Gestures and textures help make James Brinsfield’s new paintings more engaging.

Stroke It 

Gestures and textures help make James Brinsfield’s new paintings more engaging.

I'll admit it. Because I have a weakness for narrative imagery and confessional storytelling, I've found past work by Kansas City painter James Brinsfield to be detached and hard to penetrate. I felt distanced from his intent. But his new body of work — all excitable color, surprising intimacy and pleasurable exuberance — feels open, vulnerable and ripe with meaningful encounters and experimentation. And though these are still introspective paintings, the artist's hand is visible and his gestures meaningful (rather than the terse formal exercises of the past), making the abstraction engaging rather than remote.

Most of the paintings are big — 46 inches by 68 inches or 50 by 72 — allowing Brinsfield ample room to examine textures, broad gestures and juxtapositions of spatial elements. Except for one painting, the works share a white background and a carefully congested area of darkness from which emerge contrasting flat shapes, bright colors and other abstract geometric shapes. Suggesting a horizon or, in Brinsfield's words, "the negative space of a fold where the sky meets the earth," the shape-shifting center anchors these compositions. In "No Ticket — No Ride," Brinsfield paints the central area of darkness with loose, small, brown strokes; he rims this shape with pink and blue oval disks and ribbons of black, and the confident sensibility strikes conflict with the almost brooding dark center. Brinsfield also creates a stuttery crackle in some of the shapes' surfaces — the paint has separated, as if to peel off — by layering oil and enamel paints, which have different drying times.

Brinsfield's canny juxtaposition of gestural brushwork with more calculated shapes and strokes excites a call and response. Though gesture is important in his work, touch is even more telling. With their discrete areas of texture, the surfaces feel close and revealing rather than broad and coolly undefined.

All of these paintings have suggestions of illusionistic space — the center element seems earthlike or environmental — but "Eccentric Rotation" is one of the few that firmly incorporates representational elements. Branchlike forms emerge from the painting's left side, both encouraging and discouraging a disconnect among background, foreground and middle ground. These earthlike forms embrace and reject naturalism. Brinsfield deftly maintains a slippery, tricky equilibrium that centers his paintings.

One of the best is "Overglow," which is also an anomaly. The title is a technical term that refers to the blurring that occurs when car headlights shine on overly reflective street signs, turning letters into blobs rather than clarifying them. Brinsfield's painting is a free-flowing, expressionistic exercise that pays tribute to Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, his artistic progenitors. Here, pinks and blues emerge from the deep-black background; but, rather than obscuring, they seem to punctuate the blackness with painterly clarity, suggesting the dynamic paradoxes in Brinsfield's work. We understand that which is illuminated, but it also needs closer scrutiny.

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