Born Rochester, MI, 1992 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
Recall a time in your childhood when you were asked—perhaps by a teacher or parent—to draw yourself. A dizzying effort to help us think about ourselves in terms of scale, color, surroundings. Who are we at such a young age, and what do we look like at the basic level of anatomical structure? When asked to create his very first self-portrait in kindergarten, Detroit based painter/poet Bryan J. Corley drew Godzilla—a prefiguration of the richly realized and curiously sympathetic monsters that presently populate his spellbinding visual universe.
Corley’s path into painting came about by complete chance. After taking a mixed-media course at Cranbrook Academy to further an initial interest in becoming a cartoonist, he was challenged by his instructor to make a painting instead. Since then, he has worked consistently in a figurative manner using acrylic, chalk, charcoal, graphite, oil and pencil. In doing so, Corley has found a safe space in painting where he can investigate identity. “I like the tactile nature of paint,” he says. “It’s like flesh, it has a physicality to it. When I can’t move flesh, I can move paint. It’s an alternative to that intimacy.”
Corley describes his style of painting as “super-crude.” His urgent need to put images down on a surface creates a friction or jaggedness in their becoming. Works such as untitled blue room (2013) and untitled hand man (2015) carry that immediacy through brushstroke. The chaotic imaginings in his work allude to a larger structural sense of worlds coming undone, of relics from an earlier time. He works on free-sourced materials (mostly used cardboard from a previous factory job), and talks openly about the cheap acrylic paints from Walmart he uses to douse the surface in layers, aware that the watery result looks as if it could fall apart. That degradation is important to Corley.
The paintings are bold and colorful, fluid, vivid, mercurial and subversive. In landing (2018) and olympian (2015), body horror elements like misshapen bodies, long limbs and ligaments that jut out from the chest or head become a welcome surprise to the viewer. We return to the world of illustrated children’s books, where friendly monsters roamed the land and learned, just as we did, how to get by. In the most subtle curve of lip or twist of finger, the painter performs a rite of ceremony, of ushering a new thing into the world. Although looking perhaps nothing like our own bodies, the emotional aspects of the characters—a smile, an outreached arm, a worried glance—bring us back to our common humanity.
The vibrancy of the deep green, red and yellow in the most comfortable man #2 (2013) highlights the explosive nature of a body struck and alone, while iridescent (2014) and dreamland (2014) show dark, ephemeral figures in surreal landscapes placed against multicolored backdrops. Color always seems to be shifting in Corley’s work, and primary colors are featured prominently. This evokes a strong reaction from the viewer; it is hard not to be drawn in by the emotional depths of these creations.
Corley plays a great deal with dual characters and anthropomorphic bodies, portraying both masculine and feminine forms as a desire to show bonds of intimacy that are ambiguous and can be defined across gender barriers. untitled pink and brown (2015) aims to show what a body looks like emotionally, especially during shared moments. The uncomfortability in these characters (arms crossed, eyes averted) reminds us of the social roles of courtship and the pain and confusion that go along with it. Corley reimagines bodies as neither female nor male, neither human nor alien. As we move closer to technology, and create mechanization to ostensibly help us lead more fulfilling lives, a transhumanist future of body modification is a very real possibility. The characters in Corley’s paintings are living in this future and have managed to, even in the midst of such a merge, find shared moments of desire and vulnerability.
Felix Jordan Rucker, January 2019
Copyright Essay’d 2019