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Perhaps best known for his expansive approach to printmaking, Matthew Brannon has spent the last seven years producing works that explore the ramifications of the Vietnam War. His unique silkscreen works on paper, full of vibrant color, are like contemporary history paintings that teem with carefully researched details and moments of imaginative invention. They are also lenses through which to view entire swaths of cultural and political change, not to mention the shifts in design, typography, and advertising that accompany them. Light Touch for the Heavy Handed / The Psychedelic Soldier / The Making of the Making of Apocalypse Now finds Brannon widening his focus to the iconic 1979 film Apocalypse Now as a way of examining the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its expressions in the American cinematic psyche. While Francis Ford Coppola’s vast, psychedelic, auteur production is a fictionalized, even mythological, account of the conflict, it registers how history was being written and analyzed over the intervening decade. In this conversation with Stuart Krimko, the gallery’s Research and Editorial Director, Brannon sheds light on several layers of behind-the-scenes fact and innuendo, departing from recreations of the film’s scenes and sets to reveal its complexities, absurdities, and contradictions.

If you are interested in purchasing the featured works or inquiring about additional works by Matthew Brannon, please click "INQUIRE" below to email our team. Firsthand: Matthew Brannon, Light Touch for the Heavy Handed / The Psychedelic Soldier / The Making of the Making of Apocalypse Now will be on view through December 19, 2020, 8:00 am Pacific Time. 


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Matthew Brannon

It’s a game of confidence, and neither of us is very good at it. He’s banking on my addiction to self-esteem. We've got to get out of this place., 2020

silkscreen with hand-painted elements on paper

52 x 67 inches

(132.1 x 170.2 cm)

framed:

55 3/4 x 70 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches

(141.6 x 179.7 x 3.8 cm)

unique

Inquire

What led you to make a series of artworks about “Apocalypse Now”? How do these works relate to the works about the Vietnam War that you've been making over the last seven years?

3 (in many ways)

Matthew Brannon

The House That Bled To Death, 2001

silkscreen on paper

24 x 18 inches

61 x 45.7 cm

Edition of 12

In many ways film is where my art practice began. The first works I showed at David Kordansky Gallery in 2004 were fictionalized haunted house film posters. In 2008 I’d planned a whole show for the gallery about a group of writers who had been burned by Hollywood. It was postponed, and then abandoned, when the economy crashed. Timing is everything. So circling back to film feels natural. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a filmmaker.

I’m always making things I really shouldn’t be making, entertaining ridiculous ideas and imagining how I might—through reversals, research, and ventriloquism­—turn one thing into something else. I’ve never been interested in the one-to-one approach to a subject. I’ve always stuck with the psychoanalyst’s oblique strategy of talking about something by not showing you the thing they’re talking about.

Apocalypse Now is one of the most celebrated and disputed films addressing the war in Vietnam, hailed for the scope of its production and contested for its depiction of the war itself. Years ago, while I was beginning to make the body of work dedicated to Vietnam and conducting research, I found myself bumping into Apocalypse Now and I had an idea: what if I made a series of hand-printed still lifes using props from the film instead of objects drawn from historical accounts of the war? The idea was that this could destabilize the relationship between the film and real events, as well as my perspective on both of them as an artist and as a researcher. I was largely influenced by a chapter in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer (2015) wherein a Vietnamese refugee, hired as a cultural consultant on a film production, frustratingly tries to expand the fictional unnamed film's drift (clearly Apocalypse Now). But the critical looseness that accompanied this line of thinking didn’t work with the level of accuracy I was trying to achieve at the time. It also seemed to me that Apocalypse Now says more about the 1980s than it does about the 1960s. And so I put the idea aside.

Over the last year I’ve stepped away from addressing the war directly. More accurately, I’ve transferred my interest from artmaking per se to a more formal and academic study. (I’m currently taking a graduate course at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, I received a grant from the LBJ Presidential Library to do research, I’m learning Vietnamese, and I joined the Ho Chi Minh City art collective MoT+++). But one part of the historical narrative I remain curious about is the “after the war” period from 1975 to 1979. It’s such a dark time, though, and I was interested in bringing in a lighter perspective. And then came a reversal in my thinking. What if instead of concentrating on the difficulties associated with the war and its aftermath, I addressed what the culture had “celebrated,” keeping in mind that the most celebrated subjects are often the darkest for me. In the late 70s, American cinema was at the height of auteur filmmaking. And just what were the images that consumed our attention in that period of recovery? I began with Star Wars, which was appealing to me in part precisely because it felt so wrong to make art from something so obscene. I have zero interest in the franchise and saga as a whole, but the context for the making of the 1977 film is fascinating. I’ve made a few works related to my research, and I’ve begun working on my own remake of Star Wars, entitled The War in the Stars (Chiến Tranh Ở Các Vì Sao).

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Matthew Brannon

Concerning Cambodia: Star Wars, 1976 (III), 2020

silkscreen with hand-painted elements on paper

52 x 67 inches

(132.1 x 170.2 cm)

framed:

55 3/4 x 70 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches

(142.9 x 181 x 3.8 cm)

unique

I began to ponder which films I could dissect next. Parsing Star Wars, I realized that Apocalypse Now—which George Lucas was originally set to direct under its first title, The Psychedelic Soldier—was in its DNA. My previous thoughts about the film began to reverberate in a different register. Apocalypse Now isn’t a movie about the Vietnam War. It’s a self-funded, 30-million-dollar auteur film about the Vietnam War produced on the heels of the Vietnam War by men who could have been in the Vietnam War: a film that’s set in Cambodia and filmed in the Philippines with Vietnamese people from a refugee camp cast as their own very real North Vietnamese and Vietcong foes.

In what ways are these 'documentary' works? And in what ways are they full of your own inventions and positions?

 

7 (Like the work I was making before)

Promotional poster for Apocalypse Now, 1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, poster design by Robert Peak


Like the work I was making before, these new pieces are born from research, but of a very different sort. I wasn’t so interested in film analysis, but rather in seeing the moment of the film’s making and reception in context. The crew was essentially “playing house” adjacent to the house itself. I read and reread Eleanor Coppola’s beautiful book Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now (1979) and rewatched Hearts of Darkness (1991), the documentary about the production. And what struck me was just how unlikely the whole project was. Whatever one thinks of the film, the idea of taking a hundred artists to a location halfway around the world and spending years working on a film without a finished script is the ultimate in creative decadence. I wish more artists would just blow all their credit on such ludicrous ideas. 

Apocalypse Now is a film that will never be made again. Coppola took the almost unprecedented power he had accumulated with the first two Godfather films and used it to make a movie no one wanted. The fact that it’s a mess is part of why we go back to it.

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Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Francis Ford Coppola on location in the Philippines, 1976

To answer your question: each work has a personal story for me but I’m allowing much more room for the viewer to construct their own meaning from my choices. I’m coming to these works with nearly ten years of studying the war in Vietnam behind me, so I already had the backstory. I’ve also been traveling extensively around Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam these last couple years. But historically speaking, these new works are much less concerned with accuracy than the previous works about Vietnam. I’m not burdened by the weight of fact in the same way; I’m tackling the cinematic construction of war, using a film to highlight how our culture regurgitates trauma as entertainment.

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Huey Helicopter at the Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

Hữu Tiệp Lake with wrecked B52 Bomber, Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

Ephemera at Hồ Chí Minh City Museum, Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

Ephemera at Hồ Chí Minh City Museum, Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

Huey Helicopter and AD-5 Skyraider at the Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

Outside Preah Khan Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

Ephemera at Hồ Chí Minh City Museum, Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

Helicopter carnival ride, Battambang, Cambodia. Photo: Matthew Brannon, 2019

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Matthew Brannon

Students, streamers, sirens, signs, and screaming. No one listening to anyone ever again. No one gets out of here alive., 2020

silkscreen on paper with hand-painted elements

103 x 48 1/2 inches

(261.6 x 123.2 cm)

framed:

107 x 52 1/2 x 2 inches

(271.8 x 133.4 x 5.1 cm)

unique

Inquire

Can you describe the technical process of making these? How does your research get translated into the compositions and images that constitute the finished works?

 

I began quite simply by rewatching the film and taking notes about each set, looking out for representative objects that I might include. I read every book I could on the film, and even went into the JSTOR database and printed out several binders worth of relevant criticism written over the last forty years. I also watched as many war genre films as I could. I then made lists of the scenarios I wanted to depict, both inside the world of Apocalypse Now (the opening scene with Martin Sheen in a Saigon hotel, for instance) and on the other side of the camera (Francis Ford Coppola in the Philippines, pulling his hair out as he endlessly rewrites the ending). A clear line of thought connects each element in these prints, but they are far from depictions based on still photos.

Then comes the physical making. I take large sheets of paper, paint them lurid colors, and use a spray gun to create fog and mist and sunsets. I draw each element over and over again until my poor wrist can’t take it; those drawings become the silkscreens I use to assemble the composition, generally starting in the center. I have my own silkscreen shop, so there’s no limit to the number of screens I use. I can print ten to fifteen elements a day depending on how many screens are ready. And I silkscreen as if I’m painting. The whole thing isn’t worked out in advance. Colors change, things move, I hand-paint on top, I screen over things. I never end up where I initially began. I’m always stepping back and putting on records and trying to organize what can feel like a car crash of ideas. And then it’s done. It never looks like what I originally imagined. I understand art’s purpose to be one of productive irritation, but the making of art is a series of visual moves.

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Matthew Brannon

There are no opening credits. It just begins. And when it’s over you watch it again. Expensive American images. Too young to know your lines., 2020

silkscreen with hand-painted elements on paper

103 x 52 1/2 inches

(261.6 x 133.4 cm)

framed:

107 x 56 1/2 x 2 inches

(271.8 x 143.5 x 5.1 cm)

unique

Inquire

Your large-scale works have the scope and intricacy of history painting, but your choice to use printing—a medium traditionally associated with reproduction—to make unique pictures is an interesting and provocative one. Do you think your choice of medium allows you to address your subjects in particular ways?

 

To be honest it’s something I fell into. I was always drawn to ephemera, to posters and menus and signage, and I'm less interested in artworks that announce themselves as artworks. From punk rock to Marcel Broodthaers, I like the suggestive. The very limits of definitions. I use printmaking for its evocation of mass production and distribution, and for its ability to present bold graphic color alongside text. I would say its cadence of production aligns with my more organized mind. It always implies authority to my absurd way of thinking. But I’m inside it, so it probably feels more natural to me than it does to others.

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Matthew Brannon

Sweating tonic water and bug spray. Brushing your teeth with cognac. The no-time of hotel time. Not sleeping but not awake. Sober while drunk., 2020

silkscreen with hand-painted elements on paper

52 x 67 inches

(132.1 x 170.2 cm)

framed:

55 3/4 x 70 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches

(141.6 x 179.7 x 3.8 cm)

unique

INQUIRE

To what degree are these works intended to be visual experiences first and foremost? And to what degree are they designed to deliver information or ask critical questions about history and culture?

 

Essentially this is how I think art works: aside from strictly defined Conceptual art (made between 1966 and 1972, say), art lures one in. I use that visual bait to deliver difficult subject matter. I never want it to rest easy. I’ve said from the start that most art ends up doing the reverse, proclaiming its own radicality while finally offering very shallow content. I strive for what seems like a polite poison. If someone were to love my work on a purely visual level I would be entirely okay with that. The work’s complexity is inbuilt and hard to remove.

Using art to discuss history is dangerous territory. I felt (and still feel) tremendous responsibility for accuracy when dealing with historical events, and especially when dealing with war. Apocalypse Now is a fascinating case. Coppola (and screenwriter John Milius) engaged in sleight of hand by using Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness to fictionalize the film the further on it goes. In the beginning it’s quite evenly paced and touches on all sorts of problematic hot topics of the Vietnam war, including civilian massacres, population resettlement, drug use, rock music, napalm, snipers, Psy-Ops sound effects, and CIA assassinations. (To be fair, the film does skip over a host of other notable issues, such as prostitution, rape, land mines, leeches, fragging, and tunnel rats.) But once it tips over into Cambodia it enters a dream state and becomes more about a loosely universal concept of “madness.” While this derangement of the senses is, yes, a part of the eternal conundrum of war, the move gets Coppola off the hook as far as providing any conclusions about the real conflict in Vietnam. And Coppola himself has gone so far as to state that it’s not an anti-war film. All that said, when I’m making art based on the art about the real I’m creating a meta-knot. And my intention is not to condemn or celebrate the film but to push the complexity and just maybe offer some insights about how it reflects onto our own culture today.

bio

Matthew Brannon at Angkor Thom Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: Ekk Wiboll, 2019

Matthew Brannon (b. 1971, St. Maries, Idaho; lives and works in New York) has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Marino Marini Museum, Florence (2013); Portikus, Frankfurt (2012); Museum M, Leuven, Belgium (2010); Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria, New York (2007); and Art Gallery of York University, Toronto (2007). Recent group exhibitions include Becoming American, San Juan Island National Historic Park, Friday Harbor, Washington (2018); Multiple Modernisms, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia (2017); True Faith, Manchester Art Gallery, England (2017); Trapping Lions in the Scottish Highlands, Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2013); and Brannon, Büttner, Kierulf, Kierulf, Kilpper, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway (2012). Concerning Vietnam, a monograph dedicated to Brannon's Vietnam project, was recently published by Gregory R. Miller & Co.

To learn more about Matthew Brannon, please view these articles from ArtforumArtforum.comartnet.comCNN.com, and frieze, or purchase a copy of his monograph, Concerning Vietnam

Further Reading, Watching, Listening
 

Matthew Brannon draws from a particularly heterogeneous array of sources while conducting research. Tangential information sometimes provides the most telling details, and this eclectic collection of Vietnam War—and Apocalypse Now—related books, records, and movies is a testament to both the depth of Brannon’s engagement with his subject matter and the thorny, mind-boggling complexity of the issues that run through it.

 

List

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Blackwood Magazine, 1899) 

Tony Conrad, Mike Kelley, Beholden to Victory (Artist Film, 1980-1983)

Eleanor Coppola, Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now (Simon & Schuster, 1979)

Eleanor Coppola, Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Hearts of Darkness: A Fillmmaker’s Apocalypse (American Zeotrope/Triton Pictures, 1991)

Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now (Omni Zoetrope/United Artists, 1979), Apocalypse Now Redux (Omni Zoetrope/Miramax, 2001), Apocalpyse Now Final Cut (Omni Zoetrope/Lionsgate, 2019)
 

List 1.5

Francis Ford Coppola speaking at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, France

Yến Lê Espiritu, J. A. Ruanto-Ramirez, The Philippine Refugee Processing Center: The Relational Displacements of Vietnamese Refugees and the Indigenous Aetas (Studies in Global Asias/ University of Minnesota Press, 2020)

Jimi Hendrix, Machine Gun (live at Fillmore East, New Year’s Eve 69-70) (Capital Records, 1970)

Michael Herr, Dispatches (Knopf, 1977)

Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider (Columbia Pictures, 1969)

List 1.75

Kon Ishikawa, Biruma No Tategoto (The Burmese Harp) (1967, Nikkatsu)

David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai (Columbia Pictures, 1957)

Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Framer Framed (Routledge, 1992)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016)

Bảo Ninh, Nỗi buồn chiến tranh (The Sorrow of War) (roneo form, 1987)

Rhythm Devils, The Apocalypse Now Sessions (Passport Records, 1980

list 2

Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers (1974, Houghton Mifflin)

K. W. Taylor, A History of the Vietnamese (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Winter Soldier, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (1972, Winterfilm Collective, USA)

Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (Westminster, 1984)

Perry Deane Young, Two of the Missing; A Reminiscence of Some Friends in the War (Coward McCann & Geoghegan, 1975)



Photography of individual works and Matthew Brannon Studio: Kevin Frances, 2020
Collage image: Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975. Photo: Claude Juvenal
Collage image: Star Wars lobby card, 20th Century Fox Corporation, 1977
Collage image: Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard, Apocalypse Now, United Artists, 1979
Collage image: Matthew Brannon studio, Long Island City, New York. Photo: Kevin Frances, 2020
Collage image: Cinéma Modèle, Marcel Broodthaers, 1970

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