Artist Mike Brieger stands with one of his art pieces at his home Tuesday afternoon. After a 10-year hiatus from showing at the Durango Arts Center, Brieger will be presenting a solo show there. “Slavery Days,” which features his black and white drawings and metal sculptures, opens Friday and runs through Nov. 21. /Photo by Jennaye Derge

Black and white

Local artist presents ‘Slavery Days’ in DAC solo show

by Stew Mosberg


Like many artists, Mike Brieger finds it superfluous to describe his work in words. Akin to the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” he prefers it speaks for itself. A man of few words, he frequently augments the imagery with his own minimalist form of Haiku poetry.

Beginning Oct. 30, the Durango Arts Center will host a rare solo exhibition of work by the local neo-iconoclast. Titled “Slavery Days,” the show includes more than two dozen pieces of sculpture, painting and drawings by Brieger. For his three-dimensional art, Brieger uses his skill as an ornamental ironworker and often combines various metals with other materials. His paintings lean toward a black and white palette, and his drawings are typically done in ball-point pen. Nearly 100 of these drawings will be in a sketchbook at the show, for visitors to leaf through for a more intimate connection to his work. Brieger’s art has not been exhibited at the DAC in more than 10 years, so for admirers and collectors, this is a great opportunity to get caught up.


What: “Slavery Days,” a solo art exhibition by Michael Brieger
Where: Durango Arts Center, 801 E. Second Ave.
When: Oct. 30 – Nov. 21; opening reception 5 – 7 p.m., Fri., Oct. 30

As for the show’s subject, Brieger says the theme of slavery has always been a part of his psyche along with other human injustices including, most recently, the effects of PTSD on veterans. As a substance-abuse counselor for the past 3½ years at the Durango Detox Center, Brieger comes in contact with the symptoms on a daily basis, and it has left an indelible mark.

DAC Exhibits Director Mary Puller describes Brieger as enigmatic, private, modest and “an artist’s artist.” She had seen his work in private collections of other artists throughout town and was intrigued by the range of his talent and imagination. According to Puller it was her rationale for choosing him to be the kick-off artist for a planned series of one-person exhibits. However, she was kept in the dark by the artist as to the exact content of the show, which adds an element of intrigue and is an indication of the freedom afforded to Brieger – ironically the very antithesis of slavery.

Brieger’s approach to his work utilizes a mixture of metaphor and symbolism. The style is, in some instances, reminiscent of cubism and the German Expressionists, particularly the art of George Grosz.

Although the use of symbolic parable can obscure the meaning behind an artist’s work, Brieger believes the viewer and artist should share equally in the experience. Studying the content of Brieger’s imagery, one may well sense the melancholy he feels for his subjects – and that is his point. The depiction evokes a range of emotions in the observer and while it is not protest art in the traditional sense, it is art that will make you think.

His images, whether in two or three dimension, conjure demons, ghouls, nightmarish figures from another world as well as manifestations of the hidden reaches of one’s own mind.

Brieger exhibits compassion for the enslaved, abused and the wounded warriors who return home with unrelenting trauma, which is evident in the many pieces on view. The slavery of the title is not just about the disgraceful history all cultures share, but the enslavement of the mind. “Race relations is a topic I have been drawing and contemplating since grade school growing up in a mixed neighborhood near Detroit,” he admits.

The artist believes that referencing history is “a useful tool in keeping the less compassionate impulses, such as greed and denial, in check.”

A sketchbook of Brieger’s ballpoint drawings, such as the one above used to promote the opening, will be featured at the show./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Asked what inspires him artistically and personally, albeit for him they are one and the same, Brieger mentions Velazquez, the Spanish artist of the 17th century. In particular he points to the old Master’s painting of Juan de Pareja, a slave dressed as a nobleman. Ironically De Pareja “earned his freedom” and went on to be a painter himself. A more contemporary, yet nonartist, inspiration for Brieger is Billy X. Crumaro, a performance artist who, among other things, was buried alive for three days, fasted in the desert for 40 and who swam the entire length of the Mississippi River while shouting poetry. Such iconoclasm is precisely what makes Brieger the artist he is. Admitting he might never take his beliefs quite that far, he admires the conviction Crumaro demonstrates. It also suggests the rebelliousness Brieger himself feels. His views are not always in sync with the average citizens,’ but he feeds off of it when creating a narrative work. It is most apparent in the choice of symbols he uses and the allegorical nature of the subject.

Working in a few mediums, Brieger still remains faithful to painting, specifically with oils, because he loves the texture and the push and pull of the paint on canvas. That compulsion aside, he continues to draw as a means of expression and admits to never knowing quite where a piece is heading. He remarks that he might start a painting with a theme or subject in mind, but by the time the first stroke is down, he goes off in another direction. The flexibility that paint offers is another reason he chooses it over sculpture, which more readily requires a commitment once it is initiated.

Visitors to the exhibit may gain more by remaining open minded when looking at the work and appreciate it on a visceral level rather than a cerebral one.

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