Maggi Brown

Barbara Krakow Gallery

Maggi Brown’s nine new canvases explore the possibilities of content in abstract painting. She based this series of fundamentally monochromatic canvases on Russian Orthodox icons, retaining their essential spirit and form while eliminating their figures and coloration. Her sensuously textured oils are dominated by quasi-architectonic arches and columnar lines. Brown’s own trademark checkerboard grids contradict the moody sublimity of the vaults and arches and provide the work with a mixture of styles that is decidedly post-Modern. These signature checkerboards are not kin to the perfect grids of Sherrie Levine’s appropriations, but are more related to Piet Mondrian’s early experiments in neoplasticism. Brown’s uneven grids are also hand-painted reflections on her own need for ordering within her painted worlds.

The darker paintings in this exhibition are most successful in their evocations of the spiritual sublime: the lighter works, like St. Blasius, 1989, appear flatter and more opaque. In The Annunciation, 1989, the artist builds up a moody translucent surface of more than ten layers of oil glazes mixed, in places, with wax. The canvas is dominated by large areas of blacks and blues and heightened by subtle golden-yellow tints. Spatially, this painting is a modern rendition of Fra Angelico’s early-Renaissance Annunciation frescoes. Brown surrounds a black wall of space with two blue-toned arches. The central void is opened with a checkerboard that curves like a medieval stained-glass window. The sensation of looking into an austere cloister is negated by the grid and by painterly drips and spirals.

The Transfiguration, 1989, further suggests a timeless sacred architecture of arcades and vaults. A central pointed arch, inspired by the oval frame enclosing the transfigured Christ in a Russian icon, is lit with blue-gray glazes. Brown places Russian script, copied from an icon, over a columnar form and bisects it with a light horizontal band. A checkerboard grid is glazed and scratched into the surface of a third archway. Spatial ambiguity is emphasized by a hazy grid glimpsed beneath the veillike surface. The space in The Transfiguration seems both shallow and expansive, and the painting strikes an adept balance between the controlled and the spontaneous.

The Holy Mandylion, 1989, a large canvas whose title refers to both an icon and arelic bearing the imprint of Christ’s face, is darkly sublime and gorgeously rendered. A combination of loosely geometrical configurations combines with the letters ICXC, the monogram for Christ. A central checkered arc provides a visual analogue for the sacred script. Splashes and mists of paint blend well with more solid forms. Here, Brown layers and scrapes the surface so as to fabricate an ancient realm with a contemporary language of geometry. These canvases succeed because Brown never gets too literal or didactic; her geometry and space appear intuitive. Although based on powerful religious subject matter, the paintings retain their independence from liturgical narrative and remain seductive in their abstraction.

Francine A. Koslow