r e v i e w s
race matters

Photo Op oil on plywood cutout 4x6' Mike Brieger

Why This Challenging Painting Has Had Me Talking For Weeks  - DGO July 2017 

David Holub

           When I walked into Studio & a few weeks back, among a show of whimsical and surreal sculptures, tucked in the back, was a piece by Durango artist Mike Brieger, a 4-by-6-foot oil painting on plywood of a black woman with exposed breasts breastfeeding a white baby. The wet nurse’s face had been cut from the plywood, making the piece resemble the hokey signs you see at tourist traps, normally reserved for cartoon cowpokes or anthropomorphic forest animals. It was a piece called “Photo Op” that, in the weeks that followed, would open up a dozen conversations with friends and fellow artists, conversations full of varying points of view.

The goal for any kind of artist – or should be at least – is for audiences to love it, hate it, to be inspired, or to be outraged. The worst response is for them to say “...” and simply move to the next thing unmoved. A teacher of mine once said that our goal as artists “is to starve the world of its indifference.”

When I walked into the Studio & show, called “Totem,” I didn’t expect to be taken so off guard. I should have, as there’s no other artist I know in Durango who starves the world of its indifference better than Brieger.

             Brieger doesn’t shy away from challenging and unsettling subject matter, or the theme of slavery and bondage. Even as a child, he recalled a crayon drawing he did in second grade of Abe Lincoln surrounded by slaves he had freed. And as I wrote about his 2015 show, “Slavery Days,” at the Durango Arts Center, “There were heavy reminders and depictions of ugly eras in human history – Anne Frank, Emmett Till, slavery, bondage, Jim Crow – but also the strength, perseverance and beauty that can arise from the human spirit.”

For “Photo Op,” Brieger painted from a photograph he found online. When he came across the image, he was struck by the range of comments people had made underneath it. “One person called it a terrible thing; someone else called it a beautiful thing,” Brieger said. “It’s so complicated and I thought (‘Photo Op’) was just like that. There’s a lot there, so it’s up to everyone to do whatever they want with it.”

              Compelled by the topic, Brieger began researching black wet nurses in the Antebellum South, reading articles and scholarly papers. He imagined the relationship the woman in his painting, and others like her, had with the babies she breast fed, a job many were tasked with sun up to sun down, not to mention the birth mothers of these babies. It’s an image – with a political twist – that audiences need to be confronted with, white audiences especially, Brieger said.

             “Our history of slavery and our continued mistreatment of black people, that’s a wound. It needs to be lanced, cleaned out, opened up, and healed up. Because right now, from my standpoint, it’s still here,” Brieger said. “That’s a common thing that people say all the time: ‘Why do you want to relive this painful period?’ It’s because we want to make it better.”

Some reactions I heard were that the woman’s dignity had already been taken away from her and the artist came along and did it again by cutting out her face. I saw this same point of view but considered it as the precise comment Brieger was making: This is a part of our nation’s history, a shameful part, yet many of us want to forget about it, to put another face in the place of that woman’s, in place of that history. Also, Durango is predominantly white, and, thus, were the attendees of Brieger’s show, and as a friend put it, we’re literally white-washing our history.

Brieger anticipated the reactions, positive and negative. The themes of his work used to make him apprehensive about showing. Now, he pushes through it.

              “I don’t think there’s enough white people getting involved,” he said. “There’s a quiet white guilt: ‘I’m not going to say anything or do anything.’ It’s such (effing) bullshit because there’s kids getting killed, black guys getting killed ... there’s no justice. There’s really no justice for black people ... These are issues that, for whatever reason, have been with me for a long time.”

I was astonished by Brieger’s courage in showing such a challenging and potentially explosive work, especially in our country’s fractured political and racial climate. Earlier this year, a white woman painted from burial photos of Emmett Till, a black boy who was lynched after allegedly cat-calling a white woman in 1955. The painting, displayed at the Whitney in New York, received a massive backlash, with some calling for the piece to be destroyed outright because the artist was white and the sensitive subject matter was not hers to depict.

Brieger said he leaves the interpretations of his work to the viewer but staunchly defends his right to paint it, regardless of his or anyone’s race.

               “White people are so involved in the parts of slavery and the post parts of slavery,” Brieger said. “Everybody has their say on slavery, in the United States anyways. Nobody’s not involved. It’s important that white people get involved. White people ... were the beginning of the problem, and they continue to be the problem.”

Despite the provocation of “Photo Op” or because of it, I see Brieger’s piece, and his entire body of work, as vital. Art is supposed to challenge us, it’s supposed to make us uncomfortable, it’s supposed to spark conversations, to wake us, to starve us of our indifference.

“I’d sit down with anybody – anybody – and talk to them about it,” Brieger said.

OK, let’s talk.

slave ship rhinestone cowboy

Slave Ship Rhinestone Cowboy - ball point pen on paper 8.5x11 mike brieger


Durango Herald oct 2015

Stew Mosberg 

        Like many artists, Mike Brieger finds it superfluous to describe his work in words. Akin to the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” he prefers it speaks for itself. A man of few words, he frequently augments the imagery with his own minimalist form of Haiku poetry.

Beginning Oct. 30, the Durango Arts Center will host a rare solo exhibition of work by the local neo-iconoclast. Titled “Slavery Days,”the show includes more than two dozen pieces of sculpture, painting and drawings by Brieger. For his three-dimensional art, Brieger uses his skill as an ornamental ironworker and often combines various metals with other materials. His paintings lean toward a black and white palette, and his drawings are typically done in ball-point pen. Nearly 100 of these drawings will be in a sketchbook at the show, for visitors to leaf through for a more intimate connection to his work. Brieger’s art has not been exhibited at the DAC in more than 10 years, so for admirers and collectors, this is a great opportunity to get caught up.

        As for the show’s subject, Brieger says the theme of slavery has always been a part of his psyche along with other human injustices including, most recently, the effects of PTSD on veterans. As a substance-abuse counselor for the past 3½ years at the Durango Detox Center, Brieger comes in contact with the symptoms on a daily basis, and it has left an indelible mark.

DAC Exhibits Director Mary Puller describes Brieger as enigmatic, private, modest and “an artist’s artist.” She had seen his work in private collections of other artists throughout town and was intrigued by the range of his talent and imagination. According to Puller it was her rationale for choosing him to be the kick-off artist for a planned series of one-person exhibits. However, she was kept in the dark by the artist as to the exact content of the show, which adds an element of intrigue and is an indication of the freedom afforded to Brieger – ironically the very antithesis of slavery.

          Brieger’s approach to his work utilizes a mixture of metaphor and symbolism. The style is, in some instances, reminiscent of cubism and the German Expressionists, particularly the art of George Grosz.

Although the use of symbolic parable can obscure the meaning behind an artist’s work, Brieger believes the viewer and artist should share equally in the experience. Studying the content of Brieger’s imagery, one may well sense the melancholy he feels for his subjects – and that is his point. The depiction evokes a range of emotions in the observer and while it is not protest art in the traditional sense, it is art that will make you think.

           His images, whether in two or three dimension, conjure demons, ghouls, nightmarish figures from another world as well as manifestations of the hidden reaches of one’s own mind.

Brieger exhibits compassion for the enslaved, abused and the wounded warriors who return home with unrelenting trauma, which is evident in the many pieces on view. The slavery of the title is not just about the disgraceful history all cultures share, but the enslavement of the mind. “Race relations is a topic I have been drawing and contemplating since grade school growing up in a mixed neighborhood near Detroit,” he admits.

       The artist believes that referencing history is “a useful tool in keeping the less compassionate impulses, such as greed and denial, in check.”

Asked what inspires him artistically and personally, albeit for him they are one and the same, Brieger mentions Velazquez, the Spanish artist of the 17th century. In particular he points to the old Master’s painting of Juan de Pareja, a slave dressed as a nobleman. Ironically De Pareja “earned his freedom” and went on to be a painter himself. A more contemporary, yet nonartist, inspiration for Brieger is Billy X. Crumaro, a performance artist who, among other things, was buried alive for three days, fasted in the desert for 40 and who swam the entire length of the Mississippi River while shouting poetry. Such iconoclasm is precisely what makes Brieger the artist he is. Admitting he might never take his beliefs quite that far, he admires the conviction Crumaro demonstrates. It also suggests the rebelliousness Brieger himself feels. His views are not always in sync with the average citizens,’ but he feeds off of it when creating a narrative work. It is most apparent in the choice of symbols he uses and the allegorical nature of the subject.

           Working in a few mediums, Brieger still remains faithful to painting, specifically with oils, because he loves the texture and the push and pull of the paint on canvas. That compulsion aside, he continues to draw as a means of expression and admits to never knowing quite where a piece is heading. He remarks that he might start a painting with a theme or subject in mind, but by the time the first stroke is down, he goes off in another direction. The flexibility that paint offers is another reason he chooses it over sculpture, which more readily requires a commitment once it is initiated.

Visitors to the exhibit may gain more by remaining open minded when looking at the work and appreciate it on a visceral level rather than a cerebral one.

Barbecue Scene -oil on canvas 18x24" Mike Brieger

SLAVE SHIP LANDS IN DURANGO - Artist Mike Brieger explores race relations
Durango Telegraph Nov 2008

Jules Masterjohn

        There was no coincidence that as Americans elected their first president of color last Tuesday, Durango artist Mike Brieger installed an art exhibit themed on the black experience in America. Race relations is a topic the artist has been drawing and contemplating since his grade school days growing up in a mixed neighborhood near Detroit. By favoring the subject of African-American struggle as the primary story in his exhibit, viewers will be reminded that Barack Obama will stand in the White House on the backs of countless millions of people of color who have suffered at the hands of imperial powers across the world. For Brieger, remembering the past is a useful tool in keeping the less compassionate impulses – those urges towards greed and denial – in check.

Brieger’s drawings, paintings, collage, and sculptures reflect his personal take on the world, yet they speak to broader concerns than racism or colonialism. Fully utilizing artistic license, his provocative and direct style points to art as metaphor and the artist as decipherer of the human condition. To this service, Brieger borrows from historical art movements for his aesthetic and thematic foundations. In the end, his works shine light on the potential darkness within the human psyche.

         Take for instance, his conté crayon drawing “Slave Ship.” The above-deck drama portrayed is historically probable, though the artist’s rendering is bizarre, incorporating multiple perspectives of the figures in simultaneous frontal and profile views. The slaves’ bodies are distorted, naked, and shackled, lying, dancing for or being fondled by those controlling the ship. A rectangular shape in the center of the deck is filled with individualized, disembodied heads. He depicts the hold of the ship from above and the artist’s visual shorthand for a crowd of slaves below.

Brieger skillfully creates a Cubist-influenced environment, illustrating some semblance of 3-dimensionality yet he also offers a flattened, shallow space adding to the disorienting scene. The viewer sees this “docu-drama” from a floating perspective, high above to witness the scenes yet removed from what lies below.

          A small piece of paper with typed words reads, “Turn off the oven, close the popular book that grows in your body.” A nod to the Dadaists, the Haiku poem written 15 years ago, was spontaneously mounted below the picture, to “keep it fun” for the artist. Many of the works throughout the exhibit are paired with a Haiku.

In the drawing “I was from the alligator clan,” a large black man – whose naturalistic muscular body is pierced, bound and posed like a Christ figure – is being tortured at the hands of ball cap clad smaller black males. The torturers’ bodies are rendered in simple form, reduced to the bare minimum of shapes. The victim looks calmly out at the viewer as a diminutive White master looks on. In the background, two severely distorted black females stand, being watched by a uniformed white guy. There is much more happening in this scene, and much more than meets the eye.

In portraying the victim’s body as real and life-like, the viewer is invited to identify with the victim and his suffering. The oppressors, on the other hand, have feeble and diminished bodies, unreal in their proportion and scale. Brieger creates a congruous relationship in the condition of the body and that of the mind, metaphorically implying that only an impoverished being could inflict such pain and humiliation on another.

           Utilizing distorted formal elements, exaggerated stylistic devices, and emotionally charged narratives, Brieger places himself in the company of the German Expressionists. Their work was a response to a world too inhumane to comprehend, having witnessed the horrors of two World Wars. With his ability to translate physical form into psychological function, like the Expressionists before him, Brieger exposes the human condition so the viewer can be touched by a truth one has not lived.

             If one simply reacts to his potently perverse pictures, Brieger could be termed a “bad boy artist” – except that his inner nature reflects none of the required f%&#-the-world attitude. A humble, sensitive and gentle human, he is a serious contemplative who expresses his insights in ways that fit with the modern world. His images are fragmented, as is the outer world; they use sex and violence to frame experience; his art is made of the mundane materials found in daily life. Like our inner worlds of thoughts and feelings, his art is not tidy but rather a jumble of ideas with their associated emotive power.

         For Durango, this is a provocative show, and it will not please those who think art should sit quietly on the wall and look pretty. “Ugly can be beautiful but pretty can never be,” he says. Using the genres of street art and back alley social realism found in urban areas, Brieger brings the larger world of in-your-face visual critique home to gnaw at the seams of what it seems. Brieger chooses to be in Durango, and we are fortunate to have an artist willing to go against the grain of local tastes, polite habits, and comfortable lives. “As an artist, there’s a desire to just do your thing, so I do mine in Durango knowing that there is a larger thing out there,” he says.

          Brieger’s psycho-socio themes and slap-dash style of presentation may act as diversions for some and doorways for others to the underlying theme of this exhibit. Though Brieger portrays a specific ethnic group in relationship to another, his use of narrative, metaphor and artistic style are conductors of a deeper message. The artist asks us to look inside ourselves, to acknowledge and see our own internalized victim and its relationship to the oppressor within. Beyond the color or shape of our skin, we all suffer and we all cause harm, and this is Brieger’s very skillfully presented message.

On The Scaffold Above the Crowd With a Wrench - oil on board 14x22" Mike Brieger


Mark Woolley Gallery

 The Portland Mercury - Sept 12 2002

        From faraway, the black, white, and gray-toned paintings of Colorado artist Michael Brieger take on the vivid precision of photographs. However, Brieger's intricate method of shading makes for incredibly elusive images up close, amplifying the mystery and creepiness of his subject matter. In "America Waltzing," for instance, a moose (or rat?) dressed in a ball-gown dances with a man whose face is obscured by darkness, as a stately walrus, perhaps, appears to applaud or rise up in outrage. It's unclear what, exactly, is happening in most of his animal-dominated paintings. But there's so much action in all of them, it gives the feeling of watching an old film from the 1920s--with so much flickering light, the motion is esoteric and subsequently dangerous. In Brieger's take on Edward Hicks' "The Peaceable Kingdom," the animals take on a decidedly sinister quality, with the bull looming as if it has just been skinned, the cherubs replaced by a siren or temptress. It's all very demented, cryptic, and plays into the primal fear of the dark, sharing a vague aesthetic kinship to illustrator Sir John Tenniel. He also exhibits some mixed media, wood cutouts, influenced by Native American art, but swept into the modern era of telephones and sunglasses. On all fronts, the gravity of Brieger's talent is disarming. JULIANNE SHEPHERD