Tuesday, 1 July 2008



Christopher Brown (b.1951) so far has little international reputation, is mainly a West Coast presence. With a long exhibition record and steady following, his work enjoys a certain level of support, but no further. It is tempting to suppose his work does not win wider recognition for the same reason that it holds a firm place at a lesser level – that his charm is at the same time his flaw. This post looks at the work of an artist who is in many ways peripheral to the stylistic influences traced throughout painting in this blog, at advantages and disadvantages to such a position.

Brown’s paintings reveal a tentative, essentially conservative outlook. Examples from the 80s (these only the earliest available on the web – the artist by this time in his early 30s) show a range of interests, from an Expressionist portrait and close study (perhaps ‘appropriation’) after Thomas Eakins, to a stylised or schematic view of Mao swimming within buoys or hats and a bustling but fragmented crowd scene,with a precise historical source in the title November 19, 1863 (1989). Taken together, what would seem to attract the artist are figures placed in public, if not public figures, their spatial situation given some additional emblematic or deeper meaning and vigorous brushwork that further distances them and literal situation. Subsequent works such as Winter’s Blue Cold (1991) and Forty Flakes (1991) give figures a more even distribution or pattern and costume, use a steeper spatial projection and a blurring to figures and shadows that encourages a photographic reference - to long lens views and again a marked ‘distance’. In this, Brown is drawn to photographic genres (see also Posts 30 and 51) and inevitably recalls the work of Gerhard Richter.

But rather than proceed to similar resources, such as surveillance footage and other discreet public documentation, Brown turns to sources with more historical and significant roles for figures, to their identification by period fashions and customs. These are clearly less generic, more specific as pictures and their painterly treatment struggles to distance them from print source, to do more than echo Pop art or Photo-realism, while preserving period detail. Consequently the works are a little academic and sentimental. The figures underline Brown’s need for distant but distinct roles. The artist occasionally ventures into studies of the single figure in the 90s and to more schematic treatments of historical sources, but perhaps sensing the difficulty of bringing adequate pictorial structure to less guarded figures, or maintaining such structures without figures, increasingly turns to schemes or layouts dealing in native birds and their habitats.

These allow the artist a more relaxed approach to drawing, greater scope for abstraction, while using birds as a suitably distant metaphor for human community, adaptation and permutation. They soon inspire similar schemes with related environmental themes, a greater confidence in metaphor and structure and perhaps suggest a reversal in the approach to the figure. Rather than a stark structure derived from actual or literal incident, the structure now determines the appearance and tasks of figures. Works tellingly transfer habitat to house, abstract its sides and space, propose a diagram of property and propriety.

This concern with stylisation or a degree of abstraction is shared across much more acclaimed painting with the turn of the century and Brown’s interests to some extent are echoed in the work of a younger generation (see also Posts 34, 57 and 70). What separates him is firstly how much more tentative and scattered the work looks for seesawing between the linear and painterly, schema and figure across the length of a career. Secondly, the difference is in the weight that the local, regional and recreational acquire as Brown dispenses with the historical and distanced. Now he never quite engages the figures beyond home maintenance – literally in painting – and the sense is unmistakeably of disengagement or retreat, beyond other than home or heartland, a lack of method or rigour to content beyond that.

This is amplified in the most recent work where the artist returns to figures in winter recreation, although can now boldly equate them with home and even painting in the more ambitious works, can more confidently reshuffle space and scale , the painterly and abstract with the linear and figurative. Yet for all the formal freedom, Brown does not stray far from home. Nor can he be at home with more than a house, without gauging points of egress, mapping his options. For the work is happiest at departure and play, dipping into matters or skiing over them, as season allows, taken with appearances closer to home, toying with them, further a field. For the artist’s advocates, these are his virtues, for a wider constituency, as yet they are vices.

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