San Francisco

Joan Brown

Mills College Art Gallery

This extensive survey of work produced between 1977 and 1982 demonstrates that Joan Brown’s familiar themes of autobiography and travel have merged into images more directly suggestive of a psychic quest. Columnar sculpture and paintings on canvas, wood, or paper narrate the two essential directions of Brown’s strivings. One is evolutionally downward: in her pervasive self-portraits she sometimes cradles or is partially transfigured into a cat, sometimes interacts with a hybrid cat/priest, suggesting a desire to assimilate primal feline intuitions and agility. The other impulse is upward, toward a higher consciousness, frequently represented here by Egyptian and Indian occult symbols.

Thus, in the subject matter of her work, Brown aims to promote an attitude of receptivity to the “other side, to animalistic nature and the supernatural. Paradoxically, however, her manner of rendering her images often prevents an experience of meditative absorption, and instead the viewer’s attitude remains on a plane of analytic scrutiny. The Observation, 1981, for example, depicts Brown wrapped in a sari and vertically bisected by the left edge of the painting; she stares toward an oversized figure who sits cross-legged in meditation, displaying a corona and priestly accoutrements as well as feline physiognomy and fur. As in Brown’s other work of the last few years, the contours are linear, the forms planar, the colors bright reflective enamels. Both the composition—which does not permit identification with either figure’s eyes or posture—and the gleaming, extroverted hues act to keep the viewer emotionally distant. Similar in effect to several others here, the painting functions as an illustration of the artist’s personal experience rather than offering the viewer firsthand spiritual impact. Furthermore, the simple forms, colors, and compositions connote a naive or simplistic conception of spiritual aspiration, presenting a disjunction between subject and form.

Earlier in this six-year period Brown used more painterly textures, softer forms, and occasionally directly symbolic narratives. No Excess Baggage, 1977, juxtaposes the basic duality of light and dark and all that the opposition implies—good/evil, underworld/otherworld, etc. On the left side of this huge diptych (each panel 79 by 90 inches) a slim female (the artist) stands in one end of a shallow boat; behind her, several large suitcases and the Egyptian eye symbol are outlined against a navy background. She looks toward the opposite end of the boat, in the pinky lavender righthand panel, wherein sits the god Ra with a sun disk above his falcon head. Behind him is a lengthy handwritten inscription about the eternal life of the soul, from the Book of the Dead. This metaphor of letting go of material and mental “baggage” in order to enter the realm of spiritual enlightenment draws upon universal signs with implications on many levels, but the manner of its treatment is still rather too easily given, and too didactically exhortatory.

As a body, these works suggest psychological postcards, snapshots of a psychic travel log which are interesting in parts but do not entice one to take the trip. Ironically for this well-known figurative painter, Brown is most effective in conveying the spiritual quest through landscapes, a traditional vehicle for such perceptions. Her 1980 “Nanda Devi” series, named for a Himalayan peak, has not received the attention its striking compositions of precariously balanced monumental rocks, in hues both muted and acidic, deserve. Nanda Devi #3 is not the strongest of the group, but of the works here it comes closest to encouraging a genuinely contemplative mood. The irregularly faceted peaks and valleys of the raspberry-and-white mountains, with intervals of maroon sky and a navy cloud stream, promote absorption into deep space—both that depicted and mental. The effect moves toward offering an authentic experience of connection with a spiritual essence.

Suzaan Boettger