New York

James Brown

Leo Castelli

Reticent yet intensely seductive, the art of James Brown is poised between roughness and refinement, violence and grace. His recent works range from large, tonally subtle mixed-media pieces on stretched canvas, to pencil drawings on sheets of linen folded into rectangles, and brush-drawings on linen in luminous, transparent color. Their status as beautiful art objects is subverted by their formal modesty and their oblique invocation of ritual, which is reminiscent of the totemic motifs woven throughout his work of the ’80s.

Brown’s occasional use of unstretched linen as a substitute for stretched canvas implies a planned lack of resolution, while two of the folded-linen pieces reflect a taste for austerity, the rectangles formed by the folds filled with delicate, rudimentary sketches in which any imagery that may exist is barely legible. The drawings in 24 Drawings from a Treasure Room, 1994–95, suggest among other things, a vessel, a string of beads, a boat, a face, and a schematic swan. In their simplicity, the two hanging pieces of white cloth in Work Against Nature II (Silver), 1993, evoke shrouds, napkins, plain altar cloths, aprons—objects used in service or worship. On the other hand, a number of works gesture toward luxury by incorporating silk tapestry fabric, as in the series “Ambiguity and Double Meaning,” 1994–95, in which pieces of green silk indicate a lush, fractured landscape that is marked with blue paint like shadows or water.

The six supremely elegant collages in his series “Natural Science Morocco,” 1994, each incorporate a photo of a natural subject, such as coral, shells, or tropical fish, often combined with brush-drawing; several contain organic forms drawn with brown or reddish paint that recall Joseph Beuys’ drawings in blood, paint, and “beize.” But while these forms are equally suggestive of plant life and human blood, evoking as in Beuy’s work an attraction to both life and death, Brown’s oeuvre represents a more serene invocation of the spiritual in nature.

His work is also infused with an eroticism that is contained not so much in recurring moments of sensuous beauty, but more in the way that these moments violate the fundamental modesty of his materials and palette, the way, for example, that bright colors disturb earthy ones. In essence, the erotics here are as austere and ineffable as the sensuality Bataille attributed to mystics. Mysticism, Bataille asserts, represents a profound experience of death in life: the erotic, “a sterile principle” ultimately synonymous with death, is the form that temptation can take for the mystic attempting to “die to himself.” But while the mystic is tempted by death, he or she simultaneously embraces life. Brown evokes something like this “certain disequilibrium” in his work. The difference between the luminous pinks of Inspiration of the Dream I and II (both 1995), the color of bleeding hearts, and the shadowy browns and reds, resembling dried blood, in the series of works entitled “Atmospheric Effects,” 1994, is emblematic of this uncertainty.

K. Marriott Jones