Roger Brown: The American Landscape
May 1 – June 13, 2008
DC Moore Gallery is pleased to announce the opening of Roger Brown: The American Landscape on May 1, 2008. One of the most imaginative and inventive artists of the latter part of the twentieth century, Roger Brown (1941-97) was a leading member of the Chicago Imagist group who created bold canvases and sculptural objects that explore the American scene in the postwar era. This exhibition is the first major show of his work in New York City in over a decade. It includes paintings representative of his three-decade career from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, featuring iconic landscapes and cityscapes of urban architecture, suburban tract housing, undulating hills, and ominously patterned skies. Continuing through June 13, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with an essay, “Message and Murmurs from the (Broken) Heartland,” by Robert Storr.
Brown’s work is at once personal, provocative, and political, often a commentary on current events and contemporary attitudes delivered with a strong dose of irony and a wry sense of humor. He celebrated the vernacular, mining popular culture for its truths and contradictions, and focused on a range of themes from urban isolation, alienation, and sexual intrigue to natural disasters, human tragedy, and weather patterns, all of which are somehow interconnected through webs of human agency and impact on the environment.
“As an artist with a penchant for staring into the abyss, Brown’s great gift was to make his gloomy fixations and forebodings snappy, mesmerizing, bleakly hilarious and indelible,” as Robert Storr writes in the exhibition catalogue. While he insisted on simplicity of presentation, his forceful, direct paintings are visually sophisticated and conceptually complex. His sources are diverse, including Surrealism, American modernism and Regionalism, early Italian Renaissance art, folk and self-taught art, comic strips, advertising, and non-western art.
The paintings in the exhibition create their own narratives that are identifiable through Brown’s consistent use of a personal vocabulary of visual motifs and images. One of the earliest works in the show, Pasadena Garden Residence of 1971, showcases a southern California mansion in a stylized garden with a central fountain in a pool and trim, geometric bushes. Small silhouetted black figures, a signature element in Brown’s work, are separated by garden walls. The carefully managed bilateral symmetry of the setting suggests a controlled environment and neatly manicured lifestyles.
Also on view is Heavy Cloud Mask, 1989, which features two tall buildings with Brown’s characteristic yellow windows and flat figures inside, none of whom are interacting. Dense layers of black and white clouds surround and separate the starkly geometric structures. A sense of anonymous display, of disconnected contemporary life, and a community of self-absorbed residents pervades the scene.
In Another Shitty Day in Paradise, 1993, ambiguous, rounded, animal-like cloud patterns hover over a row of small houses, again with yellow windows and silhouetted figures, that are both contained and separated by arcs of hills. Since Brown was living in Southern California at the time, the two central cloud forms can be seen as Disney figures, a dominate cultural force that permeates the American landscape.
Born and raised in Alabama, Brown moved to Chicago in 1962, where he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and American Academy of Art. In the late 60s, he participated in a series of now-legendary exhibitions best remembered by the name of one of them, “The Hairy Who.” The artists who were involved became known as Chicago Imagists, a loosely related group of like-minded painters and sculptors who pursued various means of personal expression to transform visual imagery from a variety of media, generally using pop culture as their point of departure. Brown continued to exhibit extensively for the rest of his life, and was represented by the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and New York from 1970 until his death in 1997. Major retrospectives of his work were organized by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama in 1980; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC in 1987; and the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University, Alabama in 2007. The latter exhibition is traveling to American University, Washington, DC, and the University of New Orleans, Louisiana this year.