In a week in which former President George W. Bush revealed his secret passion for painting it’s a neat coincidence that the Hughes Gallery is holding a survey of Roger Brown (1941-97), a Chicago artist with a fascination for politics. Having spent much of his working life in an era in which New York was the undisputed capital of world art, Brown never became part of the mainstream. It was his bad luck to die at a time when priorities were changing and his own star on the rise.
There were several reasons for Brown’s marginal status: he lived in Chicago; he was gay; he was a figurative artist in an age of abstraction. Then there was his unfashionable interest in current affairs, which he didn’t approach in a heavy-handed, propagandistic manner that turned each work into a ‘statement’. For political correctness, Chicago had Leon Golub (1922-2004), famous for his mural-sized paintings of mercenaries and torturers that drew on the conventions of Roman wall painting.
Brown, by contrast, was an ironist whose works were open to contradictory readings. The best example in the current show is Presidential Portrait (1986), in which the smiling faces of Ronald and Nancy Reagan appear in the sky, framed by clouds. On the ground below we see rows of identical houses, and a truck on a highway. It’s a beatific vision of Reagan as the saviour of lower middle-class America, and might be interpreted as sincere homage.
The work was sufficiently ambiguous to never find a buyer until it was exhibited in Australia. Even though it had been included in a museum survey the painting was too flattering of the Reagans to appeal to Democrats, and too over-the-top for Republicans, who had every reason to suspect Brown’s political motivations. The work has the same excessive elements as those images of Chairman Mao made during the Cultural Revolution that portray the Great Helmsman as God-like.
Brown talked about Reagan as a “knight” who had come to lead the idealistic people of “Camelot” in their struggle against the evil Bear. At the same time he was conscious of Reagan as an actor. It’s too simplistic to imagine he was calling the President a phony. He was suggesting that the people of the United States were no longer capable of distinguishing between image and reality. Everyday life had become so riddled with myth, through the movies and the media, it was entirely appropriate the nation should be led by an actor.
One suspects Brown would have approved of George W. Bush the artist, even if he had reservations about the politician. Many would argue that Bush was no less naïve as a President than as a painter. His portraits reveal a willingness to take people at ‘face value’, with no editorialising.
A crucial influence on Brown was the work of Joseph Yoakum (1886-1976), a naïve artist from South Chicago, who drew wonderfully eccentric landscapes. Yoakum’s bold, clearly defined forms are reflected in Brown’s own approach to landscape, in a painting such as Desert Crater (1971).
The precise outlines and bright colours give the impression of a scene specially constructed for a postcard. It is an orderly, symmetrical world in which nothing disturbs the routines of work and play. In a shaped painting of the San Andreas Fault Line (1995) Brown gives a domestic twist to a hidden threat. Little houses nestle snugly on the surface of the earth while the fault loops like a coiled serpent beneath them. In another work he paints a mushroom cloud as if it were a monumental feat of macramé.
The ambiguity is typical of Brown’s method. He would aspire to the openness and honesty of a naïve artist but include details that testified to a more cynical worldview. He believed one could reject the Renaissance conventions of painting without sacrificing the intelligence behind a work. He preferred isometric perspective to the three-point perspective established by artists such as Leon Battista Alberti or Piero della Francesca. In isometric perspective distance from the viewer does not render objects smaller or larger. It makes a picture seem emblematic rather than naturalistic.
This technique relates Brown’s work to early Italian masters such as the Lorenzettis and Giovanni di Paolo, but also to the art of comic books. There is a touch of the Douanier Rousseau, and nods in the direction of Magritte, De Chirico and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Brown appreciated the way a naïve artist sets out to communicate his or her vision in the most straightforward manner. Having mastered the manner, he imbued his own paintings with elements of satire or social critique. Post-Modern Res/Erection with observation deck (1984) – shows a building in the shape of a phallus. It was another work that remained unsold in the artist’s lifetime, being too much of a calculated obscenity – albeit a comment on the greater obscenity of urban development.
In many of Brown’s paintings there is an underlying sense of menace. At times this became explicit, as in a 1972 series of disaster paintings that show buildings being destroyed by natural forces. One called Midnight Tremor now seems eerily prescient – it depicts twin skyscrapers snapping in two and people falling through the air. There were also pictures that related to the Jonestown massacre; the Kennedy assassination; the murder of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade; and the crimes of serial killer, John Wayne Gacy (another notorious naïve artist).
There is nothing so dark in the Hughes exhibition, which settles for a picture called Killer Crab (1976) showing tiny figures fleeing from an oversized crustacean. It’s a comical view of that sense of incipient catastrophe reawakened by every news bulletin. Here the menace springs from a B-movie, not the foreign pages.
Brown was arguably the outstanding artist in a loosely-defined group known as the Chicago Imagists, who were making wild, colourful, highly eclectic works during the heyday of Minimalism and Colour Field painting. The Chicago artists were vehemently opposed to the avant-garde fashions of the day, rejecting the cult of formalism that had emanated from New York and subjugated the international art scene.
Not even the biggest killer crab could have competed with the New York School when it came to world domination. Nowadays it is a different story. Major artists may be found in Beijing, Reykjavik or Johannesburg, let alone Chicago. Political content is no longer taboo but almost a necessity if one hopes to be included in the big international exhibitions.
An artist such as Roger Brown might be more broadly accepted today but there is always the possibility that an intelligent non-conformist would remain slightly outside of the game. Brown is reminiscent of a figure such as David Byrne, who gave us lyrics such as:
We don’t want freedom
We don’t want justice
We just want someone to love.
In People Like Us Byrne is simultaneously celebrating the down-to-earth attitudes of middle America and pointing out the reactionary, narrow-minded possibilities. There’s something both marvellous and terrible here, and the writer is torn between admiration and disgust. It’s the same with a song such as A Big Country, which describes a panorama of middle-class Americana and finishes with the line: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
This give and take, this studied ambiguity of feeling is characteristic of Roger Brown’s best work. He once wrote that as a boy growing up in Alabama he always hated country and western music, but later came to respect the way it communicated so directly and powerfully with ordinary people. The unfolding spectacle of the art world gave him the opposite feeling, being an arena for rarefied sentiments and delusions of grandeur.
Brown responded instinctively to anything that seemed authentic and heartfelt, but was sceptical about where it all leads. Quaint little suburban dream homes are built on a fault line. A shining vision of an actor-President may be nothing but a mass hallucination. Almost twenty years later, the President who took the world into the Gulf War, reinvents himself as a painter. It leaves us wondering if there is redemption to be found in art, or if art is the greatest lie of all.
Roger Brown: His American Icons
The Hughes Gallery, until 29 April
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 12 April, 2014