View the entire Pandemonium series here.


As a child in the 1960s, Michael Brennan couldn’t get enough of the circus. Each year, as Barnum & Bailey set up the Big Top at the Cow Palace, Brennan would travel to San Francisco with his parents to take in the elephants and acrobats and clowns. He knew the circus was the Greatest Show on Earth. He had no idea that it was a prelude to his own professional life.


Half a century later, as Brennan started planning a series of oil portraits depicting some of the local artists and curators and critics he’d befriended, he overheard someone wryly comment that “the San Francisco art world is a circus”. He immediately recognized that the comparison was apt, a metaphor that captured the flashy showmanship of exhibitions and evoked the behind-the-scenes rigging of prices and expectations. He spent the next seven years painting his friends and colleagues in the manner he’s once witnessed at the Cow Palace.


Michael Brennan in collaboration with Modernism Inc. are pleased to present Pandemonium, an exhibition consisting of over a hundred of Brennan’s circus-themed paintings and portraits. The exhibit also celebrates the release of a book (Norfolk Press) by the same title, documenting the full series and accompanied by several critical commentaries. 


The series begins with a portrait of the artist who most strongly influenced Brennan as a young man, the Bay Area painter Robert Bechtle. Acclaimed as one of the pioneers of photorealism, Bechtle is aptly depicted as a magician. Brennan applies some of Bechtle’s own magic to his portrayal of the older artist’s bearded face; as with all of the work in the exhibition and book, this painting is based on a color photograph, meticulously replicating the Kodachrome aesthetic. But the illusion is broken with passages of painterliness, including some spontaneous-appearing spatters. 


The former San Francisco Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais shrewdly describes the effect in his Pandemonium book essay, writing that “Brennan’s technical mastery… confounds, raising a middle finger to artificial distinctions between art and craft, representation and abstraction.” 


Other figures in Brennan’s series include and the Fine Arts Museums director Thomas Campbell portrayed as an animal trainer, SFMOMA chief curator Janet Bishop surrounded by paintings from shows past and present, the Chronicle Books publisher Nion McEvoy as a band leader, and media artist Paul Kos as an escape artist in shackles that would have confounded Houdini. The outlandish costumes, most often provided by Brennan, liberate these eminent figures from the self-seriousness of high art. 


Some of the portraits contain sly references to their subjects’ métiers or personal histories. For instance, Gay Outlaw is shown with a meringue in hand, ready to pie a clown, but also cleverly alluding to her early training at the École de Cuisine La Varenne and her frequent use of pastry as a sculptural medium. And the conceptual sculptor Jim Melchert is shown spinning a ceramic plate that could have been fired in his own kiln.


Brennan’s work is informed by art history as much as by the personalities he depicts. Beyond the Bay Area art scene, his paintings allude to the tradition of painting the circus found in the work of artists ranging from Georges Seurat and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to Pablo Picasso and Francisco Botero. More broadly, Brennan often references aspects of still life painting and uses qualities of trompe l’oeil, especially in the thirty-five manic “atmospheric” paintings of stuffed animals and cartoon characters that accompany his portraits. 


However, Brennan’s own artistic irreverence ultimately steals the show, nowhere more than in his self-portrait. Loosely modeled on Chuck Close’s famous Big Self-Portrait of 1967-8, the painting shows Brennan with a similar facial expression and cigarette, but with Close’s eyeglasses replaced with X-ray specs. Consistent with circus trickery that is simultaneously make-believe and real, the glasses both blind him and give him the power to see through the absurdities of the contemporary art world. 


Location:  MODERNISM WEST @ FOREIGN CINEMA, 2534 Mission Street, San Francisco


Book signing and Reception for the Artist:  Thursday, April 7, 6:00-8:00pm 


Exhibition Dates:  April 7 - May 30, 2022


Gallery Hours:  Evenings Tues-Sat 5:00-10:00pm, and Sat 11:00am-2:00pm, Sun 11:00am-3:00pm.  Call 415-648-7600 to confirm access.


Current San Francisco Covid-19 protocols will apply for entry.


For further information contact: (415) 541-0461  |