David Kordansky Gallery is pleased to announce Concerning Vietnam, an exhibition of new work by Matthew Brannon. The show will open on September 9 and remain on view through October 21, 2017. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, September 9 from 6:00pm until 8:00pm. The result of several years’ worth of ongoing research and formal experimentation, Concerning Vietnam features unique large-scale prints, sculptures, and installation-based objects in which Brannon applies his inimitable graphic style to the psychological, political, and cultural impact of the Vietnam War.
Matthew Brannon has long been recognized not only for his wit and literary sensibility, but also for the precision with which he approaches his chosen mediums. He is perhaps best known for his radical approach to printmaking, which, contrary to traditional usage, frequently involves the elaborate production of unique artworks. The vocabulary and voice developed in the prints–arch and erudite, with a sharply psychoanalytic bent–has provided the center for an expanding world of objects and narratives. Since 2015 Brannon has exclusively turned his attention to the Vietnam conflict, conducting exhaustive research for what he projects will be a ten-year engagement with the historical material associated with this generation-defining trauma.
Concerning Vietnam represents Brannon’s most comprehensive display of work from the project to date. It includes several silkscreen prints that depict, from a first-person perspective, sites of command represented by the desks and intimate domestic spaces of the American and, for the first time, Vietnamese power brokers who directed the course of the war. Rendered by the artist in his studio, these are among the largest and most intricate prints he has made; in some cases they span two sheets of paper and require the use of hundreds of screens. Images of everyday things like eyeglasses and cigarette packs appear larger-than-life, creating cinematic inversions of foreground and background in which otherwise unremarkable objects take on a looming (and often sharply comical) significance.
While many of the details in the prints are inspired by historical accounts (a 1967 letter from Ho Chi Minh to LBJ emerging from the former’s typewriter, for instance, or images of fighter jets and bombers strewn across a White House dining table), others have been fabricated by the artist. Among the latter are the series of black flag-like forms arranged in ordered rows at the center of a Situation Room depiction. Denoting important dates in the lead-up to the decision to commit American ground troops to the war, their colors and sign-painter’s type clearly evoke the date paintings that On Kawara began to produce in 1966.
Such forms arise from Brannon’s willingness to confront the messy business of narrating history and to incorporate his own aesthetic judgment in the composition of these “primal scenes” in the American psyche. For this reason, the facts that provide the foundation for each work are only part of the story; just as important are the artistic decisions, both conscious and unconscious, that give the facts their particular visual expression (and renewed impact.) In two large-scale prints depicting the cockpits of American helicopters, Brannon introduces notes of pathos and vulnerability–an empty bottle of Pepsi, a letter addressed to “Mom”–in spaces otherwise indicative of the technological force with which the U.S. unsuccessfully tried to overwhelm the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front. As images of presidents’ private quarters allow viewers to assume the physical and emotional points of view of men who exerted broad influence over the war, here they are prompted to inhabit the perspectives of those who actually faced the prospect of bodily harm. While the leaders at the top, propelled by neuroses and power complexes, call the shots, it is young men in the primes of their lives who step onto the battlefield, their cockpits becoming sites haunted by libidinous drive and the perverse attractions of early death.
A series of unique, hand-painted letterpress prints entitled Short-Timers further puts the yearnings and fears of the average American soldier in succinct graphic form. “Short timer” is military slang used to describe someone with less than 100 days left on his tour. Some would draw calendars, often lewd, to count down their time. Brannon’s research led him to compose fictional renditions based on 1960s pin-up photos and found photographs. Their eroticism is tinged with wartime anxiety: a reclining nude woman has been divided into 100 numbered sections. Beginning with her extremities, the soldier-“artist” would color in one section per day, zeroing in on the desired goal. Calendars left unfinished beg questions about whether tragedy caused the interruption, or the war ended, or the record was simply lost.
Rather than make broad generalizations or definitive statements, Brannon condenses the scope of the Vietnam War itself into finely-tuned forms that embody the contradictory feelings of the era. The sculptures installed in the center of the gallery function as the visual equivalents of dreams or jokes or Freudian slips, opening shortcuts to the latent drives that animated American culture in the late 1960s and early 70s. Most prominent is a wooden sculpture, over 20 feet long and exactly 6 feet, 4 inches tall, which spells out the word “SAIGON”. Based on street-sign-lettering used in Vietnam’s capital during the French colonial era, the work combines the formality of a municipal monument with the intimacy and off-handed feel of something that has been cut out with scissors. The bottom of its letters are cut off so that they appear to sink into the ground, and the supporting hardware that connects them to the wall is clearly visible, so that despite the word’s looming presence, the prevailing mood is one of vulnerability. As the place names of war linger in the memories of those who fought them, language continues to act as a palpable force, crystallizing the effects of conflict on the body and mind.
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