The food issues aren’t as blatant as they used to be. There are small paintings showing chocolate cake being stuffed into the mouth that hang next to a film still of a nurse screaming in horror, but the giant mouths dripping chocolate icing are gone. Now Michelle Brandley’s depictions of self-abuse are more ambiguous but just as disturbing, and just as topical.The 31-year-old Fort Worth-based artist is having her first solo show at Artspace111; the demons that drive her are also the ones that have propelled her career. Eating disorders and a negative body image are the leitmotif of her painting. In the past year she has broadened her self-flagellation in drawings and screen prints and on video, all with the underlying themes of perfection and the impossibility of attaining it. She acknowledges that she is hard on herself but kinder to women in general than was abstract painter Willem de Kooning. In her large painting Woman Woman, she combines perfect legs (an image she uses frequently) with de Kooning’s abstract painting effects from his famously misogynistic work, Woman , I.“I was interested in the comparison,” Brandley says. “People who know art will get the reference. I was also interested in the way he painted.” It was a challenge.Brandley has a thinly applied, meticulous painting style; de Kooning’s paint was thick and abstract. To replicate his, she had to paint in her style with his colors and shapes. The passages are recognizable as de Kooning, and they add another layer of hate to the subject. As she continues with thoughts on perfection, Brandley’s images are becoming more ambiguous. Now the perfect legs (belonging to a friend from college) are often surrounded by careful renderings of plastic grocery store bags. The bags are beautiful in her paintings, but they have a lot of negative connotations for Brandley.“The idea of bags in general are negative — I think of suffocation, the old bag, saggy baggy, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, a childhood book,” she says. “There are many creepy things about bags and trash.” They are in almost all of her new paintings.Her new drawings are of a decaying palm tree and its many stages of death, and her attempts to write the word “perfect” perfectly. She found workbooks from the 19th century on how to write in the Spencerian handwriting method. There were little phrases in the handbooks to repeat. “Up Right Do Right Make All Right” was one. She co-opted it for the title for her exhibition. She didn’t attempt to write it. She only attempted the word “perfect.” A large print of her attempts hangs on the gallery wall. With each misstep, she began again. She videotaped her efforts in attempting perfection, and it plays alongside the drawing. She never did achieve it, or maybe she did, but she didn’t recognize it because she would keep stopping and restarting. Would Brandley recognize perfection? Or even a close proximity? Another little Spencerian bromide she found was “Polite People Please Their Friends.” She considered this for a title, too, as the sentiment was all too familiar. “In high school I thought I was ‘The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,’ I was so insecure. I thought I was a monster, but I look back at all my school pictures and I was like every other girl,” she says. “I thought everyone didn’t like me because I was so insecure; I was insecure because I thought they didn’t like me.” It was a vicious cycle, one she thinks might have been broken if she could have gotten some help. “Maybe if I had talked to someone,” she muses. But where would her art be if she had? There might not be anyone to lovingly paint the feeling of being outsized in a world of miniatures. Who else would admit to guzzling the chocolate icing straight out of the bowl — not just scraping out the leftovers, but chugging the mother lode? She still doesn’t recognize that the insecurities she feels now are common to many young women — also old women and men both young and old. At least Brandley has an outlet for these undermining devils, and she isn’t afraid to embrace them on canvas. The photographer has arrived and is ready to take her photograph. She fusses with her hair, she worries about her clothing choices. Finally she sits down and then begins to fidget.“Make me look perfect,” she says.
Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113 Twitter: @GaileRobinson