New York

James Brown

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

These paintings are so deliciously ripe that there’s a danger they’ll turn rotten. A perfect match of European touch and American brut, they reek of high fashion, and indeed, since this successful show, James Brown’s disdainful masks have peered at us from the pages of many a fashion spread. The decadence is palpable as once again the genuine life forces of the Other are tamed within the confined area of fine painting. This time primitive rhythms are spiced with street jive as the white boy steals something from black culture (again), and renders it piss elegant in the “sensitive” manner of the European schools. The work looks good, there is no denying it—but.

I may seem unduly harsh; after all, Brown’s work is undeniably lightweight. But it is precisely its lightness that makes it so dangerous. The paintings have a kind of sexiness, but it is a petrified eroticism, prurient and yet aloof. It is the eroticism of distance that is pictured, the mystery of power, the distance of control. These works are formally and emotionally simple; they may not even know what they mean. But what they mean, what lies behind the blank cold eyes of Brown’s idols and masks, is an esthetic of power, the esthetic of fascism.

This is obviously an extreme reaction to rather inconsequential work, but I am deeply troubled by something I sense nestling within it. That something is difficult to pinpoint—perhaps because it is barely formed, perhaps because it appears so ordinary. But it is that very ordinariness that is important, the ordinary way in which the work promotes an ideal image of perfection, an image that is sexy and yet sexless; male, but sadly, beautifully so. The work celebrates a banal servility before an inscrutable, mysterious power, the power of the pure man. In this it is deathly. It brings to mind, with an insistence that cannot be silenced, Leni Riefenstahl’s elegiac celebration of the death-haunted Nuba, the tribe who sought to rid themselves of imperfections through bloodshed, who shunned women as not only the source of impurity but also the source of weakness.

Thomas Lawson