Chicago likes to claim Roger Brown as its own, but that’s really only half true. Roger Brown was born and raised in Alabama, lived in Tennessee, traveled in Europe and Egypt, and as “Roger Brown: Calif., U.S.A.” at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) reminds us, owned homes in Michigan and La Conchita, California, in addition to his residence in Chicago and his time spent here. Brown’s Virtual Still Life series of paintings and his home and studio in La Conchita that housed eclectic collections of pottery and bric-a-brac, are the focus of this exhibition that shows the paintings side-by-side installations of objects and furniture relocated from La Conchita.
Showing Brown’s domestic inventory from La Conchita is at once both fascinating and alienating. On the one hand it’s incredibly interesting to visually sift through the piles of stuff that the exhibition curator Nicholas Lowe has brought back from the West Coast, it’s like a junky Where’s Waldo? or a scene from the I Spy children’s books. Brown was an avid collector of vernacular culture; there’s shabby chic furniture, religious kitsch, and quite a lot of folk pottery from all over the United States.
Installation view of "Jesus Table" in "Roger Brown: Calif. U.S.A." at the Hyde Park Art Center.
However, seeing these accumulations of stuff on display one is distinctly aware that it has been excised from a very specific space in order to be exhibited. The collections' use-value as inspiration, comfort, or decoration for Brown is trumped by their current function that emphasizes their exhibition-value. Thus we are distinctly aware that we are not looking at the aggregations as Brown would, we’re looking at it with a forensic eye: for patterns of taste, signs of influence, formal relations, and purposeful juxtapositions—all of which is profoundly removed from its original context of a certain place, a certain time and a certain person.
That’s not to say that these things shouldn’t be seen, but it does point to the problematic aspect of attempting to reproduce a certain location within another location, the problem being that it is totally impossible. But if you are looking for a seamless reproduction to begin with then you’ll never find what you’re looking for. Thus we must sift through Brown’s sediment of possessions for evidence of artistic inspiration and thought.
Therefore the pairing of Brown’s Virtual Still Life series with his personal collections lends meaning to both bodies of work as they inform each other. The Virtual Still Lifes combine a piece (or pieces) of pottery that Brown owned, sitting on an unobtrusive shelf, with a complementary canvas behind it. The painting responds to the selected pottery in some way: mostly formally, with Brown’s characteristic hills and skies echoing elements of the ceramic, or occasionally in content, as Brown comments on the objects themselves.
Roger Brown. Vase Noir. 1996. Oil on canvas, wood, mixed media. 16 x 33 x 7 1/2 in. Collection of Joe and Wendy Davis
Seeing the mass of ceramics that Brown collected, it becomes undeniably obvious that Brown selected particular pieces for their qualities and for particular ideas he had (a reproduction of his sketchbook he kept in his house let’s the viewer into his preparatory process for these works). Thus he drew attention to the work of an unsung, usually anonymous cultural worker, celebrating their work, ensuring that it would continue to be seen (and not destroyed as vernacular objects so often are), thereby rescuing it from a certain death-by-forgetting that over time all art risks. The work Vase Noir (1996, seen above) shows Brown doing this most overtly; a ceramic vase with a high-relief opera mask glazed onto it is placed in the middle of a shadowbox, painted like an opera stage complete with a curtain and audience. The masked vase appears to be taking a bow, as Brown’s signature figures in the audience watch this anonymous and quirky object.
The Virtual Still Lifes on view are mostly from 1995, with a few from 1996, which is significant in that they were made in the last few years of Brown’s life, before his AIDS-related death in 1997. Despite this, there seems to be little anticipation or reflection on his own mortality in the work, aside from the fact that pairing his possessions with paintings ensured that they could not be separated after his death. The religious imagery on view has more in common with a bathtub Virgin Mary or dashboard Jesus than a contemplation of the afterlife that a memento mori skull might prompt. This is a feeling reinforced by the “Jesus Table,” an installation of Brown’s ephemera, a table of religious kitsch, including a “moving eyes” Jesus.
Roger Brown. Virtual Still Life #7 Flexible Blue Madonna With Orange Salt And Pepper Shakers. 1995. Oil on canvas, mixed media. 17 x 12 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. Collection of Lael and Eugenie Johnson
Brown’s Virtual Still Life #7 Flexible Blue Madonna With Orange Salt And Pepper Shakers, 1995, is a work that exactly fits these sentiments. A blue, plastic-looking Madonna is flanked by the orange shakers sitting on a shelf in front of a classic Brown sky-scape that gets progressively darker towards the top but also doubles in this context as a kind of veil for an icon, making the whole thing into a niche.
Roger Brown. Virtual Still Life #16 Sake Cups And Four Big Sur Communion Chalices With Oral Roberts’ Vision Of A Two Mile High Jesus. 1995.Oil on canvas, mixed media, 29 1/2 x 23 1/2 x 9 in. Image courtesy of SAIC/Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection.
Immediately next to the Madonna work is Virtual Still Life #16 Sake Cups And Four Big Sur Communion Chalices With Oral Roberts’ Vision Of A Two Mile High Jesus, also from 1995. Once again the titular objects appear on the shelf under the painting and in the painting itself is a shadowy outline of a longhaired figure that from the title we must assume is Jesus, complete with a shadowy crown of thorns and a small airplane that is passing by. Quirky and humorous with a touch of bizarre, this creation is classic Brown and hints at his personal past when, in 1960, he briefly pursued becoming a pastor in the Church of Christ.
The Virtual Still Lifes overtly straddle the line between the decorative and the meaningful. Brown himself was very aware of this and one of the best works on view is A Painting For A Sofa: A Sofa For A Painting (1995) which has an ugly mini sofa on a shelf in front of an abstract painting. Here he takes aim at the collectors interested only in art that matches their décor and the empty, irrelevant abstract painting that explicitly catered to this demand.
The works on view and even the installations of Brown’s stuff implicitly toe the line between the decorative and meaningful through their combination of elements, sometimes falling more into one side than the other. But once you assign such a judgment Brown snaps you back to realizing that objects are not purely one thing or the other, they are a combination of the two in our current era. That dimension of self-criticism is why the Virtual Still Lifes work well as art.