by Mario Cutajar
(S.B. Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara) I tend to think of Roger Brown as an 80's painter, but it turns out that the artist, who is in his mid-fifties, was painting his faux-naif images of silhouette-haunted apartment buildings and obsessively regimented landscapes more than a decade before "bad" or "new image" painting became an East Village vogue. It also turns out that the Chicago painter, who was born and raised in the south, had recognized the revelatory possibilities of thrift-store icons quite some time before a younger, artier generation of MFA-ed art rebels began assembling their collections of bargain-priced kitsch. All in all, Brown is an original.
He came to it by means of a hard-eyed self-evaluation: Training to be a commercial artist he was forced to realize that he wasn't cut out "to produce a slick portrait of a Colgate or Breck girl." However, he found solace in the work of Henri Rousseau and Joseph Yoakum, and in the discovery that Magritte's paintings looked a great deal less slick up close than they did in reproduction. From that point on he was able to forge his highly idiosyncratic style by embracing the self-defining power of his limitations. This is by now a cliché of modern art, from Van Gogh and Cézanne onwards, but no less true for that. It is a consequence of the modern devaluation of tradition and the concurrent fetishization of authenticity, and it accounts for the modern preference for "vision" over virtuosity and inventiveness over beauty.
The cult of authenticity can encourage the worst kinds of self-indulgence, but in Brown's case it has been tempered by resolutely populist sympathies. The populist strain in Brown's art is the source of both his strength and his occasional weakness. It enables him to root his work in the peculiar tensions, hopes, fears, spasmodic impulses and cracked delusions that animate and define the collective American psyche, and so to create landscapes, cityscapes and portraits that are an unsettling blend of local reference and febrile hallucination, a geography at once physical and metaphysical. The mysterious "oddness" of Brown's images derives as much from the inherent oddness of American folksiness as it does from their author's personal quirks. In his best paintings the two are fused so well that you can't distinguish between them. But his populism also prompts him to sometimes overreach himself, particularly in his more overtly "political" paintings which can take on the tenor of talk-radio rants. For me, his most memorable paintings remain his series of claustrophobic urban scenes with their drop-curtain-like gray clouds, cardboard-box apartment buildings, as well as their amalgam of a boyish enthusiasm for model-making and an adult's acquaintance with despair.
Brown has been living in California, in La Conchita near Santa Barbara, for some years now and his latest paintings, twenty of them in all, are presented in a show titled California Dreamin'. They attempt to convey his response to his new surroundings. Compared to his earlier work they strike me as rather superficial, even though Brown goes out of his way to take note of a number of specifically Californian phenomena, like earthquakes, avocado plantations, mudslides, brush fires and the ubiquitous freeways. Perhaps, the problem here is that his surroundings have not yet become the stuff of the artist's memories, as his earlier childhood surroundings and impressions did. Then too, L.A. is a big part of what defines California, the other big part being the Bay Area, and living in equidistant suspension between the two, while a good choice from the point of view of the quality of life, can't contribute much to the artist's understanding of what is specific to California. This wouldn't matter if Brown was a landscape painter in the old-fashioned bucolic sense, or even in the Cézannesque sense, but he isn't. His specialty is the depiction of apprehension and diffuse urban anxiety. Now that he has removed himself from these ills, it remains to be seen whether Brown can make interesting art out of happier circumstances.