NEW YORK, NY.- Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (19101983) was one of the most complex and multifaceted self-taught artists in the United States. Over a fifty-year period, between the late 1930s until his death in 1983, Von Bruenchenhein produced expansive bodies of work in poetry,photography, ceramics, painting, objects made from chicken and turkey bones, and drawing.
The exhibition Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: "Freelance ArtistPoet and SculptorInovatorArrow maker and Plant manBone artifacts constructorPhotographer and ArchitectPhilosopher," on view from November 4, 2010 - October 9, 2011, marks the first New York museum presentation of his work across all disciplines. Organized by guest curator Brett Littman, executive director of The Drawing Center, the exhibition is comprised of approximately 100 objects drawn primarily from the American Folk Art Museum's extensive holdings as well as loans from several private collections.
"The American Folk Art Museum has consistently offered innovative and unique exhibitions and this show will prove to be one of our most important, introducing the public to the comprehensive works of this exceptional artist. I'm delighted to have Littman bring his intelligent curatorial eye to this material," notes Maria Ann Conelli, executive director, American Folk Art Museum.
The focus of the exhibition is on the formal leitmotifs of leaves and floral patterns as organizing principles in Von Bruenchenhein's multidisciplinary oeuvre. It highlights the evolution of these forms from the fabric and wallpaper featured in the early "pin up" photographs of his wife Marie, to hand-built ceramic flowers, vessels and crowns, and the deeply psychological paintings of organic and botanical imagery. These ideas are further abstracted in vertical chicken and turkey bone towers and thrones, and paintings of spires, castles, and visionary buildings.
The exhibition culminates with a book of drawings housed in a wallpaper sample book and 34 rarely displayed ballpoint pen drawings, unifying the two structural strands. Made in the early- to mid-1960s, these works range from studies of arabesque curves to hard geometrical architectural designs.
Born in Marinette, Wisconsin, Von Bruenchenhein (known in the artworld as EVB) was from an early age self-identified as an artist. His wildly inventive, diverse and ever-growing output of 1,080 paintingsalongside thousands of sculptures, photographs, and notebooksinundated his small house in Milwaukee by the end of his life, but was known only to family and close friends.
EVBs love of the natural world was fostered at an early age by his stepmother and mentor Elizabeth Mosey. As a young adult he worked for a period in a floral shop. A self-proclaimed Plant Man, EVBs lifelong interest in the botanical is formally represented through the floral motifs that act as generative elements in his artwork. Over time, the artist's property featured a quirky landscape of cacti and vegetation interspersed with four-foot-tall concrete masks inspired by pre-Columbian imagery, such as the large foliated concrete example placed at the entrance to the exhibition.
Some of EVBs earliest visual work, in the early 1940s and mid-1950s, was done in a makeshift darkroom in his bathroom. Floral patterns consistently dominate the visual fields of the photographs, recurring in wallpaper, backdrops, drapes and upholstery, hairpins, and sarongs. He constructed tableaux for thousands of photographic portraits of his wife Marie. More than 40 photos on display against a wallpapered backdrop are reminiscent of pin-up photography, reflecting an interest in glamour and exotic fantasy far removed from the couples modest lifestyle.
EVBs involvement with ceramics began quite early in his artistic output, with an extremely active period in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He sourced his raw materials from construction site clay deposits and fired the finished products in his homes coal oven. The artist sculpted hundreds of small floral forms. Individual florets in various states of bloom rise on vertical stems emanating from fingernail-indented bases. Some of these were left unpainted. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, leaf pots became the dominant structure in the ceramic works. Composed of multiple leaves layered to form foliate vessels, they were finished with the application of salvaged paint samples in brilliant or milky opaline hues. EVB also experimented with other shapes such as crowns and headdresses. Like his vessels, each headpiece is constructed of individual leaves coated with a metallic sheen.
Perhaps the most decadently unorthodox of EVBs artworks are his chicken and turkey bone sculptures, completed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, notes Brett Littman. The thrones and towers are the most architectonic in the artists body of work. Each piece was constructed from the refuse of chicken and turkey dinners, which EVB soaked in ammonia, dried on the stove, and fitted together with tweezers and model airplane glue. The structures, some approaching four-feet tall, were colored with leftover automotive paint or metallic luster applied with homemade brushes from tufts of Maries hair stuck through pen barrels and straw. Though markedly more sober than his dynamic paintings and ceramics, the bone sculptures are similarly modular and revamp organic symmetries into zany, precarious towers or tiny macabre thrones that pose the potential of infinite elaboration, comments Mr. Littman.
Between 1954 and 1963, EVB shifted his concentration from photography to painting. During this fertile period he completed roughly 950 paintings. They were executed with his characteristic innovation and thrift, often at his kitchen table on discarded box panels salvaged from the bakery where he worked. He used his fingers as well as other implements like sticks, leaves, burlaps, combs, and crumpled paper, to apply paint directly to the surface. This tactile application contributed to the dynamic imagery of his paintings, which were often completed in a single night. The rhythmic vocabulary of shapes and fingerprints resulted in patterns that are analogous to the foliate patchworks of his ceramic vessels and the simulated stone and brickwork of the later paintings.
The selection of paintings in the exhibition focuses on EVBs architectural impulse, produced near the end of his life in the late 1970s. The paintings depict ethereal vertical citadels set against a flat, clouded sky, some even dissipating into the background as illusory figments. Most feature fairly simple combinations of towers, but recognizable in a few examples, such as an untitled cityscape, are the complex gossamer patterns of EVBs bone sculpture and the accruing arches of his clay vessels.
The least known work in EVBs oeuvre is the group of meticulous ink drawings housed in a large square folio of commercial wallpaper swatches. These ballpoint drawings are rigorously composed with mechanical precision. A network of lines forms ornamental, botanical, insect-like, or architectural patterns. Complex shapes of arabesques or jutting, cantilevered planes create infinite combinations that seem to be open-ended experimentations.
EVBs drawings in particular unify the two strands of his thinkingthe botanical and the architecturaland although we do not know what inspired their creation, we can glean from them the perfect symmetry between the organic and the rational that underpins much of his work across mediums, notes Mr. Littman.