Heather Brown at Black Dragon Society, Los Angeles
May 26, 2008
Occupying both of Black Dragon Society’s galleries are a formidable dozen of recent paintings by Heather Brown. Composed of strong, crude strokes and basic geometric forms, Brown’s work revels in being rough hewn. Sometimes figurative and also mythological, the works appear classic—almost already known—but nevertheless relevant. Moving through historical idioms with care, the works extend these forms onto new ground. A bather, a balcony, a still life with flowers, hang interspersed by abstract and other strange and imaginative works. Many of Brown’s subjects riff off those that have given form to modernism, toying with painting’s history. By addressing the past so blithely, one might be quick to pass judgement, and given the technique of the works, it is easy to feel a bit nonplussed.
While Brown’s technique might be considered daft or unsophisticated, the canvasses are actually rigorously worked. Some will surely find the palette of mauve, mustard, pallid pink, and brown umber drab or downright ugly, but it is this awkward selection of hues that give the works their charming lack of grace. In each work, below each patch of color, is often the subtle hint of another—a technique that allows the work to oscillate in density. Gentle washes move into thicker pasty sections; wonky shapes and human figures are often outlined in thick smudgy strokes. An abstract work, like “Meet Me Here” (2008), reveals a practice that is as much felt as it is thought, as Brown’s confident and vibrant strokes are layered through a repetitious gesture. In “Bather” (2008), swaths of blue cover the canvas. A pale fleshy figure is pulled into being through a few simple strokes. Reclining, the bather wades in the mass. A single angular black stroke becomes an edge in the distance, separating the blue into sky and the pool’s still water. The gestures are casual and unyielding in their simplicity, surprising considering the work’s dramatic formal affect.
The paintings’ unassuming success is a signal, showing the need to return to a metaphyical notion of form and representation. “Sacred Geometry” (2008), “Totem Witchery” (2007), and “Honor” (2007) all indicate a connection to a transformative sense of art. A set of outlined and partially filled forms fill the canvas to the edge in “Sacred Geometry”. Interlocking, they act as the ideal and energetic shapes used to structure numerous forms of ancient art and architecture. In Honor, concentric octagons and hexagons of varying colors are centered by two figures—outlined in radiant white—they are wrapped around each other in a coital embrace. The associations to ritual action and belief in the unrepresentable are found throughout the exhibition; the works resist being fully rationalized. Through the suite, a belief in the ritual practice of painting is told. As a painter, Brown knows the value of the surface and formalism; it is as an entryway that allows the metaphysics of painting to be visible.