The brand called who?

Local artists prove again that every portrait is a self-portrait

Rudy Browne’s “Ol’ Bunk,” at the Artisan Gallery.

Rudy Browne’s “Ol’ Bunk,” at the Artisan Gallery.

Last month, at the Sacramento Art Directors & Artists Club’s annual design conference, CSUS professor and marketing management whiz Julia McMichael began a discussion by asking everyone to name a brand he or she couldn’t live without. A group of about 15 local graphic designers had assembled at the university’s alumni center, with notebooks at the ready, to absorb McMichael’s wisdom. “Brand personality” was the subject of her talk. But her opening question left everybody feeling sheepish.

“Why are we at first reluctant to tell a brand that we like?” McMichael asked. “It’s a dead giveaway of our personality, isn’t it? Now I know about you, right? I can sell you something else.” Nodding, the designers gave each other bashful looks. Then the answers started coming. Apple. Tide. Sharpie. Coach. L.L. Bean. Starbucks. “We do like our brands, don’t we?” McMichael went on. “There is a lot of clutter out there. So a brand personality is a precious thing. All of these commodities have a share in your head.” The designers’ job, she explained, is to “create overall symbology for people—things that other people can relate to about them.” Then, when she asked if people are brands, and whether brand identity limits or unleashes creativity, McMichael found that her formerly reticent crowd suddenly had plenty to say.

The point is well taken. Today’s visual thinkers always must consider the virtues and perils of commodification. What effect does it have on our art, and our lives? As a quick glance at what’s doing in galleries around town reveals, commercial designers aren’t the only artists grappling with these questions. The questions feel as old as representational art itself. It’s just that now the answers have gotten a lot more complicated.

Rudy Brown’s “Cecil McBee,” at the Artisan Gallery.

Portraiture, perhaps the most traditional and time-tested mode of personal branding, takes on new layers of meaning in the age of personal Web profiles and individually customizable culture. Do we only inevitably reduce ourselves by racing to sum ourselves up? Its prospects for self-transformation haven’t dimmed, but the portrait is something we look at in a different way now, with different expectations.

Consider Rudy Browne’s Faces of Jazz, an ongoing project since 2005, partially on view at Artisan Gallery (1901 Del Paso Boulevard) from May 12-31. The series documents what the artist calls “an alphabet of my favorite jazz musicians"; Browne began by combing through magazines and record jackets from great jazz albums of the ‘50s and ‘60s, selecting favorite photographs and performing his own reverential renditions of the already iconic imagery within them. Here we have, for something more than posterity’s sake, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Brown and many others, amid the raptures of performance, their vivid figures strongly set against darkened nightclub backgrounds, instruments at work, foreheads scrunched, faces aglow with perspiration.

Never mind whether it’s some kind of copyright violation to riff on these images in paint (and who’d get paid how much if the paintings got sold). What’s curious is that the act of creating them, and then convening them for display, becomes a new means of portraiture—most tellingly, of the artist. Without even having taken the original pictures, let alone appearing in them, Browne conveys clear aesthetic and emotional priorities. He defeats his own anonymity—branding himself, in a way, as the Faces of Jazz guy.

Esteban Villa might become the faces-of-everybody-else guy. La Raza Galeria Posada (1022 22nd Street) shows some of Villa’s portraits (he’s working his way up to 100 of them for exhibition in 2008) from May 12 through June 9. They cover a broad spectrum of personalities, from local friends, like Villa’s fellow Royal Chicano Air Force art-collective founder José Montoya, to non-local strangers, like Albert Einstein. And these images, too, are fundamentally celebratory, for both the subjects and the artist. “I want to present a positive portrait,” Villa says. “There is so much negative art, and I’ve always thought that art is a thing of beauty.”

“DJ Big Al” by Esteban Villa, at La Raza Galeria Posada.

That attitude is as strong an element in Villa’s compositions as the color, and the color tends to be strong. Where Browne’s source material warrants nuanced, photorealistic precision, Villa allows himself a street-art simplicity of bold lines, sharp contrasts and primary hues. “When I started out, I was looking for my style,” he says. “But I found out that style just comes from being yourself.” Villa’s brand, of minimalism, shows experience and confidence; his idea is to leave room for the viewer’s imagination to fill things in.

Whether that’s flattering to the viewer depends of course on what the imagination fills in. In the self-described “generic Americana” of Cherie Hacker’s Lamp & End Table Project, ongoing since 2004 and at Asylum Gallery (1719 25th Street) through June 10, the same tacky lamp and end table show up quite deliberately in many settings where they don’t belong. Though uninhibited by people, it’s a portrait series, too, in its way, and a comment on the pollution that is consumerism (in this case, of prefab furnishings). A comment also, perhaps, on the dubiousness of portraiture.

But there’s a catch: The brand Hacker can’t live without, it seems, is her own. Once Hacker’s incongruous lamp-and-table image becomes recognizable—congruous, actually, from one image to the next—it also becomes iconic. And then, well, it’s a brand all right, just as much as the kind you’d burn into a cow’s ass. Hacker has become the lamp-and-table gal.

“My experience photographing the lamp and end table in the wilderness has affected what I want to see,” Hacker says. “I am no longer satisfied with taking shots of the Western landscape. I see no point unless I have the icon to compose with.” This isn’t what she expected. Hacker essentially admits she has become obsessed with her own corrupting kitsch. So much for leaving no trace. But then, branding is all about leaving a trace.

Cherie Hacker&#8217;s <i>Lamps & End Table Project</i>, at Asylum Gallery.

“People do want their own imprint on the things that they do,” McMichael told the designers gathered at CSUS. “In this culture our identities come from brands. Brands are our friends. We live with them, they live with us. But the brands really kind of own us in a way.” On that, the artists could agree.