The act of painting is an erotic gesture," Phyllis Bramson says. "Painting is a bit like licking skin."
Each of Bramson's ten new works at Phyllis Kind Gallery is made of fragments of wildly diverse paintings, some erotic, many brightly colored--revealing a range of influences from abstract expressionism to popular theater. "I think about theater not in terms of the narrative but because of the spectacle. I like it really fancy....That's probably why I went to rococo art," she says. "For a lot of people, I'm just over the top."
Lately, Bramson's been combining her own paintings with cut-up pieces of works from art warehouses that supply mass-produced paintings for shopping malls. "Some of these paintings are god-awful, very sentimental, very kitschy, but even the worst have something of value." Many are also copies of old masters: "This summer in the Louvre I would say, 'That's a painting I cut up!' and my husband would say, 'I don't think you should be saying that so loudly.'" Once Bramson found 40 nudes in a warehouse. "They were really bad but with beautiful breasts.
"When I'm doing a painting I feel like I'm having a breakdown. There are all these cut-up paintings and then there's me, and it's a real battle between my visual aesthetics and agenda and their aesthetics and agenda."
Bramson's childhood may have played a role in her fascination with the erotic. Growing up in Madison during the 40s and 50s, she was surrounded by her father's collection of erotic art--"a lot of statues, paintings of women. There were ashtrays with nude women posing with their arms up in the air." Bramson says she had "a very uninteresting, maybe kind of lonely, flat childhood." She recalls watching American Bandstand in her early teens: "I was very taken by the romantic allure of it all, these really pretty couples with the latest fashions doing the latest dances....It was a spectacle of which I was a voyeur. I still am really invested in romance and longing and desire. I have the most exotic experiences in my studio. I've always been a very careful person out in the world--that's not where I take my risks. In my studio I'm both a voyeur and a participator."
After studying art in college in the 60s, she did window displays for Marshall Field's. "They would give me a theme and I would make up these sets and arrange mannequins in poses," she says. "It was just so theatrical. But you couldn't expose nipples, you couldn't see the outlines of breasts. They didn't like it when the mannequins looked out at the viewer. Now I really love breasts and there's usually a figure looking directly at the viewer in my work."
After two years at the department store, she started teaching art, then went to the School of the Art Institute for her MFA. Now she's a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I had left Wisconsin as a secure figurative painter, rooted in abstract expressionism but more influenced by California figurative painters." By the time she was finished with her studies, she was making "large oversized doll-like figures. I was a pretty archetypical 70s art-school graduate--I thought painting was dead." But after seeing the later works of Philip Guston--which replaced his earlier abstract expressionism with enigmatic cartoonish figures--Bramson was inspired to return to painting. "I thought they were exquisite--disagreeable but beautiful."
An additional influence was postmodernism, which suggested "another way of constructing the narrative. I've never wanted that typical theatrical narrative where a figure's in a room looking at another figure; I've always wanted a push-pull kind of space. Postmodernism deconstructed everything--it opened up a multiplicity of ways of thinking."
Bramson says she's received a lot of criticism for her appropriations. But the artists she cuts up are "not using their real names--they're not painting original paintings, so everything is a lie. I'm very clear in my studio there are no boundaries; it's about using imagination." She always repaints parts of the cut-up pictures--sometimes sanding them down to partially hide the image and make the edges less visible--and "pastes many pieces together so that you can't really find where the edges end. People will ask which parts are mine and I'll not tell them, and if they're real insistent I'll lie," she says. "I have a moral sense about art, but art includes ambiguity and an argument between agreeableness and disagreeableness. If you simply show the world as it is, it may not be all that pleasant. I want people to see that there are these oppositional points of view, and you have to be careful how you look at things because the world is duplicitous.
"Circling around all this is a strong interest in doing the most beautiful paintings I possibly can, in wanting people to have pleasure looking at them. I don't want it to be flaccid pleasure. I want all their senses to be alerted, because that can go to the notion of erotic looking."
Phyllis Bramson's work can be seen through October 29 at Phyllis Kind Gallery, 313 W. Superior. Gallery hours are 10 to 5:30 Tuesday through Saturday; call 312-642-6302 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Phyllis Bramson by Randy Tunnell.