James Brown

Galleria Lucio Amello

The images in James Brown’s earlier work were surrounded by a sand-gray background; most of the pieces here, however, show images scratched into black surfaces. One has to search out the form within the blackness—uniform, impenetrable, yet vibrant with a tension between the shiny and the opaque. The blackness extends over the entire canvas and hides in its messy shelter a swarm of signs, neither drawn nor painted, but incised into the thick, compact paint as though into wax. Cracks and scars appear as faces and figures, an arabesque of images in the negative. And these negative forms reveal that the underlying background is multicolored and alive with light, although it is difficult to see through the dense filter.

With these works Brown investigates the deepest roots of color and sign, banishing both to a limbo of confinement. The paintings are in a way more conceptual than figurative, closing a circle in the art of the last thirty years. The passage of Brown’s signs through Indian, African, Egyptian, and finally voodoo forms is rooted in the American interest in primitive cultures that took root in the ’40s, preceding the explosive arrival of action painting. This interest partly stemmed from Surrealism, but involved a much broader research into the primitive—a compelling task for American artists struggling to expand on a visual vocabulary inherited from Europe. For Brown, primitivism both acquires the significance of a return to art’s origins and establishes a basic, pared-down concept of the beautiful.

As Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman did, Brown takes the risk of erasing all embellishment. Giving primacy to the color black, he unmoors the viewer. creating a sense of vertigo in a dark abyss. His work shows parallels with the monochrome surfaces of conceptual painting, but his eradication of any facile symbolism, decoration, or narrative is designed to emphasize emotion. Brown’s visual language turns the surface into a place of sorcery, a place to represent the rite of vision.

Despite his frequent inclusion in shows of graffiti artists, Brown’s stance is quite unlike theirs. His paintings have more in common with formalism, and the elegance of their play of dull and glossy black surfaces, their reductive fracturing of light, may open them to the charge of being ultimately no more than formal exercises. (Perhaps an even more severe approach, with even fewer concessions to elegance, would free them of this charge.) But two sculptures here make clear Brown’s interest in the ritualistic. Made out of found objects, they at first seem to exist within territory already explored by Robert Rauschenberg, but they have an inner power that puts them clearly in the lineage of fetishes and totems. They are like instruments of black magic, or the idols of a cult of ancestor worship. Where Keith Haring’s totems. merely provide skins to be decorated and tattooed, Brown’s idols are plastic translations of spiritual needs. His sculptural forms are sought out, composed, possessed; they offer no chaotic surfaces, but mysterious bodies to be contemplated in rituals of silence.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.