The Garden in the Machine: The Paintings of Brian Alfred

At first glance, it’s an ordinary commercial greenhouse, a purely functional assemblage of glass and steel. The image contains an ample quantity of light and space—a unique incorporation of horticultural necessity into industrial form. On closer examination, however, something in this tranquil and hermetic environment seems slightly ominous. The space is eerily absent of any human occupation. Trees, shrubs, and less recognizable forms of vegetation emerge from the floor’s pristine surface to form highly uniform rows of vibrant greenery. Hovering above the foliage, a rigorous matrix of lighting and irrigation fixtures asserts superiority over the apparently helpless plant material below.

The outside world is masked from view, rendered nonexistent by the frosted glass that encloses the structure. The strict one-point perspective of the rendering draws our eyes to a single object in the distance, an exhaust fan mounted on the far wall. This device seems as ready to extract us from the greenhouse as it does the impurities in the air. Like so many of Brian Alfred’s paintings, Monsanto (2001) is marked by an unusual delicacy and by an awkward tension, the result of two apparently opposing forces: nature and technology.

Monsanto: the title is itself a clue to the contradictory messages of this painting. Headquartered just outside St. Louis, Missouri, the Monsanto Chemical Company was founded in 1901. Monsanto’s products, including herbicides, genetically engineered foods, and artificial sweeteners, have been the focus of public controversy for many years. Recent high-profile advertisements depict the company as a visionary force working to bring state-of-the-art science and environmentally responsible solutions to humanity’s pressing problems. Are you concerned about population growth, the future of agriculture or the quality of our food? Monsanto, we are assured, will find the answers.

Alfred’s canvases capture this ambivalence. In his stylized portrayals of the built environment the natural and the man-made interact with humor, naiveté, and above all, subtlety. Nature and technology, forces too massive and complex to be purely good or evil, make their appearances in his paintings as simultaneous purveyors of devastation and beauty, apprehension and ease.

“One could definitely see an Exxon sign in the middle of a forest as an eyesore,” the painter says, referring to another of his mysterious and seemingly incongruous images. “On the other hand, if you were driving through the middle of nowhere and running out of gas, it might be the best thing you’ve ever seen.”

Alfred borrows his imagery from the internet, television, news and advertising media, and his own imagination. Employing Photoshop and Illustrator in the same manner as he engages pencil, tape, or paintbrush, he adjusts and manipulates these images on the computer, sometimes combining multiple views. The images are transferred to large canvases and painted in a softly colored but hard-edged style. The resulting scenes, familiar but subtly altered, playful but somehow solemn, are ultimately disturbing in their presentation of a manipulated reality.

A truck crosses a freeway overpass, unknowingly littering the landscape with paper. A row of wind turbines dots the horizon like majestic redwoods, casting long shadows as the sun sets. A scattering of helium balloons drift listlessly under the dull fluorescent lights of an empty office. A cool modernist living room lies eerily empty.

Shipwrecked within the desert landscape that surrounds it, the home depicted in this last painting, Desert House (2001), occupies a world in which nature has apparently been thoroughly subjugated. Surrounded by an expanse of glass, the interior is filled with light, yet feels cold and somewhat clinical. A small tank of fragile vegetation sits on the countertop, connected to what looks like hydroponics equipment. Perhaps controlled by the laptop sitting nearby, the machinery may be supporting the only source of food .There is an overwhelming feeling of a presence that is no longer visible. Has someone just stepped out? Or perhaps they lie hidden behind the counter, unconscious or dead due to a shortage of food and water. This too-cleanly rendered interior, despite its calm, inspires paranoia.

Alfred’s paintings evoke a sensation described by architectural historian Anthony Vidler as the “architectural uncanny”—built spaces that are unsettling or threatening. This sensation comes in part from the recognition that architectural spaces are not neutral, that the built environment is the setting for innumerable personal and collective narratives. Alfred’s paintings depict a single moment, one point of shared experience, hovering between chaos and control. It is never obvious whether it is nature or technology that will send the story careening in one direction or the other. But ultimately, these images question modernity’s unrestrained quest for technological and economical power, and transform the ordinary stories that lie embedded in the built environment into larger-than-life epics.