If you should not judge a book by its cover? What about the living room you grew up in? What do its contents say about you? Does its décor reflect who you are? What do the surroundings and the stuff of your everyday life reveal about you, particularly when you are a child growing up in your parents’ home? These are some of the questions motivating Brandi Twilley in her first solo exhibition in New York.
According to the gallery press release for Brandi Twilley: The Living Room at Sargent’s Daughters (July 26–August 26, 2016):
Twilley recreates, from an amalgamation of memory, Google searches, dreams and the few surviving Polaroids, her childhood home, which burned to the ground when she was sixteen in 1999. The ten paintings present the room from every angle and encompass multiple years, showing the slow decline of the house prior to the fire as it first becomes water damaged from a leaky roof and then consumed by waste before eventually burning down.
In the ten paintings, which all measure 32 x 56 inches, Twilley keeps returning to the family living room made of “ticky-tacky” wood-paneling, as Malvinia Edwards wrote in her song, “Little Boxes” (1962), famously recorded by her friend Peter Seeger. The moody palette consists of sooty grays, electric blues, sharp greens, and violets — the film of rainbow colors you see on an oil slick — with yellows and red signaling the fire.
We can deduce from the paintings that long before a fire destroyed it, this was house in decline, sliding toward ruin, with the floor, bed, and table littered with empty cans, dirty clothes, and toys. Tidiness was clearly not a high priority in Twilley’s childhood home. One of the most telling details is that there is never direct sunlight in the room. When we do see the window in Twilley’s paintings, it is mostly boarded up: a strip of light peers in through a narrow sliver of space. Even before the fire starts blazing in the center of the room, we see water stains, rising like flames, along the base of the inexpensive wood veneer panels.
By repeatedly returning to the same littered room, which is crowded with furniture, including two televisions and generic paintings on the wall, Twilley conveys the troubling aspects of her childhood, but in a way that speaks to something larger than her biography: the bleak routines that are central to many people’s lives. She sifts through the scenes like an archeologist who has yet to remove the evidence and carefully catalog each item, no matter how small. In all the works, the space is defined by three of the room’s walls, making the painting’s surface the fourth wall or “window” we see through.
The littered space is claustrophobic, a kind of suburban prison cell devoid of natural light. And yet, no matter how depressing the subject, I could not take my eyes off these paintings. Certain recurring details became focal points: as the fire spreads, you want to find out what happens to the generic paintings of a sailing ship (which is odd and oddly impersonal) and autumn landscape; the pile of orange extension cords; the dozens of covered plastic cups with straws sticking out of them; the toy trucks and stuffed animals; the dropped ceiling and faux period furniture. Everything you see in the painting was made to fall apart and be discarded. None of it seems personal, special, or particular.
As the press release notes, Twilley renders this scene in colors that are “saturated and murky.” The fire seems anti-climactic, a necessary cleansing. The aftermath of the fire differs from the pre-fire views in degree, not substance. They are chilling and get under your skin. In “The Bed” (2015), you cannot tell if the view is from before or after the fire. The attention paid to details, surfaces, and ambient light is the real strength of these works. The paint is thin and diluted, almost like the stains they evoke. Twilley is particularly good in getting the feel of soot, the weird electric blue light of an analog television at night, the silvery surfaces of cans, the color of inexpensive wood veneer, and the smooth rubbery feel of white plastic buckets. She is particularly good at water stains.
In “Christmas Tree” (2015), Twilley directs our attention toward the light-festooned Christmas tree on the painting’s left side, while schematically sketching the things mounted on the wall that angles in on the right side. She is not aiming for the finished look we associate with perfection, but she isn’t being sketchy either. It is as if memory doesn’t recall everything in perfect detail, just the shadows they left.
While some viewers might be bothered that these works are constructed from memory, images the artist found on Google and a “few surviving Polaroids” (and their strange color) rather than from observation, I am not a purist. If Twilley’s turbid family living room feels generic, oppressive, depressing, crammed with stuff, and badly decorated, that’s because lots of people live this way. Twilley never comes across as smug or ironic. In her love of painting, and her fierce ambition to get the color and feel of a tin can or a Christmas tree light just right, she reveals the depths of her sympathy for the inhabitants of this world she left behind.
Some people like to go on about how they once drove a truck, grew up in a labor camp, or didn’t go to college, while modestly reminding you that, despite these humble beginnings, they have become important cultural figures: they belong to the pull-yourself-up by your own bootstraps school of thinking, which you know, if you know anything, is a delusion. Others want to assimilate and will do everything to shed their past and fit in: they are the ones who work in a pre-approved style, which includes neo-conceptual appropriation and an aura of intellectual superiority — they often radiate smugness. Both paths are ways of pandering to a privileged audience.
Twilley loves to paint and doesn’t try to accommodate the viewer. She acknowledges being haunted and preoccupied. By resurrecting the artifacts of her childhood – which are from a bygone era – Twilley shares a background and worldview with Matt Bollinger, whose show at Zürcher Gallery I recently reviewed. Might not this tendency be something to examine? For years artists who wanted to cover their tracks, who were determined to escape their past and appear to fulfill some cornball ideal, have dominated the art world. Think of all the virile male artists holding up their infants to the camera, like trophies. It is a model based on privilege.
Twilley doesn’t subscribe to that white male model and she isn’t afraid of examining the life of those for whom upward mobility is a fantasy, a reason to feel left out and trapped. Twilley doesn’t indulge in bitterness, but it is hard not to sense that it is there. Her living room becomes a prison cell whose only connection to the outside world is two portable televisions. In “Living Room – Night” (2015), both televisions are on. In one of them we see a car in the middle of the screen. It is night there too. Might the young inhabitant of this house have dreamed of leaving? There are so many interesting details and connections to be made in these paintings. Despite the obstacles of her home life, Twilley never asks for our sympathy, never pulls out the violin and plays a sad tune. I admire that.
Brandi Twilley: The Living Room continues at Sargent’s Daughters (179 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 26.
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