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Brown Retrospective at La Jolla : Artistic Bite Camouflaged By Innocence

December 22, 1987|LEAH OLLMAN

LA JOLLA — Within the sprightly, well-ordered world of Roger Brown's paintings lurks a profound unrest. The lollipop trees, perfect, ice-cream-scoop hills and cookie-cutter high-rises house a diseased humanity, a species plagued by disaster, violence and an urge toward self-destruction.

The retrospective of Brown's work at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art doesn't look so foreboding at first. What grab's the eye initially is the optical intensity of Brown's patterned skies and hillsides and the pristine clarity of his forms. Traces of naive art, folk art, comic strips, commercial illustration and the paintings of Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chirico and Georgia O'Keeffe all season Brown's style with their own solutions for simplification and reduction.

From pre-Renaissance as well as "unlearned" art, Brown has derived his use of isometric perspective, a method of representation that merges varying, contradictory viewpoints. From Japanese woodblock prints he has learned the effects of the bird's eye view, an elevated viewpoint that causes backgrounds to tilt upward and flatten out. Brown's influences run wide and deep but he is skilled at synthesis, having developed a style as distinct as each of his sources.

The exhibition, curated by Sidney Lawrence for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, surveys what, with minimal exceptions, proves to be an oeuvre marked by integrity, consistency and refreshing originality. Brown's paintings have always been as accessible as the Sunday comics but more akin to the editorial page. His personal interpretations of societal conditions and specific events in recent history reveal themselves cumulatively throughout the show, despite the La Jolla Museum's installation, which obeys no apparent chronological or thematic logic.

Brown clearly sympathizes with nature--as opposed to modern culture--to the point of idealized reverence. Raised in rural Alabama, Brown has lived in Chicago for 25 years, but maintains a house in rural Michigan and travels extensively across the United States.

His love of the expansive Midwestern landscape manifests itself in numerous light- and color-saturated odes to its low hills and broad skies. "Quilted Landscape" (1973), "Pastoral Camouflage" (1974) and "Buttermilk Sky" (1974) all celebrate the environment's natural splendor with a mix of awe and humor. The latter's neat rows of golden hills, evenly dolloped with spiky green bushes, and its luminous white sky symmetrically dappled with soft puddles of blue lend the landscape an uncanny beauty and perfection.

In "Surrounded by Nature" (1986), Brown satirizes man's contemporary alienation from the natural world. The painting depicts a circle of men, facing outward and aiming rifles beyond the ring of cars that protects them toward a few scattered deer, sheltered by an outermost circle of trees. Even deer, redolent of innocence and gentleness, appear threatening to the American ensconced in urban culture.

Brown seems to suggest that as Americans have settled into cool gray cities, their relationship with nature has grown increasingly disharmonious and hostile. In Brown's paintings, cities usually mean trouble. His earliest works in the show, from 1968 and 1970, portray a theater interior and an urban streetscape, respectively, both permeated with a Hopperesque air of melancholy and desolation. Another image of a housing development reinforces the notion that cities breed anonymity and isolation. From there, Brown's urban subjects become increasingly violent. Skyscrapers topple from the earth's tremors and city streets serve as stages for speed traps and assassinations.

Paintings of a war zone (1971) and the mass suicide in Jonestown (1980) further demonstrate Brown's penchant for examining the human capacity for self-destruction. But even these images betray a deceptively upbeat snugness.

Nowhere does this harmonious coexistence of terror and beauty surface more forcefully than in Brown's 1978 painting of a nuclear bomb exploding. The mushroom cloud billows over a rural town in rows of dark crescent shapes with delicately crimped edges. Brown's characteristically small, silhouetted figures scramble across the perfectly mounded hills below, past buildings still standing and still occupied by people still living, uninterrupted by the commotion in their own backyard. Brown's lush painting neutralizes the horror of the depicted event, making the work's title--"Chain Reaction (When You Hear This Sound You Will Be Dead)"--all the more unsettling.

The legibility and sheer beauty of Brown's painting style acts as a sweet coating sheathing the images' bitter core and allowing an accessibility that soon transforms into a startling absurdity. At times, the sweetness turns saccharine, as in a recent paean to the Reagans, or the artist relies on mere gimmickry, as in the constructions "Tarred and Feathered" (1974) and "Wolf Building" (1986). But the wit and insightfulness of the bulk of Brown's work more than overrides these minor pitfalls.

The exhibition, accompanied by an excellent illustrated catalogue, continues through Jan. 10.

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