Review | Phoebe Brunner’s ‘A Wild Delight’

Clouds, Floral Protagonists are Key Themes

“The Persistance of Abundance” by Phoebe Brunner | Credit: Courtesy

Venturing into an exhibition of paintings by Phoebe Brunner, one expects a certain transformative effect, to encounter something of an alternate reality. Land, sky, and reworked art historical references have long been at the heart of her painterly interests, but always under the influence of varying degrees of dream logic. 

In this region blessed with inspiring nature, where landscape painting has deep roots and a wide market, Brunner lives in an artistic outskirt of her own devising. Two years ago, her show Breathe invited us to observe the evolution of this artist — boasting some four decades of presence and significance in Santa Barbara’s art scene — with such memorable canvases as “The Nimble Tide” and a misty, natural vision entitled “Slowly, Slowly We are Drifting.”

With her third and latest show at Sullivan Goss, A Wild Delight, the title is perfectly apt, but longtime observers and admirers of the Brunner touch will notice a new clarity and fidelity to nature as commonly understood — she’s leaning more earthward and skyward, especially in a series of recent vintage she calls “Seeding Series.”

Clouds and floral protagonists are key themes in this exhibit. With an implicit through-line connecting her iconography, Brunner taps into nature’s continuum of precipitation (clouds and stormy skies) yielding and “seeding” vegetation (flowing ground cover). 

Photo: Courtesy Coming Home by Phoebe Brunner

That causality is seen especially in the largest canvas in the room, “Coming Home,” a grand vernal flourish of tufting cumulus clouds against a deep blue sky and a low-lying plain blanketed with wild-flowering orange. 

Brunner’s newfound allegiance to the pure rush of nature is hinted at in painting titles: “Perception Becomes Joy” features effulgent pink blooms consuming and infusing the foreground; in “The Persistence of Abundance,” the brownish hills are granted the central focus, with handfuls of blossoms serving as framing devices on either side of the canvas.

While the centerpieces of her exhibition are the large showpiece canvases, a matrix of 12 small (12×1-inch) oil-on-panel pieces have a sum effect of a condensed statement about what Brunner is up to of late. Flowers bloom and zoom into the foreground, and clouds are painted from all sides. “We Are Golden” is a compact yet potent little painting, playing like a valentine to the fruits of last year’s dramatic “super bloom” sensation in Carrizo Plain and elsewhere in California.

If there is a scene-stealer, it is the tiny, mighty orange poppy. It’s a recurring motif for Brunner, who nonetheless finds fresh ways to present the flower in the context of a painting’s composition/context. In “Bounce,” large, airborne poppies turn into a buoyant burst of orange hue, all the more vivid for the gray stormy sky and rolling terrain in the background. 

Photo: Courtesy ‘Bounce’ by Phoebe Brunner

Brunner contrasts that eccentric abandon with the more “rational” and even nearly traditional landscape approach of “Hi Ho,” depicting poppies and clouds with a straight face and a straight painterly hand. Still, the waves of visual energy and sinuous contours separate the painting from a standard brand landscape. 

As much as notions of twisted landscape painting aesthetics and surrealist flexing have long been ascribed to Brummer, her spectrum of artistic references touches other idiomatic shores as well. Bubbling up and under the landscape/dream elements is a lateral connection to the visual influence of American Regionalism of the 1930s, with its jazzy rhythmic verve and warm, juicy palette. In Brunner’s work, we at least half-sense echoes of the rolling rhythms of Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings, albeit without Dust Bowl characters — or people, period — in sight.

What is in sight in Brunner’s world is both in tantalizing proximity to and detachment from nature, in the regional and the generic sense — and as we think we know it. Even if her recent “Seeding Series” finds her checking into earthier painter-subject pacts, Brunner still insists on creating in an expressive world of one’s own.


4•1•1 | Phoebe Brunner’s A Wild Delight runs through March 30 at Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery, 11 E. Anapamu St. See sullivangoss.com

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