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Joan Broan & Katherine Sherwood @ Paule Anglim

Joan Brown: Year of the Tiger, 1983, oil, enamel on canvas 72 x 120"
Though more than half a generation separates Joan Brown (1938-1990) from Katherine Sherwood, there’s much that unites these two iconic Bay Area figures.  In addition to their association with UC Berkeley, where Sherwood continues to teach, the two painters share important links to SF’s history of mediating between the competing impulses of abstraction and representation. 
The roots of Brown’s art trace to the Bay Area figurative movement as it evolved from the mid-1950s into Funk in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Sherwood’s to the same legacy as it wound through Feminism and various currents of postmodern abstraction during the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s.  But the link that binds them most closely is their intensely personal focus.  Like her immediate contemporaries – William Wiley, Robert Arneson and Roy de

Brown: Model with Ladder, 1974, a/c, ink, graphite on paper, 36 x 24"

Forest — Brown created her own mythology, painting herself amidst things she loved: dogs, cats, fish, friends and household furnishings and, toward the end of her life, symbols of Eastern spiritual practices.  Sherwood, one of the most consistently engaging abstract painters working today, continues to explore the effects of a medical crisis that left her partially disabled but emboldened.  For the past decade she’s made a fast-evolving series of abstract works that probe the mysteries of the brain by combining ancient symbology with clotted, cracked, carefully controlled paint pours that suggest the physical reality of a brain hemorrhage.

Brown is represented by several large self-portraits on canvas and a handful of smaller drawings, mostly of models painted in silhouette.  All but two of the 11 works on view are from the early to mid-1970s, the point at which she abandoned the heavy-impasto approach that brought her to fame.  She replaced it with a thin-painting method in which figures and objects were described with spare gestures and filled in with strong, solid colors and set against contrasting grounds, often with visible pencil lines showing in the paper works.  Unlike the festive and fantastical early canvases, these starkly reductive portraits appear to be awash in existential anxiety, their sense of loneliness and isolation made palpable by the extreme figure/ground relationships.   
The work that held my attention longest was Lovers (1974).  It’s a sea of black cleaved by a fleshy pink-white hole that, at a distance, appears three-dimensional.  Only upon close inspection do you realize that the “hole” is actually flat, and that it depicts two people embracing.  It was shown in Brown’s first retrospective that same year at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, and it captures her at a transitional moment, between painterly, figurative abstraction and the attenuated, more realistic look that carried her to the end.  That approach pointed to a cosmological orientation: artist as center — and master — of the universe.  
Year of the Tiger (1982), a 10-foot-long canvas dominating the gallery’s back wall, shows the artist surrounded by cats, constellations and astrological symbols. Summer Solstice (1982) has her in a similar stance.  Her body, situated atop a star pattern resembling the Big Dipper, is composed of Sanskrit letters. Both paintings point to an emerging heliocentric view and mark the stylistic distance Brown travelled over four decades.
Katherine Sherwood: After Ingres, 2014, mixed media on found linen, 78 x 84"
Sherwood, for her part, examines notions of female beauty through the prism of art history, re-creating in her own image, famous odalisques by Goya (Maja), Giorgione (Sleeping with Venus) and Ingres (Odalisque).  Three of these large-scale works are on view.  To make them she paints on the backs of reproductions of Old Masters, splicing them together with linen strips to create immense, tarp-like painting surfaces that billow out from the wall.  Subverting a part of art history long denounced by feminists for its incitement of the “male gaze” does not, by itself, qualify it as subversive.  What makes it so for Sherwood — and for us — is her photolithographic transfer of brain images onto faces that once issued come-hither looks and her swathing of these reclining nudes in the same earth tones (adobe brown, olive drab and yellow ochre) she once used to evoke the brain and the circulatory system. 
Maya, 2014, mixed media on canvas, 76 x 93"

You also can’t help but notice other elements of the Sherwood biography, particularly the presence of a leg brace and a cane.  Another piece of it resides in the materials. Sherwood scavenged the prints from the UC Berkeley art department where, after years of instructional use, they were discarded.  She painted on the versos, and in the areas left untouched you can easily make out the names of unseen masters: Renoir, Cranach the Elder, Bruegel, Canaletto, Degas, Van Gough and so on.  They’re written in pencil.  But the biggest transformation has to do with Sherwood’s handling of brain matter; she allows it to spill out of the craniums and into formations that resemble tiaras, in essence “crowning” disability as a kind of beauty – an idea that goes back to naïve art and to Art Brut, things that informed Joan Brown, too.

The difference ‘twixt the two: When you stare at Sherwood’s altered visages they stare back, returning your gaze with a wizened glare that is as inscrutable as the inner workings of the brain itself.  

Joan Brown and Katherine Sherwood @ Gallery Paule Anglim through November 15, 2014. 

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