceful, Koonsian pedestal.

Near the entrance to the show, an old-fashioned black phone receiver on a long stick protrudes from the wall, seemingly referring to Dali’s frequent inclusion of phones in his work as well as the current craze for phone-created “selfies.” As exuberant as this show is, its narrative is also a sprawling, cautionary tale about narcissism and excess. Like poet William Carlos Williams, Brennan seems to be telling us that “the pure products of America/go crazy… no one/to witness/and adjust, no one to drive the car."1 

Art in America: Michael Brennan is on view at White Walls & Shooting Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through November 7, 2015.


  1. William Carlos Williams, “To Elsie,” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. 

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