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Brian Mains at Hunsaker/Schlesinger

Exhibition review by Michael Duncan

Art in America (April 2003, Vol. 91, No. 4)

Brian Mains's meticulously rendered acrylic paintings offer haunting philosophical and spiritual propositions with an over-the-top, visceral punch. Depictions of decaying flesh, bound bodies and ribbon-like entrails seem conjured from unsettling dreams of physical abnegation. Queasy pink, green, mauve and pale flesh tones contribute to the works' intensity. It makes for shockingly somber subject matter - especially in an art world typically drawn to youth, frivolity and glamour.

The Niche (2002) depicts a nude male with arms outstretched, his body encased in a barred, crucifix-shaped cell formed within a stone wall. Head covered by a black cloth, the stolid figure coolly clasps the steel bars that contain him, hinting at the determined willfulness that has led to his captivity. Bathed in light, the figure paradoxically seems both trapped and exalted, gripped by a kind of paranoiac ecstacy.

The Niche
2002, acrylic on canvas
78 x 66 in.

2001, acrylic on canvas
66 x 48 in.

Mains's strange, open-ended allegories tweak traditional religious iconography. Like an off-kilter retablo, Misericordia(2001)shows Christ ascending cradled by the giant hand of God. The death-pale figure is bound in place and clamored after by anxious, grasping acolytes. For Mains, Christian concepts like mercy and transcendance are thorny and hard-won. His Trinity (1996) - certainly one of the oddest depictions of this centerpiece of Catholic dogma - presents the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three severed legs hanging by their hip bones, one glistening and intact, one with rotted flesh and the last a shadow. As an iconic allegory, the painting is grim, weird and completely unforgettable.

Mains uses the human body as an arena for theatricalizing the otherwise inner experience of spiritual transformation. With deft handling of the acrylic medium, he illuminates the destruction of flesh through wounds, fire and death in order to suggest realms beyond the physical. Their illustration-like clarity and pumped-up vigor make the paintings seem the denouements of mysterious, epic adventures like those of say, Tasso and Spenser. Yet the deeper ambiguities of the works are completely contemporary, hinting at the profound disquiet that lies beneath our culture's rampant superficiality.

- Michael Duncan

1996, acrylic on canvas
66 x 48 in.