Breck Omar Brunson has not found God. In his first solo exhibition at Curator’s Office, he doesn’t even come close. With “Churchin,’” he appears to question the value of the religious institutions that shaped his family and upbringing. And while he doesn’t arrive at an epiphany—his work is a little too cold for that—Brunson’s curious show is the God’s honest truth.
“Churchin’” is an exhibit of objects found, collected, framed, and otherwise manipulated by the Philadelphia- and New York–based artist. Brunson’s works center around church, or perhaps more specifically, chuuch, as he’s focusing on the arts stuff—the gospel music associated with the Southern Baptist tradition and the classical iconography of the Catholic Church. Depictions of hands reaching out to other hands, stained glass, church typology, and musical traditions firmly establish the bounds of Brunson’s investigations: He’s reaching out to God through His favorite styles.
Many of Brunson’s found objects are records. This won’t surprise those who know him from his days as a D.C. indie rocker. Brunson sang in the pseudo-mystic garage-rock band The Apes; in Brooklyn, he performed in Screens with another former D.C. musician, ex-Medications drummer Andy Becker. Just one piece in the exhibit, however, makes direct use of vinyl: “33,” a stack of records bolted to the wall that’s easily the least successful work here.
Where Brunson makes use of record covers, he’s on firmer ground. The final products look like collages, but Brunson makes these work by erasing their surfaces, not adding to them. Using a razor, he shaves the features from full-length album covers, leaving only isolated images. “Uncover Brass,” a panel of nine “uncovered” album covers, depicts brass horns sans players, text, or anything else that might identify the albums. Set against the shaved cardboard backdrops where Brunson has scratched away all the color, the trombones look like animation against raw canvas. At first glance, the blank backdrops might be paintings: Robert Ryman–esque variations on an abstract theme, perhaps. But there’s little of the artist’s hand in this exhibit, which is fitting, given that it’s fundamentally about seeking the invisible hand of God.
“Martyrs,” a series of framed fragments of popped balloon, are older works, dating from 2003 and 2005. These reliquaries bring levity to an otherwise clinical show. Brunson’s approach to the question of his own spirituality is analytical to the point of being anthropological. There’s no spiritual uprising in this show, though there are some deeply personal inclusions: Take for example “Ivory,” a headscratcher comprising objects Brunson gathered from his mother’s home, including a sconce in the shape of an elephant’s head, a gold chain, and a black wig. Brunson also includes “Him,” a piece of plywood in which he apparently is able to see the face of God. (Not me—I’ve got nothing.)
Two larger works, “Window: Work Out” and “Window: Luck Out,” affirm the show’s sociological feel. Panels made from business cards and scratch-off tickets, respectively, register a demographic identity that Brunson associates with churchgoing. These two larger works balance the composition of the overall gallery installation, which is careful, measured, and effective. Yet the impulse to approach the question of religion from a socioeconomic vantage point falls far afield from the larger mysteries that drove, say, Augustine. Even where Brunson gets personal, it’s with tongue planted firmly in cheek. “Good Hands,” a piece made of carved duct tape and cardboard (and one of few that gives away the artist’s touch), references the paternalist logo of Allstate, where Brunson’s father used to work.
Through his work, Brunson is asking what God really means to him. If he comes up with a shrug, isn’t that a perfectly viable answer? Missing from this show is any figuration of God himself. While Brunson’s uncoverings examine the art and artifacts of Christianity, there are no icons related to Christ. Instead, Brunson seems to have subbed in Michael Jackson. In a perfect curveball, the artist has devoted several pieces to the dearly departed musician. If you can’t find the King of Kings, you can do worse than the King of Pop.
HARD ART DC 1979 At Civilian Art Project to Dec. 31
It’s hard to imagine that “HARD ART DC 1979,” an archive of forgotten punk photographic prints, is something that will ever happen again. The photographs capture a classic moment in D.C. punk history: the original germination of the scene that would come to dominate D.C. rock, a legacy that persists still today.
In 1979, photographer Lucian Perkins, who had just started working at the Washington Post as an intern, captured a number of pivotal punk shows. It would be more than 15 years before many of these images—concert photography that captures Bad Brains, Teen Idles, and other acts at the dawn of D.C. hardcore—would see the light of day. In Perkins’ photos, a white kid named Charlie Danbury (of Trenchmouth, which reveled in the revolting) disgusts the young black audience gathered around the band at a show at a Ward 8 public housing complex; there’s no stage separating the crowd from the musicians. Many of Perkins’ photos focus on H.R., the charismatic and not-at-all camera-shy singer of Bad Brains. And these photos feature the youngest Ian MacKaye I’ve ever seen.
What makes the work interesting—and unlikely to ever happen again—is not necessarily the music or the moment, but the photography. Do you imagine that in 2043, we’ll be treated to exhibitions of forgotten Flickr JPGs from today’s Deleted Scenes shows? What makes “HARD ART” worth seeing isn’t the music, either, though fans of D.C. punk don’t need to be told to go. It’s Perkins’ eye, evident even in 1979, for portraiture that happens in an instant. The show doesn’t need a soundtrack. The vitality screams from every picture.