Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Roger Brown Iconic/Ironic

Roger Brown was one of the leading painters amongst a group of artists whom we have come to know as the ‘Chicago Imagists’. Art history likes –isms and –ists because its students are more comfortable with compartmentalising species rather than comparing the divergent characteristics of individuals. From many of the various readings, it seems the artists of this period in Chicago were uncomfortable with a strict collective definition but it has stuck and it does no harm; a little like ‘outsider art’; a concept which is globally fashionable but which also doesn’t need any more description than what it is: simply ‘art’. When artists are friends, exhibit together and make complementary works, it can oftentimes give the impression of a shared movement of artistic intent, rather than a common source to each individual’s imagery. Sometimes it is simply a very talented group of individuals who have been lumped together by chance, fashion or convention.
Roger Brown in his studio. Courtesy of the Roger Brown Study Collection. Visit the website here

Brown was a regular member of joint-exhibitions and surveys whose thrust and often even names perpetuated a group vibe. Whether Brown and his colleagues were part of a group or not is not of primary importance today; many of the artists are important in their own right and have recently been enjoying surveys and important solo shows. Ultimately, the artists of Chicago from 1966 to now were and are artists with highly individual energies. Their geographical proximity and shared rejection of the prevailing trends in American art at the time bound them more than anything else except perhaps a sense of fun and respect for the supremacy of surface and image over concept.

Nonetheless, Roger Brown was and remains one of the most individual voices in American painting. Despite this statement, he was an artist whose imagery benefited from many sources. Identifying these has become as much fun for art historians and students as quoting them clearly was for the artist in the studio. Whilst it is enjoyable (though exhausting) to pick where Brown’s individual works may have drawn from Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Sienese painting, the work of Joseph Yoakum, Giorgio De Chirico, primitive sculpture, southern folk art, etc. etc, it is his political and social commentary as much as his pictorial ingenuity that commands attention and which is the loose focus of the present exhibition.

Roger Brown died before his time in 1997, and whilst other artists from the period have enjoyed careers that have, along with their lives, endured, Brown’s politics within the work has at times existed in a conservative climate. Many paintings in the oeuvre of Roger Brown explore the politics of sexuality, homosexuality and the cultural stigma that was attached to the AIDS virus, which ultimately claimed his life, in America in the 1980s and 1990s.
To find a path towards the discussion of Brown’s sexual politics, it is important to traverse his visual landscape. Here, an assessment of the skyscraper works will serve as a backdrop for commentary on some of the contentious aspects of his practice.

To know what a Roger Brown painting looks like is to be expected of someone familiar with the work of the ‘Imagists’. Brown’s Land of Lincoln (1978) adorned the jacket cover of Who Chicago? the accompanying publication to the important exhibition of the same name that toured England in 1981. This is perhaps the most important contemporary book that banded and branded the ‘Imagists’. As for his imagery throughout a career, Brown is a good deal more than a painter of tall buildings, although these have been the works often chosen to illustrate him in surveys or articles, are the most sought after commercially and have become the regular mental images of what his work ‘is’ or ‘looks like’ over the years.

Brown possessed an accomplished and distinctive style. He enjoyed a command over composition that allowed for the successful execution of large canvasses with uncomplicated motifs, oftentimes repeating them with a rhythmic nature that was never monotonous. For instance, there is a musical quality to a work such as Buttermilk Sky (1974) with its repeating hills, shrubs and clouds that is kept lively by its various punctuations; a rearing horse, a campervan, a hitchhiker. A similar detail in Virtual Still Life # 22, the airplane is another of  these punctuations but this time an intended, subtle distraction. Within small offerings such as these, unfurl  narratives that are neither obvious nor meaningless. Thus, curiosity and voyeurism become central to Brown’s narrative. It is rare that the viewer is fully aware of the story behind a work’s image unless it is one attached to fact, as in one of his ‘history paintings’, for instance Assassination Crucifix (1975).

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life # 22: Service with a Smile, 1996, Private Collection

Voyeurism is inherent in the architectural paintings. It is undeniable that Brown’s most famous works depict buildings. If these are his standout subjects, then their windows populated by stylized silhouettes are an important hallmark of his work. It was visiting the Roger Brown Study Collection in Chicago that I realized one aspect of why I had always taken to his work with joy. As a child, I had played with a vintage Dick Tracy tin squad car. The siren whirred as the wheels moved and on the side, front and rear windows, yellow squares framed the front, side and back depictions of the faces of Dick and the other officers in the car. Getting close up to some of the works in the 2012 exhibition, Roger Brown: This Boy’s Own Story  gave me the first opportunity to see the activities of the figures so often lost in images of the works from books.

The windows of the Hancock Building (1974) depict on one side of the sculpture such innocuous scenes as a group dancing, a man being admonished by a woman and a sole woman waving, whilst the  next side depicts several floors of raucous sexual activity playing out. Compare this to the sculpture in the McClain collection (now in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin), Skyscraper Pyramid (1974) and that seems an altogether better behaved address. Then again, in Me’s Building Highrise (1972) an entire lewd liason from anonymous meeting in the park to post-coital smoking seems to play out in a simultaneous depiction for one lucky couple on every floor of a strikingly similar building to the McClain pyramid.

Roger Brown, Hancock Building, 1974, Roger Brown Study Collection,
 the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Visit the website here
Identifying Brown’s regularly appearing characters: the woman with her  hair elaborately coiffed, the young  man with his peaked at the front for example, is not of urgent necessity. If desperate to find identity, the publication Roger Brown: Southern Exposure bears two helpful images that the viewer may use to make up their mind: one is a self-portrait sketch c. 1960 whereby the hair on the youth mirrors that which recurs in the windows on the young figure. A second image depicts a photograph from the mid-1940s of his parents at the beach, where his mother wears her hair very similarly to the recurring woman (usually standing shocked). Neither hairstyle was remarkably rare for the era and reading too much into this, whilst tempting, serves no real purpose. Whilst art is arguably inherently autobiographical, Brown’s was about conveying the mood of the time. These paintings were as much about sexual liberation or repression in general, as about Brown’s own.

Identities and activities of the occupants aside, whether the architecture paintings became synonymous with the style of Brown because they were the strongest compositionally or that they assisted the placement of ‘Imagism’ in geographical terms is unclear. In an essay in the publication Art in Chicago: 1945-1995 prepared for an exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 1996, Judith Russi Kirshner states “Brown positioned himself in his artwork as an anti-authoritarian outsider” and that he “anthropomorphized the city’s modern skyscrapers and paradoxically became the standard bearer for Chicago Imagism”.  Kirschner also weighs the suggestion put forward by Mary Gedo that the architectural works relate biographically to his “positive alliance” with architect George Veronda, (1940-1984) whom Brown began a relationship with in 1972.

Notwithstanding artistic motive, which likely varied from work to work, the city/building works are laced with wit, much like the modernist and post modernist architecture of the city. An industry flourishes along the river through Chicago with countless amusing but conflicting stories relating to the inspirations behind or architectural theories surrounding the buildings across the city, as told by  the guides on the river cruises that go up and down ad nauseum. Possibly none of the architectural works holds as much inherent humour as Post-Modern Res/Erection with Observation Deck (1984). Attached to this work is the most obvious notion of the attachment of ego to the size of one’s erection, architectural or otherwise. There is nothing subtle about the fact that even though Chicago’s John Hancock Centre is 25 meters taller than the Chrysler Building in New York, it is still 37 meters shorter than The Empire State Building. When ,in 1972, the first World Trade Centre soared at 417 meters it would take until the Sears Tower in Chicago was finally erected in 1974 at 442 meters before people could rest assured of their superiority in Chicago. Little articulation about the phallic connotations and the superiority/inferiority dilemma therein associated is really required. Remember, Hancock Centre was illustrated in Who Chicago as ‘Big John’.

On a somber note, it is worth examining a number of works in a very different light, to put into the literature on his painting an interesting observation that followed his life. Brown, as will be discussed further below, was conscious of social and political events and often depicted them. Dying in 1997, Brown missed the earthmoving events of September 11, 2001, their aftermath and the visuals that the world was met with. One cannot help but consider Twin Towers (1977), the sculpture in the SAIC’s New Buffalo collection against the backdrop of preceding works such as Ablaze and Ajar (1972) in the Museum of Contemporary Art Collection, Tropical Storm (1972) and Midnight Tremor (1972). It is disturbing but difficult not to compare the grim imagery of the falling figures depicted in the canvases, tumbling, arms outstretched from the buildings whilst they crumble and breaks apart, to those photographs that few can forget of the victims falling to their deaths from great height before the twin towers came down. Brown, who never made an image flippantly seems, with a work such as Ablaze and Ajar to be portending something about the march of society, or the pace and peril of modern life. Within this frame, these works lose all their humour and adopt enormous power. Such is the strength of the period’s motif.

Roger Brown, Ablaze and Ajar, 1972, collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art,
Chicago. Visit the website here
There is probably little doubt as to the side of politics Brown might have fallen on as dictated by his art alone. The imagery of his political discourse is fairly liberal and the wit with which it is portrayed has the hallmarks of that thoughtful, amusing style of political commentary Australian audiences might associate with the pages of the New Yorker. This is not a strictly speaking ‘Democratic’ viewpoint, but at least a thoughtful one. His outlook might at once loathe most of the politics of Reaganism but adore the charm, bravado and at times self-parodying nature of the Reagans themselves. The present exhibition, His American Icons draws specifically on Presidential Portrait (1986). This work, now in a private collection in Sydney, is a classic piece. It puzzles me that it has hitherto remained unsold in the estate. Included in the 1987 retrospective of Brown’s work at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and illustrated on p. 80 of the catalogue, it is one of the great directly political works in his output. It could be advanced that the subject had posed a problem with his otherwise Democratic audiences in liberal Chicago and New York.
The irony so successfully portrayed by an artist who owned a novelty pair of Reagan slippers is the crucial aspect to the work. Irony is a central theme in the political works: Brown was not in the business of jamming tough medicine down the throat of his audience; his was a point that was best delivered with cutting but amusing elegance. Much like a joke at someone’s expense, his political works are laced with enough humour to provoke either hearty amusement or at least nervous laughter, often both when successful. Presidential Portrait does speak about American icons. Politics is polarizing. The simple image of Obama’s Hope campaign from the 2008 election raises both pride and ire depending on the audience. How dearly we might long to see how Brown, the most visually communicative and specific artists of his day might have commented on the characterization of America now: how would Brown record the election of Obama or document the Gifford Assasination attempt or the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting? One particular event in the United States that Brown should have been able to depict upon his canvas was that important court ruling in 2013 when the US Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional, the key section of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed by the Clinton administration (who would later advocate its repeal) a year before Brown’s death . The most enduring image from this episode was Jack Hunter’s cover of The New Yorker depicting the Sesame Street ‘friends’ Bert and Ernie watching the ruling on their television.

Roger Brown, Presidential Portrait, 1986, Private Collection
Writers are careful with the sensitive nature of Brown’s ultimate demise. However, one should be disinclined to remain too politely silent about what invariably, the man who painted Aha! Heterosexuals Fuck Too (1991) clearly wanted debated. Attitudes towards both heterosexual and homosexual victims of HIV and AIDS remain varied. Aha! is a powerful work dealing with how ‘civilized’ America was supposed to deal with the iconic Magic Johnson suffering from the ‘gay’ disease. Stigma has haunted this virus and it continues to do so. More and more education, prevention and better treatment is changing this perception, however it has some way to go. That said, as with the newly unconstitutional nature of DOMA, and more nations legalizing same sex marriages, attitudes are changing; something that Brown had begun discussing many years ago. His works today are important pioneering images at the beginning of that arduous path.

Roger Brown, Aha! Heterosexuals Fuck Too, 1991, Roger Brown Estate
Painting  Collection, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Visit the website here
Roger Brown painted sharp, idiosyncratic paintings and made sculptures that challenged and played with the conventions of the boundary between fine sculpture, low object and also painting itself. From the earliest canvases in the current show, the theatre images, to the California Gawkers painted in the final year of his life, he advanced his argument about how form could be non-naturalistically but elegantly conveyed on a canvas. There is much to be said about the importance of Roger Brown’s subject matter, and throughout the oeuvre it calls for fun as well as serious considerations. The most powerful of Brown’s works interlace irony with his desired message; they use a playful gesture or narrative to convey his statements.

Roger Brown, California Gawkers, 1997, Roger Brown Study Collection,

he School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Visit the website here


Copyright © Evan E Hughes

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