A lion and a lamb. A serpent and a peacock. A wolf and a deer. Predator and prey, the animals co-exist serenely in the peaceable kingdom of Joan Brown, an artist with a fascination for the past and an optimistic vision of the future.
"Every ancient culture, throughout the ages, had a golden age," said Brown, a soft-spoken redhead with clear blue eyes, "a time, always foretold to reoccur, when all creatures lived in peace and perfect harmony. It was perhaps like our Eden. And we are now entering a golden age, the Aquarian Age. We are moving into a time of peace."
Brown, a veteran Bay Area figurative artist, recently discussed the idyllic era at Koplin Gallery on Santa Monica Boulevard. The theme underscores several of her large paintings and copper sculptures from 1983-86 on exhibit there to Oct. 4.
Characteristically, great vibrant fields of overheated orange, verdant green or cobalt blue reverberate within the paintings on view. Brown typically paints in a flat, decorative style, often drawing on imagery and spiritual beliefs from ancient lands.
Here, Mayan ziggurats or an Incan stone archway, Egyptian and East Indian kings and deities are depicted beside a familiar menagerie of cats, hummingbirds, jaguars, serpents and other fauna cavorting calmly together.
"One of my main interests is archeology and anthropology," said Brown, 48, "and in the last 10 years I've traveled to archeological sites in Egypt, India, South and Central America and the Orient. In the art I saw, the thread running through all the ancient cultures is the symbolism of a golden age--whether represented by the yin and yang or by men and women shown as the sun and moon."
Brown's painting "From the Heart" melds her peaceable and historical sensibilities, depicting pacifist rulers such as the 14th-Century BC Egyptian King Akhnaton or the American Indian Chief Joseph.
Also shown is a jaguar, normally perceived as fierce, here seen in reflective repose, grasping a valentine heart in his paw.
"Classically, a cat--like the Sphinx--represents the animal, or lower side of man's nature," said Brown, whose self-portrait appears in the picture. "But my interpretation is that the animal-self can be about introspection. Here it's shown examining the heart."
Brown has eschewed the norm before. After receiving national acclaim and recognition in her early 20s, then the youngest member of a group of Bay Area artists seeking to meld Abstract Expressionism with figuration, she broke away from her established style and "went underground" to work.
"In school (the San Francisco Art Institute), I'd been taught the classical Western European perspective technique," she said, "but in 1964 and '65 I felt restless, so I started studying Oriental art, especially Chinese painting and Eastern, Egyptian and Mayan art.
"It was a lonely time, I got kicked out of my galleries for changing my style and a lot of people thought I was crazy. But I was really excited about the work and I had a new sense of discovery."
While her early Expressionist works were painted with a thick impasto technique, Brown said, "I became more out front with the stories behind the images and they became cleaner, more crisp and solid."
Though Brown said her first exhibition after the evolution received "hideous reviews," she continued to develop her highly personal style, finally winning back recognition, prestigious awards and major gallery and museum representation.
With her subsequent travels, begun in 1977, the mystical and spiritual images began to appear in her works.
"But I had come out on my own terms and I've never had a qualm since about doing anything I feel like doing. I did exactly what I thought was the right thing to do and I ended up being accepted for it."
Last August, Brown installed a 36-foot obelisk in San Diego's Horton Plaza and has just placed an 18-foot ceramic tile obelisk at the Center, a Beverly Hills office complex.
"These days I'm more excited about public art than anything else," she said. "Again, that stems from my awe of ancient cultures where art was a part of everyone's life and a collaborative process.
Public art demands the participation of several people--architects, artists, laborers, engineers, landscapers--and that process is important to help us become a more integrated society. We aren't islands unto ourselves."