New York

Robert Delford Brown

Phyllis Kind Gallery

I don’t know exactly what to say about Robert Delford Brown’s work. I do know that it moved me, but in a funny way that had more to do with my respect for personal indomitability than with art appreciation. The show was billed as a retrospective (“survey” would, I think, have been a more accurate tag), and contained drawings, watercolors, photographic documentation of environmental/performance pieces, hand-tinted photographic enlargements, ceramic wall reliefs, and papier-mâché mobiles. All told, twenty years worth of lopsided eccentricity. For what is instantly remarkable about the work is just how little it has to do with any movement one might associate with the period in which it was generated. Nor is there any real interconnectedness within the work itself, other than the kind of Pentecostal Dadaism manifested in Brown’s role as the founding father of the First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc.

It is the Church of the Exquisite Panic that dominates much of the early performance documentation and all of the drawings and watercolors. Seemingly dedicated to sensual and artistic anarchy, the Church is both a state of mind and a physical reality (the artist’s home/studio/sanctuary is the scene of a number of documented Exquisite Panic antics). The decidedly wacky statements describing the Church read like those anonymous street manifestoes announcing Armageddon or the second coming of Jimi Hendrix. Manuscript drawings elucidating the teachings of the Church have an automatist look, filled with squiggly cartoons and assorted maxims and cautions like “ . . . millions of the fattest clowns will undergo a glandular metamorphosis that will reduce them to the level of competent tax attorneys.”

Looking at the manuscripts, one has the feeling that if there is any operative outside influence, it’s Alfred Jarry. Or, more to the point, Père Ubu. Like Ubu’s, Brown’s humor is an unsettling blend of juvenile scatology and revolutionary rhetoric. Because they pretend to inform, the manuscripts are inviting; but as Ubu was wont to say, “By my green candle, I don’t understand.” Nor do I think I am supposed to.

Among the environmental/performance documents, the one for which Brown is probably best known is the “Meat Show,” which took place in a meat locker at the Washington Market in 1964. Photographs show Brown attired in a butcher’s smock, cheerfully squiring visitors past very large frozen sides of beef. (A memento from that show—an eviscerated pig—hung from the gallery ceiling.) When one recalls other meat artists of the early ’60s (Otto Muehl and Hermann Nitsch spring to mind) the benign, chatty coverage of the show, here reprinted from the period, becomes understandable: the critics were probably relieved that this meat exponent was content to let his medium hang rather than wing it in their faces. Retrospectively, the “Meat Show” holds up as a mock-serious reflection on the more outrageous art explorations of that very lively, now very remote, period. Sadly, the other documents give the sense of a grand collaborative ambition being strained into a series of solipsistic exercises.

The most accessible pieces in the show were four enlargements (from a series done in 1965) of photographs from a 1930 volume of Sexual Wissenschaft. Detailing varieties of aberrant behavior, they are tinted in lurid (but not improbable) colors and manage to make some rather extreme activities look like perfectly normal bourgeois affectations. A flasher in a René Magritte bowler is seen twice—first he is a little man fully swathed in an overcoat, then he is holding his coat open, naked underneath it except for a cutaway shirt and a tie. In both pictures a black rectangle covers the offender’s nose and eyes. It’s Stan Laurel gone pornographic.

The largest body of work is the “Map to Nirvana” series from 1966 and 1967. Collaged from porn magazines, newspapers, and colored paper, the series is artfully awful. The patterns that Delford Brown imposes on the “Maps” are sinuously fussy. Rhythmic swirls are neatly—obsessively—stapled in place to effect an antithetical merger of the organic and the ordered. All I could think of was a sex-mad shut-in cutting and stapling through an orgy of clippings; they’re too arranged to be really mad, but they’re too compulsive to be right.

Hanging close by the “Maps” are a series of “Ikonobiles” from 1975 and 1976—extremely likable papier-maché mobiles in child-bright colors. Sprightly and clunky, they have a funny, off-putting peppiness. They also pave the way for the largest, and newest, piece in the show. The Lemur’s Dream, 1980–81, is a seven-odd-foot-high, lurid red, papier-mâché monstrosity that pushes irresistibly beyond the pale of conventional sculpture. Swiveling off a veritable drawbridge of an armature is a set of floating elements that look like harnesses for some Wild Boys fantasy in the penny-arcade peep show. Secured by gold cords and hung with Chinese-lantern tassels, the harnesses are suggestive without being specific. The piece is sexy and funny and esthetically authoritative—an altogether grand extravagance.

Finally, hung inconspicuously by the gallery’s reception desk was an altered photograph of Brown as an Imaginary Sainted Ancestor in a chintzy dime-store frame. The photograph is almost air-brushed into anonymity. The features are all in place, and a particular face with a particular mustache is definitely there; what has been deleted is character. Reality has been subtracted to achieve a mesmerizing opacity. It is apt that Imaginary Sainted Ancestor presided masklike over the rest of the show. The ambiguous stance of the portrait—self-aggrandizing and self-obliterating—is a haunting metaphor for the ambiguity of Brown’s own creative position.

Richard Flood