If I could name one painter who would have an extremely difficult time to make a name for himself in Europe, it would be Brett Bigbee. When it comes to outsiders and insiders of the art world, Europe likes to play it safe and so we continue to get one generation of Richters, Immendorfs, Baselitzs, Kippenbergers, Eitels and Rauchs after another. With most European eyes directed at Berlin and London, painters of today have inherited and accepted a range of “do’s” and “don’ts.” For example: You “do” leave paint alone and you “do” allow it to explore the free-range chicken in itself.
Andre Butzer, Untitled, 2007
If you happen to be a member of the more “controlled” painting camp, then only “do” you apply control to create context-free subjects, objects and spaces. In that case a viewer can roam through your pictorial interiors without bumping into any significant mental resistance. It surely is easier that way and it feels like taking a nice boat ride into nothingness.
Tim Eitel, Boat, 2005
You do not, on the other hand, betray the belief in an inexhaustible avant-garde. In other words, you cannot give up making art about art. Under no circumstances should you paint a small-sized portrait in which your intention is to establish a likeness without disclosing pop-cultural or art historical references.
When you put these “do’s” and “don’ts” aside, you will arrive at a painting like this one:
Bret Bigbee, Portrait of Ann, oil on linen, 18” x 14”, 2004-2008
I find this painting deeply puzzling. You might ask yourself: “How can you possibly paint like this today?” I asked myself that question. All odds are against Brett Bigbee. He should not be able to pull this painting off, but he does. It does not matter if someone has a problematic relationship with the notion of “beauty,” “aesthetics” or representational painting in general. You cannot deny its intense clarity. It is not a clarity that reveals pores and blemishes. The surface is softened, round, even fuzzy. I am not thinking of Old Master paintings, but of Georges Seurat drawings.
Georges Seurat, Aman Jean, 1882-83
Brett Bigbee, Study for James, 2000
Ann’s eyes anchor the painting’s clarity. It took me a while to link the oddness of her eyes to the lack of any eyebrows and eye lashes. Without surrounding hair the sitter’s eyes seem boundless in their piercing and yet inward gaze.
In Bigbee’s painting nothing can be easily consumed and taken in at once. Everything on display is solid in appearance with each detail slowing down our viewing process. Ann’s skin is soft and hardened at the same time; trees in the background are generalized and simultaneously particular. We are witnessing a painter affirming his sitter’s presence in paint. This is anything but a new idea, you can even call it old-fashioned if you like. But I can’t take my eyes off this perplexing surface.