San Francisco

Christopher Brown

Gallery Paule Anglim

Christopher Brown is a young virtuoso painter from the Midwest who in recent years has been identified locally as one of the hopes of San Francisco Bay Area painting. His paintings are full of contradiction. As a virtuoso, theatrically sure of his paint, he puts everything in the right place, and in his new pictures' reconnoiterings of Chinese cultural themes he has included more of “everything” than before. A line drawing of a take-out carton may stand for Brown's initial subjective procedure, as the assorted Mao icons and tags of ancient Chinese philosophy, art, and architecture may show his will to synthesis, his criticality. But, pointed as such details are in their associations, they don't represent the pressures behind the paint, and thus look ornamental. The free-floating subject matter registers as subsidiary to an otherwise ironclad aptitude for design and for transubstantiating rushes and stabs of color. Partly because the reverse is generally the case with Bay Area painting, Brown is an anomaly on the scene. Paradoxically, he has developed from a slightly earlier Bay Area tradition, a jagged lineage of colorists and draftsmen that includes Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, anti Wayne Thiebaud as well as Joan Brown and William Wiley. To this tradition, Brown has brought an extraordinary set of skills and a gift for accurately recapitulating his enjoyment of them without (so far, at any rate) wedging them, or being wedged by them, into the confines of a single style.

All of this may be by way of saying that Brown is a roving academician with a difference. The difference is his idealism, brimming palpably with an eagerness about how he wants his painting to be. His handling of color, for instance, as dashing and weighted as Bischoff's, is studious but never imitative or pedantic (neither does it really let go); its inventions almost always carry a big feeling of pleasure in air and light. Slats of a pale, placid green can be as permeable as lake water and as unyielding as a barn door. A paler chrome yellow can come in sets, like early morning light on ripples of water or the scans of oscillating interplanetary pulses.

Brown's new pictures hint at such variables of materiality and distance, of the ineffability of “sides” in space: the dimly imagined far side of Earth (i.e., China) or the inner physics of art, its uncharted content. The incidental images in A Chinese Entry, 1987—pagodas, paper lanterns, a Coke bottle, an ellipse, a section of the Great Wall, and various smudged heads—are sudden sketchy blips in a stabilized fiction of space scored and stretched edgeward by the regulating device of luminous, stavelike horizontal strips. In other pictures, such as Eighteen Blossoms or the magisterial pastel Marco Polo in China, both 1987, the strips broaden and tilt to make a lapping perspective of contained parallel planes, an accommodating matrix.

Brown is engaged with the life of forms. Where his scale in the large works goes slack, in the smaller ones—the pastels and oils on board in this show—it is exact and expands. His tactile surface flows counter to the diffusion of his ruminative impulse, which nevertheless has led him to a fundamental revelation: that of painting's inextricable duplicity, its double skin.

Bill Berkson