New York

Joan Brown

Allan Frumkin Gallery

Joan Brown’s two travel paintings have this scary effect. They were inspired by a trip to South America, but they could be voyages to anywhere unknown. Traveling dislocates, sending the body out into a void, surrounding it with a space that closes off the view, focusing on the body as a center. One painting has a ship in the center; the other, an airplane. Out from these small images, tight coils, short, accumulated trails of paint, are whipped into tornadoes, establishing a foreign territory, a body hurtling through space at the speed of flight—or, more dreadfully, the mind made anxious by the incessant monotony of the sea, an expanse both terrible and boring.

On this trip, Brown saw a lionlike animal and a monkey, both of which she paints. The monkey painting is more interesting: it walks on all fours at the bottom frame of the picture. A curved, meandering shape emanates upward from the top of its head. The shape reminded me of chromosomes for some reason—recalling the too-close biological proximity of man to monkey. This shape is also a snake, a snake-in-the-grass, as S-curve maze—the jungle as uncharted, potentially evil territory.

What Brown adds to this half-horror of the jungle, to the mysteriousness of the unknown, is romance. Jungles are gothic, scary, but alluring. This dual quality makes the work. Without the two the image weakens, losing its tenseness and anticipatory quality. Brown’s best theme up until now has been the romance of waiting. There are two more paintings in the show, not about travel, but about romance, its false image and imposed dream. One painting is perfectly awful: a woman sits in a dark pink sky on a quarter moon of silver glitter. She is ghostly, phantomlike, fantastic and unbelievable as an image. The other work is better painted (Brown has used clumsy figures before to a much better effect, to indicate awkwardness in her subject), and shows a man and a woman dancing, again in transparent silhouette. But the real killers in this one—and I wish Brown had stopped with them—are solid black cats jumping at random through the space of this mock-romantic dance. The cats do temper the romance with something evil, something meant to break up the idealized love image. But there’s no contest—the cats take over.

Two sets of drawings completed the show: one about reading as romance and trip-taking without the risks, the other about couples—“Mary Julia and David.” They are seen in different stages of dominance, one sometimes bigger than the other, in sad celebrations, fighting, in a continual battle of power. My favorite (out of sheer nostalgia for home) shows Mary Julia and David drinking a toast with a champagne bottle next to them, much larger than the figures. On the skyline behind their drunken, precarious joy, the elegant needle of San Francisco’s Transamerica Building sharply imitates the bottle’s shape.

Jeff Perone