Friday, July 18, 2008

Michael Brown's Totemic Menagerie

With a name as commonplace as Michael Brown, it must be difficult to stand out in the art world. Fortunately, his images are striking enough to hook the viewer at first glance. Brown has a rather varied repertoire, ranging from soft angry rabbits to fantastical marine life, from stern deer and reproachful swans to rumbustious hummingbirds, then veering crazily into the realms of haunted tree stumps, strange, rubbery women and technicolor gloop.

Michael Brown reports that he was born in rural upstate New York in 1969. There he discovered his desire to create other worlds through drawing and painting, and early on made the decison to dedicate his life to art. He now lives in Atlanta, where he is a professor of painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and is currently showing at Nucleus Gallery and Sarah Bain Gallery in California.


I first discovered Michael Brown's work in someone else's collection. One of his velvety, masterfully lit bunnies glared malevolently at me from the canvas, and I was smitten. There is something in the combination of soft, highly rendered textures with dramatic chiaroscuro effects that is quite compelling. The directness with which the almost-human eyes of his menagerie meet the eye of the beholder creates an undefinable but delicious sense of unease.

I must admit I nearly despaired of ever owning one of his paintings myself, as it appeared that he was working fairly large, which drove his prices into what I consider "fiscally irresponsible" territory for one such as myself. Fortunately, he chose to paint a few amazing smaller pieces for his latest show at Nucleus, so I lucked into obtaining this belligerent, blushing invertebrate.


In preface to his work for the Nucleus show, Michael Brown stated, "This work is a representation of the characters of a story. Portraits. The establishment of an identity of a variety of characters, similar and very different."

I won't pretend to comprehend all the meaning with which Brown infuses his paintings, and would probably do a poor job of articulating what I do perceive, so I will allow him to speak for himself for the most part. After scouring the web, I've discovered a few more or less cryptic explanations he's given of his themes. I hope they will be of some value in elaborating on his work.

"The desire to recognize and understand an ideal is flawed. Symbols often represent opposites simultaneously. This work is influenced by eugenics, mysticism, perfection, Plato, Beuys' rabbit, Greek mythology, albinism, the natural, the created, biblical fables and growing up in a podunk town in upstate New York."

"The Birth of Romulus"

Perhaps a bit more cerebral than the average artist I profile here, Michael Brown can come across as something of an intellectual.

“In my work I am addressing issues of abstraction and representation, hierarchies of power and how class placement is maintained by the manipulation of other classes, Greek and Roman mythology, personal mythology, sex and the roles of dominance and submission, and the creation of things that ‘look’ real but do not exist in any reality. I am very interested in how the mind functions to recognize and decipher the perception of the world in which we exist, real or imagined, and how that defines what and who we are. I am interested in the everything and the nothing."

"Albrecht and the Felt Hat"

"My artistic pursuit is solely to view the world that I am having an exponentially difficult time comprehending, and reduce it to a series of archetypes, personal symbols and free image associations to create paintings, which I then use as the filter with which to reevaluate the world that I exist in, to make some sense of it."


Brown says that one of his artistic goals is "finding sense in the futility of human existence." Yet despite all the darkness and soul-searching, there is a strong undercurrent of humor in much of his work. I get the feeling that behind all the theory and symbolism, he's toying with us a bit.

"Four Star"

"The Standoff"

"The Titanic"

In poking about doing research for this profile, I learned more about one of Brown's influences, Joseph Beuys, who famously gave a performance at the opening of his first solo show in 1965 entitled "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare." In reading this description of Beuys' affinity with animals, I was struck by how it could illuminate Michael Brown's work equally well, for all that Beuys' and Brown's art are nothing alike. So I will leave you with this to ponder.

"As a child, Beuys was fascinated by nature, obsessively cataloguing all the plants and wildlife in his area. At the same time, he was enthralled by northern myths and folklore, in which creatures are endowed with mystical power. This reverence for the natural world persisted throughout his life and his art. He identified closely with certain animals, seeing them as guardian spirits. He said, ‘The figures of the horse, the stag, the swan and the hare constantly come and go – figures which pass freely from one level of existence to another, which represent the incarnation of the soul.'"

"Romulus and the Crown of Thorns"

"The Jewel Thief"

"Death of the Prophet"

1 comment:

KEYNOTER said...

Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing that info. I really like his work and now I know a little more about the theory behind it.