Artist's Rebirth Starts With the Undead

What’s a nice girl like Emily Brandehoff doing making gory paintings like this? Young sweethearts look as if they’re from Our Town, except they’re chewing one another to a pulp.

What’s a nice girl like Emily Brandehoff doing making gory paintings like this?

Young sweethearts look as if they’re from Our Town, except they’re chewing one another to a pulp. A beautiful woman’s face is smeared with what you imagine is pie until you see the title: “I Think I Just Ate Grandma.” A buxom waitress’ “Open Faced Sandwich” is a man’s head on a platter.

Like Halloween, Brandehoff’s paintings have fun with frightening thoughts. Starting Nov. 3, Apocalypse Now keeps the holiday’s dark humor going at Semantics Gallery. Brandehoff and Antonio Adams depict a zombie-filled nightmare that precedes Marc Lambert’s Space Age utopia.

The first time Brandehoff publicly showed her art, at Essex Studios in May 2011, “a lot of people were laughing at it,” she says. Even better, “older women were ‘tsking’ at it, which made me happy.”

Happiness sometimes has been hard for Brandehoff to find. The 31-year-old resumed painting three years ago after abandoning it for nearly a decade because she didn’t think she was good. But at that first showing, “I had been alone so long, I didn’t care what anyone thought.”

The Fairfield High School graduate moved to Columbus in 2007 and into a “horrible relationship” with a man with narcissistic personality disorder. Fearful, she left in 2009 when he was at work and returned to Cincinnati.

Brandehoff’s parents divorced when she was 4. On weekends, her actor father and her stepmother took her to cultural events. She helped renovate the Footlighters’ theater and got lessons in watercolors, landscapes and portraiture from crew members. But classmates couldn’t relate to her artistic outings, so she had no one to talk to come Monday. 

Her mother and stepdad rarely were home. When Brandehoff studied her stepdad’s Playboys for artistic purposes, her mom called her a lesbian and tried to kick her out.

Though she had always sketched people, Brandehoff’s return to the more interactive practice of painting was a form of therapy. “I was so full of anger and sadness that I just wanted to create on an open scale and not worry about it being perfect … because (in the relationship) that’s what I had to be for a year,” she remembers. “It was a big sigh, something I could connect to with my fingers.”

Her choice of “gorgeous gore art” stems from boredom with doing serious, straightforward portraits, and from the need to find her voice.

“I’m finally getting comfortable about opening my mouth about my life frustrations and trials through screams and blood,” Brandehoff says. “When you have tribulations and trauma, it’s up to you to laugh about it after a while, or it will eat you up. That’s what interests me about painting gore and fear, finally being able to vocalize myself in a fashion that I can show, but also with a notion of humor behind it.”

Her work includes “screaming women” — portraits of friends ticked off about idiotic coworkers, texting moviegoers, bad drivers and just humans in general. Bright with orange, purple and green backgrounds, they’re Pop Art that crosses to a new genre. Call it “Popping Off” Art. 

“Women get it more,” Brandehoff says. “Men think I have a problem. Guys ask me if I’m a man-hater because of my ‘man-eater’ art.” 

Her sad “emo-ticons” are emotional robots in scenes of death and despair. Even if sticking its head in an oven or tying a noose, each is ridiculously cute. “I try to stay positive and have a light heart even about hard times,” Brandehoff says. “It wouldn’t be me if it didn’t have humor or heart.”

As she grows more confident, Brandehoff is “trying to paint what I feel rather than masking it with humor.” But she might have to answer to mentor Bill Ross. The Thunder-Sky Inc. co-founder curated Apocalypse Now and collaborated with Brandehoff on paintings currently at O’Bryonville’s BonBonerie.

Says Ross: “I love when being creative is laughing and having a good time.” 

Prior to meeting Ross last year, Brandehoff had never shown anyone her paintings. Now the payroll specialist and cook can’t imagine not being at Thunder-Sky on weekends, painting with other “outsider” artists. (Brandehoff’s art education consists of two weeks at Antonelli College in 1999, before she had to drop out.)

Ross calls Apocalypse Now an extreme version of what late artist Raymond Thunder-Sky did in his construction drawings — tearing down and creating something better. 

And it’s what Brandehoff is doing with her past, happily spilling a little blood along the way.

APOCALYPSE NOW is on view Nov. 3-24 at Semantics Gallery, 1107 Harrison Ave., Brighton. Opening reception: 7-11 p.m. Saturday.