Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, oil on canvas, 37.3 x 29.4 inches.
I happened to learn several years ago that a most important painting in Deborah Brown’s mental canon is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), a rapturous work in which nature’s inherent, inescapable bluster, churn and passively idyllic solemnity are everywhere apparent, and everywhere abundant, and everywhere aflux betwixt stillness and stir, calm and gust.
Before all this is poised one lone figure, his back turned to the viewer, his undepicted visage caught in imaginably wide-eyed beholding of the peaks, clouds and crags arrayed before him. The scene is nearly audible. We can almost smell the air he breathes, its blue and its brisk. We are with him, as viewers, and we become him; we share his mid-hike pause and walking-stick-enhanced stance of possible fatigue, of most probable pride. It is a landscape painting about landscape painting. About looking, observing, ingesting, encompassing. It is a visual seizing, on various levels, of not only the very genre it both depicts and defines, but also of a whole range of mores and modes corresponding to Friedrich’s indubitably Romantic worldview.
All of that nature. All of that freedom. All those airs of solitude, mystery, history.
All whipped into a whirling, whistling sublime.
I knew Brown’s work quite well before I found out how important this painting has long been for her. Ever since then, though, this incidental bit of insight into her creative mind has led me to view her oeuvre overall— from her charmingly placid landscapes of years past to her most recent art-historical explorations—as charged with a pliantly pictorial Romantic thrust. I have also long admired her treatment of skies.
If not somewhat Romantic in terms of narrative logic and temporal breadth, at least poetic is the trajectory that led Brown from her earlier extra-urban observations of natural flora and fauna to her most recent homage-like renderings of canonical works from various eras. Sometime around when Brown moved her studio practice from Manhattan to Bushwick, Brooklyn, is when her often peaceful and bucolic, at times rather blissful landscape works depicting seas, shores, woods, waters, fields and the occasional heron gave way to meditations on her new creative sphere. Hence, then, the barbed-wire fences and variably dilapidated structures; hence the fledgling flora sprouting curiously, perhaps courageously through fractured sidewalks and cinder-block walls; hence the ubiquitous graffiti, the shoes adangle from telephone wires; hence the unshakable sense of the indirect aesthetic of all this, of its physio-emotional if not visual quietude. From her earlier landscapes to these post-industrial pastiches, of course, there are certain common features that Brown continued to treat with palpable awe and superb consistency: her radiantly chromatic, variably humored skies, those atmospheric canvases for cloud- play and expressive filterings of light. Indeed, Brown’s arguable subject in her urban landscapes is most essentially, at least in this viewer’s eyes, the sky. Herein, then, the plausibly Romantic statement of these works that might not readily scream with Romanticism: These matters of industrial detritus, these ruins and relics of our needs, wants, times and climes might not necessarily convey traditional beauties, yet the skies that beam, hum and burst above them are nonetheless no less—and perhaps all the more—sublime.
Yet another rather recent studio move, this time within the same general area and into a bigger space nestled more deeply into a mix of actively industrial and post-industrial structures, would trigger another shift in Brown’s work. Her pictorial tendencies somewhat jostled, her creative freedoms opened up a bit more broadly, Brown began to allow greater abstraction to assume more formal primacy. Elements of industry and urban decay began to morph into great mounds of themselves, grand piles of flippantly discarded things that seem to have been jettisoned aside by path-clearing giants. Clearly having fun mounting and amassing these somewhat looser, at times nearly humorous forms, Brown let her skies darken or soften a bit, opting instead to imbue her newly patented, ostensibly freeform terrestrial subjects with her trademark bright colors and spark.
These forms would not stay grounded for long, though, nor would they remain quite so freely formed. From one work of this type to another, Brown found herself crafting greater definition out of her mounds and piles. Her new forms became head-like, then proper heads, then she gathered them into a wonderful body of work called “Têtes,” some of which feature obliquely recognizable bust portraits culled from art history. In a particular one of these works, though, Brown expanded her dimensions and imaginative parameters to execute a full-figured re-rendering of a definitively monumental depiction, Jacque-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801-05). In her fervid painterly brushiness and brilliantly tight palette of blazing blues, Brown quickens and quakes the original work’s formidable energies and agency. It had never gone quiet, to be sure, that steed. Yet in Brown’s reworking, it neighs anew.
Paintings of this sort have formalized into Brown’s current creative purview. Her compositional canon of reference-cum-reverence, though, has opened up to include historical sculptures as well, where Brown embraces and takes visible delight in the challenge of rendering three dimensions with two. This, of course, is what one does in landscapes. It lies also at the heart of portraiture and various forms of literal representation. Brown’s somewhat different task, though, is that of removing an artwork’s extant third dimension to paint sculptural portraits, or portraits of sculptures. Take, for instance, her ebullient yet not exacting rendition of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52), in which Brown seizes the swooning, seizured subject’s visage of pain and oblivion to bring it into graceful, agonizing focus; or her depiction of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s joyful Bacchante aux roses (1872), in which Brown’s light touch and brushy treatment seem to tickle laughter out of the original work’s animatedly inanimate subject while heightening her own work’s depictive allure.
Where Brown limits her palette to some extent in her portraits of sculptures, as it were, she lets it explode with great robustness, if not nearly abandon, in her newest paintings of portraits. Her Sun King, for example, a reiteration of Hyacinthe Rigaud’s Louis XIV(1701), seems to burst with even greater pomp and circumstance. Brown’s brushy, gestural treatment imbues the monarch’s capacious drapery, mound of hair and peacocked posturing with additional notes of physical absurdity while granting the composition, in a way, an acoustic element, nudging the royal subject into an almost cheerful chromatic dance. Though her mode of pose is ostensibly more reposeful, Brown’s lounging subject in Marquise, a take on François Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour (1756), is no less kinetically infused than her more regal consort. In both of these works, Brown’s colors flit about and crackle with notes of exuberance that recall her earlier heaps of detritus, and of course her even earlier skies. Here, then, and in other works in this series—imagined portraits of literary protagonists, reimagined depictions of horse-backed sitters, grandiosely collared aristocrats, busts of lords—it seems Brown has just begun to tap into an almost fathomless trove of subjects-cum-muses for her Romantic impulses.
Infused with formal freeness, informed by freedom of imagination, embellished with brushy movement and broadly delightful palettes, Brown’s explorations into the pictorial and sculptural canon of art history are also, like Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, self-aware. They are artworks about artworks, about painting’s potencies and potential, about its material reach. They are, like Friedrich’s hiker posing momentarily in a mountainous midst, both historically stilled and pictorially astir.
Much like Friedrich’s work, moreover, Brown’s new paintings are about looking, observing, ingesting, encompassing. In the vast landscape of artworks that reside in her mind, Brown is perhaps that wanderer. The pictorial peak she has reached, where she pauses with an awed beholder’s inspired eyes, whistles and whirls with pensive echoes and reflective pride.
[Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is a New York based artist, writer, translator and professor, and Art Editor at The L Magazine.]
“Deborah Brown: Recent Paintings,” curated by Matthew Neil Gehring. Flecker Gallery at Suffolk Community College, Selden, NY. Through October 17, 2014.
Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. For permission to use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.
Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.