The Absence of Things: An Essay about Brooke Lanier's "Surface Tension"
by Leslie Friedman, March 2016
The most striking aspect of Brooke Lanier’s newest body of work has as much to do with what she is not painting as it has to do with what she is painting. I reflect on this after I visit the artist in her studio as she prepares for her exhibition entitled Surface Tension. Her self-described “glorified weeds” and “weedscapes” begin with bright yellow and orange underpaintings, offering every inch of her canvases a brilliant luminosity. But what makes these works particularly arresting is how the central subject has gone missing. Left is a silhouette of the thing itself, in the splendid glowing shade. “All that is painted,” explains Lanier, “is the place between the weeds. I painted everything but the weeds and that made the weeds happen.” She goes on to tell me how this strategy creates a push and pull between what the viewer will notice. “Because there is nothing there, it both calls attention to itself and makes the things that are there more important,” she gestures to the areas between that are rendered water. “There is all this stuff happening that you can pay more attention to because there’s a missing element.”
Lanier is making paintings about the less noticeable parts of our natural world in order to draw attention to them. These paintings are essentially windows or portals to another place. I ask Lanier if there is something particular about living in Philadelphia that made her want to paint the natural world. She laughs and reminds me, “A lot of people who live in cities might never see things like this. When I first moved to Philadelphia I lived in South Philly and then I lived in Fishtown, and there weren’t any trees anywhere,” she laughs again. “And anywhere that there would have been a boulevard with grass anywhere else I had ever lived, it was like, ‘No, let’s just pave that over. We hate green and growing things in this city.’” Lanier, who grew up in the woods of Minnesota, might feel the absence of nature more strongly than other people. Her familiarity with the real landscapes of her paintings, which often depict a lake in Minnesota that she’s gone to her entire life, and a fishing pond on the farm where her father and grandfather grew up, provides her a vantage point that neither glamorizes nor overlooks its subject. Thus, Lanier is in a particular position to provide these windows precisely because she can identify the need for “green and growing things” in this cement playground.
Lanier gives reverence to the lowly weed for its resilience and pioneering spirit. By breaking down rocks and cement into useable terrain, weeds are able to survive in places that other plants would not. Furthermore, they transform desolate environments into fertile grounds merely by completing their life cycle, their dead remains becoming rich soil for the next generation of plants. “Weeds are the gentrifiers of the natural world,” Lanier jokes. But all joking aside, Lanier’s awareness of the weed’s disregarded status is precisely why she has made it the subject matter of her paintings. Her use of scale, cropping, and silhouetting reify the weed from something that might have been painted without attention to detail into something that has achieved an astonishing amount of attention by the artist.
But why pay so close attention to, of all things, a weed? I ask Lanier how she arrived at this body of work and she points to some smaller paintings I might have otherwise overlooked. Calling these “fishing nocturnes,” in an homage to Whistler, she defies the highly conceptual, sarcastic works she is seeing in Philadelphia’s contemporary art scene, and just focuses on painting what she truly thinks is beautiful. These preliminary nocturnes do not have the iconic missing elements that are, in my opinion, the stars of this new body of work, but they are an important bridge in terms of getting her to these most recent works.
Of the difference between this body of work and her previous, Lanier says of her weed and waterscapes, “These are not about us, we just happen to be here.” The juxtaposition of the intricately painted water against the flatness of the weeds, boats, or docks left out of her compositions speaks to Lanier’s point about what gets our attention. Because these paintings have a graphic element, they also reference elements from the decorative world like wallpaper and lace.
Upon my mention of lace, Lanier gets excited. “For ten years now I have been obsessed with patterns that reoccur on a man-made and natural, macroscopic and microscopic level. Lace is one of those things. If you look at lace versus capillary exchange, or the way that veins branch in a plant, or a highway system, or tributaries of rivers, there are just so many things that all have these patterns. So a lot of this work is about finding patterns and finding the movement or the implied movement. These paintings,” she says, gesturing to the series of smaller, square paintings where the weeds take up the entire panel, “are about the way the weeds fall over.” She points to the paintings with the missing boats and docks. “These paintings are about the way that the water changes according to your vantage point. When you’re looking right down at it, you see the bottom, and the farther out, the more the water reflects everything else: the water quality itself, the color of the water, the turbulence, and everything all at the same time, and it all comes together in this pattern. Wherever you go in the world, water behaves in a reliable manner in terms of its patterns of movement and reflection.” What underlies everything Lanier studies in Surface Tension is her obsession with the interrelation of patterns. Unlocking the code in these patterns is a puzzle Lanier is eager to solve. Partially, it is her willingness to spend years and years staring at something. But also, she gets a satisfaction in conquering the depiction of difficult phenomena such as water with its ever-changing appearance. Finding the logic in these things gives her pleasure. “It’s sort of a compulsion to make sense of something. If you stare at something long enough, the hope is that it will begin to make sense.” Through observation, Lanier has conquered some big visual puzzles, but she is quick to point out how painting these things is as much about the process as it is the evidence of her triumph over chaos. “Sometimes it happens during the making. You start to notice that things line up in a certain way and then once you see that one thing, you see everything. The whole thing makes sense.”
After our conversation and looking at these paintings, I am left contemplating the difficulty and importance in the task of shifting a viewer’s focus. A public will come to any piece of art with its own preconceived biases and preferences. Today’s world seems to focus more and more on the flashy, shiny object. What Lanier is trying to do is open-up a metaphorical tin of smelling salts underneath the noses of those who do not even know they have lost consciousness. She wants to cleanse their palettes and help them to appreciate the beauty in the things they have long overlooked. It is here that the title of her show Surface Tension begins to make the most sense to me; the tension between what is depicted and what is not, what is graphic and what is painterly, shifts our preconceived notions about what is worth our attention from the illusion to the real. It is the absence of things, and not some sort of smoke and mirrors, that reminds her viewers how beautifully complicated our world truly is.
Leslie Friedman is the founder of the collective NAPOLEON, a former fellow of the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, and a 2014 recipient of the Fleisher Wind Challenge. She is a nationally and internationally exhibiting printmaking and installation artist working in Philadelphia. To view her work, visit www.lesliepvd.com