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Fearless Symmetries: Judith Braun’s Carbon-Based Art Forms

Judith Braun, “Homeostasis” at McKenzie Fine Art: Installation view (all images via judithannbraun.com unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

The unclassifiable drawings of Judith Braun are now on view in two concurrent, very different solo exhibitions — one in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the other on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Brooklyn show, at Simuvac Projects, is called Crazy Bitch. The other, at McKenzie Fine Art, is titled Homeostasis.

In both, a meticulous, even obsessive symmetry dominates the work. That, and Braun’s dedication to her medium, which, like life on Earth, is exclusively carbon-based — graphite, charcoal, carbon-black gouache, and even bleached charcoal for works in white-on-black.

The complete avoidance of prismatic color lends the shows a silver-tinged purity that, in any number of works — including the entirety of Crazy Bitch — Braun willfully mucks up in both form and content.

The seven framed sheets featured in the storefront-sized Greenpoint space are charcoal and graphite text drawings, each done in the uniform size of 40 x 33 inches. Most of the drawings are bisected, mirrored designs comprised of variations on the term “Crazy Bitch,” as in “Crazy / Crazy” and “Happy as a Bitch Can Be” — self-evident ploys by Braun, a feminist veteran of the New Museum’s 1994 Bad Girls show (under the name Judith Weinperson), to appropriate and defang a sexist slur. They are also consummate exercises in tonal contrast, nuanced gradation, and unapologetic illusionism.

In “Crazy Bitch #2” (2015), the words are vertically rotated, with “Crazy” in black and “Bitch” rendered in a metallic sheen quickly shifting from black to gray to bright white and back again. The resulting columnar volume calls to mind Sol Lewitt’s scribble drawings, whose graphite lines move from sparse in the center to dense at the perimeter, fooling the eye into reading a rounded surface.

Judith Braun, “Crazy Bitch #2” (2015), charcoal and graphite on paper, 40 x 33 inches

“Crazy Bitch #2,” however, is the most restrained of the lot. Throughout the Simuvac Projects show, Braun’s use of trompe l’oeil can only be described as in flagrante, as her forms and surfaces heave and swell, rise like towers out of a sooty mist and cast shadows inside a shallow, locked-down space.

The Crazy Bitch drawings make mincemeat of Greenbergian flatness, aesthetic pietism, and academic pretentiousness (for starters), indulging in the unschooled pleasures of illusion and decoration, dishing up Lettrist metagraphics by way of the Grateful Dead. But, for all their populist nose-thumbing, what is most striking about them is the superlative skill and conceptual rigor with which they are made.

On the home page of her website, Braun posts her “drawing rules”: Symmetry / Abstraction / Carbon medium. These may sound overly restrictive, but there are rules and there are rules; some, such as Clement Greenberg’s insistence in “Towards a Newer Laocoön” (1940) that painting “re-assert its material flatness,” can lead to institutionally-sanctioned aridity, while others apply acupressure to the creative meridians, releasing their juices in an unstoppable flow.

The deep, rich graphite of the Crazy Bitch series is the conduit for the sobriety, even somberness, undercutting the imagery’s nonstop partying. The use of color, any color, would have sent a diametrically opposed message. In this show, Braun manages to have it both ways — by coupling her formal directive to antithetical content, she balances exuberance with constraint in a way that renders both inherently present and implicitly absent.

Judith Braun,”Homeostasis” at McKenzie Fine Art: Installation view (click to enlarge)

The focus and fecundity engendered by the artist’s three simple rules are on full display at McKenzie, where she fills the two long walls of the gallery’s large, light-filled, street-facing space with spectacular installations. To the right of the entrance, four framed drawings of a white, radiating circle on a square, black field are hung within concentric rings created directly on the wall via Braun’s unerring fingerprint technique, in which she dips her fingertips in charcoal dust and presses them in symmetrical patterns against a surface.

The overall effect is rich and disorienting — our Western mindset loses its footing between the framed-drawing-as-work-of-art and the entire-wall-as-work-of-art, since both approaches equally apply. A similar phenomenon happens on the opposite wall, where a salon-style hanging — twenty-nine drawings, all square, all abstract, most with white grounds and some with black, unfurl like wings from a largish, lacy central image, “Symmetrical Procedure IN-30-2” (2016).

The installation is stunning, but what is most intriguing is the variety of the individual images, which can be delicate, dense, funky, loopy, geometric, or baroque. The populism coursing through Crazy Bitch washes up here in an understated, even disguised form, given that abstraction isn’t the clearest venue for demotic visual expression.

Judith Braun, “Symmetrical Procedure TTC-16-2” (2015), graphite on paper, 16 x 16 inches (Image via mckenziefineart.com) (click to enlarge)

The disconcerting “Symmetrical Procedure TTC-16-2” (2015) is comprised of six curved lines overlapping to form a rounded, inverted pyramid. What’s initially off-putting about it, however, is that the artist has also drawn startlingly lifelike shadows just beneath each of the six lines, steering the piece dangerously toward the instantly discredited postmodern style known as Abstract Illusionism.

But, as in the Brooklyn show, the artist’s rulebook has not only helped avert a fall into the wrong side of kitsch; it has also endowed the drawings with a special kind of grace — a bright, clean, razor-edged sensibility that’s also bracingly up-to-the-minute. To be candid about it, it’s possible to imagine many of these symmetries doubling as high-end tattoos or adorning the hoods of muscle cars. But that sleek, zingy sexiness is just where their subversive attraction lies.

The drawings in Homeostasis race along the edges of graphic design, high fashion, heavy metal, and Islamic calligraphy before skidding across the threshold of capital-A art, hitting the markers for Minimalism and Pop but without setting comfortably on either.

Homeostasis, in its Wikipedia definition, ‘is the property of a system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant,” with examples such as “the balance between acidity and alkalinity.” In these drawings, external balance is attained through their flawless symmetry, but their internal conditions — their allusions, history, intent — remain decidedly unsettled, which makes them all the more compelling to look at.

Judith Braun: Crazy Bitch continues at Simuvac Projects (99 Norman Ave, Greenpoint,  Brooklyn) through April 24.

Judith Braun: Homeostasis continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 24.

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