San Francisco

Joan Brown

Hansen-fuller-goldeen Gallery And University Art Museum

Joan Brown’s most provocative paintings transform her own experiences into subject matter that seems universally significant. Originally part of the Bay Area figurative movement, Brown bypassed some of the self-indulgence that afflicted many of the other California artists who shared her autobiographical inclinations. Perhaps it was the risks she took as a painter that gave her work more meaning; she boldly pursued stylistic and formal questions in conjunction with the exploration of personal imagery. Whether it was the juxtaposition of two-dimensional decorative pattern against three-dimensional form, as in the sculptures, or the use of broad, expansive areas of paint to delineate naive, styled figures, Brown dynamically merged personal subject concerns with stylistic investigation. Two recent exhibitions, one comprised of sculptures created in the mid ’70s, the other featuring very recent paintings based on a trip to China, offer some of Brown’s archetypal themes in sculpture, and also present new work with different themes.

The eight painted sculptures, in cardboard or aluminum, alternate between fantasies of animals, cruise ships, dancing couples à la Astaire and Rogers, and more mundane autobiographical material. Brown in a jogging outfit is seen mid-stride on a striped track, or appears in bust/profile with cigarette. Both themes are familiar from the artist’s paintings of this period.

The sculptures are unpretentious, engaging, and for those familiar with her paintings, somewhat like seeing one’s favorite characters come a little closer to life. Crafted in a rough, sometimes jagged, cut-out manner, they maintain a certain spontaneity. Nevertheless, the sculptures tend to offer the accessible side of Brown’s endeavors (her content) without any of the stylistic inquiry. Indeed, the constructions demonstrate that the cutting edge in Brown’s work from this period is the painterly chance-taking—the figure-ground relationships that miraculously come together in a brilliant, idiosyncratic fashion. Without this, the sculptures seem pleasurable but secondary works.

Brown’s recent paintings, in contrast to her mid ’70s work, have moved a step away from the directly autobiographical. The travel motif that has preoccupied her in the last three exhibitions exists in this current show as souvenir content devoid of artist persona. Dragons, temples, pagodas and Buddahs are centralized objects, often in a mandala form, set off in a 24-by-36-inch rectangular field of color. Brown as everywoman, the personal transformed into the universal, is replaced by the universal cliché.

The China paintings are a cross between a Grayline tour and the decor of a Chinatown restaurant. Clichéd subjects are matched with stylistic banality. Small brushstrokes, neo-impressionist patterns or pointillist effect are set off in colors that run to combinations of orange and green, pink and green or purple and green. One might hope that Brown intended to play off cultural clichés in the way that some of her earlier work does. But rather than synthesizing banal symbolism and style, she falls here into the trap of the culturally commonplace.

Brown seems overwhelmed, not only by the shift in content from the intimate to deliberately public, but in the setting up of new stylistic problems for which she has not developed a sufficient vocabulary. Universal symbolism, instead of yielding visionary works, usually yields tired visions. Perhaps Brown expects too much—a trip to China in July, a series of paintings completed the next month. There was no time to sort out responses.

Hal Fischer