The viewer may enter Ms. Brooks’ works through identification with the familiar, everyday objects, figures and people she portrays. The familiarity of her subject matter (a knife, an onion, a young girl) offer an intimacy, comfort, though not a sense of complacency. Each simple object as well as the more complex frontal confrontation in her portraits renders a sense of urgency. I cannot take my eyes off the painting, Things I No Longer Need, of a black garbage bag which appears to have been left by someone, seemingly carelessly, on a chair; or the three seashells painted black as if vertebrae of a life perhaps tainted with suffering, or tar, and deposited by nature just as haphazardly on a beach (Survivance). Similarly, a wine spill on a tiled floor is left to the flies (Spill), an onion left to grow its leaves (The Thing Itself), a white plastic bag open and Empty as the title suggests: all feel like the debris of our lives. The irony is that none are empty, but full of the artist’s — and our own — heritages and the paint is not haphazard but carefully crafted.
Anelecia Hannah Brooks’ (SPU 2005 alumna) current exhibition at Seattle Pacific University, part of the University’s 125th Anniversary celebration, is aptly entitled “Heritage”. The show, which opened this past Friday, October 7th, runs through June 2017 at Nickerson Studios down the street from the University in Seattle, Washington. Tinged with a sweet bitterness, such as is the time post-adolescence, the paintings speak to a collective experience of young adulthood, as well as memory. All Brooks’ works contain layers of meaning, as in her painting The Thing Itself, of an onion, in which all layers are embodied within the onion, yet the leaves have begun to grow outward.
Brooks treats both well-loved figures and objects with the same caress of the brush; the tendril of an octopus or the roll of lifesavers are equally delicious. Her palette is often muted, reflecting the Pacific Northwest light which cradled her childhood. The objects reside in a field of cool blue-gray, with the suggestion of a surface or not, though always clinging to gravity. They are held fixed in the center of the canvas, sometimes radiating in a vortex (Phi), sometimes slicing the space in half (Edge). Each object serves as a synecdoche in which each object serves as a part of a greater collective consciousness or the whole of this collective serves as the object, referred to as in The Thing Itself.
Brooks’ self portraits, as in Light of my 30th Winter and Suntereo, or the portrait of her sister in Untier of Knots, are frontal, the eyes of the subject meeting the viewer at eye level. We feel we are looking back at the subject as if we are the mirror. An invocation rather than a confrontation is created in the portraiture: by the offering hands of her sister, open and heart-shaped in Untier of Knots; the sharp shard of light behind and interrupted by the self-portrait in Light of my 30th Winter; and her hands crossed over the base of her throat, both a penance and a clutching for life, in Suntereo. In this latter painting, the artist is holding her breath, eyes fixed on her own eyes as she stares at her reflection: the viewer. We reflect back our out breath. We can’t help but participate in the tension contained within her lungs.
While drawn into the paintings often by the invitation of a meditation on the subject matter, the viewer begins to sense something more than the aesthetic formality of the paintings. A sense of devotion becomes apparent: devotion to the soft blue light, to the to the flaky tunic of the onion, the imperfect seashell. The artist’s devotion speaks through the depiction of time, through the design choices. We feel devotion to the paint itself, to the process, to the time Brooks has spent with each subject. We want to linger. When we stay with a Brooks’ painting, we are remaining in her world. It’s a quiet, contemplative space. It is nonjudgmental, it says it straight. While art comes from the creative swells of an artist, the work doesn’t always reflect back so directly on the artist herself as it does in Brooks’ work. This is partly because many of her subjects are so personal: she often portrays friends and family members, as well as her mother’s wedding dress, her ballet slippers, her childhood stuffed tiger. She is in the layers of these paintings much as the mythologies she invokes. Brooks echoes a subtleness in her outward demeanor upon initial meeting but that soon dissolves into a deeply thoughtful, intellectually rigorous and outspoken character. She thinks about everything. She considers her personal heritage, that of Native American, as well as her Christian roots. She asks herself what sustains her as an artist. She thinks about each paint stroke, and what it’s doing for the image: every stroke is beautiful and economical. The paintings are complete: nothing can be taken from them and any more that could be added would detract. When we are staying with her paintings, we are considering the confluence of all these thoughts. Each painting questions our elusive grasp on reality. Is it a single shell, or is it a memory, intoxication, a perception?
Brooks’ large narrative figurative works depict a concursion of mythologies from the multiple traditions of her heritage. She brings them together with the reflection Americans have come to consider: we live in a amalgamation of heritages. The identity of the figures is very personal to Brooks, but how the paint forms them, how the Pacific Northwestern afternoon light falls on a figure’s pregnant peace is part of our shared humanity. Brooks creates a world made by paint. The cadence of our viewing is controlled by Brooks’ choices. It is every nuance, every choice she makes during the time she is with each painting which creates their hold on the viewer; her choice of a hand bent at the angle of a bison horn hurtles us down into School of Saint Georges, the folds of a wedding dress gathering upward like singed flowers rising above the flames in My Mother’s Wedding Dress After the Fire. These design decisions, along with her handling of the paint and her carefully chosen subjects build the vocabulary which articulates her devotion to her paintings. A thick stroke here, a watery smooth surface there, a muted palette, a jeweled highlight. Each painting is an act of devotion. Each decision is her offering to her viewers.
Anelecia Hanna Brooks is currently finishing her MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her exhibit will be on view through June 2017. To view more of Brooks’ work click here to see the artists’ website.
Robyn Hutchings Stone