New York

Roger Brown

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Since the late ’60s Roger Brown’s paintings have offered a distinctive vision, a way of seeing and responding to the world that is best described as dreamlike. Finding inspiration in his surroundings, in the people and places he knows, and in his own experiences, the Chicago artist has never shied away from bringing out the magical side of reality. Boldly simplified forms with razor-sharp silhouettes dominate the repetitive and rhythmical compositions he favors. The technical execution of details is flawless and precise. Through the years, Brown has continued to refine his style, to lay bare the structure of his expression. In the recent works he is doing just that and more, achieving total control of his means. The results, in paintings like Nuclear Winter, 1984, Uncommissioned Portrait of Dorian Gray—Metamorphosis in Thick Paint, 1984, Dr. Imperial’s Tree of Knowledge, 1985, and Whistling Swan, 1984, are truly mesmerizing. Each one presents an image in which style is equivalent to symbol.

In Nuclear Winter, every aspect of the picture speaks to, of, and about the terrifying destruction following a nuclear attack. The composition is dominated by a swirling form, a red curving line encased in a black shadow This form sweeps across the sky in larger and larger rings taking up almost the entire surface, except for a small strip on the bottom. Here, in two horizontal registers, a few figures are interspersed among rows of bare trees, all done in black silhouette. By limiting himself to only red, black, and white, the artist creates an image of such graphic intensity that it actually pulsates before our eyes; this tremulous quality so strongly suggests disintegration that nature seems torn apart by a lethal force and the sky seems to be sliced apart.

In Brown’s version of Oscar Wilde’s story about Dorian Gray—in which the character’s portrait serves as a mirror of his increasing moral corruption—six panels are arranged in a horizontal row, each containing a portrait more depraved than the last. The first five portraits are in profile; in the sixth, the subject faces out at a three-quarter angle. By changing the pose of the last portrait, the very one the viewer tends to linger over, Brown charges the painting with the psychological tension of a one-to-one confrontation between the viewer and the face of evil.

Brown sometimes uses shaped canvases, as in Dr. Imperial’s Tree of Knowledge, a painting in the form of a cross. He reinvents certain elemental themes from the Bible—here, the snake and the tree of life—investing the images with the energy of his own mythology, of his own universe. With its dark gray tonalities and harmonious contrasts, his universe is essentially a still and soothing place. Another emblem of this universe appears in Whistling Swan. In this painting, the swan seems to be held in place by the perfectly balanced planar rhythms and at the same time to majestically sail forth, propelled by the emotive weight of its own mystery. Within the contemplative quiet of his vision, Brown also lets us hear the thunderous beat of his imagination at work.

Ronny Cohen