In a region where environmental activism is as much a feature of everyday life as bicycle commuters or persistent rain, relatively few Northwest artists have chosen to focus on environmental issues in their work. Portland painter Michael Brophy, on the other hand, has made the effect of man on the local landscape the principle subject of his art. His large, panoramic canvases, now on display at the Tacoma Art Museum, look unflinchingly at the visual, ecological, and intellectual consequences of logging and dams, highways and subdivisions. The exhibit not only examines our role in shaping the landscape, it also links the present day Northwest with its pioneer past. But how well do these paintings work as art? Joining us with his observations is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
What’s disconcerting about Brophy’s painting is that he takes no clear moral position at all on the environmental degradation he depicts. The emotional tone of these images is more ironic than outraged, more resigned than rebellious. Though these pictures are consciously modeled after the heroic landscape art of the American 19th century, their mood is defiantly post-modern. In Brophy’s world, not only is the struggle to conquer the landscape a thing of the past, so is the effort to preserve what once was. His Brave New Northwest Landscape is an entirely manmade artifact, and if it is no longer the realm of the godly and pure, he finds in it nonetheless a sort of ravaged drama, a wounded glamour.
Still, it seems a bit of a stretch to title the exhibit, as the current curators have done, The Romantic Vision of Michael Brophy. If this work is in fact Romantic, it is a branch of Romanticism that Wordsworth and Constable, Delacroix and Hugo would hardly recognize.
Wordsworth wrote “There is joy in the mountains,” but it’s unlikely he had in mind the sort of hills that Brophy depicts in the grim painting, "January." Purchased by the Tacoma Art Museum for their own collection, January is a winter view of the sort of place that most of us drive quickly past on our way to somewhere else. In the painting, a muddy dirt road winds through a recent clearcut, with its array of stumps, discarded logs, and slash. A heavy black cloud sheds rain, while a thin coating of grey snow covers the ground. Brophy, using a rather coarse realist style, fills his eight-foot canvas with broad brushwork, big on groupings of dark forms, and short on fussy detail. There’s no green at all in this view of the evergreen realm — the palette is limited to rust, ochre, black, and grey. The mood is almost apocalyptic, but that’s only if we focus on the blasted-away foreground and the weeping sky. In the background, instead of more ravaged hills and clearcuts, we see instead peaceful foothills, their second-growth forest cover suggesting healing and rebirth — cold comfort for fans of unspoiled wilderness, but characteristic of Brophy’s non-adversarial take on the subject. “Deal with it, people” seems to be the message, not, “Isn’t it awful?”
Equally non-judgmental is the painting entitled, "Burnt Casing," one of many works exploring the intersection between the Old Northwest and New. In the painting, we find ourselves looking out a window from inside a dingy brown room. The room’s wall has been covered with crude line drawings of tree stumps in row upon row, like the notches on a gunslinger’s belt - celebrating conquests, tallying victims. Out the window is a blue-grey panorama of downtown Portland, its towers and bridges glittering in a cold light. The scruffy and charred room interior may represent the Old Northwest, but it’s depicted without a trace of nostalgia. Modern Portland is seen as a sort of magical Phoenix rising from the ashes of the logging past, and it’s clear where the artist’s loyalties lie. Perhaps he is being pragmatic, since it is only in the affluent and sophisticated community of today, well beyond its resource extraction phase, where artists, as well as their counterpart curators, critics, and collectors, can thrive.
Ironic juxtapositions, like the burnt window to modernity, are a favorite Brophy tactic. In "National Recreation Area," a lone golfer tees off on a wilderness cliff, his balls disappearing into the vastness of Hell’s Canyon, now reduced to God’s Driving Range. What earlier generations might have viewed as awe-inspiring or terrifying, modern man sees as another source of amusement — the sublime becomes the banal. In "Key" — almost pristine, for once — a woodland path leads deeper into the forest, its foliage and trunks painted in an appealingly simplified manner reminiscent of the work of the landscape virtuoso Neil Welliver. But the path is framed by neatly cut logs, and a highly symbolic saw is prominently featured in the foreground. Our very ability to comfortably commune with nature, we are reminded, requires some measure of its destruction.
Brophy’s complex relationship with the historical and artistic past is most clearly visible in the large painting entitled, "Heart of the Cascades," a mock-epic updating of a 19th century canvas by Frederick Church entitled, "Heart of the Andes." Church took his heroic-sized work on tour, presenting it in a specially-designed room, framed by curtains, allowing Americans to experience the thrill of the exotic in comfortable and familiar surroundings. Brophy’s painting mirrors its predecessor in scale, composition, and even presentation — he amusingly paints in several swags of framing green cloth as remnants of Church’s curtain. But the sparkling blue sky of the Andes view has been replaced by leaden clouds, the river winding into the distance by a logging road, and the picturesque Spanish cemetery with black and grey “memorial” stumps. Brophy again sidesteps outright condemnation, for the Graveyard of the Forest in his foreground gives way to a lush green hill beyond, and views of even more distant ridges reveal both scars and re-growth.
With skill and discretion, Brophy makes abundantly clear what has been lost since the days of Frederick Church and Manifest Destiny, when man seemed small and nature seemed large, and great regions of the planet still awaited exploration. The entirely tamed and sub-divided world of Heart of the Cascades has almost nothing in common with Church’s pristine South American wonderland, but as an artwork it also represents a sort of failure of vision. Neither out-and-out horrific, nor exceptional as an artifact independent of its subject matter, it gives us the gritty reality of the industrial forest without clearly suggesting why we should care.
Certainly the current exhibit contains its share of strong and compelling work, combining humor, history, and painting smarts in an original and ingenious way. But, in other images, Brophy does not quite succeed in making the man-shaped forest (or the backed-up river) a compelling subject for memorable art, nor does he leave us with a sense of where we might go from here. It’s no longer possible to feel as unconflicted about nature as Church could be in The Heart of the Andes, but in staking out that tenuous middle-ground between John Muir and Paul Bunyan, Brophy at times creates artwork where “realistic” teeters dangerously close to “ordinary.” He is at his best when most ironic and inventive, upturning stereotypes and satirizing the accepted totems of our local mythology, staking out his own unique artistic territory.