New York

Frederick J. Brown

Marlborough | Midtown

Frederick J. Brown is an imaginative portraitist whose subjects inhabit the nether regions of the American psyche. Bessie Smith, Stagger Lee, John Henry, Br’er Fox, as well as two-bit gamblers, hustlers, transvestites, and other denizens of urban nightlife are among the figures populating the artist’s recent work. Subtitled “Heroes and Rule-breakers,” this exhibition included paintings from 1981 to ’85. Outlandish, elegiacal, grotesque, grim, funny, and violent were among the descriptions that came swiftly to mind. The considerable wallop packed by these paintings is the direct result of the mastery with which they were put together.

Brown’s human confrontation with difficult and often elusive subjects is complemented by his ability to synchronize various painterly approaches. At the same time, these synchronizations never assemble themselves into a smooth, instantly palatable, recyclable style. In Geronimo with His Spirit, 1984, for instance, the artist employs gestural brushwork, bold outline, unmodulated color, pattern, and a harshly accented method of modeling, as well as a way of modeling based on dramatic shifts in color evolved from German Expressionism. The result: a still-noble, blue-suited, corpselike Geronimo stands beside a defiant, ageless brave in headdress and warpaint. In Parade of Stars, 1985, however, the artist uses collage and an aggressive gestural approach to weave together a dense allover composition in which distinct figures, animals, and plant life slowly emerge from a morass of paint and abstract marks.

Although Brown worked in an abstract gestural mode until the early ’70s, it would be both wrong and narrow-minded to define him as either a recent practitioner of neo-Expressionism or a black artist who decided to make ethnic work. Born in Georgia in 1945, the artist grew up and studied in Chicago, where he came in contact with the disquieting work of Richard Lindner, Jim Nutt, and Ed Paschke, among others. Ribald humor, a fascination with the seamy side of urban life, and a willingness to infuse social commentary into his work by addressing the sexual fantasies of the body politic are also apparent in Brown’s work. His paintings are the result of an idiosyncratic mix of his Chicago days; his admiration for Willem de Kooning, Max Beckmann, Wilfredo Lam, and Ivan L. Albright; and his knowledge of African sculpture and of American and Caribbean folk art. Brown puts all of these possibilities and strategies to work at the same task: to probe the various guises his “characters” don in order to reveal an unmistakable identity In this way, the subject matter complements the artist’s various painterly methods.

Brown’s paintings are fresh (pun intended) and, at times, oddly ennobling—which some may find at odds with the need to proclaim or witness existential dread, despair, and horror in art. Among other things, he has found a way to tickle our ribs while whispering in our ear what it’s like to live in a corrosive, hopeless age: we are no longer able to evolve an identity, so we scavenge around and assemble it out of worn and damaged goods.

John Yau