Joan Brown

Allan Frumkin Gallery

Joan Brown’s large-scale, cartoonish painting has moved from her prior hokey camp and jokey funk to a kind of no-nonsense social imagery, painful but bearable. Her format is controlled, her figures frontal, and her paint asensual. In a new group of six self-portraits, primarily concerned with de-idealizing women, I marvel at the areas in which life and art can come together. For example: Woman Waiting in Restaurant—the black and white tile floor, a device immortalized by Vermeer to situate a contented woman in a warm window light, now leads along a roguish red carpet to billboardish rows of cocktail-clicking, vapid silhouettes, à la 1950s Pepsi ads; or, Woman Preparing for Shower: in a Nefertiti-like pose, a mask-faced woman mocks half-draped goddesses, the flat pattern of her blue dotted robe subverting the structure of the body underneath. No question that Brown’s imagery is conjured from within, but, at the same time, each of her heroines is also an anonymous composite of historical devices.

Her sexless, deadpan figures remind me of the imperative Adrian Piper photostat, Mythic Being: I/You (Us), in which, wall-eyed and bloodless, the artist says, via a cartoon bubble, “Be sure to attend very carefully to what I have to say to you for if you do not I swear I will make a sincere effort to kill you.” Like Piper’s cartoon bubble, Brown’s rigid pseudo-comedy seems to defy a laugh. Neither woman’s art has any standard, girlish, kitteny contours or frivolity; and both are a reaction to the subtle discovery of having been trapped in myth.

Brown’s woman is just another element in a number of angular environments. Her soul companion is a dog—a plump, brown figure or a painterly sport with a red checked towel in its mouth—whose colors and curves are more lively than the heroine herself. In its eager, perplexed, or curious personification, the dog seems to function as a viewer—perhaps a male?—a symbolism that emphasized the woman’s sterile world. These portraits do mark some change from trends in erotic, narcissistic, and other strident “women’s art,” which often hides the difficulty of displacing the traditional female imagery by something positive and unique. Brown’s sullenly obvious points do honestly reveal empty heroines; the action is yet to happen, the pictures anticipate something. That life hasn’t quite begun yet, or is quick to disappear, is reinforced by the style in which she poses her issues. Each painting resembles, to some extent, a shiny, enamel scene that could be plucked up like a window shade and vanish. Like that.

C. L. Morrison