New York

Joan Brown

Frumkin/Adams Gallery

Joan Brown’s self-portraits from the period 1970–83 are vivid, vastly enjoyable images of a woman who seems not so much to age (however gracefully) as to flower into states of psychic flamboyance before one’s eyes. In Homage to Akhenaton, 1983, the most recent work in this show, painted when the artist was turning 45, Brown stands proudly in the foreground, a flaming red-haired, green-eyed herald for the sun deity. The god’s profile appears in the forms of the artist’s dangle-earrings and necklace, and is further evoked by a riot of Egyptoid background patterning that includes the well-defined outline of a cat. This painting is Brown’s “Aida”—a summation in high form of themes advanced in earlier efforts such as the simpler Self-Portrait at Age 42, 1980 (her “Nabucco”), in which the artist presents herself against a sky-blue background wearing beads, a locket charm (also in Akhenaton’s image), and an amulet. Animals, especially cats, are widely figured and rather dauntingly personified in this body of work. In Self-Portrait with Donald, 1983—a painting deserving of high rank in the iconology of women and cats—the artist and her tiger striped familiar share the same fixed Coptic stare.

Egyptology notwithstanding, Brown’s work suggests that distinctly American tradition of open-ended foursquareness wherein counterculturalist and 4-H type are perfectly likely to inhabit the same soul. Brown, for instance, as she appears in her self-portraits, is part hippie and part jock, a lone witch as well as a suburban mother. Her use of enamel paints, along with a style that, like Alex Katz’s, is based on simplified contours and the iconic placement of figures, lends an illusion of preternatural youthfulness to her work. In The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975—my favorite painting in the show—the artist, a San Francisco native who would eventually succeed in swimming across the Bay, anxiously sips a hot brew before an open window. Outside we note the silhouette, in dark waters, of the shadowy island suggesting a lone freighter moving past vast gloomy hills. In this scene, the artist wears a jazzy two-piece outfit of unmatched black-and-white checks, and sits against a wall of orange-and-brown wood-paneling that is all animistic burl. This kind of highly personal, diurnal poesy reminds me of Dona Nelson’s work: you may think you hear clocks ticking even where they aren’t actually pictured.

This was a memorial exhibition. Brown died last year at 52 in a construction accident in India, where she had been supervising the installation of one of her public projects—an obelisk similar to those already in place in San Diego and San Francisco. The palpable quality in her work of almost death-defying freshness made this sad fact disorienting as well. The exhibition itself, however, which consisted of 18 paintings and 2 drawings, was a full-frontal delight. All but two of the paintings conveyed Brown’s very direct approach. The exceptions, both from 1978, were Time to Call a Spade a Spade, a self-portrait-as-odalisque that included the image of a playing card and of a clock positioned at five-to-twelve—an eleventh hour transformation from feminist artist to feminine archetype—and The Misunderstanding, in which the cartoon characters Krazy Kat and Ignatz replace Brown’s habitual animal cast. Both of these canvases are stumbled and brushy; the latter is mostly white-on-white and reminiscent of Susan Rothenberg’s work from around the same time. These works are deft, but nowhere near as peculiar or irresistibly charming as Brown’s more characteristic paintings. Take the allegorical self-portrait from 1970, in which the artist, in this case a blonde, stands awkwardly before a pure scarlet ground, with black cat at her feet, in paint-splattered clothes, holding a small brush and a great big fish.

Lisa Liebmann