Chicago

Roger Brown

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

During the mid-1970s, when Roger Brown was singled out as one of the new champions of the “Chicago Imagist School,” his painting underwent a transition toward greater size, more pictorial weight, and global subject matter. His use of symmetry and measure, which in the early 1970s had been implicit, became overt and iconic; he began tackling subjects like An Actual Dream of the Second Coming, 1976, and The Entry of Christ into Chicago in 1976, 1976, in expanded versions of his comic-book style. Behind his signature image of little people with 1940s hairdos, seen most often as silhouettes on window shades, one senses Brown’s ambition to be a contemporary history painter and to master other traditional modes, from landscape to allegory.

Beginning with a painting called Twister, 1972, damaging weather becomes a leitmotif in Brown’s painting. The frequency with which storm clouds billow into hurricanes, polluted sunsets and suggestions of nuclear fallout in the work since 1976 implies that Brown’s clouds, static like loaves of bread in uniform rows, are emblems of his own intransigence. He is not going to be like Picasso and try many styles. He is going to stick to his own patient approach—an outline style employing uninflected planes of flat color and absolute, dark-to-light tonal transitions. He is going to keep his little people (even if, as in recent work, he upstages them with large marsh flowers), because the little people are his handle on the past, on all the movies he saw as a child in Alabama, and on his parents, who appear in a photograph on the back of Autobiography in the Shape of Alabama (Mammy’s Door), 1974.

As the context of Brown’s work has become more cosmopolitan, the internal line of his drawing has become more obsessive, more like that of schizophrenic art, more resolutely naive. One might see his work in terms of a Chicago-Deep South dialectic, in which his paintings up to 1975 represent the assimilation and extension of the Chicago design tradition, whereas the more recent work shows the emergence of Brown’s swampy, emotional roots. The 1981 work (not in this exhibition, but shown last April at the Phyllis Kind Gallery) suggests that Brown has not yet reached a synthesis of the two and is still superimposing screens—now harangues against the painterly and conceptual biases of the New York school, now obfuscations for his fear of chaos.

This retrospective of 41 paintings and 10 objects from the period 1968–1980 begins and ends with the recent work. In a sense, I never got past the first painting, Lake Effect, 1980. It bowled me over with its big, graphic image of arcs and horizontal stripes that reminded me of Frank Stella, of a late 1960s psychedelic rock logo, and of the fact that Brown himself worked as a commercial artist in a decal factory while still at the Art Institute of Chicago. Lake Effect is a blatant, neo-’60s painting—strident in its red, white, blue, green and black coloration, impersonal and actually rather tentative in its allusions to airbrush and “primitive” drawing styles; it is insistently, even defiantly, flat. On the one hand, it seems to refer to a specific phenomenon of Chicago weather; on the other, it seems to announce a Second City twilight of the gods. The mood of the painting is frankly antagonistic; with its unremitting, tonal reverberations, its effect is alarmist. With this painting, as with all the others, Brown blows a trumpet, proclaiming that his painting is as strong in formal terms as New York abstraction. At the same time his little figures and skylines of Chicago work like a high frequency whistle to draw in and amuse adherents of funk. Brown clearly wants his painting to function on both levels, and to this purpose he uses radical shifts in scale—from big storm clouds to tiny landscapes below—as well as primitive means of perspective, whereby “above” means “behind” and the sides of buildings zigzag in shifting, isometric patterns. On the other two floors of this retrospective, one sees Brown’s experiments with crucifix formats, found objects and household objects; without destroying their reference to utility, he transforms them into toys for adults.

Brown gets away with repetition and cuteness by allowing his figures and landscapes metaphorically to breathe. Despite his fixation on flowers and weather effects, his painted world remains airless. However distinct and memorable this world may be in a single painting or in a small show, it does not sustain a whole retrospective—something that was made evident by the juxtaposition of Brown’s show with Chuck Close’s retrospective. But this show is evidently a labor of love, organized in Brown’s native Alabama by Mitchell Douglas Kahan at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, seen there and in Houston before coming to Chicago, and accompanied by a thorough catalogue with essays by Kahan, Dennis Adrian and Russell Bowman.

Brown’s seemingly naive paintings actually reflect an acute form of knowledge, specifically art historical knowledge, with which he announces his place in the world more than he questions it. Although I like the quaintness of Brown’s paintings (however disingenuous it may be), I was not won over by the rigidity or the puerility of Brown’s stance.

Brooks Adams