Powerful Intimacy

Maya Brodsky

by Flora Armetta

A recent exhibition of paintings by Maya Brodsky, at RARE Gallery in New York City, offered a compelling study in contrasts. The paintings on view were all small—usually under 12 inches square—and rather quiet in subject matter, featuring undistinguished living spaces (bedrooms and living rooms, neither grand nor important in any obvious way) with no one in them, or figures who seem disengaged, their gaze directed away from the viewer. Brodsky tends to use a muted palette, and her brushstrokes are so tiny that it is tempting to read them as minute pencil marks within small fields of paint. Such a description might make the work sound simple, yet Brodsky’s paintings are beautifully complex, visually and conceptually. They glow with a subtle and diffuse light, teeming with wildly varied yet harmonious patterns on nearly every visible surface, and weighted by a strong sense of emotion, not always identifiable but nevertheless fully felt, that seems to be at play between the painter and her subjects. It becomes impossible to look at these paintings without wondering about them. Like the illuminated pages of a medieval manuscript, they reward deep contemplation—each painstakingly produced image is a small mystery, rich with suggestion and import.

Consider Optimist (2013, oil on mylar mounted to panel, 14-by-11 inches). In a dim sitting room, a long curtained window at one end admits a hazy light. A television is on in one corner, with unreadable images on it. On a long table in front of a low couch covered with neatly stacked piles of books and paper, food is laid out as though for a guest, with bowls of fruit and a plate of bread set next to two cups for tea or coffee. A wooden chair pulled up to the table seems from its position to have been put there especially for this moment. But in spite of these signs of life, it is difficult to imagine any activity taking place here. The composition of the painting—with its many near-perfect rectangles, all leading the eye in an uninterrupted line toward a vanishing point somewhere beyond the window—vaguely calls to mind the classical symmetries in a fifteenth-century rendering of an ideal city, and thereby suggests a place that is not actually lived in. The minuteness of each object, the deep, jewel-like colors in the painting, the faintly abstracted forms (patterns in rugs that appear to be missing some details, blank sheets in the piles of paper) and an abiding impression of impenetrable silence—all contribute to a feeling that this space is imagined or remembered as much as it is a place in a real moment. There is thus a vague tension between what is present in the painting and what it seems to be deliberately lacking, and, in trying to resolve these impressions, a viewer might detect both a faint anxiety and an urgent sense of purpose in the work. The painting’s title raises questions—what, you might wonder, would an optimist see here? Is this title a reference to an expected visitor, or (in what is likely merely a personal reading by me) does it represent a hope that the stacked papers and blank-spined books are useful, or manageable or meaningful? It does not necessarily seem right to try to answer any of these questions definitively, but it does seem important to ask them.

Optimist, 2013, Courtesy RARE Gallery, New York City

Though this kind of questioning is sometimes a hallmark of contemporary art, in many cases that happens because a viewer feels deliberately provoked into considering contradictory ideas. One of the pleasures of Brodsky’s work is that it is unmanipulative, and leaves a viewer to her own devices, without running into the opposite danger of coming off as essentially open to any potential meaning one might care to impose. Arguably, this lack of didacticism is one quality that aligns Brodsky’s paintings with a fascinating range of art-historical associations. Some paintings in the exhibition, for example, strongly recall paintings from the Northern Renaissance, and not merely because of their similar scale. In Power and Awake, the repeating folds in the bed sheets echo the effect of imagery in Robert Campin’s Merode Altarpiece (oil on panel, c. 1427, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art), in which the voluminous gowns worn by the annunciate angel and the Virgin Mary create almost abstract fields of pattern, folding into shapes that become carefully balanced focal points throughout the painting. Even more particularly, there are resonances between minute details pointing to simple, everyday experience in Brodsky’s paintings (a socket, grainy floorboards, soft, mismatched socks) and some of the smallest elements that exist outside of any importance to the iconographic scheme in the altarpiece, such as the tiny wood shavings crumbling away from the mousetrap Joseph is making in his carpenter’s shop.

I met with Brodsky at the gallery while her exhibition was on view. Among other things, we talked briefly about her recent visit with her mother to Belarus, from which her family emigrated when she was a child, and about moments that have shaped her aesthetic. She spoke at one point of her love for Islamic art, thanks to a wonderful art history professor in college. This fact shed a satisfying light on Brodsky’s tremendous facility with and affinity for pattern, given the tendency in Islamic art to value geometry and pattern as much as form. Wanting to know still more about her work, I asked Brodsky directly about some of her paintings’ most striking qualities. Following are some excerpts from our conversation.

FA: The color in your work is so beautiful.

MB: It’s a battle to seek it out and find it. […] When I finally start to see “the warm in the cool,” for example, it’s magical.

Adriel, 2012, Courtesy RARE Gallery, New York City

FA: I am amazed by all of these incredibly tiny lines. It almost seems like you were drawing, and it just happened that you were using a paintbrush instead of a pencil. Do you draw a lot as well?

MB: No, actually—hardly at all. I see blocks of color and value rather than line—I just use really little brushes. If you work on [a painting] long enough, it starts to achieve volume. I know what you mean when you say there are lines, but for me those happen inadvertently.

FA: I wanted to ask you about the sense of anxiety that some of these paintings have. In their colors and patterns, there is so much beauty, but there is also often a feeling that something is not quite right; there is maybe a bit of strangeness to the images. Does that resonate with you?

MB: Yes, I think so. I would never want them to be “just beautiful.” I’m more inclined to the grotesque—I’m more interested in emotion than in beauty. When I’m taking photographs, I am drawn to beauty, but when I start a painting [from a photograph], it’s only when I get to be about halfway through the painting that I start appreciating something. I start to have empathy. […] It takes way too long, and it’s torturous, and there is a slog at first, but then you stop copying from something else, and you start to make something.

FA: One of the things that seems to be a theme in so many of these paintings is a feeling of absence: you show rooms that people have perhaps recently left, or people who are looking away from each other or away from the viewer. Even in paintings that show people in very intimate moments, there seems to be a distance. With the couple in Awake, for example, the two people are very close to each other in so many ways, and yet he is sleeping, and so is not consciously present, and she is awake, but essentially alone, in her own world, looking up and away from us and thinking her own thoughts.

MB: Having someone looking right at you is very powerful. I’ve only ever done it [painted that] once. When I’m painting, I know that what I see is a moment that will pass. Maybe in a way I want them [her subjects] to just exist and survive in their own little world. […] Two people are always separate from each other in some sense—you have your own vision of the world—but then there is connection. I believe that. Maybe, in some way, I paint to allow for that.

FA: The two men in this painting (Naprasnovka, 2013, oil on mylar mounted to panel, 6-by-6 inches) are also turning away both from each other and from the viewer….

MB: That was in Belarus. When I was visiting, I couldn’t really “be there”—I didn’t know what to do, or how to act, but I was always taking photographs in case I might be interested in something as a subject for a painting. I felt distanced at first, but through painting I became closer, in the moment. [The men] are relatives of mine, visiting the site of my grandmother’s village. It’s no longer there—it’s an abandoned, decrepit place. I had trouble painting it. I couldn’t paint the field, or the forest…. But I could paint the people being there.

FA: With your interiors, the paintings of empty spaces seem paradoxically very full—they seem to carry so much meaning, and to have a sense of history.

MB: Always before, the face was the most important thing in any painting. So now, with interiors, I want to convey a particular sense of a particular personality, without necessarily having the person there.

FA: I think it’s also partly because of the way all the patterns—both the painted objects with patterns on them, like rugs and wallpaper, and the patterns you create with all the folds and wrinkles in cloth, work with each other. It keeps your eye moving and discovering things.

MB: Islamic art has this weird abstraction where they flatten things out—pattern seems to do that—and focuses your attention on little details…. That happens in Persian miniatures, which I also love. At first [before I studied it], I just didn’t care about Islamic art, but now the differences between, say, the way Sultan Muhammad and Mir Sayyid ‘Ali paint faces is wonderful to me. When I paint, I start to care about all the tiny things.

FA: What is the attraction for you in working on such a small scale?

MB: I used to work on a much larger scale, and much more expressionistically. The smallness was out of necessity at first. In graduate school [Brodsky received her MFA from the New York Academy of Art in 2010], I spent a semester in Jerusalem, and had to travel lightly and work in a small dorm room. [That was when] I first discovered that you can put a lot of attention in one thing, and that gives it its own weight. What I like about it is that you can hold it. It’s a physical necessity.

Such a comment—the idea of holding the paintings as one works—identifies precisely the kind of closeness that Brodsky’s paintings both embody and encourage. As much as they allow viewers plenty of room for their own thoughts, they also suggest a respectful but powerful intimacy. This is perhaps most true in the painting Adriel (2012, oil on mylar mounted to panel, 9-by-12 inches). In a hospital room, an exhausted-looking woman holds her newborn to her chest as she gazes, unsmiling, toward the wall at the foot of her bed. At the back of the room, an elderly woman sits facing the mother and baby, but turns her head sharply away from them, to stare out a window. A new birth, so often given a sentimental (or purely saccharine) treatment in art history and popular culture, is here fraught with apparent difficulty and clouded by a vague foreboding. The baby’s face is hidden, the mother’s hair is unkempt, flowers in vases on the windowsill are backlit and therefore colorless—this is a distinctly unpretty scene. But the painting is in many ways beautiful. Its dominant colors, soothingly cool blues and soft, golden whites, give it a delicately radiant quality. The myriad wrinkles in the sheets, pillowcase and clothing, so often employed to so many different effects by Brodsky, here form a strong continuity throughout the painting, so that the figures, though evidently emotionally distant from each other, are united compositionally, and almost read as though they share a single pool of material. Most important, though, are the tenderly observed details that draw the eye slowly from one resting point to another within the image. The tiny Band-Aid on the mother’s upper arm, the gape of her ill-fitting hospital gown, her exposed bare feet and especially the vulnerable top of the baby’s head, with its soft whorls of thick hair, resting against the crook of her arm—in focusing on these humble, intimate elements of everyday human experience, Brodsky expresses a generous spirit toward her subjects, and elicits a willing sympathy from the viewer. I ended by asking Brodsky more about this painting, and found her thoughts on it a fitting close to our conversation.

Naprasnovka, 2013, Courtesy RARE Gallery, New York City

FA: I feel like I have to bring up the idea of beauty again here, and the way you so often work against conventional ideas of prettiness. Again, this is not a lovely or sweet image in any way, and some of these details even seem to meditate on things that might be considered ugly—like that Band-Aid. Can you talk about what is happening in this painting?

MB: This is a cousin of mine with her baby. With this painting, I felt like I was being insensitive, because when I visited her I was taking pictures rather than just being there for her. And for her it was a difficult time—there was a lot going on, and there were hardships in the family. But then I felt connected to that moment through the painting.

FA: How do people respond to your paintings of them?

MB: [Some of them] don’t like it [seeing themselves painted]… they think they look too grim. [But] I hope people would be pleased. My cousin was moved when she saw this.

FA: It is moving. The expression on your cousin’s face, and the general mood of the painting, give me the overall impression that this is an incredibly kind view. It seems like you are being gentle here.

MB: That’s wonderful. That’s like reading [the poet Rainer Maria] Rilke for me—I always feel a great sense of compassion coming from him when I read his work. That is all I would ever want to be as an artist.

“Far and Long Gone By: Maya Brodsky” was on view March 28–May 2, 2013, at RARE Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (646) 339-6050. raregallery@earthlink.net

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 3