They Transpose Their Life into Their Art
by Edward J. Sozanski
Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, December 31, 2000

Painting was supposed to have died years ago, but if it had, there wouldn't be any way to explain Raoul De Keyser and Frank Bramblett, Belgian and Philadelphian, respectively.

Both are intriguing painters who prove that no matter how much painting you've seen, there's always someone around the corner who'll show you something new.

Either of these artists would be an attraction. Simultaneous shows, as Moore College of Art and Design is offering, provide a splendid opportunity to see how two artists transpose life experience into aesthetic stimulation.

Experience becomes art in myriad ways, and many of them don't yield to analysis. That's what we have here, two painters who begin with fragments of reality and end with pictures that present the mystery of painting in glorious language without actually demonstrating how this metamorphosis occurs.

We'll start with De Keyser because-he's the more famous, although Bramblett, the local guy, is the more impressive artist.

The 70-year-old De Keyser appeared in "Documenta IX" in 1992 and a number of other major exhibitions across Europe. This is the first comprehensive show of his work in the United States.

De Keyser's work raises a question that comes up from time to time: What constitutes a painting?

There's naive simplicity in his work, but even though he's essentially self-taught, he shouldn't be considered a naif. The paintings look as if they might have been produced by a Sunday dabbler-until one looks at a lot of them carefully. Though the compositions are simple, irregular and even eccentric, they announce a fundamental painterly intelligence.

In this body of work, De Keyser appears to be working through basic problems in picture-making-things such as figure-ground relationships, the qualities of edges, spatial illusion, color interactions and compositional balance.

This might sound as if he's producing studio exercises, but he isn't. He's inventing situations that allow him to investigate these phenomena, and that in the process result in paintings that make the viewer think about the conceptual process more than about meaning. De Keyser's work is very process-oriented; when you see a cross-section of his output, as we do here, you think about how paintings are made, not about stories they might tell or what inspired them.

We're told that they are grounded in reality, that a painting of black strokes on a white ground that suggests tree branches might actually be that.

De Keyser doesn't confine himself to a single style or approach. The show includes several paintings that are mainly color fields, others that are hard-edge abstractions (a green rectangle and a red one on a beige field, for instance), others that are pure gesture, and others that are arrangements of shapes in space. Almost all the paintings could be described as abstract in the general sense, because little is recognizable. The closest the show comes to the visible world is with a small painting just inside the door to the gallery's office that depicts what could be a birch-log, painted absolutely flat.

De Keyser's drawing is rudimentary , but his color sense is acute. Some of the most impressive paintings in the show are demonstrations of how he handles color.

One of these is minimalist-an ivory field with faint green fringe at the edges. Another, called Wedge, creates a tense, interplay among brushy fields of salmon, black, blue and green.

Sometimes De Keyser combines color-field with gesture to stunning effect, as he does in the dusty-rose picture Blurs.

In short, De Keyser circumnavigates the field of painting, enters through various gates, and reproduces his impressions of each region. The resulting pictures always look "handmade," but their studied eccentricity contributes to their appeal.

Why these paintings should be so ingratiating is a puzzle. They're elemental, but they're also intelligent. I think it's because they proclaim the artist's intense infatuation with the essence of painting.

We'd all like to understand exactly what is a painting and what isn't. De Keyser is the kind of artist who can help us recognize the distinction.

Frank Bramblett, who has taught at Tyler School of Art for many years, also can help with such an investigation; in making his paintings, Bramblett also proceeds from experience, and his compositions offer a few clues about sources.

However, Bramblett's paintings are much more complex than De Keyser's, both in imagery and in the way they're constructed.

That's an apt description of his technique, because he uses a variety of materials to give his surfaces depth and sculptural texture, including wax, modeling paste and concrete dust.

His show consists of eight large paintings, all 7-1/2 feet high by 6 feet wide, on panel, all but one made this year.

A group of 20 small sketches on panel, each with a photograph attached, composes a kind of key to sources, but one needs to be a master of deduction to make the connections.

Although he's been in the city for years, Bramblett hasn't shown his work much. One is astonished to learn that an artist capable of making such impressive paintings, and of winning a Pew fellowship in the arts, has never before had a solo exhibition here.

Though Bramblett shows us, through the photographs, where the paintings originate, the viewer isn't handicapped by not being able to follow the trail of creation

Information about sources may make for compelling stories, but as with De Keyser, Bramblett's paintings must be experienced for what they are, not for what they represent to the artist.

Although uniform in size and personality, they're not all variations on a single theme. Wetherill has been given a deeply furrowed relief surface that looks like a topographical projection. Razzle-Dazzle, as bright as a Las Vegas marquee, is covered with images of lemons and roses.

Mind Mine, by contrast, is dark and somber, and Pietra Dura is similarly more monochromatic. A faint pencil track meanders across. its surface, creating a mazelike tangle that can only be appreciated when seen close up.

Some of Bramblett's imagery suggests nature or technology, such as the spots of glossy enamel in Eyedotcom that look like eyes, or the scoured concentric circles, perhaps made with a disc sander, that cover Tuttifrutti.

There are fruits in the paintings, and passages that resemble furrowed tree bark and shapes that might be clouds or puddles.

Regardless of what he throws into a picture, Bramblett is trying to blend paintings so intricately that they can, and will, mean different things to different people. It would be a mistake to try to decode them, because deconstruction would destroy their chemistry.

Like De Keyser's smaller, more primitive-looking oils, Bramblett's pictures celebrate the power, mystery and sex appeal of high-stakes painting.

If De Keyser is a solo cello or a string quartet, Bramblett is a symphony orchestra. If you happen to be mad for painting, you'd be crazy to miss these two shows.