by Hearne Pardee
Although he declares himself a constant beginner, Mark Brown places himself in a long tradition of painting’s involvement with walls and windows. Painting started on the wall of a cave, but Brown’s work recalls late Roman wall painting, with its decorative use of moldings and frames, theatrical effects that point ahead to the mathematically determined “window” of the Renaissance. Since the nineteenth century, modern painters have progressively closed off that window, clearing the empty, open field that Brown takes as his point of departure.
FROM THE VILLA AT BOSCOTRECASE, 11th Century BC Fresco, Bay of Naples
Winter Series (2006-2013), a prelude to the recent, larger works, places us in the context of German romanticism; based on Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, it suggests lyrical associations to the wooded landscapes of Brown’s home, but he avoids the pictorial tradition of Caspar David Friedrich. Making reference rather to twentieth-century abstract painters like Barnett Newman, he sets up an interplay between central ruptures and outer boundaries, which often assume the protective contours of an arch. Stains suggest corrosion and allude to the alchemy of contemporary German painter Anselm Kiefer.
WINTER 48, 2011, oil on birch panel, 20 X 36” (51 X 41 cm)
As he’s enlarged his scale and explored his love of painting, Brown has amplified this internal dialogue, elaborating on boundaries with incised lines and multiple, narrow borders, while emphasizing the physical primacy of the field. He favors solid supports that reinforce the legacy of the wall and grinds many of his own pigments, emphasizing the work of the hand and the material density of paint. Completing the curve of the arch to generate a lozenge, he transforms the frame into a potent autonomous structure. His elongated vertical formats encourage identification with the viewer’s upright posture, while the ovals recall Mondrian’s early undifferentiated fields, inspired by the open sea. At other times, the allusion seems French, to Matisse’s vertical shuttered windows, which admit light but deny the view, or to the ominous French Window at Collioure (1914), painted at the onset of World War I, which opens onto blackness.
FRENCH WINDOW AT COLLIOURE
Henri Matisse, 1914, oil on canvas, 45 5/8 X 35” (116 X 89 cm)
Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou
The oval fields also suggest mirrors, as do the titles Narcissus (2012) and Looking Glass (2017). Yet we look in vain for literal images, obliged instead to seek expressive inflections in the layering of pigments and incidental drips. Working freehand, Brown brings a sense of touch to the geometry of the grid; he steps outside the formal precision of geometric abstraction. As an alternative to modernism’s relentless logic, he proposes a slow, meditative practice of gestural improvisation that resists analysis. There’s also a restless shifting of larger shapes within the overall framework, as in the irregular lattice-work of Untitled (Red) (2017). Frames can be elongated, nearly square, or even horizontal.
Dimensions and media unknown
It’s within this flexible formal arena that Brown “begins”. Asymmetry and irregularity slow perception, encourage contemplation and reward close attention. Titles like Invincible Summer and Thay - authoritative, boldly colored images from 2019 - allude to the philosophical traditions Brown draws upon in dialogue with his medium. Tantric painting, based on simple abstract shapes, particularly resonates; painted on found paper, along with incidental marks, these anonymous images provide subjects for meditation and generate altered states. Open to the unknown, Brown’s paintings offer similar unspoken epiphanies.
LOVE AND HAPPINESS
Mark Brown, 2012, oil on canvas, 60 X 66” (152 X 168 cm), Private collection, Charlotte
HEARNE PARDEE is an artist who writes about art. His reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, artcritical.com, Art in America and other publications. He teaches Studio Art at the University of California, Davis.