Scenes and Revelations

Brittany Fanning

There is something profoundly contemporary in the sensibility of Brittany Fanning’s most recent paintings.

Previously, Fanning, who spent seven years living in South Korea, painted Korean cityscapes. Her series Neighborhoods of Seoul (2019 – 2021) is a collection of accomplished, closely observed, visually intense, vibrant paintings of panoramas featuring a bewildering variety of abutting rooftops, the corners of buildings, full of intersecting planes and lines, shopfronts and quiet streets and alleyways, all of which she chose to depict largely empty of people.

Wild Daydream, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 in. Photo Credit Brittany Fanning

In 2020, around the time of the first Covid lockdowns, Fanning took an abrupt change of direction. She turned her observational focus from the built environment to the mores and material environment of the global class of the wealthy.

Many of the striking works from this period feature privileged people enjoying leisure moments while some crazy disaster is unfolding in the background or in the skies above. The figures appear to be studiously ignoring or are, at the very least unconcerned with whatever particular catastrophe is unfolding in their immediate vicinities.

The works’ titles both describe the content and capture the economical, wry, wit that infuses the series. In Orange Wine & Volcano (2021) a woman relaxes on a beach with a nice glass of orange wine, a hipster favorite of course, while a volcano erupts in full force just across the water. Tennis And A Crashing Cessna (2021) depicts just that, the couple who are playing, seemingly casual and passive despite the imminent disaster. In Skier Watching Fire 1 (2021) a massive conflagration is mirrored in the skier’s Prada ski glasses.

Skier Watching Fire 1, 2021, acrylic and embroidery on canvas, 33.5 x 24 in Photo Credit Brittany Fanning
Sweet Berry Wine & a Porsche on Fire, 2022, acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 48 x 48 in. Photo Credit Brittany Fanning

In other works, threat is represented in the form of dangerous, wild animals. As with the various disasters, an incongruous casualness defines the relationship of the humans to the animals in the scenes. Alligators are a leitmotif whose consistent appearance Fanning ascribed to her Floridian upbringing. They hang around casually in pools, as in Superbloom Alligator (2022) where a female figure drinks unconcerned, reclining on a nearby lounger, or in manicured gardens, as in Strawberry Shortcake in the Garden (2022). In other works still, the trappings of luxury culture take center stage by themselves as in the self- explanatory Sweet Berry Wine & A Porsche on Fire (2022).

Strawberry Shortcake in the Garden, 2022, acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 48 x 60 in. Photo Credit Brittany Fanning

Over the course of 2023 Fanning has evolved the series, as exemplified in the works made especially for Heliconia Projects’ exhibition. The works have become more complex visually and technically and subtler and more acute in their content and meanings. The disasters have disappeared. Wild animals still make powerful cameo appearances in some works, though, in the recent paintings at least they are literally more distant and do not seem especially threatening – becoming more purely intriguing symbols of threat perhaps. The human figures are more tangential. Instead the totality of the scene that Fanning paints and its atmosphere become the subject of each painting.

Visually, the most complex paintings in Heliconia’s exhibition, Life is Too Short for Positive People, A Somewhat Welcome Intruder and Rainy Season Afternoon (all 2023), are structured by the meeting and interplay of luxurious architectural spaces replete with swimming pools with lush and dense, landscaped gardens. The detailed and vibrantly painted passages of flowers and foliage recall Naïve painter Henri Rousseau’s mock-jungle scenes both being ersatz stand-ins for nature- at-large. Meanwhile echoes of the architectural elements of De Chirico’s classic metaphysical style, the arches and minimal spaces, amplify the dreamlike quality of a number of the striking paintings. They are evocative and compelling works that draw us into their private worlds and keep us there.

A Somewhat Welcome Intruder, 2023, acrylic on Canvas, 48 x 60 in. Photo Credit Brittany Fanning

Fanning’s recent paintings are quintessentially contemporary in their concerns and subjects. Her earlier disaster paintings are a dryly humorous and deadpan framing of luxury lifestyles and their relationship to a wider world now seemingly locked in a constant crisis. More absurd than plainly accusatory, they foreground a particularly tragic-comic vein of modernity. The paintings in Heliconia’s exhibition are more nuanced and personal, whilst still, albeit obliquely, embodying positions on the relationship of the self to the world. As Fanning explains with disarming openness in the related interview, she conjures these spaces as idealized refuges and places of solitary comfort away from the intractable chaos outside. “I like that my female figure is strong but also alone, sidestepping these issues and living in opulence, manicured and healthy.” A wry humor still infuses these more private scenes, notably in the knowing juxtaposition of incongruous, wild animals with the overwrought opulence in several of the paintings and the playful vacuity of Tennis Practice and Playing the Racquet (both 2023).

In the context of a contemporary art scene whose politics is often hectoring, attention-seeking and often long on rhetoric and short on action, it’s a compellingly honest and human position. In that spirit it’s notable that the recent paintings do a good job of gently implicating us, the viewers, in the opulent scenes. From the viewer’s perspective it feels like it would be the easiest thing to walk into them and make ourselves at home.

Written by Nick Hackworth