Critics’ Picks

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls and Pitchers, 1995, mixed media, 37 1/2 x 50”.

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls and Pitchers, 1995, mixed media, 37 1/2 x 50”.

Chicago

Roger Brown

Hyde Park Art Center
5020 S. Cornell Ave.
June 20–October 3, 2010

This absorbing exhibition demonstrates that Roger Brown’s interests went far beyond the making of his own vibrantly idiosyncratic paintings. Among numerous other pursuits, Brown was an avid collector of quirky ceramic curios––bowls, dishes, vases, and other vessels by anonymous makers of varying skill levels––that appealed to the artist precisely because of their aberrant or iconoclastic qualities. In the late 1970s, Brown, an Alabama-born, Chicago-based artist associated with the latter city’s trend-bucking Imagist group of representational painters, moved to La Conchita, a small Southern California beach community, to escape the Midwest’s notoriously harsh winters. While the title of this exhibition, “Calif USA,” refers to the geographic region where Brown lived until his death in 1997, it could just as easily be read as alluding to the artist’s expansive state of mind during his fruitful last decade.

Central to the exhibition is the 1995–96 series of his “virtual still life paintings” made in California. In these works, Brown arranged ceramic objects from his collections on small wooden trays affixed directly to his canvases. Functioning as both shrines and shelves, Brown’s still lifes celebrate the revelatory qualities of the everyday; yet unlike their traditional counterparts, they take humorous advantage of the genre’s inherently theatrical nature. In one, the undulating outline of a row of earthenware mugs is echoed and amplified by the eerily luminous mountain range depicted in the painting. Elsewhere, three-dimensional ceramic pitchers serve as figurative receptacles for the painted waterfalls behind them. Arguably, however, Brown’s uniquely synergistic approach to art, life, and vernacular culture found its most profound expression in his own home, through wildly imaginative salon-style arrangements of his collections—arrangements that are reconfigured in situ throughout the exhibition galleries.