Isabel Kret on Frank Bruno: A Life Devoted to the End, July 9, 2013 – January 12, 2014, at American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, Baltimore.
I dare you to resist the tempting warning: “Parents & Teachers please be advised: This exhibition contains mature subject matter and may not be appropriate for younger viewers.” That warning certainly got my attention outside The American Visionary Art Museum exhibition Frank Bruno: A Life Devoted to the End. It’s no surprise that the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) would exhibit the seriously psychedelic and psychedelic but serious works of recluse artist Frank Bruno, who was born in Arizona in 1925. AVAM’s mission is to exhibit innovative artists who are self-taught and guided by intuition. According to AVAM’s biography of Bruno, he has heard a voice inside him that insists: “I see danger—awake! It’s terrible, it’s horrible, and it’s almost here! This is why my spirit was sent to earth. This is the job God has given me. This is the job I must do, so my hands will be free of your blood.”
Bruno believes that it is his duty in life to warn people of “approaching evil and destruction.” A vehement, apocalypse-obsessed social critic, Bruno creates vivid, highly detailed compositions that incorporate political criticism, religious references, and constellation mythology relating to the Zodiac. His paintings include scenes of Christ’s suffering and resurrection; America depicted as a wasteland; baboons defacing the American flag… and destroying the Holy Bible and The Constitution; and emaciated, suffering figures entrenched in the pits of hell.
His paintings are explosive and inflammatory, disturbing yet beautiful. He uses bright neon colors, contrasted with dark earthy tones to capture a mood of intensity and urgency. His attention to detail is exquisite, and he encapsulates fantastical universes in his canvases. There is no wasted space in any of Bruno’s paintings. Intricate spatial divisions create unique patterns, and every crevice they form is filled with figures, text, or hellish environments. He overlaps stories within his compositions; some configurations have more than thirty different scenes. He portrays the tormented masses in astounding detail.
The exhibit as a whole is visually intriguing, yet at times overwhelming. The complexity of Bruno’s paintings, and the organization of the exhibit make it difficult to ascertain what specific message Bruno wants to convey. Although his desire to critique American politics and express an impending damnation of humankind is clear, it is difficult to grasp a concrete commentary amidst multiple themes. Overall I left feeling like I had just attended a fear-mongering bombastic sermon from an ex-Dead-head cult leader. I felt unnerved, mystified, and confused.
Fueled by gruesome life experiences, Bruno seems preoccupied with death. According to the AVAM biography, while Frank was still in the womb, his brother George, aged 14, was killed in a car accident. As a child, Frank remembers his mother hoarding his dead brother’s bloodied clothes in the trunk of her car. His mother, strapped for cash during the Great Depression also provided Frank with bloody butcher paper, which she cleaned and dried so he could use it for drawing. He went on to enlist in the Navy during WWII, compounding and feeding his morbid preoccupations. The blood of his brother’s clothes, the blood of the animal meat on the scraps of butcher paper, and the blood from the battles of WWII seem to seep through his paintings.
The fifteen oil paintings on display here, created between 1961 and 2005, contain depictions of decay, violence, death, and hell. Bruno renders these gruesome and morbid themes in a rich concoction of intoxicating colors: chartreuse, flamingo-pink, aqua, daisy-yellow, bright orange, black, gray, and brown. I was initially lured into the exhibit by the warning sign, but once inside, the kaleidoscopic paintings of gods, biblical figures, skulls, zombies, damned souls, dogs, donkeys, baboons, and constellations kept me intrigued.
In Can’t Anybody Hear the Horses!, an oil on wood painting from 1998, three skulls covered in maggots and flies float against a square, black background. Two skulls, in profile, flank either side of the third skull, above. A winged demonic creature that looms over a skeleton riding a horse is interwoven within the outline of the skull. The skulls serve as mementi mori, reminders that all humans are fated to die, while the background of an orange atomic bomb mushroom cloud and crashing waves signal the impending destruction of earth.
My favorite painting in this exhibition, The Last Day (1998, oil on wood), also addresses themes of earth’s demise and the damnation of humankind. Bruno retains his characteristic style of intensely saturated colors and dynamic composition. However, instead of a chaotic amalgamation of multiple scenes, The Last Day is a more subdued expression of the impending apocalypse. The overall composition resembles a cross between a fluted trumpet and an unfurling scroll. The blue scroll tapers at the top and flares at the bottom where it parts into two circular forms. On the left side, naked bodies tumble down a passage ribbed like an esophagus that terminates in flames. On the right side, the earth, engulfed in flames, leaves a trail of fire behind as it shoots out from the scroll. At the peak of the painting sits a blue sphere that has feathered wings like an eagle’s. The azure blue of the scroll evokes calming memories of the sea; the orange of the fiery earth invokes excitement, energy, and intensity; and the dark maroon and brown echo sadness, melancholy, and despair. Bruno never ceases to remind us that we are doomed. Yet, this painting feels somehow more hopeful. Perhaps it is the vibrant blue of the scroll, or the ascending winged sphere that could represent the hope of a new earth.
In his other paintings, Bruno warns people of the consequences of their misguided actions but fails to offer an alternative solution. Paintings like Give Us Barabbas (1961, oil on canvas) allude to the poor choices that humans make. Barabbas was imprisoned for rebellion at the same time Christ was imprisoned by the Romans. Pontius Pilate, according to an amnesty decree during the holiday of Passover, granted freedom to one prisoner. The crowd outside the prison, given the choice to free Jesus or Barabbas, chose Barabbas. In this painting, people with empty white eyes, wearing suit jackets and no pants or underwear, romp around an infernal landscape. A red-skinned man wearing a crown and a fur cape stands behind a priest who throws his head and hands back in a maniacal gesture. Behind them, a movie marquis displays images of booze, sex, and business tycoons. Bruno seems to say that these souls, and souls like them, have chosen idol worship and the religion of materialism over Christianity and are damned by their decision.
Bruno’s text-heavy and more complex paintings, such as Seh le’ Adonai Yeshua (2003, oil on wood), and God’s Favorite Story He Tells It in All Kinds of Ways (2003, oil on wood), are less compelling to me. They are so full of text, of biblical and mythological references and vignettes, that the painting feels crowded. Although Bruno is clearly passionate about his message, his paintings can be off-putting. He comes off as aggressive and obtuse. I witnessed museum-goers pass by the paintings or consider them skeptically. I heard one observer berate the paintings: “You expect us to understand what you’re saying?”
The design of the exhibit does little to unriddle the complexity of Bruno’s paintings. The paintings are given little context. Although a biography of the artist is available, AVAM could provide more insight into Bruno’s elaborate visions. Quotes from the Bible and one from Yogi Berra (“It ain’t over til it’s over.”) are stamped on the walls of the exhibit with no explanation of who chose them or why exactly. And the unusual architecture of the gallery (an obtuse curving wall and bright orange and purple walls) makes it feel too much like a funhouse Halloween exhibit, similar to the environments in Bruno’s paintings.
I left wondering if we are in fact all doomed, and if there is anything I could do to help it. Has our culture become so obsessed with vain pursuits of wealth, beauty, and power that our collective morality is beyond redemption? I thought about my nature as a human being—am I good, am I bad? Ultimately I concluded that, although self-examination and questioning of authority can lead to self-discovery and necessary change, the kind of work Bruno creates seems primarily focused on disturbing people rather than contributing to the improvement of humankind.
Yet, despite the challenges of this exhibit, it is well worth a visit. It is exciting and enticing, and visiting all of the exhibits at AVAM is a collectively transporting experience.
Isabel Kret is an avid lover of all things creative. She currently works as a singer/songwriter and designer based in Baltimore and Washington D.C. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.