The solo exhibition I See This Echoing by John Brooks at March gallery in New York City (April 13-May 28, 2022) captured large-scale portraits of humans and nature executed in graphite, colored pencil, and pastel on paper.
The photographic source is fundamental in the creation of this body of work by Brooks. The subjects – family, friends, and strangers – were photographed by the artist or at times instructed how to pose and photograph themselves.
When envisioning how to capture a moment in photography, we often reference a feeling, emotion, or atmosphere at a particular time and space. The interaction between the sitter and the capturer becomes crucial in portrait photography, the rapport between the two manifests itself through the photographic image. Yet in this series the author does not reveal to us what he recorded on camera, he opts to translate them into drawings. The act of translation, with all its variations of perceiving and interacting, offers ways for new insights and interpretations. And it is exactly these new possibilities that amplify his subjects, be they landscapes or individuals. Brooks develops and expands a photographic image at times no larger than a smartphone into drawings that measure 50 inches by 38.5 inches. Therefore, for him to translate from one medium to another without interpretive commitment and freedom would be impossible. Scale is translated, color is translated, pixels are transferred into lines of hand gestures. Perhaps it is the echo of the photograph that is now imprinted on the white paper through the meticulous hand gestures of John Brooks. An echo of a sound reverberates after the original sound has stopped and these drawings illustrate a reverberation of a photographic moment that lasts only a fraction of a second.
The subjects are captured in their natural habitat and their body postures vary from reclining to sitting or standing. Some of them shy away from the camera, others peer confidently into the lens while some seem to be lost in the depths of their own mind. In terms of visual impact, the drawings occupy a substantial space and present a conversation where there is a lot of room to map out relationships among colors, lines, and white space. Each piece shows us the artist’s mastery of color and pattern, the luminosity of utilizing the blank area of a drawing and contrasts between dark and light.
As a whole, the exhibition balances equally the representation of views of natural inland scenery and humans with their figures and faces. Each landscape is deserted and showcases Brooks’ skill in the atmospheric perspective. He establishes a method of creating the illusion of depth or recession in each drawing of nature by modulating color to simulate changes affected by the atmosphere of the colors he utilizes. Shades of violets, pinks, and yellows are dominant in the landscapes as well as the obvious choice of greens. There is an extreme attention to detail, concentrating on hues that slowly fade away in the distance.
The characters depicted in the drawings, whether living or dead, close or distant, share a common denominator. The starting point for each individual that is tenderly rendered in each drawing is John’s subjective and emotional relationship to them. All are objects of his fascination or affection or both, whether they are family members or interactions that were enabled by what Brooks calls “the whims of the algorithm”. These are portraits of a community that the artist made some sort of connection with, and the degree to which they caught his eye can vary from lifelong friendships to Instagram discussions about architecture, politics, or queerness. To place this body of work in a contemporary art context it is worth mentioning Elizabeth Payton, a predecessor in that she has been garnishing similar interests in her portraiture paintings, drawings, and prints since the early 1990s.
The myth of Echo and Narcissus is part of the Latin narrative poem Metamorphosis by the Roman poet Ovid. Echo was cursed by a goddess to only repeat the most recently spoken words of another person. She became enamored by Narcissus who rejected her and fell in love with his own reflection. When Narcissus died, consumed by a love that could not be, Echo mourned over his body. When Narcissus, looking one last time into the pool uttered, “Oh marvelous boy, I loved you in vain, farewell”, Echo too chorused, “Farewell.”
Metamorphosis means transformation in ancient Greek and numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in acclaimed works of sculpture, painting, and music throughout history. The title of the exhibition by John Brooks, I See This Echoing, perhaps encapsulates his multilayered process of creating these pieces, transforming them from one medium to another, generating a continuous dialogue that steadily reverberates between a photograph and a drawing and back again.
Editor note: John Brooks currently has a solo exhibition, Tomorrow is Still June, at the Jacqueline R. Hamilton Gallery in the University of Kentucky Medical Center, Lexington, Kentucky. This exhibition runs through November 2022. More of Brooks’ work can be seen at johnedwardbrooks.com.
Top image: Installation image of the exhibition I See This Echoing by John Brooks at March Gallery, New York City. A photo of the exhibition space shows four large drawings hanging on a wall: two are figurative and two show nature. Photographed by Cary Whittier.