Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Finding Roger Brown

Spring had been threatening to break through but it was still early March and it was teetering on sub-zero temperatures when my father and I stepped out of the taxi on North Halsted Street in Chicago. We were feeling the affects of one or two too many Martinis the night before at Shaw’s Crabhouse where we went almost immediately after stepping off the sixteen-hour flight from Sydney the night before. Over Oysters, I had asked my father Ray why he had never bought a Roger Brown from his friend Phyllis Kind in the 1980s: “I could never afford them”, came the reply, “… Roger Brown was a big deal”.
Roger Brown, Killer Crab, 1986, in. Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection,
the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Explore the collection here 

Six months before my father and I visited Lisa Stone at the Roger Brown Study Collection at 1926 N. Halsted, I had come to Chicago with my wife Kate to meet the art dealer Carl Hammer, with whom I was hoping to work on opening a dialogue with the artist C. J. Pyle. Pyle is an Indianapolis-based drummer and draughtsman who makes extraordinary pen, pencil and graphite portraits on the backs of record covers. Mr. Hammer (who incidentally also facilitated an introduction to Lisa Stone) very graciously arranged a meeting for us and over nervous Pepsis in the crowded dining section of the 2012 Chicago Art Fair, Pyle and I struck up a rapport which would, over the next years turn into a very nice friendship and ultimately very successful working relationship. We quizzed each other on the art we both liked and we had a terrific meal that night in Little Italy. The next day, jetlagged, my wife insisted on resting in the hotel room. With time to kill, responding to a review in Time Out, I caught a cab to the Sullivan Galleries downtown where there was an exhibition called Roger Brown: This Boy’s Own Story. This exhibition was the very first time I can recall seeing a Roger Brown painting in the flesh and the show affected me very much. I spent a quite considerable amount of time with the paintings and sketch books and over the next few days would see every work on display in what was a veritable mini-festival of Roger Brown works across the Zolla/Lieberman and Russell Bowman Galleries, as well as a couple of wonderful works at the MCA’s Skyscraper show and another at the DePaul exhibition, Afterimage. 

Roger Brown, Presidential Portrait, 1986, private collection Sydney
There are a number of places prior to these two recent visits to Chicago that this story could begin.  One might be in the early nineteen eighties, when my father met Roger Brown and spent time one afternoon drinking beers on Superior Street in Chicago talking about art whilst waiting to see Phyllis Kind. It could begin when Brown was included in the 1981 exhibition, Chicago on Paper at the Ray Hughes Gallery in Brisbane.  Another starting point might have been when I first became consciously aware of the work of Brown when employed by my then mentor, the London art dealer James Mayor who fondly introduced me to his work after handing me the book Who Chicago? I had curated an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art for The Mayor Gallery, which included the work of Chen Weimin and James who, in passing referred to him as “the Roger Brown artist”, sought to acquaint me with the American painter. I had known Who Chicago? for years, ever since I was a very little boy, I must have looked at it many times, I loved the strange and garish images, and the zany photographs of the clearly very cool people who made them. Karl Wirsum looking not unlike one of his images sticks.
There seems to be one thing that children of art dealers or artists have in common, and that is very early, extremely vivid memories of particular artworks that stand out in their visual memory. For me, one of the strongest memories from my period of very early youth was a Jim Nutt drawing that was always, and still is, a few houses later, found in my father’s bedroom. I would, like my own son does now, spend hours crawling around on my parents’ bed underneath some wonderful things up on the wall. Sometimes I might ask about them, but always, at least, I would stare up at them as I lay there on long Sunday mornings. This particular Nutt image jumped out at me years later when, again at the front desk in James Mayor’s gallery where I would spend hours reading books from his wonderful library, I encountered that same drawing. The subject matter is two terrifyingly exciting, grotesque near-nudes engaging in some weird S&M-cum-cabaret ritual (starting to see why this work stuck with me for nearly three decades?). It was illustrated in one of James’ 1980s catalogues. “I think my father owns that”, I remember saying to James. “Maybe he bought it from Phyllis”, came the reply. 

Jim Nutt, Ray Hughes collection
Phyllis Kind was always incredibly generous with me the few times I have met her. I was this weird, chubby kid who used to visit her with my dad when I was in my early teens on a few of his business trips to New York and Chicago. Even when I once visited New York years later, on an errand for Mayor as a 19-year old, she was generous with her time, talking to me about what I liked or didn’t like in art at that moment. I remember saying something I thought was provocative; she rolled her eyes and showed me something more interesting than what I thought was so important. 
Today, in my office (which was once my fathers) I have all of Phyllis Kind Gallery’s invitations of the Imagist artists out on a ledge where all my Chicago books are at the moment. I keep looking down at the invitation illustrated with Wolf Building (1986), one of my very favorite works, and I remind myself: dad couldn’t afford them, Brown was a big deal. 
Roger Brown, The Wolf Building, 1986
However, Ray had indeed bought that Jim Nutt from Phyllis Kind, after the work had returned unsold from James Mayor’s exhibition that went with the catalogue I found in London. It remains one of my most loved pieces in my father’s collection and it still disturbs, titillates, amuses and amazes me. On another wall in his current bedroom on the third floor above our gallery in Surry Hills, are three striking Karl Wirsum works, nearby is a Reverend Howard Finster. There is a Dubuffet drawing near the door, hanging above a Boli sculpture from Mali. Opposite these is a Gareth Sansom painting from the 1970s, a 1970 Roger Hilton nude, another Nutt and an etching by Cristina Ramberg He has recently added two drawings by C.J. Pyle, around the corner nine Alfred Wallis paintings. 

Gareth Samson, Untitled, 1982, Ray Hughes collection
Having grown up in and around this bedroom described above, and our wider collection, I have always been exposed to a vast array of items to inform my visual vocabulary: from African and Oceanic pieces, Japanese shunga, German Expressionist prints, Chinese contemporary paintings, Chinese antique ceramics, tin toys from Africa (there is a photograph of myself as a three year-old on the floor of Craft Caravan in New York), etc. etc. The point to be made is that there is nothing concise or systematic about a good visual education. One hears about collectors who have honed their collecting tastes down to falling within specific years by specific artists and I applaud the connoisseurship and discipline of such eyes, but I worry that their lack of interest in diversity in their own collections spreads to a blinkered approach to examining objects foreign to their tastes.
This slightly convoluted description of these walls serves as a backdrop to one specific reading on Roger Brown: that of the diverse eye. It is nothing new in Brown scholarship, nor in terms of the broader history of the so-called ‘Imagists’. It is worth mentioning here as the present exhibition has been accompanied by a specially curated pair of rooms, one which is a veritable homage to the studio home of Roger Brown made from works from my father’s collection, and the other which is made up of works by Australian artists from the 1960s-1990s that share the spirit of Roger Brown. This exercise in multidisciplinary and multicultural pairings based on figurative or spiritual connections is not novel but it has come around again after the very slick and ultimately tame 2000s where everything seemed to be a showcase of one or another brand name artist. In presenting a selection of Roger Brown works from 1969-1997, we have suggested an appreciation for other images and sources; a desire for the wonderful clutter of ideas that can be drawn from the work that is done by the Roger Brown Study Collection. This approach to art is an emerging tend in the museum world (or one that is finding some voice today which may well be stamped out immediately). Nonetheless, contemporary museology in some of the more interesting corners of the art world is tending towards the more is more approach without an overly descriptive or didactic map. Viewers are being asked to look at more things and be given less instruction. 
Homage to the Roger Brown Study Collection, works from the Ray Hughes collection
At the end of the 2012 trip with my wife, we went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York on our last day in America. The hang in the uppermost level, was very minimalist and I recall my curiosity at the vast wall texts that were required to accompany a bit of metal on the floor: why do we need to say so much about so little? If indeed the world of viewing is changing and that the younger artists and viewers want to see more objects and make their own minds up, then there is no doubt that the Chicago ‘Imagists’ will soon have their day in the sun once more. With the wave of European Minimalists: Zero et al being critically and curatorially lauded and examined at this exact moment in time, surely there can be no more fire in the belly of the minimalist beast after this? This must be the last throes of nothingness before colour and life and figuration can have another chance to engage the minds of the public who are surely sick of staring blankly at blank canvases. I am being glib and flippant of course: there is a great argument for minimalism. I would simply argue that it is time to hear the counter argument.

Roger Brown, Photo by William Bengtson

© 2014, Evan E. Hughes, Sydney

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