Short Story: Finding the (Extra-)Human in Art

Finding the (Extra-)Human in Art: The Rise, Fall and Return of Eva Bruegger

Aisley Lann, contributor

I’ve been driving for hours through a white landscape, hills, trees and road alike blanketed in winter. Somewhere outside of Albany, though there’s nothing to use as a reference, nothing but the white. I’ve nearly spun off the road twice, and the remoteness of each house to the next means that there might not be anyone nearby to hear me crash. Everything about the trip suggests that the woman I’m visiting has taken pains to make herself less than casually accessible to the world.

I make it, though, eventually, and in one piece. Eva Bruegger’s home is a faux-log cabin at the end of a quarter-mile drive. Less than some of her pieces’ price tags would suggest she can afford, but it seems like a perfect artist’s retreat- two stories, a redwood deck with a Jacuzzi and a grill, enormous floor-to-ceiling windows on every side.

She greets me at the door, a still-stunning woman of fifty-six in impressively ancient and wrecked blue jeans and a green shrug sweater. Her blond hair is tied back in a loose ponytail, and her horn-rimmed glasses are somehow both hip and matronly. She’s holding a scalding mug of coffee, which she hands off to me with an admonition to hurry in out of the cold. I wrestle out of my boots and coat, and she leads me into her living room, beautifully ornate stained wood and fern-green carpeting, the leather couches and coffee tables wearing a scattering of art books and a pair of uncaring cats.

She clears a space for me, a seat near the window, and before I’ve gotten halfway through retreiving my tape recorder and notepad, she’s asking me a flurry of questions that make her seem the reporter and me the interviewee. The conversation meanders through her questions, and I’m content to let it, and to focus on thawing my limbs and my wits. Eventually, after she inquires, with seemingly genuine interest, as to the trip, and to my own work, we find our way to as good an official start as any: her introduction to the art world.

Eva’s first extra-human themed piece, Violent Window, is instantly recognizable, and the story behind its creation has been re-told so many times that this reporter felt it necessary to obtain illumination from the creator herself.

The Manhattan apartment featuring the piece sold long ago, for a shocking ten-and-a-half million, but it’s easy to imagine her standing by the work, even as she stands now at the window of her living room. She holds her own coffee mug, emblazoned with a blue outline of Rimegirl, filled with a pattern of snowflakes. It’s a fair match for the scene outside. (My own mug, I see with some amusement, is similarly decorated with a motif of the Harrier in green. The two look like part of a set.)

She says on the subject of her first work: “I found myself excited, rather than shocked or outraged, as I stood by the hole, looking down at the street below. He’d just come crashing in- as I understood it, later, after being struck by the Golden Giant, I believe- and then stood in the living room, smiling an apology at me. He never said a word, but he left so carefully, trying not to break anything more.”

(She is speaking here, of course, about the Boulder King, an extra-human infamous for the collateral damage his two-ton form caused throughout the 80’s and early 90’s.)

Eva continues, “The wind threatened to suck me out, but I stood there for a full ten minutes, marvelling at how easily holes into our lives, our privacy, could be punched by these individuals. I knew that I was being given a glimpse of a new age, not vicariously or through another’s medium, but first-hand. Yes,” she says in response to my attempt at a question, “the inspiration did come immediately.”

Eva’s famous work ethic meant that she didn’t contract the work out, but learned glass-cutting and framing so that she could do the job herself.

“I didn’t change the shape or composition of the hole at all,” she says. “I tried to minimize the noticability of the frame. There was a shocking aspect to the contrast between my size and his, and I wanted to keep it, to underscore the masculine/feminine divide of my existence and his.” Here she smiles, and there’s an impishness in the lines around her mouth that makes her look much younger than her years. “I confess that I stood a few times at the window nude, or less than respectably dressed, so that I could examine that divide further in the photographs that might crop up.”

Such photographs were common in the year or two after the piece’s creation, thanks to the most famous aspect of Violent WIndow, the permanently lowered fire escape ladder that allowed any member of the public to climb up and view the piece- and Eva’s living room and kitchen space behind it. A few developed some fame of their own, such as Norman Feldhart’s Window’s Grip, depicting a starkly-shadowed Eva clutching an untied bathrobe around herself, Boulder King’s immense outline surrounding her, its ambiguously outstretched arms suggesting equally the possibility of assault, sexual threat or a childish request for affection.

“It wasn’t about the vouyeristic aspect,” Eva offers, again ferreting out my question before I have a chance to ask it. “Not primarily, at least. Others have done that work better- Harlan Ellison in his bookstore window, the students in those glass boxes in the malls. It was more about…” Here she pauses, tapping a finger to her lips, and I’m grateful to see that she’s still willing to give new consideration to a question she’s likely answered dozens of times before. “It was…there was a moment of fear, where the wall of my life was shattered, where the outside world came rushing in, without me inviting it or being prepared for it. And I saw immediately that I could recoil from that moment of fear, or I could do my job as an artist, and find a way to preserve it, to show it to others. Of course I chose the latter.”

I ask her if the lack of security and privacy were difficult for her.

“It wasn’t safety glass. Just ordinary double-pane window glass. But I never had a break-in.” She smiles. “I think people were superstitious. Afraid he’d come back, if they did anything..”

The subject turns to the pieces after Violent Window, a body of work Eva’s followers considered some of her best. She speaks fondly of Too Close, an installation that featured reproductions of the rubble, crashed cars, and other wreckage that ordinary citizens were trapped in after being in the vicinity of extra-human fights. The works were full-sized, with invitations to museum visitors to climb in and experience the survivors’ close calls for themselves. There were a few detractors; Francis Dermott’s statement that “the works are like a jungle gym, a childish approach to a serious subject” was a particularly cutting example. But the majority of critics lauded the visceral nature of the installation and the emotional authenticity of each piece (Bruenner collaborated with a number of survivors on the pieces, questioning each extensively on every detail in order to rebuild each scene as accurately as possible.)

“Those were fun,” Bruenner says with another mischevious smile. “More fun than they should have been, maybe. The idea was solid, I stand behind it, but you should have seen the children when they realized there was something in an art museum that they were allowed to climb on. The adults got it. I have a few private pictures I took, during the opening. I didn’t ask for permission so I’ll never use them for anything, but…” She stands, and goes to one of the piles of books and albums, retrieving one without an apparent perfect memory for where she’d left it. She opens it and taps a particular polaroid. It shows a boy of maybe eighteen, model-handsome with a sweep of blond hair, sitting in the cubed cross-section of a totaled car. His fingers are outstretched, touching the jagged angles of roof inches from his face. His lips are parted; one can almost hear the awed breath escaping his lips. Marcus Ruiz of Hope magazine put it extremely well: “Bruenner has placed artistic methods and materials on the back burner, and reached for a different set of tools- in this case, perhaps those of the theme-park builder- in order to reach her audience emotionally, and sitting in the works, seeing the imprint of a fist in the concrete by my face, I can say they speak for themselves. Groaningly, abusively, in the pit of the stomach.”

But her fame, it seemed, was destined for a downward turn. Most mark her Aftermath series as the point where her creative spark dimmed. Critics painted her rubble-sculptures as ‘obvious’ and ‘underthought,’ and while the metaphors there could be seen as less than subtle, especially in the concrete muscles of Rock and Ruler, they seem to be missing the point, the attempt to make the best out of the ruin left behind in the wake of forces mankind can’t control.

“You’re very close!” she tells me when I give my thoughts on the work, and I can’t help but feel a little swell of pride. “Closer than most. But it’s more about the attempt to humanize these…forces of nature. The hope that because they’re human-shaped, if we examine those outlines, we’ll find the human in them, something that might let us stop fearing them, or worshipping them. Because, as you say, we can’t control them. So it’s definitely about that lack of control, yes.” Here she breathes a little laugh, her eyes far away, in the past. “The funny thing about that is, the pieces themselves were almost too much for me to control. I hadn’t done sculpture work since college, and I’d never worked on that kind of scale.” (Rock and Ruler came in at just under 19 feet tall.) “They fell apart on me more than once; I almost lost a foot to Scrap Warrior.”

After her creative panning, Eva stepped out of the spotlight to recharge creatively and focus on her personal life. Aside from a few small gallery shows, she’s been quiet for nearly a decade. Now, though, she’s returned to triumphant form with Battles and Barriers, a new gallery showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Particularly well-recieved is her series of photographs, entitled Scrape-Ups, showcasing black-and-white closeups of the tears and scuffs in extra-human costumes alongside simple descriptions of the altercations that caused them. Carla Nuvetti of ArtToday says “The nearly museum-level seriousness and critical eye of the work help to remind the viewer of the stark realism of these beings’ presence in the world, even as the formal constraints of the medium, four-inch by four-inch black-and-white photography, brilliantly elucidate the desperation of the public’s attempts to box them in, reduce them to understandable and less-threatening forms.”

Eva doesn’t agree. “t’s not about the public at all,” she says. “Battles is meant to focus solely on the extra-humans themselves, to show their humanity, even in the face of their other-ness. I didn’t just show up and take the pictures- I spent at least a full day with each of them, talking, sharing meals. Some of them I engaged with for longer, wound up staying in contact with, and count as good friends.” She won’t elaborate on whom, though I make a few casual attempts to press the subject. “It would spoil the surprise of my new work,” she says.

We talk for nearly another hour. She doesn’t rush me out the door, and her willingness to share her time and startling reserves of energy is enough to fill this reporter with gratitude. She even allows me to view a few of the current pieces she’s hinted at. “No pictures,” she says with that same girlish smile, “and no telling anyone about them until they’re finished. But you can write that they’re pieces trying to capture the possibility, or impossibility, of mundane life for a few of the individuals I’ve worked with in the past.” This reporter hopes that it doesn’t break the spirit of the artist’s request to say that the pieces are immensely exciting, and even at fifty-six, she’s not showing any signs of slowing down.-

Great piece. You’ve got a lot of potential here. A couple of things:
First, dig a little deeper. You name-drop a few famous folks, without attempting to get any quotes from them. The piece is pretty narrow as-is. Widen your spectrum a little.
Second, try to distinguish between an opinion piece and a biographical piece. Cut the first-person stuff (watch for the difference between ‘I’, ‘this reporter’, etc), and try to scratch the feminist diatribe- let her be the controversial one, not you. Lop off the whole middle bit about the worth of her sculptures- the critics will eat you alive if they think you’re challenging them. Remember that Carla was one of the ones who panned the Aftermath series, and trust me, you do NOT want to call that harpy out on a contradiction. Pull some more from your conversations with Eva to make up the word count- shouldn’t be too hard to pad it out.
Third- and this is the most important one- where are the extra-humans? You barely touch on them at all! Remember, we’re trying to bring the magazine to a wider audience. I’m not asking for pulp stuff, but Boulder King practically begs for interviews nowadays. Maybe ask him if he remembers what Eva was wearing when he busted through her wall. It’s all right to have a little fun with your work.
You’re a smart kid. Learn how to polish it up a bit, and I think you’ve got a bright future ahead of you.
– Frank


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