Memories are rarely accurate or pure. They continually morph as we summon them again and again over the years through various filters of subsequent understanding, experience and maturity. This idea lives both subliminally and physically in the works of Henri Paul Broyard, whose solo show at Grant Wahlquist Gallery, “Jamboree,” runs through Aug. 14.

Ostensibly, all the works are unpeopled still life paintings of interior spaces. But the closer we look, the more complex and odd (in a good way) they become. Broyard begins most canvases by painting abstract imagery – sometimes a few layers of it – onto the gessoed surface. This gets mostly painted over, though he will leave certain elements he finds interesting exposed. The overpainting is also thinly applied, so the underlayers never completely disappear.

Atop this, Broyard paints a room interior, the source material of which is one of the many photographs of rooms from the 1960s through 1980s that he forages for at flea markets, thrift stores and other venues that deal in nostalgia. The paintings are not faithful representations of those bygone spaces. Rather, Broyard is interested in the geometry of rooms, so he crops a photo to frame a particular corner or wall or window that distills the space to a focused assembly of shapes and planes. This is the foundation for the composition, which he then further embellishes as he paints.

The underlayers serve as a catalog of the process a work goes through to arrive at completion. But they also reference images he is absorbing all the time from his surroundings in Brooklyn, New York, or Caanan, Maine – the work of other painters, the graffiti he sees on walls and subways, a texture he is drawn to and so on.

Still another aspect of these layers evokes the many permutations a room goes through as it evolves with the latest vogue or through changes in tastes and ownership. In essence, they are analogous to walls of a room that, during renovations, reveal various wallpapers, paneling and coats of paint the as we peel them back. All of them carry whiffs of the people who lived in these rooms. So, in a very physical sense, they are memories of a space morphing over time.

This all might seem pretty straightforward and unmysterious. Yet Broyard doesn’t stop there. The enigmatic titles are acronyms of a phrase that might or might not refer specifically to the painting: “NLOD,” “TQL,” “FCFD,” etc. By using only first letters of words, the artist doesn’t allow his viewers to form preconceptions about the works from their titles, which in a way enhances this notion that memories are slippery and unreliable.

Many works contain paintings that Broyard adds to the room. These are works in their own right and express ideas that might be interesting but not encompassing or intriguing enough to explore individually in a full-scale larger work. A lot of these paintings within the paintings reveal Broyard to be an abstract painter at heart. Even the finished works, which are not abstract in the traditional sense because they actually depict something recognizable, are abstracted in their weird perspectives and absence of much realism.

Henri Paul Broyard, “OFTP,” 2020, acrylic, flashe and graphite on canvas, 46 x 35 inches

Certainly, they don’t make rational sense. Broyard’s play of flatness and depth can feel contradictory and confusing. In a work like “OFTP,” he depicts the green wall of the room at an oblique angle that implies depth of space. The credenza and its surface objects, a white Sol LeWitt-like artwork and the section of chair back in the foreground all conform to this same angle. But a paper cutout in the top left corner is flat to the canvas. What?

We cannot tell whether the wood paneling in “TQL” is actually two paneled walls – one lighter wood in the foreground, one more darkly stained in the background – or whether it is all a flat wall where lighter and darker panels abut each other. Either way, we are also perplexed by the trio of vessels in the composition, the two taller of which appear to have no three-dimensionality. They look almost cut out and pasted on. But the shorter vessel does feel dimensional – to the point that it almost pops off the surface. This is the good kind of oddness I mentioned before. Your brain is contorting itself in all sorts of ways, mostly in vain, to make sense of the image.

Then we have the objects themselves. Lamps, figurines, busts, ewers, a plaster cast of baby booties all seem very deliberately selected. But their juxtapositions can be incongruous. Old-fashioned objects, such as the ruffled shade on the lamp in “2011, 2020,” are paired with decidedly contemporary ones (here, a sofa upholstered in camouflage-patterned fabric).

Henri Paul Broyard, “DGNB,” 2019, acrylic on panel, 20 x 16 inches.

And what on earth is going on with the blue elephant-like object in “DGNB”? Most of it sits in front and to the left of the lamp on the side table. But what looks like one of its arms stretches disproportionately around the lamp shade to emerge from behind it. Another undefined appendage (its tail?) creepily peeks around the back of the table near the floor. More weirdness.

There is a superficially simple answer to the juxtapositions. Broyard grew up in South Central Los Angeles living between his grandmother’s and mother’s houses. His grandmother (who also is responsible for his attraction to thrift stores and junk shops) lived in a more old-fashioned house that never changed, while his mother lived in a more modern one. These curious pairings are a way he reconciles this split living situation. Memories, in this case, fuse into one composite recollection.

But as in the interiors, Broyard scrambles the objects by making them unrecognizable in any realistic way. The blue figure in “DGNB” looks vaguely like an elephant, but we can’t really be sure, especially with its appendages showing up in strange places. We are tempted to wonder what these things actually were at one time. There’s definitely a touch of the surreal going on. But rather than off-putting, the works seem bizarrely charming and, if you allow yourself to have some fun, present themselves as riddles or brain teaser puzzles.

In a larger sense, all of the paintings challenge the human tendency to categorize and rationalize everything we see or touch. By understanding it in some sensical way, we believe, we won’t have to be confused by it or afraid of it. “Good luck!” Broyard’s paintings seem to say. At the metaphysical level, everything has a part of it that is unquantifiable and that warps our perception in some way. Like memory, all ungraspable and chimeric in the end.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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