Edgar Bryan: Quodlibet: Exhibition Text by Suzanne Hudson

12 June - 3 July 2020
  • "Quodlibet"
    by Suzanne Hudson
  • "Quodlibet" is the title of one of Edgar Bryan’s recent canvases that stars a musical instrument—a treacly Germanic piano that evokes Matisse by way of the Madonna Inn—and by extension allegorizes compositional issues of rehearsal and process. This is a tall painting, the looming verticality of which the piano grounds. It is fronted by an evergreen chair turned flush to the picture plane, its caned seat conspicuously offering a still life with a skull and violin. A traditional vanitas, coupling symbols of ephemerality and transience, it is not the only image within the image. Hanging on the wall above, a framed portrait of a grinning lilac satyr mocks the centering ponderousness of mortality.
  • And then: From the piano’s recesses a limb emerges, throwing off the lid and toppling a decorative vase; now askew, its still erect contents mirror the more angular lines of that bent arm, which reaches down to finger the blocky keys below. Taken together, the scene of the mad-cap player piano and its incipient narrative pose the cinematic sight gag of an errant causal chain. No longer operated with a pneumatic mechanism, the animating prosthetic is distinctly and unnervingly human, figuring forth from the black chasm of what cannot but appear as a coffin for the campy un-dead.
  • "Bucatini Fugue" likewise features an arm from the pictorial beyond. Its seemingly abrupt lifting of the piano lid again kicks over a vessel, spilling long-stemmed saffron flowers. A purple piano bench tips up, the better to stage a Chez Panisse cookbook opened to the illustrated title page and a can of Italian tomatoes repurposed as a studio prop. As in "Quodlibet," sheet music resting on the instrument is rendered in such fine detail that individual notes are legible, and can be performed as written. In this, Bryan summons the Renaissance tradition of incorporating musical notationinto illuminated manuscripts and panels of other subjects. (This habit finds its most deliriously perverted expression in Hieronymus Bosch’s "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (c. 1500), which includes one sinner, face down and ass up, emblazoned with a song for the damned.)
  • The fugue in particular introduces a short melody or phrase, which is successively interwoven by others. Perhaps not incidentally, in psychiatry the term characterizes a disillusion of the sanctity of self. Here, the visual acuity of the notation, and its functionalizing of the work, makes the music another instance of art set within the encompassing representational order. Bryan describes this relative to the design principle of Russian tea dolls, in addition to the recursive logic of computer programming (where the insertion of a command within a command is known as “nesting”). It also somewhat differently recalls the new age lifestyle engineering of Werner Erhard, who gleefully spoke of peeling back the layers of consciousness like an onion until only emptiness remained.


  • In "Opera (un)Populaire," a seated figure might be an alter-ego for Bryan (especially given that he models those disembodied arms on his own, and sees them as versions of self-portraits). Bryan’s earlier self-portrait, "The Ledge" (2004), conjures the moment when the thing that the painter depicts—a potted plant that consumes him in its spindly branches as he paints them—exceeds the bounds of its realization. The harp player, too, remains absorbed in his activity, eyes downcast or maybe closed. He fingers yarn threaded atop the paint, materializing the tactility of the harp strings before the illusionism that literally underpins it. 
  • Unaware of an audience that might assemble before him, he nevertheless exists for it. Entranced in his song, neither does he notice a scene-stealing clique of brightly colored, bug-eyed frogs clinging to the strings and climbing atop the upper slope of the harmonic curve. They are loosely inspired by the singing and dancing amphibian protagonist in the Technicolor animated musical short, "One Froggy Evening" (1955), in addition to their operatic cartoon brethren. Still, they appear to be issuing in this instance ever more directly from the player than some other source—a latter-day version of a Pygmalion-like coming into being through the aesthetic act.
  • "Café Opera" is a full-scale floral still life, and thus a companion to the bouquets in the music paintings. A few fallen leaves dot the table under the bloom-filled pitcher, registering a familiar conceit whereby painting invokes without succumbing to the vicissitudes of time and death.
  • A thin painted margin around the top and sides further frames the painting from within. Its edging seals off the self-conscious markings of surface (paint become petal inextricable from paint), but it also manages the physical transition from painting to wall. Nearby, smaller-sized paintings of harps embroidered with string as in "Opera (un)Populaire" form diptychs with canvases shown in the reverse; their exposed backs—open fields of negative space—are traced with stitches that contribute to designs facing the wall as radicalized instances of what we know exists but cannot grasp. In its traditional parallax-driven formulation, the famous duck and rabbit gestalt only allows one possibility to come into focus at a time. Bryan gives us an obdurate version of visual play, stilled in its current configuration.
  • Meanwhile, across the room, "Quodlibet" offers a heuristic of another sort. The title refers to a musical game where folk tunes were combined into a single composition. It originated in 15th-century Europe and was popularized thereafter; by the 19th century the logic of citation took precedence, regularly exacerbating the often-humorous dissonance between a source and its inflection in the new context. For this painting, Bryan appropriated the last variation of Bachs "Goldberg Variations" (already a quodlibet), published in 1741, and paired it with the melodies of "This Land is Your Land" (1940), by Woody Guthrie. It is a simple song that grows more complex. Recursive, it is the same at the end as at the beginning.


  • Works by Edgar Bryan

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  • Click here to read the full text by Suzanne Hudson 
  • Press Release

    Philip Martin Gallery is pleased to announce "Café Opera," its first solo exhibition by Los Angeles-based painter and maker of books, Edgar Bryan.

    Edgar Bryan's boldly colored paintings feature musical instruments, musicians, and occasionally, the artist’s hand sneaking in to play a melody. Pivoting between portraiture and self- portraiture, Edgar Bryan plumbs life and its vicissitudes with a sense of humor. An inherent contradiction in Bryan's work is the disarmingly lighthearted, at times personal imagery which is skillfully (in turns expressively and methodically) painted, a contradiction underscored by the liberal use of both traditional and contemporary materials such as oil, acrylic, charcoal, and occasionally, craft store supplies such as yarn. 

    In “Café Opera," Bryan explores his obsession with playing, reading and composing written musical scores through the analogous processes of composing a picture with textures and colors. The joys, discoveries, and frustrations of this experience are found scattered throughout these new works. Musical notes emerge amongst textured brush strokes, while self-referential wit mixes with art and music history. Several works by Bryan, for example, refer to the recent discovery of a Goldberg Variation found simply because a researcher played the music depicted in the only known portrait of Bach. Connections between art and music appear in Bryan’s work not only in the depictions of musical instruments and their players, but also in the painted musical scores, most of which were written by Bryan, some of which were written by his son. Bryan has said that the final step in these paintings is to challenge himself to write a composition that suits the painting, a fascinating combination of artistic impulses. 

    The first painting in the exhibition, "The Opera (un)Populaire," aka the Frog Opera, is a portrait of a harpist deeply engrossed in his music. Sound quality is in question, however, as a number of colorful frogs occupy his harp strings. Made from pink and turquoise yarn embroidered onto the surface of the painting, the harp strings provide real-dimensional contrast with the colorful, three-dimensional rendering of the frogs that sit upon them. Another painting, "Bucatini Fugue," is dedicated to Bryan's favorite pasta dish, Pasta Amatriciana Bucatini. A framed Italian pasta poster hangs on the wall, a Chez Panisse pasta cookbook sits as a still life in the foreground, a clumsily written Fugue sits opens on the piano. A third work, "Opera Flowers," depicts a vase and Jacobean-era inspired flowers. The flowers are luminous against the richly colored abstract background. They rise out of a nearly translucent vase, unfold from thin stems, to appear as broad, provocative petals.

    The final large painting in the exhibition, "Quodlibet,” refers in its title to musical composition. As a musical composition, a quodlibet combines several different melodies - usually popular tunes - in counterpoint, and often in a light-hearted, humorous manner. But as a phrase, “quodlibet,” becomes a kind of guiding principle for navigating Bryan's show. Derived from Latin, and meaning "what pleases,” the phrase quodlibet suggests that in a painter's hands, painting, its themes, and those of popular culture can inspire an open dialogue between artist and viewer that allows the viewer to determine what he or she likes, or sees. 

    Edgar Bryan (b. 1970, Birmingham, AL) received his BFA from The Art Institute of Chicago in 1998 and his MFA from the University of California in 2001. Recent solo and group exhibitions include "Edgar Bryan's Paranoid Counterpoint Blues," Grifter (New York, NY); "Household Effects," La Loma Projects (Pasadena, CA); "Welcome to the Dollhouse," Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center (Los Angeles, CA); "Soft Corners," Richard Telles (Los Angeles, CA); "Paradise," Night Gallery (Los Angeles, CA); "Takashi Murakami’s Superflat Collection," Yokohama Museum of Art (Yokohama, Japan); Venice Beach Biennial (Venice, CA); "the love gang," Regen Projects (Los Angeles, CA); "Drunk vs. Stoned 2," Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (New York, NY); "The Undiscovered Country," Hammer Museum (Los Angeles, CA); "Drunk vs. Stoned," Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (New York, NY); "Hello, My Name Is...," Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, PA); "Snapshot," Hammer Museum (Los Angeles, CA). His work is in the collections of Hammer Museum (Los Angeles, CA); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA); Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, CA); Astrup Fearnley Museet (Oslo, Norway); and Museum der Morderne (Salzburg, Austria). It is held by private collectors like Takashi Murakami, who presented Bryan's work in the context of an exhibition at Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, Japan. Bryan lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.
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