New York

Roger Brown

Phyllis Kind Gallery

The title given to this show, “For Consenting Eyes Only . . . ,” appeared in the gallery’s back room on a cabinet door behind which was a painting Roger Brown calls Boy Startled while Jerking-Off in the Woods, or What’s the Use of Beating around the Bush?, 1985. What, indeed? Although Brown may have thought of this provocative painting as the core of his show, as the painting’s placement suggested, my interest lay elsewhere.

The fact is that I tend to locate Brown himself not in the bushes this painting contains. Rather, the gesture most characteristic of his work for me, its spiritual center, is in the kind of hedgerows seen here in Industrial Flame, 1986. These spiky lines of foliage, which Brown uses to suggest everything from underbrush to treetops, run across the paintings like a succession of cogwheels. They give his work the primitive, mechanical look of stencil landscapes in American folk art, which has, I’m sure, been a rich source of inspiration for him. In much of Brown’s earlier work, America seems to be the same kind of peaceable kingdom that it is in the decorative arts of previous centuries. Like those artists, he looks down on the land from a map-maker’s perspective. He sees America whole as the violent, innocent, antic, frantic place it is.

Even the silhouettes in the windows of the Chicago high-rises in his best-known paintings look as regular as stencil work and as superficial as decoration. These people seem to live in blissful ignorance of the terrors of the modem world. In this show they were seen in a piece entitled Wolf Building, 1986, the head and tail of which were done by a taxidermist, while the body and legs are three-dimensional Brown apartment houses. The figures at the windows are flailing away at life as usual; they don’t seem to realize that they are in the belly of the beast.

For Brown himself, I suspect, the spiritual center of his pictures lies these days not in foliage, but in his heavy, brooding skies. Much of the new work in this show is emotionally stormy. The paintings are filled with anger. They lash out at everything from terrorism to art criticism. This is apparent not only from the imagery itself, but from the titles, which capture the irrationality more succinctly than anything I could write. One picture is called, for instance, The Latinization of North America: Latin American Intellectuals of the Privileged Class Direct Their Marxist Terrorist Movements from Safe Quarters in Mexico City and Colombia While Their Indian Peasant Recruits Do the Fighting and Dying in Their Wars of Phony Liberation. Meanwhile, North American Intellectual Counterparts Foresake Their Stable Puritan Heritage of Representative Government in Imitation of Spanish-American Anarchy,1983.

In the painting, Castro look-alikes bark orders into telephones somewhere in southern Mexico, and apartment buildings in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco blow up. Another canvas, on which an abstract painter is depicted with a recognizable caricature of a Chicago reviewer, is entitled Mr. Puff and Mr. Sneer. . . , 1986. The impression I get is that Brown has begun to mistake his comic perspective on America for a profound overview, a superiority to both his subjects and his audience. His paintings used to take an indulgent, protective attitude toward us little people. Now they’re railing at us. Even when the contents aren’t a direct attack on somebody, they often seem intended as an affront to us, as in the work entitled Prick and Dribble, 1985, or Boy Startled While Jerking-Off in the Woods.

If Brown’s vision really does take in the whole country somehow, this show suggests that it has become a nation divided against itself. The paintings here could almost have been done by two very different artists. Alongside the rage and hostility is the kind of poignancy, the near tenderness, seen in Arrangement in Blue and Gray: the Artist and Friend Fishing, 1985. In this work, two tiny distinct figures sit in a rowboat in a pale beam of sunlight under vast gray skies. The best pictures in this show, such as Big Sky, 1979, express similar vulnerability with comparable jumps in scale from the earth and clouds to the tiny, heedless people below. In their enigmatic quietness, these paintings actually begin to approach that largeness of spirit for which the angrier ones only strain futilely.

Colin Westerbeck