A new installation at the Chrysler Museum of Art invites visitors into the whimsical world of Norfolk-born artist Brian Bress. Opening to the public during Third Thursday on Sept. 15, In The Box: Brian Bress will mark the world premiere of Man with a Cigarette (2016), the artist’s first work to present a full-scale human figure using a video wall.
Over the last decade, Bress has won critical acclaim for innovative video-based works featuring an array of eccentric, humanoid characters the artist handcrafts from foam and found objects. With Jim Henson-like appeal, Bress’s characters make heady artistic ideas accessible.
Born and raised in Norfolk, and a member of the family that has operated Bress Pawn and Jewelry in Norfolk’s Arts District for 75 years, Bress nurtured an early interest in art with classes at the Governor’s School for the Arts, the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia (now the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art), and the d’Art Center, as well as with visits to the Chrysler Museum of Art. Drawn to diverse media, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration, concentrated on video and animation, and then focused on painting when he began his M.F.A. at the University of California, Los Angeles. Now based in Los Angeles, Bress creates works that defy easy categorization: sculptural forms come to life through performance; costumes are composed from collage and drawings; videos hang on walls like paintings.
In his earliest video works, Bress staged elaborate sets and used dialogue to construct narratives with a clear start and finish. Around 2009, he began using high-definition monitors, turned vertically like portrait paintings, to create videos of single characters. With limited or no speech, the characters often address the monitor’s flatness by seeming to draw on or cut away at the surface of the screen. Bress says that by breaking the “fourth wall”—the imaginary plane that separates the actors from the viewers—he is “playing around with the illusion of putting a figure inside a flat glowing box.”
Bress’s new piece, Man with a Cigarette, blurs these distinctions further. The work originated when he found a pen-and-ink drawing in a thrift store that depicted a man wearing a fedora-like hat, a broad tie, and a jacket with wide lapels. The unknown artist used an array of techniques—from hatch marks and ragged shading to pointillistic dots and checkerboard patterning—which to Bress made it seem as if “the drawing was an artist’s love letter to drawing.”
The thrift store wouldn’t sell the drawing, so Bress decided to recreate it as a life-sized sculptural costume: “From head to toe I replicated in pen and ink the mysterious man from the not-for-sale drawing.” In the video piece, presented on a life-sized video wall, Bress wears this costume as he tries to reproduce the look and pose of the drawing.
Bress’s work is disarmingly lighthearted but deeply insightful, says Curator of Exhibitions and Acting Curator of Photography Seth Feman. “He addresses complex questions about representation, perception, and cognition, but he does so in a totally accessible way. It’s a little bit like watching ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ or Saturday-morning cartoons,” says Feman. “The work is endlessly engaging because it’s always unexpected.”
In The Box: Brian Bress will be on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art, One Memorial Place, Norfolk, Va., from the evening of Third Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016 through Feb. 19, 2017. Admission is free.
Meet the Artist /NEON Festival Lecture
Third Thursday, September 15, 6:30 p.m.
Meet Brian Bress and discover the inspiration behind his work as he debuts his exhibition in The Box. From 5–10 p.m., the Chrysler celebrates the second annual NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) Festival with live music, food trucks, lawn games, a cash bar and free admission.
The Chrysler is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.