Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s massive ouvre—1,080 paintings, thousands of photographs, bone sculptures, concrete masks, clay sculptures, reams of poetry and prose, and curious reel-to-reel recordings—requires inspection from a variety of angles. Intuit’s exhibit “From the Wand of the Genii,” curated by Lisa Stone, uses architecture as a jumping off point for understanding Von Bruenchenhein’s inspiration.
Stone features a series of 1978 paintings in which Von Bruenchenhein imagines an advanced architectural age. Whereas his work as a younger man portrays cosmic beginnings with a shocking, almost fearsome energy and vividness, these later paintings are much more subdued. Each painting depicts a tower, or a set of towers, made from purposely flat sets of links.
Viewed at a distance, these paintings seem tame enough, but also whimsical and airy, with a focus on ascension. When the pieces are viewed as a whole, though, Von Bruenchenhein’s evolution of ideas and technique becomes clearer. One pair of untitled paintings, made days apart, show a rearrangement of colors, and a declining focus on foreground. Bruenchenhein’s vision contains steel and rock colored in turquoises, pinks, and primary reds, with skies chaotic yet serene.
The piece after which the exhibit is titled demonstrates this progression best. It is a painting of a seemingly ephemeral tower in the process of appearing or disappearing, with a soft sky rising up beneath it. The work stands in stark contrast to his earlier busy, three dimensional, fantastical portrayals of tower strongholds.
It’s important, though not necessarily vital, to keep in mind that Von Bruenchenhein only became famous after his death. During his life, he was an outsider as far as the art world was concerned. His art may resonate, and engage our senses of the primordial and the cosmic, but at the same time, Von Bruenchenhein made art primarily for his own satisfaction. Some of the pieces in the exhibit are painted on cardboard out of necessity, not as some contrived statement.
One small wall of the exhibit stands out as a fair summation of Von Bruenchenhein’s influences. On it hang two early realist still lives of flowers nestled between two later works. One is a soft but gorgeous mass of tendrils and bolls of light, and the other is a shining, spiky form that extends across a canvas. In front of the wall are cacti, which Von Bruenchenhein loved and whose form clearly influenced his art.
Stone makes it a point to represent in the exhibit all the mediums that Von Bruenchenhein worked with, including video where he vocalizes above classical music on the radio, revealing a surprisingly adequate voice, unworried about being listened to. We also see pictures of his wife Marie, who he considered his muse. Unfortunately we don’t get to see his prose and his writing, though—there simply isn’t space.
Instead, Stone includes Von Bruenchenhein’s sculptures, constructed of clay and of bone. They demonstrate the same sense of proportions and architectural skill that informs the geometry and coloring in his paintings. The sculptures made from fowl bone are especially provocative. Painted in peach, silver, or light blue, they’re not macabre; rather, they demonstrate how the same pieces can be put to different ends. The most intricate bone towers, too fragile to put on display, are shown on a piece of sheer fabric, emphasizing their lightness.
While his art does not portray the human form, save for sculptures of faces, it never loses its humanity. You won’t remember all of the pieces—the clay sculptures are fairly standard, if informative—but there is a fair chance that some of the intensely personal images will stick. In particular, one painting from Von Bruenchenhein’s peak period steals the show. It shows a swirl of light about a dark center, with colors transitioning into each other seemingly at random. The work is virtuosic and vivacious, a depiction precisely of what cannot be put in words. Like most of Von Bruenchenhein’s enigmatic visual art, he painted it with his fingers.