Michael Brophy: The tree and the stump

Michael Brophy's newest set of forest paintings call into question "ugly" as a category

Michael Brophy’s new paintings at Laura Russo Gallery are immediately impressive. The big (six-and-a-half-by-eight foot range) paintings depict the forest, sometimes deep among giant trees, sometimes as the stump land of logging aftermath. For example, in The Orphans, 2015 a hiker is dwarfed by soaring tree trunks, rising well beyond the edge of the canvas. In The Machine in the Garden, 2016, we see a photographer off in the distance point a camera toward us through the truncated pillars of stumps.

Brophy shows us that both kinds of landscapes can be picturesque, if not in conventional ways. But in one kind of picture mankind is the insignificant visitor, and in the other humans have utilized their intellect to bring the forest down to their own size. With this visual confrontation of the primeval with modern decimation both painted with the same kind of objective care, one can be prodded to thinking about how we as city dwellers relate to a forest of trees that can become the stacks of lumber that make our homes.

Michael Brophy, "The Machine in the Garden", 2016, oil on canvas, 78 x 90 inches/Laura Russo Gallery

Michael Brophy, “The Machine in the Garden”, 2016, oil on canvas, 78 x 90 inches/Laura Russo Gallery

In an ART 21 video segment, the photographer Robert Adams talks about his response to seeing and photographing clear-cuts: “It’s not just a matter of exhaustion of resources—I do think there is involved an exhaustion of spirit.” Finding the spiritual connection in the land harkens back to 19th century American landscape attitudes—the unspoiled land of America was akin to the unspoiled Garden of Eden. In both cases, humans intervened.

George Inness, "Lackawanna Valley", 1855, Oil on canvas, 2′ 10″ x 4′ 2″/National Gallery of Art

George Inness, “Lackawanna Valley”, 1855, Oil on canvas, 2′ 10″ x 4′ 2″/National Gallery of Art

Brophy’s stumps reminded me of a 19th century painting that illustrates the American landscape problem. That is, how do we occupy and utilize resources without totally destroying them? In Lackawanna Valley, 1855, George Inness shows the landscape in transition from forest to field to industry. It isn’t a very big painting, about three by four feet, but it is a very important work for what it says about the America of its time. The painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This is what the National Gallery says about it:

Rather than celebrating nature in the tradition of the Hudson River School, George Inness’ “Lackawanna Valley” seems to commemorate the onset of America’s industrial age. While documenting the achievements of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, Inness has also created a topographically convincing view of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The artist took relatively few liberties with his composition, but in compliance with the wishes of his corporate patron, he intentionally exaggerated the prominence of the railroad’s yet-to-be-completed roundhouse. His inclusion of numerous tree stumps in the picture’s foreground, although accurate, lends an important note of ambiguity to the work.

Whether it is read as an enthusiastic affirmation of technology or as a belated lament for a rapidly vanishing wilderness, this painting exemplifies a crucial philosophical dilemma that confronted many Americans in the 1850s; expansion inevitably necessitated the widespread destruction of unspoiled nature, itself a still-powerful symbol of the nation’s greatness. Although it was initially commissioned as an homage to the machine, Inness’ “Lackawanna Valley” nevertheless serves as a poignant pictorial reminder of the ephemeral nature of the American Dream.

Inness painted Lackawanna Valley 150 years ago when Pennsylvania was still raw. The tree stumps in Inness’s painting are a sign of transition for the land, from wilderness to farm. The stumps in Brophy’s paintings are signs of the efficiency of modern harvesting technique. The land is not becoming something else—it is a ruin, like the Roman Forum, in which we can only vaguely imagine what once was.

Nowadays, Robert Adams talks of “the contradictory nature of the western experience.” We have the conundrum of loving the scenery so much that more of us are populating the land, leading to the need for more housing, while lamenting the decimation of forests from which the housing will be built.

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If Brophy’s paintings weren’t so forceful, my memory wouldn’t be jogged to Adams and Inness. It is important that Brophy makes big paintings that are confrontational. Whether tree or stump, the big images stand up to us. Trees are like us—we both have trunks and limbs. Robert Adams said, “If you haven’t loved a tree enough to—if not hug it—at least walk up to it and touch it as if you are touching a profound mystery—if that experience has eluded you, I feel sorry for you.”

But there is no overt meaning in Brophy’s paintings. He isn’t preaching “forest is good/clearcut is bad.” He just sets up his pictures to be monumental scenes, either of a walk among living giants or of the ruins of what once was. Both result in romantic visions that you can take as sublime or wistful because of what they depict. But they are painted objectively, a modern painting thing, no implication of spirituality or anything like that. Make of it what you will.

For me, Brophy is best considered as a monumental still-life artist. One can think of tree trunks or stumps as just big objects, and recently Brophy has also painted stacked rectangular cargo containers, the anonymous riprap of jetties, and random driftwood on the beach. He paints chunky stuff well—even the bark on the trees has a graspable chunkiness. (At the same time, the impressionistic wispiness of the needled boughs is less convincing.)

It’s great that Brophy has the chutzpah to make big paintings of the rubble of ugly clear cuts. But wait. Are these clear cuts “ugly” as Brophy paints them? What’s the difference between the stumps and slash on the mountainside and the storm tossed driftwood on the beach—pictorially? Another question.

That’s what can happen when an artist just gives us a bold clear subject without embellishment.

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