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Herbert Brown Exhibition at BLT Gallery, New York 2010

Review By Megan Marie Garwood

Published in: The Art World |

Herbert Brown’s work from the sixties offers an artist’s view of a decade shrouded in the penumbra of social dichotomies: peace and war, sexuality and prudence, individual and caste, counter-culture and consumption. His paintings are comprised of ripped pieces of paper from advertisements or subway posters adhered to stretched canvas that are then painted over with thick wide brushstrokes of rich dark hues. The subject matter revolves around warriors, nudes and cultural icons. His video installations utilize an oil painting juxtaposed against a television, which eerily coalesce his art with recorded television images from the sixties. Brown’s works reflect on three major motifs scrutinized in the sixties: commodification, the Vietnam war and experimentation in sexuality. His subversive strokes, alluding to sixties’s graffiti style, manipulate pervasive imagery, resulting in multiple layers of abstract figuration, sexually charged subject matter, and social commentary applicable to social awareness in 2010.

The sixties was a decade of change for the whole nation, marked by great national progress but limited individual accomplishment. Equality and post-war economic achievement led to an emphasis on commodity goods and conformity. Technological advancement furthered America’s new reliance on commodity goods and its mass-produced iconography constructed through wide-spread advertisement media.

The relative spread of wealth beginning in the 1950s made it possible for a new market of goods to develop in the 1960s, which consisted of wants and not just needs. Further advancements in mass-produced printed advertisement and posters encouraged shared information between suburbia and the city while also pushing the same ideas into all public viewing spaces. Advertisement and printed material played with the individual family’s values rewarding being up to date to show status and superiority in the newly-constructed suburban communities. In the early-sixties, families used extra money to replace old products with new technologically-advanced gadgets that were updated as soon as they had been purchased. So much importance was fixed to commodity goods that high fashioned goods became prevalent. Conforming to a new set of social standards, many people had categorized themselves into “living products,” such as the “Modern Woman” who took care of the family by day and hosted dinner parties by night.

These paintings appropriate ubiquitous images from advertisement and media by the adherence of actual posters and printed images to canvas and their overworking with oil paint to produce a finished work that not only assess the original images but also manipulates them with Brown’s subversive painting methods and subject matter.

His 1966 large piece entitled Party confronts the viewer’s distinction between “commercial”-art and “high”-art by amalgamating visible and recognizable images and text from advertisements painted over with bold Expressionistic strokes rendering blatant explicit imagery. Numerous layers of paper and paint meld to form flatten pictorial space, mimicking the “flatness” of advertisement at the time. Party depicts one woman in the center overtly staring at the viewer over the top rim of her sun glasses as she pouts her lips. She wears patterned hat and long sleeve shirt while she easily balances a tray piled with deserts. Just below her tray, she is caught with no paints; Brown has painted over the original advertisement. To her right the party continues without anyone else noticing that he or she has no paints. Through the most-heavily painted parts of the composition, such as the legs, the advertisement still transcends through the paint, leaving men and women with bottles as thighs. The top right corner reads, “Add the right bright touch to your party.” As Brown plays with advertisement and paint, he creates a space where commercial art and studio art are contained together entrusting the viewer with contorted subjects to figure out. In the sixties such nudity would never be placed where advertisement would be; it would be seen only at a museum. Moreover, the combination of pervasive images colored over would most likely be seen in the subway after an act of “vandalism.” Brown exhibits what one might imagine when viewing advertisements; the beautiful crowd sells the product, not the product itself.

Two video installations of cryptic oil-painted images painted onto the television screen then framed continue Brown’s exploration of consumerism. Television commercials illuminate haunting depictions of abstracted human faces and form. The addition of sound to this cacophony twists the boundaries of medium and confuses the meaning. The viewer’s eye chases the screen wondering what is concealed while it is left with pieces of brushstroke, film and voice overs.

In the sixties, another huge influence on American culture was certainly the Vietnam war. Never actually declared an official war, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was the only document that explained the reason that American troops were sent to fight in the Vietnam “conflict”.

In it The Resolution seemed intended to scare people into believing that there was a reason to send troops to Vietnam. As the fighting continued throughout the decade, Americans became unsure of the real reason to be there. In a 1963 NBC interview with President John F. Kennedy, the young president alluded to a terrifying “Domino Theory,” that would manifest if Vietname fell, the scourge of communism would spread across Asia and then throughout the world. 

Yet as more young people lost their lives to no apparent purpose, Americans questioned their government’s credibility, perhaps for the first time. The soldiers became a kind of commodity goods packaged and sent across the ocean to fight in a war they did not understand. The more lives that were lose, the more soldiers were sent to battle with no respect for their present or future accomplishments.

A smaller painting Warrior echoes the eerie numbness spread across America by the constant sight of violence in the media brought home by the Vietnam war. The warrior in the work is consumed by a thick application of black oil paint. His face dicernable only due to an elliptical smudge of flesh colored paint and allusions to eyes and mouth. Exposing no advertisement or poster, Warrior separates the viewer from comfortable iconography and leaves the us to decipher the meaning of Brown’s paint on canvas. The separation and void of commercial design found in the other works upsets Brown’s pattern. The painting is distant from the viewer, just as the violence of the Vietnam war was distant from the Americans watching it through the television. In this regard, the canvas becomes like the medium of television and print that numbed Americans to the violence in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam war, more confusion was created by the dispelling of America’s home-spun Camelot fantasy world. President John F. Kennedy had added a youthful air to the United States when he was first elected as president. His beautiful wife, his personal charisma and his adoring  children were considered American royalty. In 1963, the Camelot dream was shattered when JFK was assonated. Americans had to find a new icon to express emotions and ideas. People began to utilize sexuality as an outlet and a revolt against constructed social norms that had seemed to fail after the national tragedy.

The 1965 series Fucking is comprised of five large paintings (four on view) of various sexual positions framed in the same dark oil paint that mainly composes Warrior. In Fucking, the figures, nearly all rendered by uncovered advertisement, both jump from the background, due to vibrant hues, as well as mesh into one figure due to bodies created by similar material. Brown’s harsh human contours, pure hues, and abstraction recalls Fauvism’s later leap into sexuality and the nude. Look closer, the paintings in the series are composed of allusions, alluding to human forms with stylized features. Brown’s crass depiction of sexual acts formed by combining commercial art and text makes the images “dirty.” As if Brown were placing a sales sticker on the act of Fucking. Still tainted by commodification, Fucking de-idealizes sex applying the same worth to it as the papers and posters that form it.

The choice to again exhibit these 1960 works in 2010 asks the viewer to examine why they have importance in our decade. As inclusions in a retrospective, these works are important because Brown found it nearly impossible to show them in commercial galleries during the sixties. Moreover, Brown lost much of these works in a studio fire in 1966. Yet, why are they relevant in 2010? His works display a sense of rebellion that New York street artist still push for. The works’ motifs parallel contemporary American debate: consumerism, war in Iraq (and seemingly everywhere), and sexuality in a post-AIDS world in which sex and death had become a brand unto itself.

Herb Brown’s works question the incongruity manifested in the sixties (commodity, capricious war, exploration) by using subversive painting techniques to manipulate overwhelming images of “normalcy” depicted in the media. Formally, Brown’s paintings evoke dichotomies. Seemingly erratic collages, this painting series carefully pieces together a time in American history in which social reform brought  both wider freedom and greater isolation to Americans. By reworking images that document the state of affairs in the sixties, Brown’s art can be read as a silent critique of the changes that came about in one seismic decade.

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