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Brian Mains

Artist Profile by Simon Herbert

Art Ltd.: West Coast Art + Design (January 2008)

2003, acrylic on canvas
48 x 66 in.

The figures in Brian Mains' paintings don't have faces. That is, they do actually have faces, but the artist never lets us see them. Whether it's because they are obscured by the limbs of other souls cast into a fiery pit, hidden by a shadow of encroaching darkness, or have had a white shroud placed over their face in a ritualized act of mourning; the characters in his pictorial passion plays remain anonymous, the better for us to project our identities upon their struggles.

Mains derives his iconography from a disparate range of religions—a Buddhist prayer wheel, the Christian concept of the Fall, Catholic recitations of discorporation—to create a complex synthesis in which themes of change and transformation preside. It's a strictly non-denominational process, and Mains, in conversation, is adamant he won't be drawn on specifics. "I like to think of philosophy as a pure form of religion stripped of myth," he says. "It transcends religion to become something more universal. Though I incorporate religious elements [in my paintings] they are free to be interpreted beyond their references. I think that doing this heightens the spiritual rather than the religious. I enjoy having a sense of mystery, producing layers of meaning. The mystery and ambiguity parallel my core ideas of change and transformation and, in turn, mirror the uncertainties in life itself."

Mains is extremely resistant to weighing down his work with theological artist-talk, and maybe that's because in his world semantic differences tend to evaporate in the heat of dramatic primal struggle. If we accept that change and enlightenment, in whatever society, comes at a cost, then his figures are chiefly captured in a series of Ur-texts of trauma. In Cleansing the Invisible Man (2005) a Christ-like figure accepts that wisdom comes from surrendering oneself to a terrible infinite blackness. In Consumption (2003) an obese figure is offered by a faceless mob to a purifying flame while being pecked alive (dead?) by a flock of dark birds. "The corpulent body, which has consumed too much, is being consumed itself in turn, by flames and pecking birds," Mains explains. "The mob, the community, prepares the figure as a sacrifice."

As in most of his paintings, the picture plane is essentially flat and shorn of depth of field. It's a device that conjures up stained-glass tableaux and other modes of religious pictorialism, wherein elements are rendered less for their representational veracity than for their symbolic acuity. Nevertheless, there's a kinetic and visceral quality in Mains' work that, if not exactly comic book, certainly evokes an operatic theatricality. "I like to create an otherwordly or metaphysical reality, to enhance a magic sensibility. Yes, it's definitely operatic. I'm interested in depicting death as a powerful transformation of the flesh into new life. Death is generally excluded from society, put into a closet. But it's a dramatic event. Extreme. Consumption harkens back to a myth I once heard about ancient agri-socities wherein the residents would sacrifice one of the villagers and distribute their body parts in the fields in a ritual of fertility, hope and renewal."

All of these tendencies place Mains as swimming distinctly against the current of an art world that favors cool detached irony (though the work is bursting with enough apocalyptic imagery to sate the most avid contemporary tastes). Mains himself steadfastly rejects such facile distinctions. "I don't pay much attention as to how it fits into the wider art world. I have my own inner voice and language, and I trust myself. There's no veracity in factoring in other things; you just hope that people experience the work and find it meaningful."

Brian Mains' recent show, "Purification and Renewal," was on view at Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art, at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, CA, from September 8–October 27, 2007. (310) 828-1133

- Simon Herbert