New York

Joan Brown

Frumkin Gallery

Mysterious forces have beckoned women since the beginning of time to paint themselves by outlining their eyes, coloring their lips and rouging their cheeks. Indeed, the root of this impulse is as unfathomable as the human need to execute any mark at all. Joan Brown not only paints women exclusively, she “paints” women in the most literal sense. The female subjects, lipsticked, nail-polished, are all set into backdrops of thickly painted objects and colorful primitivized patterns, or in relation to tabloids of events—also backdrops in that they are temporally removed, taking place either in the future or the past.

Never pivotal to the field of present action, the women are inert yet threatened. Constantly recurring in the background of these paintings either as a future happening or as a flashback is an initiation-by-water, the “Alcatraz Swim,” in which female swimmers are being hauled aboard a boat against a metropolitan skyline and a silhouette of Alcatraz Island. A participant in the Swim, presented only relative to “before and after” this ordeal, embodies changes resulting from a tribulation which traditionally liberates and purifies. Her physical appearance in the Night Before the Alcatraz Swim is altered in contrast to that in After the Alcatraz Swim. The woman is noticeably older after the ordeal. Her hair is tastefully pinned close to her head and her lips and nails are carefully lacquered with polish. These cosmetic constituents seem to be attestations of recovery, of health. But this mythic Flood has not been a purification, a release; this woman has resurfaced laden with a coat of nail lacquer, merely another painted element in a world where even memories are “painted.”

These women never seize the present. They either look to the past or wait for the future to occur. The word “waiting” gapes with the expectation of a swallowed sneeze, but anxiety in their inherent passivity here overwhelms any element of pleasurable tension. In After the Alcatraz Swim #3, a woman sits waiting near a telephone on which is brazenly written 377-3737. She cannot act; only those urgently painted flat numbers can break forth from the torpor of her waiting. A painting entitled Woman Waiting for Shower euphemistically assumes the presence of an invisible male figure. In our vernacular, this phrase leads us to believe that the woman is waiting for her husband to vacate the shower so that she can bathe. Upon viewing the actual painting we realize we are dealing with a solecism; depicted is simply a plastic-capped woman who faces a shower-head as she disrobes. She is attended not by a man, but by a small dog who eagerly holds her towel. Yes, a “woman” is “waiting for a shower,” but is not the shower really “waiting” for her? It is she who controls that faucet, and yet she is victimized by its phallicness.

Even Mary Julia y Manuel, a severe woman with a hand pointing sharply floorward, fears and yet perpetuates her own ultimate submission; she is dressed in a gown which is slit exposing a strip of leg. Despite her assertiveness, the “Alcatraz Swim” looms behind and she must match dress and shoes to bear testimony to her health as a female.

These woman are not victims only of males, pervasive despite their exclusion from the paintings, but they are at the mercy of Miss Brown’s paint, which suffocates them, enshrouding them and the canvases on which they reside. That impulse to paint surfaces and faces is at once a movement toward exposure and camouflage, an attempt to create and to eradicate oneself. The women in Joan Brown’s paintings are survivors as persistent and durable as the paint which forms them; they combat their opacity in piercing elegies of their muted selves.

Judith Cardozo