Kimberly Brooks. Photo by Stefanie Keenan

Bold paintings for a ‘Brazen’ age


Artist Kimberly Brooks named her new show of recent oil paintings “Brazen” because of the political climate after last year’s presidential election. You won’t find overt political references in the exhibition at Zevitas Marcus Gallery in Los Angeles, but bold colors and forms tie together the abstract paintings.

“I called it ‘Brazen’ because I started making it right after the inauguration, and I felt like that was the mood of the country and the world,” she said. “Even if I wasn’t painting a specific subject in a literal way that reflected that mood, that was my feeling as I approached the work.”

“Brazen” takes cues from art history, specifically German paintings from the 18th century, which she encountered on a recent trip to Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in Potsdam, outside Berlin.

“The grandiosity of the way that they showed art, the palaces that they built, and what art represented in and of itself, struck me as brazen. And so a lot of the themes from the show and even some of the imagery are taken from the interiors of those palaces,” she said.

For example, “Museum Wall” shows an abstracted wall of paintings, and “Talitha” shows a woman with a Joan of Arc-style haircut and a long-necked patterned shirt, her features blurred and a cloud sitting over her shoulder, centered within an oval frame.

Brooks’ work addresses themes of family, memory, history and feminine identity. Her paintings have reflected her experiences and the people she has known. She often works from photographs, but her paintings are not photorealism.

Her 2007 solo show, “Mom’s Friends,” depicted her mother and her mother’s friends in Marin County in the late 1970s as they searched for identities outside their husbands and families. They stare confidently back at the viewer, although underlying their assured gaze is a hint of insecurity. She based the paintings on decades-old photographs, and had friends and models re-enact the photos while wearing vintage clothes. Brooks was at the time experiencing this act of emulation herself as the mother of a young girl and was thinking about how female identity is passed down through generations.

She continued to explore deeply personal subjects in her 2008 show “Technicolor Summer,” which uses sweeping California landscapes as a backdrop for portraits of a family grappling with illness and the closeness of death.

Her focus on the female subject continued with her 2010 show “The Stylist Project,” a series of portraits of renowned stylists and fashion industry insiders. These trend-makers designed the costumes for TV shows, supermodels and pop stars. Brooks had them dress themselves and pose for her, in a manner similar to Renaissance portrait artists.

Her portraits continued to move from representation toward abstraction with “Thread” in 2011 and “I Notice People Disappear” in 2014, series in which her portraits of beautiful, well-dressed subjects take on a dreamlike tone, and their faces became blurred and distorted in the style of Francis Bacon. In these series, Brooks said, “it became less about the people and more about the tracers that they left behind.”

“They’re sort of hollow vessels of suggestions of people,” she said. “You feel the people there but there’s no people.”

Over time, the colors of her paintings have softened. Earlier works used garish shades of green, blue and pink, lending the works a surreal, almost nightmarish quality. The pieces in “Brazen” share a similar color palette: muted tones of teal, peach and gray, and adornments of silver and gold leaf.

Brooks was born Kimberly Shlain in New York and grew up in Mill Valley, Calif. She studied literature at UC Berkeley and later studied painting at UCLA and Otis College of Art and Design, where she now teaches painting. She’s married to the actor Albert Brooks, and they have two teenage children, Jacob and Claire.

There is a subconscious searching at the heart of Brooks’ paintings. Sometimes, she says, she doesn’t realize what she was searching for until long after the paintings have come down from the gallery walls. In the case of “I Notice People Disappear,” she was coming to terms with the 2009 death of her father, Leonard Shlain, a surgeon and author, who had inspired her to pursue painting.

Brooks’ search for identity also has taken the form of reconnecting with long-lost family members. She traveled to Israel with her children this past spring to meet relatives who were descendants of Holocaust survivors. “We ended up finding that we have a huge amount of family in Israel and South Africa that we didn’t even know,” she said. The reunion “was really amazing.”

On her Instagram feed, Brooks recently posted a quote from novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, taken from an interview in The Guardian: “The art of the creative process is not seeking and finding, it’s bumbling.”

The quote speaks to her own process as an artist. “So much of discovery is not about being a heat-seeking missile and saying ‘I know what I want to find,’ ” she said. “I think the creative process is all about being willing to risk wasting time.”

That process includes being willing to discard paintings that don’t measure up when preparing for an exhibition.

“When I have to decide which paintings are going to be in the gallery, I form a triage unit in my studio. I divide the paintings into three categories: rock stars, orphans and rescue missions. So the rock stars are definitely making the show, and orphans are definitely not making it in the show. And then the rescue mission is where I hang the painting and I have to say, ‘Can this patient be saved?’ ”

“Brazen,” a solo exhibition of oil paintings by Kimberly Brooks, is on display through Oct. 28 at Zevitas Marcus Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles.

Photo of Kimberly Brooks in her studio by Stefanie Keenan.