Brown’s painting and sculpture are noted for a provocative eclecticism, a marked diversity of sources, often labelled postmodernism. His recent show at Gagosian NY continued the mix, perhaps over-refined it. But before condemning the artist or wider doctrine, it is worth looking to the sources, and what exactly Brown borrows and shares with contemporaries.
There are three key strands to Brown’s style. One is obvious versions of famous paintings, two is the use of blurring or a soft focus in parts of a picture and the third is the inclusion of current print sources, much less esteemed, usually identified as low or pop culture. The first originates in the ‘appropriations’ of work in the 80s, such as Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine, (see also Post 24) where strict replication is offered as valid stylistic trait. This is a very brief trend however but can be seen as part of wider one by the mid or late 80s, in reaction to Neo-Expressionism, toward sophisticated parody and pastiche, in artists ranging from Mark Tansey to Dottie Attie, David Humphrey to Catherine Howe, Stephan Conroy to Mark Wallinger.
The second strand draws upon those works by Gerhard Richter where his distinctive blurring (a reference to camera and print styles, somewhere between soft-focus, slow shutter speed of motion and freeze frames) is used to depict close-ups of brushstrokes in a gestural (and other) abstraction. The combination, much like Lichtenstein’s comic strip versions of brushstrokes, gives painting and printing (here, as blurring) a certain detachment and parity. Brown applies the soft focus brushstroke to more figurative pictures, varies the focus.
The third strand is more general and arises in the late 80s where something like genre or iconography is once more engaged, combining themes from print and painting (see also Posts, 5, 6, 11 and 16). In this Brown merges 19th century Romanticism with Surrealism and contemporary science fiction for instance, in works such as The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (after John Martin) (1998). The result captures a genre of spectacular special effects, the theatrical or Hollywood over-statement of the power of nature. Brown’s titles frequently allude to pop music, such as These Days (1994) Sympathy for The Poor (2003) and Sound of Music (1997) as a further marrying of past and present, low and high culture, sound and image. Significantly, they also cast the paintings (and sculptures) as personifications or allegories, another pervasive influence to 80s painting. Much of Brown’s impact stems from demonstrating how well the three strands weave, how much can be made by them.
In some works Brown elongates the object through a distorted or anamorphic projection, again, invoking photographic and perhaps squeezed jpeg uses, distancing content, such as Death Disco (2004) and Led Zeppelin (2005). Here the blend of 17th or 18th century glamour or devotional portraiture is off-set against bright ‘modern’ backgrounds, reworked with a trompe l’oeil facture that detaches itself from the ‘original content’ – almost from the surface. Content is endlessly, intriguingly refracted, form a matter of increment or degree. Elsewhere Brown crops and alters detail to a similar end. The point is to prominently recycle and renew glamour or devotion, painting and portraiture, to make current concerns echo art history and vice versa. Yet the key is nevertheless in maintaining a disparity between iconography and treatment and Brown is increasingly drawn to distant historical models in order to showcase his trompe version of vigorous facture and soft focus, only to have them struggle for identity, read as no more than mannerism. For example, where he combines 18th century boudoir frolic with Dali-like ambiguities, work dwindles to no more than virtuosity. Genre is too minor or slightly sampled.
Indeed Brown’s preoccupation with Dali and his ‘paranoiac-critical’ ambiguities often seem to draw the work into a latter day Surrealism. Even early examples, such as You Never Touch My Skin in The Way You Did and You’ve Even Changed The Way You Kiss Me (1994) apply the ambiguity to apparently abstract gestures, pre-empt the trompe with Surrealist trump. But the fact that Brown’s trompe facture and ultimately conservative range of historical examples cannot quite embrace more of the present or past in either facture or genre remains a grave limitation to the project.
Lastly, postmodernism, like rationalism or existentialism is too broad to usefully categorise a style of painting. If there is a period style to be drawn here, (Post Modernism, perhaps) it would seem to start in the mid 80s, and Brown while not a founder, may be helping to bring it to a close.