RICO LEBRUN AND
JOAN BROWN

by Margarita Nieto

(Koplin Gallery, West Hollywood) At a time in which historians have begun to review and revise the contri- butions of California artists to the development of American art during the century about the end, an exhibition focusing on Rico Lebrun (1900-1964) and Joan Brown (1938-1990) enables a fresh consideration of both of their places in this re-examined history [Both are also the subjects of upcoming retrospectives in 1998, Lebrun at Pomona College's Montgomery Gallery, Brown at the Oakland Museum and UC Berkeley's University Art Museum--Ed.].

Here Lebrun's affiliation with the great classical tradition of line and figuration is again evident. Born and educated in Italy, Lebrun began his California years in 1940 with three exhibitions in Santa Barbara, San Diego and San Francisco. There is a reflection of an immediate absorption of these surroundings visible in his work. Experimentation with the new modernist visual language is drawn from his European background and honed by emigré influences and assays into new aesthetic territory. For Lebrun the environment was a fertile one that still reflected the impact of the Mexican muralists, with whom he shared an understanding of the historical significance of form and concept of figuration. Genesis, the mural he executed at Pomona College in the 1960's, is for example motivated in part by José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus, itself the result of a serendipitous series of events which culmiated in Orozco's rendering of this masterpiece. Lebrun's mural reflects, as well, a knowledge of fresco techniques, the result of studying Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel murals in preparation for executing his own. The notable departure from the two masters was the total absence of color, a radical step in a medium noted for its utilization of color as a central vehicle for energy and expression.

This monochromatic insistence is concomitant with Lebrun's fidelity to the classical line of the masters, a recapitulation of the graphic aesthetic of engraving and etching, symptomatic of a sense of circumstance and time: Lebrun's work and statements vividly reflect a mid-century angst almost forgotten in end-of-the-century Postmodern games. For upon finishing the work he stated, "What I have to say, I say with Satre, Kafka, Camus. . .in the midst of disaster, act as if you could mend that disaster every day." This asserts a mood that, yes, did exist in Los Angeles along with Hollywood starlets, convertibles and swimming pools.

It is this mood which pervades these drawings, which re-interpret the contributions of the masters for the Modern era. In From Goya (1957) Lebrun reiterates the dark imagery of the Caprichos, reawakening the monstrous images of humanity's nightmares, which lie in wait just beyond the fringes of awareness. But Lebrun re-invents the line, with references as well to an Expressionist language in its volume and dimension, while maintaining the ease and certainty of Goya's delicate line.

After Rembrandt (1957), the female figure reminiscent of both Picasso and De Kooning in composition and feeling, offers an ironic commentary on the role of women in the life of an artist. "Rembrandt kisses Elfredride in gratitude. She was good and patient. They were alike" is applicable as well to Elaine, Lee, Jacqueline, Marie-Therese and other liasons. In Study from Velazquez (1960) Lebrun returns to the Spanish master's dwarf from Las Meninas, enclosing him from the left with a beckoning figure who echoes Francis Bacon and Jose Luis Cuevas.

This modernist re-interpretation of classical art history, enriched and en- livened as it is with specific links to the artist's own time, is enhanced by a series of works from Joan Brown's Mary Julia Series along with a selection of her early work. Ironic more than humorous, these appealing works of dramatic broad color fields are as well a commentary on the stilted social roles which bind women to inescapable situations. They offer a strong comparison and contrast to Lebrun's work through their pointed insight and feminine viewpoint.


Rico Lebrun, "From Goya",
ink wash, 29 x 23", 1957.

 

 


Rico Lebrun, "Studies from
Masters," ink, 24 x 18", 1957.

 

 

 


Joan Brown, "Mary Julia #14,"
acrylic on paper, 36 x 24", 1976.

 

 
Joan Brown, "Mary Julia #27,"
acrylic on paper, 36 x 24", 1976.