The Dragon’s Whisper
A Note On Pegan Brooke’s Recent Paintings
By Mark Van Proyen
Bay Area-based art critic and corresponding editor for Art in America
The ancient sages of China believed in dragons. These were not the leather-winged fire-breathers of medieval European legend: instead, they were dragons of a more ethereal breed. They were animistic personifications of the invisible spirit energies that infuse every aspect of the natural world, and they were crucial to any understanding of how those sages understood that world. Sometimes the spirit dragons of Asia were pictured as giant grimacing serpents whose muscular coils were exaggerated mimics of the unseen undulations of land, river and sky. More often however, they were not pictured at all, and could only be understood by the discerning eye as evocative hints of the invisible forces that exert a pull on the visible components revealed in the sublime vistas of river, mountain and sky that were so characteristic of landscape paintings of the T’ang and Sung dynasties. Through those images, and more importantly, through the way that they were painted, viewers were and still are led to the recognition that the whole of the natural world is alive and intertwined at the deepest level of being. And this lesson extends to all of the great traditions of Asian painting, whether or not they were based on the shapeliness of the calligraphic gesture or on visualizing the soft grandeur of the Yangtse river gorge.
Invisible dragons also haunt and animate Pegan Brooke’s recent series of landscape- inspired abstract paintings. The cursory glance tells us that these predominantly tonalist works are elegant gradations of oil paint infiltrated with subtle inflections of unpredictable chromatic additions that make them shimmer in the light of a closer scrutiny. Their scale is neither seductively small nor declaratively large, meaning that their guileless invitation to intimate gazing is perfectly balanced by their confident intrusion into the social spaces that they might inhabit, never brash, noisy or pretentious, and certainly never willing to lapse into the visual gimmickry that is all-too-often seen in recent exhibitions of contemporary art. With that much said, it is also important to note the countervailing fact that Brooke’s paintings never lapse into any ingratiating coyness for the sake of giving the viewer too much easy comfort. Certainly the work is nothing if not generous in its spirit of luxuriant visual pleasure, but is makes a few demands on the viewer’s knowledge of the history of painting along the way, simply because they know that the position that they take in relation to that history is part of how they function in the world.
The paint in the most recent body of work is slightly thicker than was the case in years past, and their color is significantly subdued, emphasizing a more austere tonality tinctured with hints of color that look like fleeting refractions of light. In previous bodies of work, vibrant color played a more crucial role in Brooke’s paintings. Those earlier efforts featured gradations of two or three closely related richly hued colors, and it was never hard to see how any individual painting would shift from presenting graphic variations of those colors to emphasizing how they could be seen as invitations to see their rich pools of color as a vast spatial vista. It is worth noting that those earlier paintings were painted in her studio in Bolinas, California that was but a short walk from a tall cliff that looked down and out and upon the vast ocean reaching out to a distant horizon. As stunning and brilliant as the color of those paintings are, their real inspirations had to be play of light and atmosphere bred by the breathtaking magenta sunsets of that place’s fall and spring seasons. Some of the recent paintings were executed in her second studio in the high mountain environs of Ketchum, Idaho, where thinner air and frosty light are the central themes of everyday seeing. As has always been the case, Brooke’s paintings have followed the suit of how nature, especially light on water in its various forms, is immediately experienced, meaning that the new works can be seen to reflect the rugged rawness of rockface and snowscape. But the work is still haunted by the ebb and flow of the energies of nature, even as their attention has moved further from the chop and crest of the ocean’s surface, and much closer to the energies that underlie the sheer drama of high mountains in winter.
Brooke’s paintings force the viewer to decelerate from the condition of high velocity image consumption that is so characteristic of various forms of electronic media. In this emphasis on deceleration, they are very much of a piece with the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), that Bolognese master of meditative tonality. Like Morandi’s work, Brooke’s decelerated paintings bring the viewer back to a condition of experience where the inner clock of being can better coordinate with the outer clock of social requirement, and in so doing, align that work with the way that the body absorbs and grows into and through actual experience rather than mere sensation. Indeed, their layering of pigment bears an uncanny resemblance to the ways that geographical topographies layer themselves over the course of geological time. In grounding the viewer’s experience in this kind of decelerated time, they also celebrate the gains of wisdom that come from the accretion of worldly experience, this in subtle opposition to the empty timelessness of perpetual sensation that goes everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Mark Van Proyen
April 29, 2013
Mark Van Proyen is a Bay Area-based art critic, corresponding editor for Art in America, and has also published in Art News, Art Criticism, Artweek, ArtNet, Bad Subjects and Square Cylinder. He is Associate Professor at the San Francisco Art Institute.