"You sit back in your chair in your studio . . . and you're trying to think critically about what you're doing," said Christopher Brown, peering thoughtfully at his paintings of dark heads bobbing in bright water. An hour before the "Awards in the Visual Arts" opening reception, a scrape and clatter of last-minute activity was bustling around the Bay Area artist.
"Sometimes you're just trying to think things like, 'Does that red look right?' " he continued. "But other times you go in the studio and you sit there for a couple of hours, and you're really not having those kinds of questions about it. . . . You have questions about the whole thing. Are all five of these paintings any good at all? . . . What are they about? What am I trying to do?
"That's the hardest part about being an artist. The technical things are very easy. They're the fun part. But . . . sorting out your ideas and trying to make decisions about what the hell you should do . . . those are very tough things, and the answers to them are very complex and shrouded in different sorts of impulses and motivations and wishes and misgivings."
At 35, Brown believes he is just now coming into his own: "It's almost as if I feel I've had the last 10 years to digest painting for myself and understand its meaning. I'm not the kind of painter whose work is based on ideas . . . that have formed new concepts in avant-garde art.
"My painting falls in a traditional realm of painting . . . a visual language, a language of ideas about light and color and shade. To understand what that means . . . in terms of the emotionality of your paintings and the content of your paintings and the tradition of painting back to the 13th century takes a long time, a lot of trial and error."
Brown compares a painter's struggle to "rewriting and rewriting to get (an essay) to sound the way you want it. When you're 15 years old, you can't do that, but when you're 20 you have a better sense of not only what you want to say but of the tone it should have, the power of the words and whether you're going to put it in this tense or that tense."
The series of Brown's paintings included in the exhibit at the Newport Harbor Art Museum was inspired by a photograph of Mao swimming in the Yangtze River. "It was just his head and the heads of a few bodyguards or companions," Brown recalled. "I don't think it was even real. I think it was a propaganda photograph, because it was so perfect and idealized. I mean, the guy was not floating. It was like he was standing at perfect attention and the water just rose to (his neck). But it was this great image.
"As so often happens, I was trying to make a painting--of some soldiers in a field--and it just wasn't working, and so . . . I just did a drawing of (Mao) right over top of that painting, and through a period of a couple of months it just developed into being this bigger painting with all these different heads in it and this golden light. . . . It was 1985 and this group of paintings then went on for a year after that--maybe 10 or a dozen based on that idea.
"You know, of all the things that I've painted . . . the image of water is probably the image I've painted more than anything else. I was a competitive swimmer for three years when I was a kid, and then when I was in college I was a swimming coach. (Water) is something I dream a lot about. It comes up in my life a lot, and I don't particularly know why."
Brown's previous project, "The Painted Room" (exhibited at UC Irvine last year), was an immense and lushly romantic evocation of an imaginary forest in which he deliberately set about to create "the most emotional paintings I could." After it was finished, he wanted to move on to something more low key.
But a small area in one of the paintings where water is visible through the trees "just kept ringing in my mind." The white ripples on the green water eventually reemerged in a more decorative, less painterly way in the new series. To him, the heads "represent a concentration of mass and weight relative to the openness and ephemerality of the water."
More fancifully, they are "states of my own consciousness--me just thinking about making this painting."
These days, as chairman of the Practice of Art department at UC Berkeley, Brown enjoys the "family" feeling of colleagues who share his uncompromising attitude: to be "honest to yourself in spite of . . . whatever it means for your work or your sales or your relation with galleries."
New York has beckoned from time to time--ironically, he created his leafy "Painted Room" series there in a seven-month stint--and he still wonders whether that city will somehow figure in his future. But there is much to ponder and enjoy in the meantime.
"I think painting . . . embodies . . . this great human kind of hopefulness," Brown said. "It represents the possibility of change and perfection."
He laughed and added ruefully, "Those are the kind of ideas you need to sort of hang on to when that red just won't go on the canvas."