New York

Roger Brown

Phyllis Kind Gallery

There are no surprises in Roger Brown’s latest show. All ten of the paintings here are marked by Brown’s signature Imagist cartoon style, a hybrid of faux naif and funk that has changed very little over the past twenty years. The new work is a continuation of the artist’s previous concerns: urban and rural America, current events and natural disasters, as well as his long-familiar political and art-historical polemics. In this show as in the past, Brown clearly stakes out his position as an outsider to contemporary society and as an opponent to what he sees as its ills.

He is at his best in such pieces as City Expanding, 1989, which hauntingly captures the fragmented nature of the modern metropolis and the alienation of its inhabitants. His nameless, faceless silhouetted figures populate congested skyscrapers, cars, and city streets, utterly isolated and blind to their own existence. Brown places us in the position of voyeur, letting us peer into this airless little world and, by extension, into our own lives. The same is true of African Hotel, 1989, which shows us a modern civilization that has evolved unhappily from a less fractured, now distant past. XXX Exxon, 1989, is more specific in its references; it is an account of the recent Alaskan oil spill, and one of the artist’s numerous “event” paintings. As a chronicler of contemporary events, Brown verges on the illustrational. The same obsessive technical perfection that renders his anonymous cityscapes so uncanny and compelling here works to deaden one’s response.

In Americana: Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keeffe, Diego Rivera, Marsden Hartley, 1988, a straightforward standing portrait of the titled artists, Brown summarizes his esthetic doctrine of simplicity and accessibility. This group portrait serves as a kind of manifesto for what Brown posits as a preferable alternative to mainstream Modernism. The Artist and the Working Man, 1988, is another such manifesto, a fusion of Brown’s rejection of both Modernism and the political left. In this work, a giant image of Picasso looms over a rural landscape augmented by transportation and workers. The text running beneath begins, “Why do artists embrace the political left? Because they have a sense of guilt over feeling more intelligent, superior, and talented than their fellow working man and over being rewarded for their talents more than the laborer is rewarded for his work. . . . ”

Further on, the text cites Soviet reform as evidence for the prescience of the political right. Not only does Brown adopt a condescending tone in conflating artists and Communists, but the clarity of his vision, which is elsewhere so valuable, becomes obscured. It is as if Brown has become one of his own little silhouettes trapped in a lighted room, unable to see further than his own window.

Jenifer P. Borum