If you care to consider almost any of the issues which invisibly surround art-making today, both machine-assisted and handmade (the hand, animated by fingers, is also in a sense digital), have a look at a picture painted by Alex Brown. While the examination may at times be purely speculative and at others eerily formalist, this seems appropriate for an approach to painting in which the image is always to a certain degree deformed.
Photography, having displaced painting as the mirror in which we regard ourselves and the world around us, is no longer implicitly entrusted. Photoshop being the least of it. There are documentary and street photographers who will tell you that the picture recorded by the camera “. . . isn’t what was photographed. It’s something else. It’s a new fact.” That’s what Garry Winogrand thought. Near the end of his career, he endlessly shot pictures with a motor-drive camera from the passenger side of a moving car. There are scores upon scores of proof sheets of Los Angeles streets, but what, if anything, do they prove? A woman stands on a corner at least a block away, and you wonder: “What was the greatest distance at which she could be convincingly described?” (1.) Winogrand himself would be the first to admit that each picture represents the world for no more than one hundred and twenty-fifth of a second. Every picture the slightest trace. In Ghost (2001), Alex Brown offers the evidence of a woman, evanescent yet undeniably present, a measure of the distance at which she was, and can be, apprehended. Whether or not you can decipher the photographic source image within one of Brown’s paintings—the picture he recorded/re-ordered—is entirely beside the point; the painting is its own new fact, and seeing/searching is an act of engagement for artist and viewers alike.
[Do people ever really look at pictures? That someone makes a painting which can be hard to see, or difficult to photograph, is an achievement in and of itself. These are paintings which refuse to yield everything in an instant. Paintings which reveal more of themselves over time. Paintings which live longer.]
Any detective will tell that you that if five people witness a bank robbery, you will get five different descriptions of the suspect. She was short. She was tall. She was wearing a blue jacket. A black jacket. What happens if five people look at a painting by Alex Brown? (2.) What happens when three of them review his show? The implications for art may not be as dire as those for law enforcement, but at this intersection there is one fact of which we can be sure: as recalled from memory, every picture is a composite. Brown raises the possibility, and not only for himself, that every picture painted is a composite. Even someone with a photographic memory might find the task of describing a painting like Monster (2001) daunting, to say the least. To the best of my recollection, there are numerous red-orange, brown, and black shapes piled on high, forming a giant hive. Before I was told that this is a portrait, it reminded me of a picture I had once seen of bees swarmed completely around a man’s head and neck. As I go back and forth between the two pictures, though, do I really know what it was that I saw?
A mirage is something thought to be seen which is not in actuality there; the mind creates an image for the eye to believe. Some of Alex Brown’s paintings appear to be mental pictures of exactly this sort. Ship (2001). The ship itself seems made up of the very waves and swells of the sea on which it floats. Blue on blue on blue. Upon close inspection, an airplane is visible, descending from sky and clouds (even more blue) as if about to merge with the ship below. Ship presents us with an image that is entirely buoyant, spectral, the picture plane doubled, ocean and sky nearly fused. Is this a ghost ship? One composition haunted by another . . .
[Can we ever experience an image as a truly singular event?]
Discussing his most recent paintings, Brown has spoken of how one image acts as a filter for another; a landscape, for example, may sit on top of a cityscape—as in TNC (2001), the title referring to town and country. Here, a river flows so completely into the town that the built environment forms a precarious dam, more closely resembling a proliferation of levees and floodgates than a habitable site. Here, one image inhabits another, and yet the picture can only be seen as a totality, where everything appears perfectly in place. Superimposition has occurred with some frequency in the history of painting—in the “transparencies” of Francis Picabia most notably—but Brown’s application is something else entirely. An image used in much the same way as a magnifying glass, a tool that brings the eye into closer contact with something otherwise elusive. (Or a map entirely comprised of insets.) Where the surrealists may be said to have compounded vision to layer meaning, the strata in these paintings of Brown’s suggests a more direct, even rational approach: we’re using the image to see.
Trompe l’œil, the technique of realist painting with its origins in decoration, translates as “fool the eye.” Mechanical reproduction in our time, even when offered up as the most advanced example of picture-making, increasingly partakes of this tradition. Do computer-generated and manipulated images suggest another translation of trompe l’œil? Fool the lie?
Stand several inches from the surface of a painting like Lobby (2000), and what can you see? A few overlapping blocks of beige-brown or forest-green? Take a few steps back. Those blocks begin to radiate, ziggurat-like, from the center out. Now we have perspective, and so we look down. Color mixes more uniformly across the bottom—a ground to stand upon. The title of the painting is known to us, and with a few more steps the picture begins to cohere. A lobby, as corporate as the colors it’s painted, awaits us, and waiting is the activity—if it can be so designated—this kind of space was designed for. There are any number of paintings that have come to rest in the lobbies of the world. It’s unlikely that this one has met a similar fate, but could it be more perfect? This is a painting that, with patience, you will eventually see. A painting, like the little plaque near the elevator doors, that says: You Are Here.
These paintings are at the same time representational and abstract, perhaps even to the extent that those very terms lead nowhere useful.
After my earliest encounter with Alex Brown’s paintings, I wrote: “In some of his more abstract works, the image almost defies clear reading. You stand there and ask, ‘What is this? What am I supposed to be looking at?’ Which, in art, I think of as a good thing.” (Art being a matter of curiosity or nothing at all.) Although more of these paintings have been brought into the world, they don’t possess any greater sense of normalcy. If anything, they are increasingly complicated as visual information, and as full of strangeness as ever.
Hallucination. There were paintings all around the room. Just looking at them altered all perception—of the pictures and the walls they were hung upon, of everything and everyone in and outside the room. Only later, when our minds cleared (or so we thought), could we conceive of the painting as a drug, and then we knew we were still on it …
1. John Szarkowski, Winogrand: Figments From the Real World, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p. 38.
2. If Alex Brown were a police sketch artist would anyone ever be caught?