MARTIN BRIEF

Success

ink on paper, 17.5” x 25” drawing size, 35” x 45” paper size, 2011
ink on paper, 17.5” x 25” drawing size,
35” x 45” paper size, 2011

Success is comprised entirely of definitions. It begins with the definition of the word success and is followed by the definition for each of the words in that definition and so on. Each word is defined one time (unless it was used in a new context) and the process continued until there were no new words remaining to define. In the end this “complete” definition includes 4,999 entry words and 5,811 definitions. Read a review of the show by Jessica Baran

Installation View Installation View Installation View
Success Success Success
Detail view of Success Detail view of Success Detail view of Success
View for scale View for scale View for scale
Success at Isolation Room by Jessica Baran from the Riverfront Times

Founding Fathers-brand American pragmatism confronts The Apprentice-era febrile careerism in St. Louis-based artist (and 2010 Great Rivers Biennial winner) Martin Brief's obsessive and self-satirizing meditation on the word success. In minuscule uppercase, Brief handwrote verbatim every definition of this ungraspable trophy of a word as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, then proceeded to copy the definitions of every word used in that definition. The outcome is a scrupulously circumscribed square on an otherwise pristine sheet of paper — a secular Dead Sea scroll that, from a distance, looks like flickering television static and elicits the kind of awe inspired by, say, Jesus' portrait inked on a grain of rice. Here, however, form intentionally matches function: An utterly familiar term, as dear to our national ethos as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, slips further from comprehension with every fastidious attempt to grasp it. Squint closely and you'll be rewarded with a fittingly surreal aggregation of fragmentary meanings: "a sum of money"; "a small dissenting group within a larger one"; "various random directions"; "the belief in a super-human controlling power"; "the passage of fluid"; "an organic matter"; "to hunt and kill for food." Substitute three-car garages, country-music stardom, hometown heroism, science fair blue ribbon, hedge-fund ownership, becoming a nun, posing for a centerfold — anything, in short, that our enlightened populace prizes and propagandizes — and it'd come to the same thing. The difference being that Brief has spared us the painstaking labor and given us the tidy parcel of gray haze it all amounts to.

Jessica Baran is the director of fort gondo compound for the arts and an adjunct lecturer at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art. She also teaches in St. Louis University’s Prison Arts & Education program. She holds a B.A. in visual art from Columbia University, NY and an MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis.