A new installation at the Chrysler Museum of Art
invites visitors into the whimsical world of Norfolk-born artist Brian Bress. In The Box: Brian Bress marks the world premiere of Man with a Cigarette (2016), the artists first work to present a full-scale human figure using a video wall.
Over the last decade, Bress has won critical acclaim for innovative video-based works featuring an array of eccentric, humanoid characters the artist handcrafts from foam and found objects. With Jim Henson-like appeal, Bresss characters make heady artistic ideas accessible.
Born and raised in Norfolk, and a member of the family that has operated Bress Pawn and Jewelry in Norfolks Arts District for 75 years, Bress nurtured an early interest in art with classes at the Governors School for the Arts, the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia (now the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art), and the dArt Center, as well as with visits to the Chrysler Museum of Art. Drawn to diverse media, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration, concentrated on video and animation, and then focused on painting when he began his M.F.A. at the University of California, Los Angeles. Now based in Los Angeles, Bress creates works that defy easy categorization: sculptural forms come to life through performance; costumes are composed from collage and drawings; videos hang on walls like paintings.
In his earliest video works, Bress staged elaborate sets and used dialogue to construct narratives with a clear start and finish. Around 2009, he began using high-definition monitors, turned vertically like portrait paintings, to create videos of single characters. With limited or no speech, the characters often address the monitors flatness by seeming to draw on or cut away at the surface of the screen. Bress says that by breaking the fourth wallthe imaginary plane that separates the actors from the viewershe is playing around with the illusion of putting a figure inside a flat glowing box.
Bresss new piece, Man with a Cigarette, blurs these distinctions further. The work originated when he found a pen-and-ink drawing in a thrift store that depicted a man wearing a fedora-like hat, a broad tie, and a jacket with wide lapels. The unknown artist used an array of techniquesfrom hatch marks and ragged shading to pointillistic dots and checkerboard patterningwhich to Bress made it seem as if the drawing was an artists love letter to drawing.
The thrift store wouldnt sell the drawing, so Bress decided to recreate it as a life-sized sculptural costume: From head to toe I replicated in pen and ink the mysterious man from the not-for-sale drawing. In the video piece, presented on a life-sized video wall, Bress wears this costume as he tries to reproduce the look and pose of the drawing.
Bresss work is disarmingly lighthearted but deeply insightful, says Curator of Exhibitions and Acting Curator of Photography Seth Feman. He addresses complex questions about representation, perception, and cognition, but he does so in a totally accessible way. Its a little bit like watching Pee-wees Playhouse or Saturday-morning cartoons, says Feman. The work is endlessly engaging because its always unexpected.