Borrello Black

I love the work of Brian Borrello. My first years of art school I struggled with the seeming inferiority of charcoal, my preferred art medium. Charcoal had none of the cache of oil, the "nowness" of acrylic, or the elitist credibility of mixed media. In fact, it was looked upon as a colorless tool for helping artist newbies learn the fundamentals of shading and contour line work. Relegated to a perfunctory role in the design of a larger artwork, charcoal never took center stage. I made many excuses for its use in my pieces those first years until I came across Brian Borrello. With one look at his stark motor oil and charcoal botanicals I knew that, from that point on, I had an irrefutable argument for charcoal.

Borrello, like many a Pacific Northwest artist, creates unashamedly beautiful work inspired by the forms of regional flora. As Portland likes to tout itself as a mighty progressive city, it comes as no surprise that Borrello uses the presentation of his iconography to critique the pollution of our natural resources. His drawings are stark silhouettes of leaves, twigs, roots, vines, and the like. They are shaped with a velvety black derived from a combination of india ink and charcoal. It is a living black, for it rolls and broils with tiny plumes and clouds that suggest a depth beyond the surface of the paper. It is a black that captures the imagination, and I've often thought about it when letting my mind wander at the studio. Perhaps the closest equivalent in nature might be the charred remains of a recently burned forest. That is Brian Borrello's black.

Many of Borrello's botanical forms are centered upon a stark white substrate— this comforts the eye with a composition everyone equates with stability, comfort, and religious importance. But that comfort can be short lived when one considers the brownish halo that surrounds the dark forms. This unnatural brown serves as an irregular median strip between the clean white of the canvas/paper surface and the black vacuum of the imagery. The brown is derived from motor oil and as it surrounds the drawn form a peculiar effect occurs. Suddenly, your eye perceives the image as a burned impression; as if the paper had been branded or the natural item had grown so hot it had scorched its way through the substrate and left a charred opening into a vast inky space. Simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, an entire show of such imagery tends to remind me of the reliquary room at the El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. While Borrello's chapel is far more austere and aesthetically micro-managed there is, in my mind, a similar sentiment: hand-made representations of the affliction are put up on the walls with the hope of a miracle. 

Since he occupies such a venerable place on my personal path to becoming an artist it was hard for me to admit that there was something amiss at his most recent show. Ars Brevis, Vita Longa at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery was just as lovely an exhibit as Borrello has always put on, and I suppose that was the problem. This show seemed not at all dissimilar from the first Borrello exhibit I saw over seven years ago. If anything, the current work had a more diminutive scale by comparison. The imagery was indecipherable from pieces done nearly a decade ago and the only obvious evidence of Borrello branching out existed in the unsettling use of an eerie yellow-green as the background color for a few paintings. I left the show disappointed with the work for not providing the same sort of elation it had in the past. What had seemed important in terms of medium and message then seemed safe and predictable now. The motor oil had lost its burn and the forms had become simply decorative silhouettes instead of openings to the void. To be fair though, perhaps what bothered me the most had little to do with Borrello's work, for it hadn't changed over the years— what bothered me was that I had.

* An amateur interviewer is saved by Borrello's expressiveness and enthusiasm. This video is worth watching if you've never seen any of Borrello's work before, but isn't recommended for people who find morning talk show-like questions to be the scourge of journalism.

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