Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Review: Who's Brian Presnell

"I'm Brian Presnell"
a solo exhibition by Brian Presnell
at Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art

[Please bare with me on this review, it is going to be a strange meandering ride]

Months before this show even opened there was some controversy amongst some of the local artists as to why the iMOCA was offering a solo show to a previously non exhibiting local artist. I admit, I had some reservations as well. I can not speak for others but my original opinion when told about the show was, Really? Why? I have known who Brian Presnell was for a number of years and had even seen a couple of images here and there. He is a nice guy. My concern was not directed towards him but more towards the iMOCA. It had always been my opinion that it is the job of the gallery system and more so the not-for-profit arts spaces to give artists their first chances. A place to experiment, to learn, to prove themselves. Why would a museum organization bother showing the work of an, as yet, unestablished artist? Why take such a risk? Why this leap of faith? I can understand some circumstances of a museum doing this, but usually in a historical context or perhaps post mortem. Though in the contemporary art museum setting I question this practice even more. To be honest, I don't think I really "thought" about this topic before all this came up, rather I just knew it to be so. Art Museums show established artists. Like some global truth. Needless to say we often find most things are not necessarily true.

The night of the opening I showed up not really knowing what to expect or even a clue as to how I would react to it. I came to the show with local artist Quincy Owens to what turned out to be a very large crowd. Well, the space at iMOCA is quite small but never the less people were elbow to elbow already. Most people seemed to be enjoying the show. It was a bit hard to really appreciate the works in this condition so I made a point to come back again the following day to better see the works up close as well as to hear Brian speak about the work and doing this show.

Most of the work is dealing with characters/personas that Brian has created, from Wheelie Man who has it out for Mr. Knight (a Bobby Knight caricature) though we never get to understand why Mr. Knight dislikes Wheelie Man, to Abe Lincoln, Billy Bob the working class hick, and P. Nelson Swisher the wealthy socialite. These characters show up in his many collaborative collages/paintings, in his numerous videos, as bobble heads, and even some as props from the videos. Throughout the work I kept seeing these characters and wondering, Who is Brian Presnell? Is he all of these characters? Are we supposed to think that he is? Everywhere the title of the show jumped out at us, "I'm Brian Presnell". Branding it into our minds. But I walked away not sure if I ever got to see or even glimpse the real Brian Presnell. I couldn't quite figure out whether this was the point or the joke. The show feels at times schizophrenic in personality but when it comes to hanging the show it looks absolutely wonderful in the space despite whether someone liked the work or not, I think they would at least say it was nicely put together. His vast experience hanging valuable artwork for the IMA and the Eiteljorg certainly shows through here. It is the attention to details that add to the experience of the show.

Most of the 40+ paintings in the show are scavenged thrift store looking paintings from country landscapes, boats on the water, bad nature paintings with barns, the type of stuff you would often cringe at the sight of (well, at least I do). These works are then added to through the use of collaged elements (some of his characters, some from other works by artists like Brian Myers) as well as through the actual hand application of graffiti by a few taggers. This aspect of his work brings up the question of authenticity, or could have if that aspect hadn't already played out with the likes of Kostabi, Koons, Levine, Duchamp, etc. I actually liked the areas that the taggers went to work on. I rather like that he would have them do what is natural to them rather than his trying to fake it. As a painter, I feel a bit cheated that the collaged elements were not actually painted on. This feels to me like a shortcut and question the work more than I think I would have if he had painted those same elements on to each painting. While it is in the gift shop that his ideas of marketing and self promotion really blow up. It was quite hilarious to see the iMOCA gift shop filled to the brim with all these silly trinkets, though if I had the money there was a nice limited edition silk screen in there for sale that I think I would have bought. Only $50. Not bad at all. The gift store had everything from beer cozys, t-shirts, pens, penny banks, bottled water, etc. All of these with either the slogan "I'm Brian Presnell" and/or one of the characters printed on them. And while at the opening people are all walking around with their "I'm Brian Presnell" cups and I even saw a few custom bottles of beer floating around. They surely went all out on the branding. But again I am left wondering whether we got to know who he really is. Does this even matter?

Humor, entertainment, jokes whether we are a part of it or the joke being on us, is a major aspect of this show, along with the concepts of identity, facades, and authorship. But even now, I am unsure whether the show adds insights to these issues or just confuses the boundaries even more. The highlight for the night of the opening was a brief allegory told to us about Brian by what, if memory serves me correctly, was his father in law. This story, seemed to me to shed a little insight into who Brian was and solidified to me that I needed to go hear him speak the following day. So as Saturday same and I was able to view the work once again in much better conditions, I looked forward to hearing him speak. I must say that after hearing him speak about what he was interested in and how he looked at the work, I felt I better understood a piece of Brian Presnell. There was something more humble in his discussion of the work, that I feel is missing from most of the work in the show. I understood more his desire to bring more humor into the environment, more entertainment. I though wonder if the works are in fact humorous or is the idea of the work humorous. These are strange questions that I don't consider in my own work so I am unsure where I stand on this on a broader sense. I know I usually don't gravitate to funny art. And yes I do find a lot of art humorous but often I think this type of work becomes a one line joke and wears thin to quickly.

Did I like the show? Yes, as an entire exhibition I think the work looked wonderful in the space and the presentation of it made this show worth looking at. I still don't know whether I feel the concept of the show was successful, and I still have doubts as to whether this was the proper venue for this show. Should the iMOCA show works by Indianapolis area artists? Absolutely. I don't question that one bit, in fact I think it would be a wonderful thing if they were able to designate at least one exhibition per year to Indianapolis based art, be it a group show with Indy artists or solo exhibitions. Did iMOCA pull off a successful show this time. Yes. I think they were able to do this show well. And in all fairness, I reread their mission statement and there is nothing at all in their statement that was not accomplished with putting on this show. So despite this supposed to being a review, I know for me it brings up a lot more questions than answers. And many of these questions may become posts in their own right like, should museums exhibit artists who have never shown before? What is the purpose of a contemporary art museum? Perhaps this show will spark some of this dialogue. Go see the show at iMOCA before is closes.

[Note: another review of this show will be coming in a little over a week, and the STAR wrote about Brian here.]

11 Responses to “Review: Who's Brian Presnell”

Anonymous said...
March 30, 2006 at 3:11 PM

Well here I am working my ass off, being consistent, showing here and elsewhere and yet being discarded by local institutions. I think Christopher West is very positive about the Indy scene and as a curator here I'm glad he is that way. On the other hand by not showing artists who have shown here (by that I mean "solo" at their space and not at the Stutz or other venues )they are giving us mixed signals. They are saying that the other venues here in town are not worthy and if the artist show there they won't get invited for an exhibit at IMOCA. I believe that was an unfair criteria to exhibit one guy's work that has never shown here. I believe that they should do whatever they want but I feel the local arts community is disregarded when they do such move. If there was proper attention being given to deserving local artist, the fact that Brian never had a show wouldn't bother me as much. I guess it's not enough to do your best in this business, you gotta have a lot of luck.


sophiaLA said...
April 2, 2006 at 4:10 PM

Who cares if he hasn't shown here before,,,it was a great show. (loved the paintings) The artist shown should be selected because of their WORK not because of how many places they have shown in Indy. Furthermore I am offended that you think the other venues/artist are slighted in some way. All these venues are helping grow a great art community. The good thing is ..if you are "working your ass off" ,,,good work will get noticed .
And you are right, it is not enough to DO your best in the business,,,you have to BE the best.


Anonymous said...
April 3, 2006 at 5:27 PM

Jesus, she misunderstood most of it. I hate to explain my very clear comment, so I will tell you to read again, then get back to me. How old is this person anyway... Seems like she or he is 15. One of those naive "you must be the best" kinda people...
Anyway, I heard all kinds of negative comments about this exhibit, but nobody seem to wanna talk about it in public. It matches well the provincial label this city often receives. What should be a free forum of discussion becomes a contrived venue if artists don't come forward (even if anonymously) to talk about it. So there you have it. Indy you have done it again. I’m surprised Scott came forward with that and everybody else shied away from the trouble.

sophiaLA said...
April 3, 2006 at 8:21 PM

okay, okay ,,,I'm convinced Nanotech,,your in.

Liriodendron said...
April 4, 2006 at 5:36 PM

Those frames weren't all thrift store! The framing was beautiful! What was the shiny surface coating on all the framed work? I thought all the hanging work looked beautiful in that space also. I enjoyed the pictures, they were funny/clever, though for me, like the Amy Cutler show, I glazed over about halfway through. (perhaps because there were lots of little tiny images to look at)
I think I prefer the "small group" show, like the show at the Stutz. Enough pieces by a single artist to get a decent feel, but several different styles to provide contrast and a little variety.

Scott said...
April 4, 2006 at 5:55 PM

I agree the framing was nicely done. As for the shiny surface, that was a two part resin. The stuff can get pretty expensive and tricky to play with.

I agree that at some point when there is so much work, one tends to glaze over. I did as well at the Amy Cutler show though I really liked the work. With Brian's show, I didn't attempt to read each of the paintings as individual works of art, rather I viewed the whole salon style hanging as a single piece. Each painting in a way was a single brushstroke. For me, if you want me to really view and appreciate each work on its own merits, then don't hang it salon style. That has been my problem with viewing art at LAMP as well. Salon style hanging takes away from the individual work of art.

My biggest problem with the Stutz though would have to be the showing space. A zig zaging hallway of sorts. That really bothers me. I have seen some good shows there in the past but I always hate the layout of the exhibition space there. Maybe I am to conservative when it comes to exhibition areas, I like the white cube. Well, maybe not exactly a white cube...

I am actually really shocked that more people have not commented about the show. Whether to agree, or to say that I am wrong. I was hoping that the reviews would spark more of a dialogue than this.
Anyways, thanks for those of you who have commented and continue to add to the dialogue, we appreciate it.

Jeremy Tubbs said...
April 9, 2006 at 2:46 AM

Scott, Even though I had already seen and knew about Brian's work, I think your review of the show is very on point. Scott said "Everywhere the title of the show jumped out at us, "I'm Brian Presnell". Branding it into our minds. But I walked away not sure if I ever got to see or even glimpse the real Brian Presnell. I couldn't quite figure out whether this was the point or the joke." Excellent!

I was first introduced (at a party) to "Wheelie Man" and "Abe" in Herron woodworking instructor Phil Tennant's living room a few years ago. Brian was very excited about the work and would replay the short videos to everyone he could. He is still very excited about his work and over the years his strange altruistic devotion to these figure heads has created quite a comprehensive body of work.

I think the first Anon's statement about an un-shown local artist is strange especially on this blog where this discussion on overexposure and overexposure part 2 just recently occurred.

We could all learn a lesson from Brian about dedication and devotion to a single comprehensive body of work. Now we can argue about how successful the work is and we should. However I believe that if Brian had been showing his work around town he would have never received this show because it would have already been seen all over the place at the smattering of galleries that put on group shows in this city. Brian became an underground buzz around the city before he broke into the scene... much like the Blair Witch Project made us believe it was real and we filled the theaters (to be disappointed). I am really interested in seeing what Brian will do next or more precisely... Who will Brian Presnell become next? And will his characterizations improve or change?

So I decided to google "I'm Brian Presnell" and this is some of what I got... sorry no CV:

Check out this video from the opening at

Here are some opening night pics at Michelle Jones photo blog.

And Brian did exhibit some of his "Wheelie Man" series last year in a large contemporary art group show at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN... that also included my work "Self-Defacing Action". Also IMOCA's next artist "Conrad Bakker" was part of this same exhibition and his work can be seen on his site

remaining, Jeremy Tubbs

Anonymous said...
April 19, 2006 at 8:43 AM

So you are defending IMOCA, since you shown there, no surprises there. It made sense that Brian was in that same show as you in the "middle of the nowhere" DePauw university. Now I get it.

Anonymous said...
April 19, 2006 at 1:28 PM

DePauw might be in the "middle of nowhere," but the shows at the Peeler Art Center are arguably the best and most interesting in Indiana. If you haven't seen the conceptual drawing show that's up now, you should check it out -- no one else has the smarts to show work provocative contemporary work like this....

Scott said...
April 19, 2006 at 2:03 PM

I feel emarassed by my lack of knowledge about the Peeler Art Center over the past couple of years. I recently became aware of it and in particular the drawing show you mentioned and have plans to check it out real soon. I am always amazed to find that there are still several artists and venues that I am not aware of locally. I am glad this is so as I like to be surprised on occassion, especially when viewing art. If the drawing show is as good as I have heard, I will probably write a review of it. I think I need to keep better track of openings regionally that may not be in Indianapolis, as there are often good shows that I hear about after they are no longer open.

Anonymous said...
April 19, 2006 at 2:14 PM

I think you can get on a mailing list for Peeler if you go to their website -- that way you can get advance notice about shows and stuff.

The conceptual drawing show closes in a few weeks -- I highly recommend it -- one of the best shows I've seen in a while -- not often you see well conceived "idea" based shows around here.

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