Interview: Debra Brehmer Reflects on "Men in Suits"

Mar. 11, 2009
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Debra Brehmer's petite Portrait Society Gallery expands on the 5th Floor of the Marshall Building in the Historic Third Ward. Once a one room gallery Brehmer established two years ago, today the Portrait Society fills three rooms on the same floor that focus on Brehmer's niche in the art world: Portraiture. Her recent exhibit "Nicholas Grider: Men in Suits" explores the modern meaning of the power portrait by staging these pictures in domestic tranquility, which included photographing men (and women) dressed in suits but sitting in their unique home environments. The show closes Saturday, March 14 with a reception from 6:00-9:00 p.m. that exhibits the 28 new portraits recently completed by Grider. Brehmer stands in her gallery facing the wall of these photogenic Milwaukee men and women to discuss her project.

Q: What fascinates you about portraiture especially in this exhibit?
A: Portraiture functions outside the structure of the art world, outside of museums. It actually has a role in society outside of the galleries, in our homes and the corporate world. Here I can stretch the focus of the gallery into contemporary forms that generate a lot of conversation about the art. In this show the typical corporate portrait suggests a private moment, a great contemplative and caught moment, which creates something lovely about a man in a business suit.

Q: Was this the objective of Nicholas Grider when he began the project?
A: Nicholas graduated with his MFA from Cal Arts (2008) in Los Angeles, which is one of the most progressive and conceptual art schools. He took this retro genre of portraiture and integrates it into how art functions and interacts with society and community. He used five strict criteria for each portrait: Each person is in full figure. There must be a natural light source, no flash used. The person can't look at the camera. There must be a corner in every composition. The final composition is a square.

Q: How did this structure affect the exhibition?
A: The show is so seamless, so everyone looks equal on the wall. Yet this community [composed of photographs] on the wall is incredibly diverse. There's a nice mixture of gay men, straight men, and three women, so there's a collaboration between sexual preferences, economic levels, status, and occupations that creates an equal community on the wall. They are all similar but incredibly unique.

Q: What does the exhibit tell us about the men in the exhibit?
A: The photographs or portraits take a man in a business suit, which is powerful, external, masculine and commercial but puts them in their home environment, a domestic realm, which is more feminine and internal. The exhibit balances the male and female, a masculine portrait, but warm and vulnerable. It also shows how men may have a great deal of influence on how their home is designed, that there are a great many men who care about their domestic life.

Q: What's planned for the special closing reception when the new portraits will be on exhibit?
A: At the closing, Nicholas Grider will be here along with many of the people pictured on the wall. A 34 page catalogue will be available for purchase ($10), which includes an essay and a full page image of everyone in the show. Jonas Karvelis, a docent from the Milwaukee Art Museum, will be giving an informal talk about what he sees in 20th century design throughout each room in the photos. And Cream City Foundation is sponsoring the closing with one of the men in the portraits doubling any contribution to the foundation made that evening. This project has done amazing thingsI can't believe the amount of time people spend looking at the art and talking about it.


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