Roger Brown (1941-97) made art that was ahead of its time. But the Chicago-based artist died too early to get the credit he deserves. His funky sculptures and quirky paintings, memorable for their fascination with current events and impending disasters, both natural and man-made, have rarely showed up in New York since he succumbed to the effects of AIDS in 1997. He was 56.
Now DC Moore Gallery is helping to fill this void with a fine selection of Brown’s paintings in the first major gallery exhibition of his work here in over a decade. Shortly before he died, the artist arranged to leave his body of work to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Apparently it took several years for SAIC to sort out the estate and start releasing work.
During the Postminimalist 1970s and the Appropriationist ‘80s, Brown’s eccentric, apocalyptic vision was often critically marginalized. His work was championed by art dealer Phyllis Kind, who opened her Chicago gallery in 1967 and her New York gallery in 1975. You can see why the independently minded Kind, who came to specialize in outsider art as well as Chicago artists, took to Roger Brown. His idiosyncratic narratives can never be confused with anyone else’s paintings. He was an American original, an early and mordant assimilator of popular culture and the outsider art he saw in his childhood and adolescence in Alabama long before he ever got to the Midwest.
We mostly think of Brown as a Chicago artist, since he was first recognized as part of the Hairy Who, that small group of Chicago painters who emerged as distinctive originals in the mid-1960s. (The name derived from the title of a now famous group show organized at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1968.) Later Brown was associated with the Chicago Imagists, a regional movement that incorporated many of the Hairy Who, including Brown’s teacher Ray Yoshida, plus Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Gladys Nilsson and Karl Wursum. These artists enthusiastically and successfully embraced narrative styles only tangentially related to Pop Art, while the New York art world was busy immersing itself in Minimalism and Conceptual Art.
Brown learned a lot from Joseph Yoakum (1890-1972), the great outsider artist who lived and worked in Chicago when Brown was a student. The way Brown represents landscape not only reveals startling affinities with Yoakum, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, it also owes a considerable debt to American illustrators (who Brown must have known as a child). Lois Lenski comes to mind, as does Virginia Lee Burton, whose rolling hills in her 1942 children’s book The Little House are strikingly similar to the ones that obsessively undulate throughout Brown’s pictures.
Though Roger Brown lived in Chicago and later in California, where he moved to escape the brutal Lake Michigan winters, he was through and through a southerner raised in Opelika, Ala. He graduated from high school there and went to the Church of Christ Lipscomb Bible College in Nashville, where daily Bible classes and church services were a required part of the curriculum. Maybe because of a little too much church he rapidly abandoned studying to be a preacher. In 1962 he lit out for the bright lights of Chicago, where he enrolled first in commercial art classes and then in SAIC.
You could say that Brown ended up preaching in paint. His acerbic narratives of ecological, natural and man-made disasters convey critical warnings infused with black humor and flavored with the influence of outsider art and fundamentalist fervor. His "news paintings" address current events and popular culture. Not much that comes from European art history shows up in his work. Brown was an obsessive collector of regional tourist souvenirs, kitsch and nostalgic ephemera who haunted flea markets and loved comic books, 1950s ceramics and country music -- the vernacular of American culture. (The portrait of Hank Williams he based on sideshow banners is an homage to one of his heroes.)
Brown also immortalized his delighted discovery that he was distantly related to Elvis in Kissin’ Cousins (1990), a painting of family genealogy included in "Roger Brown: Southern Exposure." This traveling retrospective of his work was organized by Artnet Magazine contributor Sidney Lawrence for the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University in Alabama and is up through mid-July at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. The show and catalogue examine in depth the influence of Brown’s family on his art, his religious upbringing and his southern roots.
Some of the paintings on view at the current show at New York’s DC Moore gallery, such as his Pasadena Garden Residence (1971), are relatively benign translations of daily life. But a pretty big snake is usually hiding somewhere in paradise. Brown addressed many of the environmental, political and social issues that are now common in contemporary art. He was an evangelist about the dangers of pollution, global climate change, the scourge of HIV and the bleak wages of social isolation. This was in the mid-‘70s when such concerns were generally the province of the radical fringe fighting to re-introduce content and narrative into painting and performance.
In today’s oversaturated, anything-goes art scene, Brown’s work now looks terrifically at home, strong and very fresh. His bold, bleakly funny pictures get their rhythm and momentum from a relentless repetition of streamlined and flattened forms. Brown employed extreme distortions of scale and cleverly adapted the isometric perspective of primitive artists and pre-Renaissance painters to his compositions, which had his own palette of bitingly acidic poster paint colors. His ant-like people and animals, houses and machines are toys isolated within vast rural or urban landscapes.
Brown’s imagination can be a threatening place. His scary Heavy Cloud Mask (1989) features huge smoke-wreathed twin skyscrapers peopled by minuscule humans, who appear as stark black silhouettes, positioned comic-book style against identical yellow-lighted windows. The tiny figures are reduced to the status of bugs, as are the trees, people and the two rows of diagonally parked cars in Where Have All the Fishes Gone (1991). This painting is one of Brown’s most arresting environmental red alerts, as sinister semi-circular grey clouds taking up nine-tenths of the canvas oppress a little seafood drive-in embellished with a giant cooked lobster. In Another Shitty Day in Paradise (1993), Brown, then living in California, transformed Mickey Mouse’s head into threatening clouds overhanging tiny hills and houses.
In his early Fallout at Three Mile Island (1979), Brown took on a notorious catastrophic event. The terrifying accident happened in Middletown, Pa., in March 1979 and the artist promptly transformed an image of Brancusi’s endless column into a pillar of poisonous smoke against a sky of blood-red clouds, indicating a nuclear meltdown emerging from an infinitesimal power plant. His obsessively repetitious silhouettes of hills, trees and clouds, bungalows and skyscrapers provide pattern and structure to create what Rob Storr describes in the DC Moore catalogue as "an adroit satire and recycling of the diagrammatic repetitions of abstract art in the 1970s and after." Maybe yes -- but I actually don’t think Brown cared that much about sending up Manhattan art.
He was much more interested in issues of morality, and he parodied social mores in works like The Young and Self Conscious (1991), where trendy urban types parade their punk hairdos as they troll for dates against a backdrop of relentlessly lighted windows framing potential partners. And he showed what he thought about the American philosophy of the almighty dollar by setting a giant dollar sign set against a lowering sky in Landscape with Dollar Sign (1991). He didn’t avoid political comment either: Presidential Portrait (1986) depicts Ronny and Nancy in sideshow-banner style as mindlessly smiling comic book heads floating in a polluted sky.
After he died, Brown’s family restored an old stone house he had loved in Beulah, Ala. Open by appointment, it’s full of artifacts from his childhood and toys his father made for him as well as some of his work. Furthermore, Brown carefully set up his own memorial. He gave much more than his art work to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His bequest included his very large collections of objects and his studio in New Buffalo, Mich., which is now a house museum containing his collections, furniture and a lot of his art.
The school also got his Stanley Tigerman-designed house and studio, his art collection and his fabulous Spartan trailer in La Conchita, Ca. After SAIC sold the California house and moved its contents to New Buffalo, the Spartan went to Los Angeles. It’s on long-term loan to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where it sits in the museum’s courtyard next to a Spartanette, a smaller version of the Spartan, and it relates to the museum’s exhibition, "A Garden of Eden on Wheels," an installation of dioramas that explore Southern California "mobile home living." Roger Brown would be pleased.
"Roger Brown: The American Landscape," May 1-June 13, 2008, at DC Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019
"Roger Brown: Southern Exposure," May 8-July 8, 2008, at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans, 925 Camp Street, New Orleans, La.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a New York art critic who is writing the biography of the Baron de Meyer.