by David M. Roth
Whatever preconceptions you may harbor about conceptually driven painting, there’s a strong chance Brad Brown will upend them. The North Carolina-born, San Francisco artist lays down rules for himself, but rather than allow them to restrict the flow of ideas or circumscribe what can or cannot be achieved, his practice of slicing apart and recombining pieces of paintings and drawings generates a fascinating and seemingly endless library of forms. The result: thousands of works that have a beginning but no apparent end. Thus, the wall-length grid of 56 paintings on wood panels that forms the centerpiece of this exhibition is but a temporal view of a continuously evolving corpus titled Piece whose components the artist reconfigures ad infinitum.
Each is a kind of bricolage: of image scraps from prior works piled up in layers (and sometimes painted anew) and of snippets set together like puzzle pieces in shallow cradles, some with eyelets screwed into the surfaces. In other places, you can spot bits of detritus nailed down by brads. Throughout, a gawky unity prevails. But the strength of the installation rests with the individual paintings, each the product of chance
guided by decades of experience fitting together unalike forms: found, invented, and, quite often, modified years apart.
A quote I found on Brown’s website sums up well the artist’s approach: “The use of systems and random order allows me to be the viewer as much as the maker of the work. Often, I will devise projects that consist of several different processes, with each process blinkered or hidden from the other. My job is to be intensely focused on each process without the knowledge or understanding of what will result when the various processes come together.”
These practices, which the artist half-jokingly terms “my personal voodoo,” began in 1987 with a series of drawings that involved slicing up tens of thousands of pages into ever smaller units, which he fashioned into fresh compositions. The series, called The Look Stains, combined controlled paint pours and choppy calligraphic marks in overlapping, semi-transparent sections. During the 14 years (1987-2001) Brown worked on the project, he refused to sell anything, though he did, during the final six years, rent works to collectors with contractual terms he sometimes found difficult to enforce.
None of which appear to have hindered Brown’s career. The Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the de Young Museum are but a few of the institutions that hold Brown’s work in their collections. He’s also been the recipient of numerous prestigious residencies and grants, not to mention solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver; Haines Gallery, Hosfelt Gallery and Crown Point Press.
To see how Brown’s Cageian ethos plays out at Patricia Sweetow, ask to examine the versos of his paintings. On them, you’ll see titles and dates crossed out and rewritten. Some of the changes recorded span more than a decade. And while the “evidence” doesn’t form anything approaching a true
forensic trail, it does make the point that for Brown, art is more about the evolution of ideas and the negotiation of processes than it is about making objects designed to endure. For him, those on view affirm only one thing: that they’ve reached a comfortable “resting point” — the point at which he’ll starting cutting them again up to make new works.
Of the 56 works presented, only a few seem related; the rest appear to be made by different artists summoned from mid-century Europe. Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tàpies, Jean Fautrier and Nicolas de Staël are a few that spring to mind, along with contemporary abstractionists like Linda Geary, Tom Burckhard, Thomas Nozkowski and Steve Rodin.
Picking highlights feels a bit like throwing darts in that “hits” appear wherever your gaze lands. A necktie-shaped piece of wood attached to a hinge drew my attention to Piece 342 (Formalist), 2012-2018. Green blobs coalescing into something resembling a tribal mask pulled me into Piece 69 (Itch), 2004-12), while the outermost fragment of Piece 298 (Untitled), 2012-18,
brought to mind a ghost riding a surfboard. Then there’s the tortoise head that appears poised to chew on a teeppe in Piece 170 (Lascaux Thought Balloon), 2004-2017. These allusions to faces, figures and other recognizable things alternate with abstruse geometric and biomorphic shapes. Brown renders them in thin scumbles, tightly packed daubs of flung paint, rough cinder-textured impastos and, in one notable instance, a troweled glob of green pigment that runs like a malignant growth down the left side of Piece 85 (Forgiveness), 2004-2013.
Though these works couldn’t be more dissimilar, their formation in a grid unites them, revealing a compositional acuity that is Brown’s alone. I count him among the most innovative abstract painters operating today.
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As for Christopher Miles, the ceramic sculptor with whom Brown shares the bill, imagine, if you will, a figure of Brobdingnagian stature stalking the Earth back when the planet was molten and gaseous. Imagine, further, that this individual is a distant progenitor of Miles, and that he’s grabbing up fistfuls of the still-warm muck. Out of his grip ooze the juices of decaying vegetable matter, forming as they cool, a proto-ceramic object whose shapes suggest monsters of a sort that might haunt a such man’s dreams. He wonders if the vision is real, and concludes, from the solidity of the object, that it is, and that his creation might someday compel others to reflect, as he does, on the volatility of the natural world.
No, this isn’t the backstory of how the LA critic, curator and university professor named Christopher Miles became an artist. Still, it’s easy to entertain such a fantasy when you look at his work.
These off-kilter, pedestal-mounted shapes, with their clashing, gloopy, run-together colors and protuberant aorta-like shapes, are borderline repulsive. Shot through with holes, their open-to-view “bodily cavities” blur the boundary between exterior and interior, forcing you to look inside to conduct a full inventory. In the largest of the six works on view, which measures about 36 inches tall, the visible “topography” resembles an exploded view of the human heart, filled with congealed pools of pigment. The most striking hang like stalactites from the “ventricles.” Few sculptures conjure so many primordial associations.
Miles, who now heads the ceramics department at California State University, Long Beach, kept this aspect of his life secret for years; but in 2010, he went public, unveiling a body of work at ACME Gallery in LA. It was not what anyone expected from a professor of theory and criticism, steeped in Conceptualism. But, as the artist tells it, countervailing forces were at work, the most powerful being his family history. The youngest of seven children, he was deeply influenced by four sisters who sewed. His father ran a ceramics
glaze manufacturing business and introduced him, at age 13, to the work of Peter Voulkos, inculcating desires that would resurface later, when, deep into adulthood, he sought ways to enrich ceramic sculpture and give it conceptual heft. His strategy: push form and glazing, the medium’s building blocks, to new extremes.
Embodied in his approach is the idea that there are no fixed identities, only shifting positions. For example, while each of Miles’ works carries a dominant color – say, salmon pink or tortoise-shell green – close inspection reveals a range of intermingled hues that change according to the light and where you stand.
The forms themselves are just as tricky to pin down. While you can detect shapes that resemble the open maws of deep-sea creatures and the like, the overall impression is of inchoate scraps joined by serendipity. Which is not the case. Miles builds these sculptures from sketches, molding sheets of clay around armatures and scaffolds using variable-height “turntables” to spin the works-in-progress and move them up and down. Little is left to chance. The end products mirror the drawings and reflect, quite literally, the artist’s desire to engage audiences by compelling them to examine the work from every possible angle.
In the long view, Miles’ clay sculptures also reveal affinities with Funk, in particular, Robert Hudson’s asymmetrical junkyard assemblages. But historical throwbacks they are not. These expressionistic grotesques speak of hands-on labor, long looking and, most of all, primordial forces older and more powerful than ourselves.
How to best categorize this work? Call it the icky sublime.
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Brad Brown and Christopher Miles @ Patricia Sweetow Gallery through February 22, 2020.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.