Robert J. Brawley

Robert J. Brawley, Event Horizon: Cruising the Edge, 2001 Courtesy of the artistRobert J. Brawley paints haunting images in which symbolic density coexists with fluid representationalism. In Early Netherlandish Painting Erwin Panofsky wrote of the “disguised symbolism” of the Flemish Primitives: “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feel the need to saturate all of its elements with meaning.” Brawley describes his own universe of meaning as “loosely centered around Gnostic-Jungian throught,” but he extends his repertoire to encompass centuries of art history. Event Horizon: Cruising the Edge (2001) particularly brings Panofsky to mind. A Flemish head of Christ hovers in a cobalt empyrean, above what looks like an artist’s messy work shelf and a wall with pinned-up art works that include a drawing of a satyr. Brawley’s still lifes suggest the historical cabinets of wonders, those connoisseurs’ collections—half-scientific, half-aesthetic—of natural and manmade oddities and beauties. His specimen paintings range from the simplicity of the duo in the almost trompe l’oeil Mineral Kingdom (2000) to the multicultural mélange of I Only Just Found Out! (1998), which juxtaposes a painting (or reproduction) of a Renaissance youth and a sculpture of an Indonesian demon, a tacked-up glove and stone fingers. The fragment of a hand reaching upwards is a favorite motif. In Lazarus: Realm of Iron, Realm of Shadows (1997), a similar hand is balanced, on the other side of the composition, by a twisted but equally articulated branch of coral. A doll’s head in a box echoes the close-up drawing of a face pinned to the wall. Brawley sees his still lifes as expressing “a layered metaphor of entrapment or containment in a materialistic and destructive plane of existence.”

His figure compositions have similar symbolic density but are more immediately sensuously appealing. They often incorporate witty appropriations of nineteenth-century Salon nudes. The odalisques of Ingres are prototypes for the figures in works such as The Secret Room (1995), where a turbaned nude, seen from the rear, is regarded by a middle-distance painter. Other art-historical allusions include a framing swag of red drapery, a stone ledge supporting some exquisitely executed still-life objects and a Bellini-like landscape backdrop. In the wonderfully titled St. Sophia as Aphrodite Descends into the Theater of Redemption (2004) the syncretic goddess rises through the center of a tondo (18 inches in diameter) against a seascape of blue water and fleecy golden clouds. Subsidiary figures include a stooped monk, St. Geneviève and a lamb bound for sacrifice. This very original mythological construct is bathed in jewel-like light. Allegory of the Wound that Cannot Heal (2003) places an academic-style nude in an altarpiece configuration, against a red cloth of honor that hovers in front of a sfumato Renaissance landscape. An arched architectural frame rests on a cloth-draped ledge filled with fruit and flowers, in the manner of Crivelli. 

Brawley, who teaches at the University of Kansas School of Fine Arts, has built an impressive exhibition record including many Realism Invitationals as well as solo shows. Public art collections holding his works include the National Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume 22, Number 2