Michael Brennan’s moving images

MI3 (Lopez), at Minus Space, oil on canvas, Michael Brennan, 2020, photography by Bill Sullivan

Two Coats of Paint invited painter Kim Uchiyama to sit down with Michael Brennan to discuss “Floating Weeds,” Brennan’s fourth solo show at Minus Space. In their wide-ranging conversation, they discuss Japanese film, Russell Lee’s photographs, Charles Olson’s poetry, Venetian lagoons, architect Carlo Scarpa, Homer, and more.

Kim Uchiyama: Can we start with the show’s title Floating Weeds”? In Yasujiro Ozu’s film The Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa Monogatari, 1934), the ‘floating weeds’ are both a real plant in Japanese culture (ukigusa, or duckweed) and a metaphor: the plants drift aimlessly downstream, much like the lives of the film’s characters. In the story, a band of itinerant actors return to a small coastal town where their leader has left a son many years ago.

Michael Brennan: I should clarify, the version of Floating Weeds that I’m most interested in is Ozu’s own color remake from 1959. The silent version he made in 1934 is excellent too, and the story is more or less the same, but the ‘34 is a bit more lighthearted. It has less pathos. Both versions share at least one actor, and the ‘59 was just Ozu’s third film in color. The ‘59 was an act of rehabilitation, a reboot, made by a more artistically mature eye and hand.

A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934, Yasujiro Ozu

Floating Weeds, 1959, Yasujiro Ozu

Floating Weeds, 1959, Yasujiro Ozu

MB: In addition to Ozu’s distinct use of color—most notably his striking use red—and legendary attention to composition, a single camera angle, etc., the ‘59 benefits from the addition of Kazuo Miyagawa’s masterful cinematography.

A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934, Yasujiro Ozu

Floating Weeds, 1959, Yasujiro Ozu

MB: And, just to complicate the story a bit further, the ‘34 itself is a partial remake of a Hollywood film from 1928 called The Barker, directed by George Fitzmaurice.

The Barker, 1928, George Fitzmaurice

MB: To some degree, the life of this film is similar to the life of the itinerant actors all three versions portray. I also find this endless East/West mutability interesting.

Floating Weeds has been a source of inspiration for me for many years. I had seen Tokyo Story, Late Spring, and other Ozu films at revival houses much earlier, when I was younger and new to the City. I discovered Floating Weeds much later, through the critic Roger Ebert, who said he watched the film annually as a restorative—the way New York artists sometimes cleanse themselves by walking through the Met.

I did a series of paintings in 2004 based on Floating Weeds, but I think that group, “Space Ghost,” was more inspired by the formality of the film, Ozu’s rigor. Whereas with my more recent group I believe I’m responding to the philosophical premise of the film, the precarious nature of the itinerant actors’ lives—like floating weeds they’re somewhat anchored, fixed yet flowing. The metaphor returned to me while watching wending weeds in the Venetian lagoon. It seemed appropriate to the work I’ve been making in Gowanus, the “Venice of Brooklyn”, relevant to pandemic times.

KU: I very much like the idea that Floating Weeds conjures – one of ‘rootlessness’, which implies never having any grounding at any point. And then also ‘uprootedness’ – which is different in that it refers to something originally rooted that has been wrested from its original environment.

As an aside, “Uprooted” was the name of a traveling exhibit of photography from Japanese American farm labor camps during World War II, which featured a number of images of my father’s family taken by Russell Lee during their internment. The photographs are now part of the National Archive. So to my mind, the violent pulling up of something planted (my father’s farming family) is a marked contrast to ‘rootlessness’ – never having had any roots. It may be interesting to think which of these concepts you see as being relevant to your work, and to Ozu’s film. I see aspects of both ideas in Ozu.

MB: I love Russell Lee, his color photographs of Pie Town, New Mexico. I’m a bit floored—I didn’t know your family members were interned. I’m so sorry that happened. That’s a dark chapter in our nation’s history, but it remains one of the few that has been acknowledged to some degree.

Pie Town New Mexico, 1940, Russell Lee

May Uchiyama, 1942, Russell Lee

MB: As far as roots and rootlessness is concerned, I’m quite fond of this Black Mountain poem by Charles Olson:

Whatever you have to say, leave
The roots on, let them

And the dirt

Just to make clear

Where they come from.

Black Mountain Stars, at Minus Space, oil on canvas, Michael Brennan, 2021, photograph by Bill Sullivan

KU: The moving image – cinematography – also offers us this kind of marked time, with a beginning and an end. You’ve stated that your process is to complete each painting in one session, without further revisions. Working in this way makes the element of linear time, as in film, innate to your painting. Is the use of the white border at the edges of your paintings meant to suggest the ‘moving picture’? You’ve talked about your fascination with Japanese cinema. Do you see this filmic influence in the structure of your work? Also, given that you complete each painting in one session only, do you see some performative aspect in what you do?

MB: With Ozu, I have studied how he composes within a frame. I’ve looked at excerpts from his notebooks, and I feel a kinship with his drawing style.

Yasujiro Ozu, notebook

Marrow Road (Basho), at Minus Space, oil on canvas, Michael Brennan, 2022, photograph by Bill Sullivan

MB: You had asked me earlier about how I enframe my paintings. Some of this is a nod to photography, the Polaroid Land camera SX-70 from the 70’s, manual drafting classes (industrial arts/shop culture), the digital (Windows or Apple interface) way of tiling images. I also “cut in” with masking tape because it allows me to be more adventurous at the edge while scraping with a knife. I’m taping over the area where the stretcher edge physically touches the canvas underneath, and that resting edge can look dead or uniform when scraped. I get more variation by moving in a bit. I think of the edge architecturally, like a Mies corner, as a clean counterpoint.

Polaroid SX-70, Exibart Street, 1970’s, William Eggleston

Michael Brennan painting edge

Siegel Hall, IIT, building corner, 1956, Mies van der Rohe

MB: I like all kinds of movies, but I really love postwar Japanese and Italian cinema—their profound humanism, their characters’ great desperation in rebuilding a destroyed world. I noticed that in Japanese period dramas, jedai-geki, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, that directors were panning vertically, as well as right left, and that this uncustomary action (not Hollywood) was often reinforced by vernacular architecture.

Yojimbo, 1961, Akira Kurosawa

MB: A right/left up/down orientation can create unusual spatial effects in compositions.

Samurai Spy, 1965, Masahiro Shinoda

MB: All of this gives me visual fuel for further exploration within abstraction.

KU: One of Ozu’s themes is the sudden shift in the lives of his characters, post war, from traditional Japanese culture to one that must adapt quickly to Western ideologies. You’ve mentioned the ‘endless mutability of East/West’. Having had a west coast born Nisei father and a mid-west Scottish/German mother, I’m also interested in this back and forth — how these kinds of opposite things can get brought together. Japanese cinema and Venetian lagoons seem miles apart, but they become integrated in your painting. Are there other cross-cultural synergies that have influenced you?

MB: One thing that I learned from Venice that was a real eye opener is that the story of Western civilization is much more Eastern than I was originally taught. Venice was once a vast maritime empire, with Constantinople at the hub of Byzantium, the continuation of Roman culture at that time. This global cultural center was much more eastward than I had previously been led to believe.

One of my heroes is the architect Carlo Scarpa, who synthesized the modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright with the organic emphasis of Japanese architecture, while adding personal and specialized aspects of Venetian tradition, materials, and craftsmanship. He was also extremely gifted at reanimating ancient art. I think his level of sophistication, his fusion, successfully bypasses issues of cultural appropriation. He remains an important contemporary model in that regard.

Tombra Brion, cemetery of San Vito, Treviso, Carlo Scarpa

Querini Stampalia, Venice, Carlo Scarpa

Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Carlo Scarpa

KU: Having just reread The Odyssey, I couldn’t help thinking of the nostos of Odysseus, his homecoming after 20 years, away first at war and then on a series of adventures that waylaid him. It occurred to me that time is circular in both Ozu’s film and in Homer. The title Floating Weeds implies movement, but a kind of movement that is largely unwilled – one that is only able to be perceived as it unfolds in time. The late poet Louise Glück speaks of the choice of Odysseus: that of life, which can only move forward (and consequently towards its destined endpoint) and immortality offered him by the god Calypso. Odysseus chooses the movement of life, knowing that it will have an end.

I read the Robert Fagles translation as part of auditing an online seminar with Daniel Mendelsohn, who’s doing a series of NYRB seminars on ‘Journeys’. He was an excellent guide to reading The Odyssey and is in fact coming out with his own translation sometime next year. My first read was the Emily Wilson translation, which had an entirely different character. Wilson has said that for every word she uses, Fagles uses two – her point being that she feels her version captures more of the original cadence of Homer. One way or another, any translator of Homer must somehow grapple with his original dactylic hexameter and still paint the colorful story.

MB: Many years ago, I traded a painting for a few dozen Penguin Classics. I got multiple translations of Homer in both verse and prose, among other titles. I’m very fond of the Fitzgerald translations, which have an exciting, relentlessly propulsive, cadence. In 2019 I came back to Brooklyn from a second summer in Venice. I guess I wasn’t ready to come back yet, to leave Calypso’s island so to speak. In 12 hours I went from riding around on a vaporetto in the lagoon, pretending I was George Clooney, to Third Ave. Brooklyn, in August, looking down at the entire contents of two apartments freshly dumped out onto the sidewalk, walking underneath the gargantuan BQE asking myself “What am I doing here?” It was a difficult period of questioning that travel sometimes provokes. I decided to read The Odyssey, to get back to the water, and as a middle-aged man this time, it worked me over like a self-help book, it helped me find my way back home. I think the simplest connection between Floating Weeds and The Odyssey is that feeling of being directed/misdirected by larger forces. That uncertainty in the flow of life is something I hope to convey in my painting—feeling my way through painted situations, trying to maintain meaningful contact between mind, spirit, and hand.

KU: Each of your Floating Weeds paintings offers a suspended moment of meditation and reflection. Do you see these works, when viewed altogether, as perpetually shifting and evolving? If you think of them as a series, do you imagine a telos or endpoint that they might arrive at collectively? Or do you think that this body of work is characterized by an open-endedness – itself the goal? There’s the implication that in your imagining the kind of work you might have made at Black Mountain you’re seeking art on experimental terms. Is that what you mean?

MB: All of the work in the show was made between 2020 and 2023, pandemic time. The nine paintings at Minus Space are the ones I culled from a much larger group based on how they were working together. The paintings on the left vary in format and are studies in open and closed form. The paintings on the right are variations in blue. I can tell from the questions you asked that you already get how I formulated the work. I repeat formats, but I don’t repeat images. I was surprised to find this much continuity in my work over such a long period in time, especially since much of what I chose I consider outliers.

Michael Brennan at Minus Space, photography by Bill Sullivan

Michael Brennan at Minus Space, photography by Bill Sullivan

MB: I was very busy teaching throughout the entire pandemic, but in my down time I occupied myself with three areas of study—Venice, Japanese film and literature, and Black Mountain College. I did not watch Tiger King. With Black Mountain College I read all the histories and memoirs, and I ended up purchasing a Dan Rice drawing that I keep in my studio. It’s all so fascinating, Josef Albers was there, Cy Twombly, James Bishop, on and on. So much of being a painter is thinking, what is it that I really want to make? Sometimes I’ll play this game with myself as a prompt: what kind of painting would Paul Bowles have hanging in his Tangiers garret? What kind of painting would I make at Black Mountain College? I guess it was a way of imagining myself in less restricted circumstances, within the fold of an imaginary community. Maybe that was my temporary Telemachia?

Paul Bowles, 1961

Dan Rice and Robert Creeley, Black Mountain College, 1955

Dan Rice, untitled, ink and charcoal on paper, 1961

KU: The journey of imagined experience can be transporting.

I see your paintings as defined by the contrast between painted areas and unpainted areas. We’ve talked on prior occasions about how some ‘blank’ areas in a painting can simultaneously stand in for openness while also representing a specific material object (Ingres’ apple in Venus a Paphos). At the time, you had mentioned to me that you were thinking about ‘blankness’ if that’s the right word. What role does ‘blankness’ or emptiness play in your work? Also, do you see any philosophy inherent in using ‘blankness’ as the negative corollary to the materiality of paint?

MB: I’m not an expert, but I think concepts of empty and full as they pertain to some Eastern philosophies are germane. I like the Chinese painter Ma Yuan, “One Corner Ma”, and the aesthetics of the Southern Sung.

The Yellow River Breaches its Course, circa 1200, Ma Yuan 

MB: In my immediate context, I think I began this work questioning what a meaningful mark might be? But scraping down surface areas seemed to open up another area of content and space. Could this light residue be meaningful? That’s definitely something I’m interested in exploring further, scraping in a non-mechanical way. My concept of emptiness might be that nothing can be truly empty.

MI2 (Cyrilla), at Minus Space, 2020, oil on canvas, Michael Brennan, photography by Bill Sullivan

KU: Your use of various blue pigments on white ground suggest water, fluidity – the kind of flowing movement over time we mentioned earlier. One of your paintings is titled Scraped Sea, an allusion to water. What part, if any, does referential imagery play when you’re painting?

MB: It’s not a literal reference. I find I’m often attracted to abstract painting that has an elemental metaphor—earth, air, fire, water? Despite all the contextual references I’ve brought to our discussion of how the work was developed, this group of paintings are mostly meditations on the Venetian lagoon. It was the influence of Venice that led me to lapis lazuli, adding powdered glass to my paint, choosing a more lubricious medium, etc. Painters change as people, change as artists. They change their chemistry, change their painting.

Scraped Sea, at Minus Space, 2021, oil on canvas, Michael Brennan, photography by Bill Sullivan

Ralph Humphrey, Sinclair, 1965

KU: Rothko spoke of painting as a ‘condition’, a state of being. We’ve discussed the shifting, evolving aspect of your paintings. In addition to this implication of flux, do you think your painting embodies something eternal and unchanging? I’m curious about painting in general acting as a kind of continuum – a ‘Platonic always’ that can provide respite from life, moments of grounding that can take us briefly out of present circumstances. Robert Frost spoke of poetry as ‘a temporary stay against confusion’. My own feeling is that art can offer some relief from the world at large and in this way serve to heal in some sense. What do you think about this?

MB: I do lean towards the “Platonic Always” even though that’s social suicide in a post post-modern paradigm. I hold Mark Rothko apart from AbEx in a separate phylum that might also include Ralph Humphrey, David Novros, Blinky Palermo, and yourself. When I was younger this was sometimes referred to as “the theological wing of Abstract Expressionism”. I think that has great values still, if only as respite from noise. I know that I often need something like this, a visual balm, and I’m not so different from everyone else

Michael Brennan, “Floating Weeds”, Minus Space, 16 Main Street, Suite A, Brooklyn, NY, 11201. Through December 16th. Open Saturdays, 11am – 5pm.

About the author: Kim Uchiyama is an abstract painter whose work is included in numerous public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe, including the Delaware Museum of Art, San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, TX, Beaumont Art Museum of Southeast Texas, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and PRO.D.A.S. Ingegneri Associati, Palermo, IT. She is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow, a two-time MacDowell fellow and is a member of American Abstract Artists.

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One Comment

  1. Any known relation to my great grandfather William O. Brennan, an Irish and American accompliished obertwater colorist living in the 20s in Los Angeles? Robert Spies

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