Alec Egan: Drawing Room

June 24 – October 9, 2023

In 2021, my husband and I moved into a 1957 Cape Cod house in West Brattleboro that looks like an Alec Egan painting. The outside of the house is simple and white, but the inside is a frenzy of color and pattern. The wallpapers covering every wall act as an enveloping backdrop to the events of my life: I brush my teeth staring at cornflowers arranged on a grid of vines. I heat my coffee with crab apples and their whimsy out of the corner of my eye. As the day progresses, the nostalgic designs fade into the background, but in the early morning, fruit and flora overwhelm.

Before it was me in the kitchen, it was Fran Burrows. Judging by the layers of wallpaper we found underneath the cornflowers when we tore out our aqua toilet, Fran covered her home in pattern four times over. Her commitment to decoration and installation was almost artisanal. She meticulously covered light switches and electrical plates to avoid interruption of her chosen motifs. In Alec Egan: Drawing Room, Egan matches Fran’s gusto, cladding the gallery in multiple layers of decoration. The colored walls are punctuated by modestly scaled, sparse still-life paintings that use the visual language of kitsch to investigate materiality and surface. Egan’s installations favor an aesthetic better suited for a knotty pine kitchen than a white cube gallery, calling into question the typically secondary status of decorative art in the modernist American avant-garde.

Since 2017, Egan has painted imagined interiors decorated with floral patterns that are cloying, enticing, and not at all homey. He visually flattens the rooms he depicts by eschewing the typical pictorial conventions used to create depth, such as atmospheric perspective, scale shifts, and chiaroscuro, and by employing unrelentingly bright colors and a graphic style. Leaving little room for us to enter the space, Egan pushes our attention to the surface of the picture plane. The subject of the artwork is not only the domestic interior but also the act of painting itself. Egan coyly acknowledges this double theme, referencing the history of painting through the objects he tucks amidst the furnishings in his rooms: work boots that allude to Vincent van Gogh’s famous portrayal of a similar pair, fruit resting on tables, as if ready to be arranged for one of Paul Cézanne’s still lifes.

Egan’s references to art history in his domestic scenes are an invitation to consider other painters and critics who championed investigations of flatness and surface. In his lectures from 1938–39, abstract American painter Hans Hoffman proclaimed flatness the ultimate pursuit of painting. To Hoffman, the painter’s task was a Sisyphean puzzle of “push and pull” that animates pictorial space by pushing and pulling planes into and away from the painted surface. Critic Clement Greenberg elaborated on Hoffman’s pursuit of flatness, pitting what he saw as exclusively avant-garde spatial and material interests against more popular, “kitsch” approaches to image-making. To both Hoffman and Greenberg, flatness was a perceptual phenomenon best achieved in the absence of representation. In his installation at BMAC, Egan challenges that assumption, making a visual argument that the more “lowbrow” visual syntax of wallpaper and domestic decoration has the same potential to direct a viewer’s attention to spatial phenomena.

Egan’s installation uses the language of decoration and kitsch to create an experience that emphasizes perception and materiality. Each still life presents us with a figure and ground so compressed that they begin to fuse. In Flowers in Ceramic Vase, a vase of flowers seems to merge with the flowered ground behind it. Our understanding of what is in front and what is behind is only clarified by contrasts in painterly technique: the impasto of the flowers, which Egan knifes on in oil paint, is juxtaposed with the smooth matte finish of the floral motifs, applied with brush to the canvas behind. In Figurine Candle Holder with Lime, a thickly painted candlestick stands out against a flat floral ground; however, the flame itself appears more thinly painted and projects a flat halo of light onto the backdrop. Finally, in Fish in Net on Tablecloth, a caught fish lands on top of a floral tablecloth that we view from above, its netting piped on as if the canvas were a birthday cake. 

What would Fran think of a room so dizzyingly decorated? What would Hoffman think of Egan’s contraction of space via flamboyant florals, rather than rectilinear shapes? In this speculative critique, I am transported to 1957—the year Fran and her husband Pliny built my house, when I imagine those first wallpaper patterns were selected. The same year, as Fran thumbed through sample books, at the twilight of the first generation of abstract expressionism, Hans Hoffman began work on a commissioned mural for The New York School of Printing. Despite his characteristic aversion to flourish, he described the project as a “bowtie” for the building. The metaphor feels like an apt inversion of Egan’s installation—a rare concession that even the language of abstraction has the potential to act as ornament. In Egan’s installation, these moments fold into one another. Embracing the spirit of Hoffman’s bowtie and serendipitously echoing Fran’s passion for pattern, Egan’s installation at BMAC presents us with an opportunity to meditate on picture-making, perception, and visual pleasure. It is like my kitchen, but better.

— Amy Beecher, guest essayist

Over the past ten years, I have built an imaginary house through paintings. Each exhibition I do highlights a different room in this imaginary house, including bathrooms, dining rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms. Almost ten years ago, the inception of this idea was showcased at the California Heritage Museum, a converted Victorian house in Venice Beach. There, in the second-floor exhibition space, I grappled with the architectural and historical dynamics of the space and used them to inform the paintings I generated on site. 

More recently, in The Study, an exhibition at Charles Moffett Gallery that focused on the fictitious interior of a reading room, I was able to expand the parameters of my investigation and push the paintings into a full-scale installation. The wallpaper in the paintings was replicated on the gallery walls, and the floral-patterned carpet in the paintings was replicated on the gallery floor. Sculptural representations of household objects were also strewn about the installation. The transformed environment was overwhelming and made the viewer intensely aware of the space and its architecture.

As a former train station with distinct architecture, BMAC is the perfect fit for a reprisal of this multi-pronged installation-based approach. My BMAC exhibition highlights a series of paintings that form a table-scape, which is more of a vignette of a room than a room but works perfectly for the converted ticket booth. The intimacy of the space allows the nuance, absurdity, and meaning of the objects displayed in the master painting and in subsequent detail paintings to take on a life of their own. The gallery is partially painted with a wallpaper that further activates the history of the space, the meta-narrative of the paintings, and the psychology of the interior.

— Alec Egan


June 24, Saturday, 5 p.m. — Opening of Eight New Exhibits
August 26, Saturday 6 p.m. — Food as Art: Dinner by Chef Erin Bevan


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