Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 5, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and Gregg Hertzlieb. The essay was previously included in a 2001 illustrated brochure published by the Museum. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated brochure were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the illustrated brochure, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:
A Selection of Work by the Artist Roger Brown (1941-1997)
by Gregg Hertzlieb
The Brauer Museum of Art is proud to announce three important new acquisitions, purchased from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Two paintings and one lithograph by the noted artist Roger Brown (1941-1997) join the Brauer's growing collection of twentieth-century American works. The acquisition of these three fine pieces was made possible by the Brauer's FRIENDS of Art who, through their dedication to the museum and love of the arts in general, have donated many wonderful paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographs which individually and collectively help shape the collection. The group's support over the years has been truly admirable.
Josephine Ferguson, founding director of the Brauer FRIENDS, became fascinated by Roger Brown's work and stressed to the museum director and FRIENDS Acquisition Committee that the Roger Brown Study Collection was definitely a place to visit. There one can become acquainted with not only Brown's work, but also the many interests and influences on him, exemplified by the diverse collection of objects which fill this seemingly unassuming storefront on Halsted Street. The Study Collection, Brown's former home and studio (given to The School of the Art Institute by Brown in 1996), is a treasure trove of playful and fanciful toy-like creations: birdhouses that look like miniature churches, whirligigs, homemade signs, miniature diecast metal cars and trucks. Walls and tables in every room are filled with fascinating works of art, made by artists both trained and untrained, "inside" and "outside" of the art world. One gets the sense that Brown was a man who loved life, who was enthusiastic in celebrating the creativity of people who looked at life and the world around them with a sense of wonder. Accordingly, in his own art the figures who point or stare in astonishment or alarm are portraits of Brown himself who, along with the sensitive and perceptive artists in his collection who were his spiritual peers, are caught in the hypnotic grasp of a world filled with events and sights that are truly awe-inspiring. Brown responded to artists who saw with the purity and freshness of a child; he too saw around him a universe that could inspire a childlike sense of reverence. This excitement for the sheer enigma of his environment, and mankind's sometimes over-earnest attempt to make sense of it, is what makes Brown's work interesting and just plain fun.
The oil painting Teddyscape (1993), which is the largest work of the three purchased for the Brauer, is a powerful depiction of a modest landscape dominated by the towering apparition of either a teddy bear or Mickey Mouse silhouette. Brown's trademark scalloped clouds coalesce to form a disturbing, looming form that dominates the sky. Black figures on the ground point to the vision that has appeared. Perhaps produced by the collective unconscious of mankind or supernaturally summoned as a warning to the frenetic denizens below, the imposing black form seems to proclaim the inevitable triumph of the silly. Through a frantic pursuit of escapist entertainment, Americans have become minions of an iconic figure who not only comforts, but also reminds them of their desperation in the face of problems of their own making. The mouse or teddy bear is a last-ditch effort to lose oneself in commercially-motivated safety; consequently, the public in Brown's view become homogeneous participants in an atmosphere of disturbingly ordinary amusement, devoid of challenge or true insight. The wonder of this painting is that Brown can achieve a menacing critique in an image that is whimsical and even humorous, due to its stylization and boldness of color.
Indianapolis Jones (1995), a much smaller work, is even more light-hearted in tone. A rosy-cheeked farmer standing and holding a pitchfork in an American Gothic pose gazes at the viewer. The night sky and tilled ground under his boots are a simple background. He is the most unassuming of heroes, nothing like the swashbuckling Indiana Jones, whose name provides the basis for Brown's punning title. Yet the farmer figure in the painting does have dignity. Brown evidently turned his artistic eye eastward, to a state so close to Illinois, yet so different in many ways. The farmer of Indiana for Brown is a figure worthy of celebration. Simple and naive in his pursuits of living off the products of the land, he is a dying breed of America, one whose motivations can appear as being guileless to a city-bred person more cunning in his pursuit of success. Perhaps to Hoosiers Indianapolis Jones can be a bit embarrassing, an uncomfortable reminder of the pair of overalls in one's own closet. However, Brown's tiny portrait shows real tenderness; it reminds the viewer that a simple farmer can be touching in his modesty and even someone that a person could aspire to be, if modern life had not made such a lifestyle nearly a thing of the past.
The subtly colored lithograph Giotto in Chicago (1981), the third Brauer work, is more acerbic in its wit, however; it is more bitter than bittersweet. Here another significant aspect of Brown's work emerges: that of the pointed critique. Through a fair amount of text and a comic strip format, Brown allegorically attacks two rather strident Chicago-based critics of his work, as well as the work of his artist friends. In this complex print, the artist is able in a visually appealing work on paper to vent his frustration at figures who attempt to stand in the way of his artistic mission. The print is actually based on a painting Brown did earlier the same year, entitled Giotto and His Friends: Getting Even; one might assume that the artist felt his message to be important enough to produce it in the form of a multiple. In both the print and painting, Brown likens himself to Giotto, the Italian artist of the late fourteenth century who is credited as setting into motion the aesthetic ideas which would come to define the High Renaissance. Brown wishes both to represent his personal artistic aspirations as being as significant in many ways as Giotto's, and to call attention to those figures who would object to or interfere with valuable steps toward new insights. Through this work and others even more direct in their social criticism, Brown shows that he has no patience for a closed-minded view. Bad or good, the events and circumstances of the world require examination and discussion to reach a sense of understanding. Simply to dismiss or not even acknowledge is what Brown seems to find very distasteful, and through his versatile vocabulary he is able to communicate that distaste. The result is frequently beautiful, even though the ideas that underlie the carefully executed images express frustration or even disgust. Such a paradox is one of the many elements that make Brown's works so complex and ultimately satisfying.
Before the FRIENDS of Art of the Brauer Museum of Art made their purchase of these three works, the Brauer had a modest Roger Brown piece in its collection: Little Nimbus, a small lithograph from 1979 that the artist did at The School of the Art Institute's retreat at Oxbow, Michigan. Now the Brauer Museum and the Northwest Indiana community can enjoy a much greater representation of Roger Brown's body of work, an artistic achievement that encourages the viewer to see. Additionally, viewers can enjoy a grouping of works that represents the very best in contemporary regional art (although Brown did enjoy international stature, he celebrated the Midwest in his paintings for approximately twenty-five years). These works join a collection that is extremely rich in celebrating the Midwest region from both a nineteenth and twentieth century perspective. Brown's Teddyscape and Indianapolis Jones are excellent modern landscape counterpoints to the works of Junius Sloan, which present a more pastoral, sentimental midwestern view from the previous century. Sloan's collection of record at the Brauer is illuminated and given resonance by the present day viewpoints that the Roger Brown grouping affords. Overall, the FRIENDS' gift is a manifestation of Roger Brown's gift: to look at one's surroundings with both an innocent eye and a critical eye and to present the results of that examination in finely wrought, challenging, and delightful works of art.
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