Playful Strategies: Eric Brown in Amagansett
Eric Brown: Vice Versa at Ille Arts, Amagansett
July 3 to 21, 2015
216a Main Street
Amagansett, NY, 631 905 9894
“Vice Versa,” Eric Brown’s exhibition in Amagansett, initially made me think of crisply pressed and elegantly embellished men’s shirts that cry out to be unfolded. Brightly illuminated against the whitewashed walls of the gallery, the shimmying plaids and high-keyed, off-kilter stripes of these paintings have the pulsating energy of Scandinavian or African textiles. While their sources and influences are deep and varied, they strike me as having a relationship to fabrics, music, and architecture as well as the history of abstract painting through the lineage of Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Myron Stout, and Alice Trumbull Mason. Bridget Riley, though spoiling the alliteration, should also be included in this lineup. Despite these various affinities, Brown’s intimately scaled paintings have a self-containment and reserved exuberance that is taut and refreshing, if sometimes overly modest.
Playful strategies in the game of figure/ground are at work in a trifecta of paintings on the gallery’s southwest wall. In Red and Blue Rectangles (2014), Red Envelope (2015), and The Red Oval (2015), you think you know where one geometric shape begins and another ends, but on closer inspection such assumptions are up-ended. Electric cherry red and traffic cone orange fields are kept in check by black, cobalt blue, and grey discs, quarter-rounds, and triangles. Here, we see Brown’s effort at wrangling color, contour, and proportion as a means of articulating the space of the painting and generating sensations of openness and enclosure, depth and projection. Several paintings include shapes that wrap around the sides of the stretcher, a device that visually links the work to the wall. I am usually not a fan of paint that intentionally travels around edges (it becomes too much like sculpture). Rather, I wish that the construction of the corner folds had been razor-sharp right angles to reinforce the staccato movements on the front surfaces, although this is truly difficult to accomplish when stretching cloth over wood. Framing may achieve that level of precision, but then you lose the painted edges. I think the paintings would stand up just fine without the edge embellishments.
Ups and Downs (2014-2015) offers a horizontally undergirded stack of persimmon and black half-rounds that toggle spatially. Such graduated arrangements of color and reversing patterns evoke for me the rhythms of sprechstimme, the expressive vocal style that combines singing and speech, as used, for instance, in Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. In his score for that piece Schoenberg instructs the performer to become “acutely aware of the difference between singing tone and speaking tone: singing tone unalterably stays on the pitch, whereas speaking tone gives the pitch but immediately leaves it again by falling or rising.” Color, in a way, is the painter’s equivalent of timbre, and it is hard not to think that Brown had music in mind when he placed 12 truncated quarter notes up and down a five-bar staff.
Disassemble and Shift (both 2015) have, in my view, a resounding relationship to the formal principles of Bauhaus and Black Mountain textiles, particularly the works of Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers. In their experiments with multi-layered weave constructions that utilized linens, silks and newly invented synthetic fibers, these artist/designers elevated geometric abstraction to a high art, even as they reflected the dissenting social and political precepts of Weimar Germany. I see an aesthetic kinship here, in Brown’s management of the dual identity of his colors, in the way they stand independently while attaining dynamic interaction with their neighbors. Brown also makes visible the fine weave (think Black Mountain designer Don Page) of the linen support through his deft handling of multiple, turpentine-thinned layers of pigment.
Like other artists who have supported themselves for years doing other things — while steadily and quietly developing their own oeuvre — Brown has worked (in his role as a principal at Tibor de Nagy Gallery) to support a number of eminent American artists, and these associations have undoubtedly permeated his thinking and his independent commitment to painting. Friendships with poets and painters including John Ashbery and the late Jane Freilicher have certainly imbued Brown’s sensitivity to texture, light, and language and we are, in turn, the beneficiaries of those exchanges. In “Vice Versa,” Brown continues to fold his knowledge of their accomplishments into his own distinct vision.