The Spaces Between

by Glenn Perkins
Review of solo exhibition at Artspace in Raleigh, NC
from The Spectator, December 27, 2001

Sometimes your photos come back from being developed with one or two mistakes - shots of the ceiling or half of someone’s face or a foot. You might be tempted to throw these pictures away, but they might also make you think: What’s the story here? Who took this? How did I mess this up?

In Brian Bishop’s paintings and drawings, those pictures are the departure point for the “overlooked and forgotten moments that mean so much in defining our lives.” In the exhibition “The Longest Year,” currently occupying the upstairs gallery at Raleigh’s Artspace, Bishop presents what he calls “random swatches of events,” and invites viewers to imagine the circumstances of the scene and to piece together the relationships between the different images. The pictures are magnifications of details of domestic scenes -- a face turned away, a dog in a lap, a ball in the grass. The scenes are randomly composed, often focused on the spaces between objects and people, but they also capture neglected moments, the times between life’s “events” that are as emotional, relaxing, erotic or empty as the events themselves. 

The paintings and drawings in “The Longest Year” began as photographs, mostly Polaroids. Bishop then blew up the images full frame, without any cropping or change to the composition. The majority of the works in the show are encaustic painted on panel. In encaustic painting, the pigment is suspended in wax and applied hot to the surface. As it dries, it creates layers, giving depth to the picture. The wax base also imparts a luminescence, so that they resemble both varnished paintings and Polaroid photographs. Like Polaroids, the paintings are thick and imbued with that telltale Instamatic palette. They also capture a mix of speed and slowness -- speed in the frozen, captured scene, slowness in the way the colors seem to be emerging, gradually coming into focus.

The show includes paintings in two sizes: 8.5-inch square panels enclosed in thick black wooden frames and six-foot square unframed panels, which magnify the detail and the emptiness of the scenes. The smaller works are reminiscent of glazed tiles. Some of them - “Untitled (0.0)” and “Untitled (Christmas),” for instance - are almost abstractions. In others, the context is more apparent. “Untitled (11:30 p.m.)” is a pallid ceiling fan seen at an angle from below. In painting it, Bishop has warped the perspective somewhat, and the fan bends from its stem as it strains back toward the panel’s edge, causing you to feel as if the ceiling is peeling away from the scene.

The larger paintings give more of a sense of the surfaces of the panels and reveal long scratches in the encaustic. “Untitled (Shake)” features a huge yellow dog that looks like it’s flying across a room. Behind the dog, a foot wrapped in a pink sock reveals itself atop a rumpled blue sheet. In “Untitled (Stare),” the focus is a wall between a Victorian chair and a window, its Venetian blinds snapped shut. A crack in the plaster that sneaks from the baseboard up to the window casing is intricately rendered. In “Untitled (Burden),” an ivy-patterned rug negotiates the space between a phone bill and someone’s tousled hair. Patterns pop up in many of the pictures, whether on upholstery, rugs or fabric. Negative space in patterns is as interesting as the patterns themselves, and Bishop exploits these not only to give coherence to the spaces between objects, but also to expand on the idea of the space between events. 

Bishop also works in charcoal, and “The Longest Year” includes five 5-foot square drawings on paper that magnify scenes similar to those in the paintings. In “Untitled (Yard),” a ball lies in a patch of grass, but the contrast between darks and lights almost makes it appear to be a photographic negative. “Untitled (Easter)” seems like a detail of a pastoral painting. A scene of an outing in a garden, the picture frames a woman’s neck, her hair pulled up revealing a bead necklace. Like all the scenes, it is suffused with silence, a visual representation of a lull in the conversation. 

When the frame shifts, stories change. Bishop challenges us to account not only for what is outside the frame of his works, but also to interpret the narrative that ties them together. His focus on what lies between the edges of things forces us to think about the time that connects events. Bishop refers to his pictures as “documents,” and by enlarging these uncontrived scenes, and rendering them so beautifully, he shows how representational art can show truth both by what it depicts and by what it leaves outside the frame.