New York

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #12 Modernistic Planter with Half a Desert Painting, 1995, oil on canvas, mixed media, 38 1⁄2 × 26 × 12".

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #12 Modernistic Planter with Half a Desert Painting, 1995, oil on canvas, mixed media, 38 1⁄2 × 26 × 12".

Roger Brown

“The mainstream art world hierarchy—a system of dealers, writers, artists, critics, and pundits—presumes to define what art is for the rest of us,” Roger Brown (1941–1997) wrote in 1990. “. . . Whatever category one chooses—folk, naïve, outsider, or so-called regionalist—it is very evident that real artists exist and continue to be nurtured outside the mainstream hierarchy. In fact I would venture to say that the only real artists are nurtured there . . . on the outside.” Known as one of the leading Chicago Imagists, Brown could hardly be called an “outsider artist.” He was, however, a voracious collector and cannibal of America’s material culture, from the “trash treasures”—as his teacher Ray Yoshida called them—he scavenged from flea markets to the undulating landscapes of self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum. Elvis paintings and Mexican retablos, Nemadji ceramics and commercial signage, comic strips and old farm implements: All of this and much more went into the stew of references that informed Brown’s rigorously stylized but intoxicatingly moody painting.  

 Organized by Shannon R. Stratton, the Museum of Arts and Design’s former chief curator, “Roger Brown: Virtual Still Lifes,” is the first New York musuem show devoted to his work. It is titled after the artist’s final major series, painted between 1995 and 1996, shortly before he passed away at fifty-five from AIDS-related illness. In these altar-like assemblages, Brown veers away from the negative sublimity of his earlier desert tableaux and the disaffected mediation of the movie theater interiors in order to approach the “decorative”—long the feminized and repressed “other” of modernism. The focus on this late body of work makes perfect sense at the MAD, given the institution’s dedication to “skilled making” across and between the so-called fine and applied arts. Brown’s glowing, atmospheric paintings become the backdrops to selections from his thousands-deep collection of knickknacks and crockery, most of which were made by anonymous artisans. Arranged on shelves anchored to the paintings’ frames, his thrifted curios aren’t nominated to the status of the readymade, but maintain their identity and integrity within Brown’s lovably maximalist vignettes, collapsing—or at least diminishing—the distance between artmaking and homemaking.

In Virtual Still Life #12 Modernistic Planter with Half a Desert Painting, 1995, a shallow, bone-colored triangular tray nests on a similarly shaped ledge mounted to the base of a cuneate landscape. Bands of blue, red, yellow, and green give way to a false horizon only to repeat their serape-like progression before yielding to a churning gray sky containing Brown’s signature petaloid clouds. Juxtaposing the physicality of “real” things with the imaginary space of painting, the “Virtual Still Lives” have been characterized as Brown’s response to the emergence of illusory digital media in the 1990s. The stacked vistas of #12 do indeed feel archly machinic in their sameness—at least until one notices the pair of minuscule silhouetted figures wandering into the distance—elements unique to the painting’s second, sky-bordering field.

The craft-oriented eclecticism of the “Virtual Still Lives” appeals to today’s nostalgic, postindustrial eye. You might even say the works seem as hip to present-day design sensibilities as the sleek surfaces of Minimalism looked to Clement Greenberg in 1967 when he griped about their suspicious proximity to “good design.” Brown—for different reasons—didn’t care for Minimalism either, and the more or less standard apologia for the Chicago Imagists poses their funky, psychologically charged Americana as a challenge to the hegemonic, abstemious erudition of New York. But what if we consider Brown’s engagements with objecthood, spatiality, and heteronomy as exemplary of rather than in opposition to the dominant currents of postwar American art? Doing so might mean going against the artist’s antipathy toward the mainstream, but it would also mean abandoning ossified regional and formal classifications for a more varied, and certainly more beautiful, landscape.