Urban Silhouettes

Brian Mashburn. Photo by Renato Rotolo.

Brian Mashburn. Photo by Renato Rotolo.

In the late 1980s, when Brian Mashburn was barely ten years old, his Chinese-born mother sent Brian and his brother to Saturday classes in their hometown of Charlotte to learn Mandarin Chinese. Being in school on a Saturday seemed like an unfair punishment, but the study of Chinese proved to be a formative experience, the foundation of a growing body of ethereally beautiful paintings, meticulous in line and mysterious in meaning.

“The lessons involved looking at a character and reproducing it over and over again,” Brian, 33, recently recalled of his Chinese studies. “I think this is where my obsession with line began. They were, in essence, my first art lessons. My tree branches are similar to the marks used in Chinese characters, the motion used to create them is similar.”

Brian also cites the landscapes of the early 19th century painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose Gothic-inspired scenes of ruined abbeys and twilight forests particularly inspire Brian’s signature backdrops of decayed cities and ghostly church spires against which he sets his foreground figures. But that, too, lies in Brian’s experiences with Chinese culture. He traveled to Hong Kong in his early twenties to visit his parents, taking teaching jobs to help pay his way. “I was instantly infatuated by the landscape; the fog and smog, the buildings and skylines and mountains,” Brian says. “They were beautiful, and for something to be beautiful, it should be evocative. A landscape that makes you love and hate, that challenges and inspires, speaks to me. A lot of the imagery I paint now derives from that time in China.”

The crumbling urban silhouettes that appear in Brian’s paintings have led some viewers to see them as post-apocalyptic visions of a bleak future, an opinion Brian finds antithetical to his own sensibility. “I don’t like that term and I rarely think about doomsday scenarios when I’m working,” Brian said. “My paintings are 100 percent inspired by the world we live in, and to the best of my knowledge, the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet.” Still, many of these pictures are infused with, if not gloom, an autumnal melancholia. Naked branches are etched against storm-driven clouds; a lone figure, nearly lost in fog or smoke, is dwarfed by encroaching nature. With minarets, guard towers and temple-like structures often appearing in the background, Brian acknowledges the influence of both past and current turmoil in troubled parts of the world. “The paintings are more historic than prophetic,” Brian says. “They’re observations.”

One gets an entirely different sense from Brian’s works on paper, many of them cartoon-like figures drawn in ink, others portraits of world figures like Kim Jong-un, Mao Tse-tung, or Fidel Castro, each of whom is relegated to a corner of the frame, afloat in a sea of white space, as if exiled there. “These were figures I found intensely polarizing,” Brian remarks. “They’re people who are loved and hated to an extreme depending on perspective and geography.” Another series of less controversial, if no less well-known, personalities like Mike Tyson, Kate Moss and Mother Teresa were made for a 2011 group show, “Lines and Lives of Faces,” at Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace. The more fantastical figures, with globular heads and exaggerated facial features, are drawn more loosely with colored India inks exploding in the background, which Brian creates by dripping the ink onto the paper and then blowing on it. “Artists are notorious for taking themselves too seriously,” Brian says, “and I am guilty of this. So I started doing the quick character drawings to have a change of pace, to loosen up.”

Another change of pace is a wider audience for Brian’s work, with solo shows on the schedule this fall in San Francisco, a group show in Los Angeles and, next year, pieces destined for exhibition in Hawaii and in Berlin. Among those pieces is likely to be a new series in the works, marked by what he calls an “upward perspective.” “It’s basically the same landscape,” Brian says, “only the viewer is looking upwards, and the skies are blue.”

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