Contemporary artists have such an overwhelming array of esthetic choices available to them that imagining the art world dogma of a few generations ago —and the passion aroused then by apostasy and betrayal— is almost inconceivable. Bay Area Figurative artists like San Franciscan William Theophilus Brown, who applied Expressionist paint handling to representational art, dismayed 1950s-1960s esthetic purists no less than Philip Guston’s treasonous return to figuration did later in the 1970s; Brown’s cohorts David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira, Paul Wonner, James Weeks, and William Wolff also risked being considered retrograde by postwar cognoscenti. Today that excessive purism seems ridiculous.
A sizeable sampling of Brown’s work from 1954 to the present at Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery demonstrates both the artist’s versatility in handling a range of themes and even styles, and his pictorial consistency, which imposes order on his strong diagonals and vigorous gestures. “Football” (1954) reveals DeKooning’s strong influence with its convulsive evocation of battle, while “Male Figure in Water” (1962) blends the German expressionist nude in natural surroundings with the observant but summary paint handling derived from Manet and Matisse. A pair of landscape paintings from the late 1980s seems classicized urban realism at first glance, but the more we look at them, the more possessed of inner life they seem as we discern Brown’s interest in Metaphysical Painting, a souvenir of his 1959 trip to Italy. A real surprise are the bold, vibrant gestural abstract paintings in acrylic from the past three years; once you get over the initial shock, however, you feel and see the vigorous barely-contained dynamism pervading all of Brown’s work.
(*Images from top to bottom: William Theophilus Brown, Theophilus Brown, February 2 - February 29, 2008; Elins Eagles Smith Gallery, Garden at Night, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 42 x 38 in., courtesy of Elins Eagles Smith Gallery. William Theophilus Brown, Theophilus Brown, February 2 - February 29, 2008; Elins Eagles Smith Gallery, Football, 1954, oil and graphite on paper, laid on panel, 46 x 57 in., courtesy of Elins Eagles Smith Gallery. William Theophilus Brown, Theophilus Brown, February 2 - February 29, 2008; Elins Eagles Smith Gallery, Untitled, 2003, acrylic collage on paper, 10.5 x 9 in., courtesy of Elins Eagles Smith Gallery.)