By now, Michael Brophy has assumed the status of the Pacific Northwest's quintessential documentarian. For more than two decades, his oil paintings have seldom strayed from the region's most ready subjects: forests, rivers, lakes, mountains, and valleys. But unlike, say, James Lavadour's sublime and otherworldly depictions of the Columbia River Gorge, Brophy's landscapes are far more earthbound. The spaces he paints are hardly sites of unspoiled beauty; they are leveled by clearcutting and invaded by hikers and fishermen. In Here There Nowhere, his new body of work on display at the Laura Russo Gallery, he continues to explore how the wilderness is tamed by its inhabitants. Thus freeways, not rivers, snake through arid prairies and mountains, while semi trucks, instead of fish or waterfowl, navigate their arterial paths.
Although known for stylistic directness, Brophy injects the scenes in his new paintings with subdued abstraction. In "Road," the picture plane is dominated by a Rothko-esque field of blue. As a freeway railing and strip of pavement stretch across the bottom of the canvas, a viewer inevitably interprets the blue as sky. But so much of the painting is devoted to the blue expanse that the color and its subtle tonal shifts become equally important visual signifiers. Similarly, one of the most striking pieces in the show, "Meadow," presents a nearly uninterrupted plane of luminescent black. A fraction of the painting is dedicated to a stand of meticulously rendered swaying grass, illuminated, one imagines, by a camera's flash. Again, the representational portion of the canvas seems to exist in an abstract plane of pure color, isolated from the complete environments one expects either the road or the meadow to inhabit.
Even when these paintings cross into unmistakably mimetic territory, Brophy organizes his canvases to emphasize their formal construction. In "Night Truck," a rear view of a long-haul truck's square trailer creates an inset frame, thereby cuing a viewer to observe both the painting's geometric composition and flattened dimensions. This heightened attention to how non-representational elements within a painting convey vital visual information adds a layer of intellectual rigor to his scenic pictures. After all, the artist—like the loggers and developers in Brophy's paintings—actively molds the landscape into how he imagines it.