Navigator: Roland Brener (1999)

“Navigator: Roland Brener,” C Magazine, no. 64 (November 1999 – February 2000), pp. 30-33.

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Aside from the fact that Roland Brener sometimes uses his boat builder to craft his art, he probably would posit an analogy between the sculptures he designs with the aid of a computer and the boat he sails. It’s not that, detached from use, the two can be compared as aesthetic objects. Nothing in Brener’s work can be detached in such a manner. Both the work of art and the well-crafted sailboat respond to sets of forces that bring them into being and that they embody. A balance of forces buoys up the work of art which represents their momentary confluence. But balance is precarious, and these lines of force could easily lead to a crack-up. Brener explores this subjective, subterranean element in the content of his eccentric sculptures.
    Brener has relied on low-tech computer animation and three-dimensional modelling programs in planning the sculptures in his current exhibition. Their laminated construction might also make us think that a computer is used in making them too; they are hand built, however, but not by the artist. Brener also takes over ready-made the stock types offered by these programs as when he starts off from a suited, standing businessman in his Swinger (1999). Brener has distorted the figure so that when realized in its sculptural form it has become a swinging Tweedledum. (‘Tweedledee’ is in the process of being designed.) Brener has laterally expanded horizontal sections of the original digital figure—a sectioning that is reinforced by the lamination of the plywood from which the sculpture is made. But the computer still links these sections in profile so that an organic whole is maintained no matter how distorted. Distortion can only be pushed so far; there is a limit to recognizability. Yet no interior genetic code guides resemblance here. That a figure looks human or appears a solid body is the illusion of a topographic surface. (Swinger actually is hollow.)
    This Alice-in-Wonderland world reappears in Houses of Digital (1997-99). An architectural drawing of a functionalist house has been subjected to different distortion filters that pinch or bloat the form. Set from the wall like sculpture reliefs, the realized models combine Mondrianesque modernism with boat building materials to comic effects, the result of the computer command. But applying the pinch function that distorted House of Pinch to House of Bloat (as if these titles named their fantasy world inhabitants) unpredictably produces House of Blinch rather than returns the whacky house to normal. I suspect Brener welcomes this creative unpredictability and deviation from normativity.
    Brener’s Swinger reminds me of the perversely caricatured self-portrait busts by the Viennese neoclassical sculptor Franz XaverMesserschmidt. As Messerschmidt’s mad expressions shattered the rational mien of neoclassical ideals, so Brener’s morphed businessmen (he has applied the same principles in his computer-generated prints) contaminate the rational basis of digital virtuality. Although this digital world orders itself on the realist model of traditional perspective, there are no inherent limits to how a body inhabiting this realm might be transformed to the boundaries of recognizability where the species form begins to disintegrate or evolve into something new. Swinger is a combination of Giacometti surrealism and African sculpture, but as we rotate around it, we see that it morphs into an insect form. It has the shape of the back of a beetle.
    Push the envelop: how infinitely plastic and elastic are these figures? Take the computer print The Dance of Four (1999) which depicts a group of jostling businessmen who have been cloned from the same stock image as Swinger. In the process of manipulating individual figures, surface sections of their bodies have split off like plates of armour and merged with those of their neighbours. In this commingling, both species and individuals begin to become confused.
    Like the reanimators of the Romantic era whose Dr. Frankensteins could only produce misshapen monsters, Brener tinkers with species representation. His figures deviate from the classical norm and its measure of proportion based on the idealized human body. Closer to the disorder of cartoons and monsters, they are misbegotten caricatures that are out of proportion. In Western rationalism, where there is no measure, there is madness.
    Perhaps this explains the unnerving, though comical, character of Swinger with its own pinch and bloat of madness. Similarly, the sculpture Wolf and Cat (1999) expresses something of the mad forces of animal aggression that are stalemated in the exhausted, lockjaw stasis of their poses. (Brener tells me that the sculpture was a response to nightly news reports on Kosovo.) Wolf and Cat likewise has been designed by computer and built in contoured layers of laminated plywood. With its hollow interior visible from behind, the intertwined sculpture seems all a sinuous surface. Yet this surface is one with its lines of forces, visible as the plywood striations, that both make the representation and embody its violence.
    This subject also appears in a two-dimensional version computer-printed on canvas. Here the image emerges from its patterned background solely through a topographic illusion. The difference between the technology and the resulting illusion is like that between charting the location of a boat on the ocean by means of the abstract coordinates of a map that make navigation possible and building that boat to withstand the forces of wind and water. The latter abstracted forces, not the former coordinates of place, determine how a boat is designed and built. So Brener’s sculptures, aided by computer design, embody more complex forces as their content.
    The sculptures and drawings are accompanied by three sound pieces which reveal Brener’s ear for dialogue. An air of quizzical detachment is the fundamental feeling derived from the digitally delivered, disembodied voices which address us from a language universe we do not quite seem to inhabit. Searay Talks (1999) is a paranoid schizophrenic delusion based on an email text from Brener’s ex-student Charles Ray. Three of Us (1999) presents a colloquy of obsequiousness which surround us with artificial chatter: ‘sorry to bother you,’ ‘thank you very much,’ ‘I’m really sorry,’ etc. Part of this text is incorporated in the most ambitious of these, Hello Mister Roland (1999), begun while Brener was being treated for cancer and completed after a seizure. Coloured light and a dialogue are randomly combined inside a darkened wardrobe, which gives the effect of a depthless void, a sculptural no place.
    Although we are in no conversation here, Brener communicates something of a displacement or delusion. In this uncertain space between reality and virtuality, sense and nonsense, life and death, are we disconnected and disembodied, or are the voices?