Chicago-based artist Roger Brown's dark, apocalyptic vision--buildings crumbling, a mushroom cloud rising, the sky weeping--harks back to the painter's youth and the influence, he said, of an all-powerful, jealous God.
His future artistic intensity, if not his outlook on the world, Brown said, was influenced by his fundamentalist upbringing: Christian tent meetings and hellfire-and-brimstone sermons that "could scare the living daylights out of a 5-year-old."
A deceptively simple artist, Brown, 45, is the subject of a retrospective exhibit at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.
"There's something about the combination of simplicity and terror and literalness . . . that I thought, 'My God, what an amazing vision,' " said curator Sidney Lawrence.
"It's almost a child's vision of what you see," Lawrence said of Brown's work. "He combines that with the terror that one human being can inflict on another. That's the compelling magic of Roger Brown's work, that it has that kind of duality."
Lawrence, the public affairs officer of the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, curated the one-man show for the Hirshhorn.
Brown's artworks are in such prestigious collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. His pieces have been shown at major contemporary art museums in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, among others.
But Hirshhorn director James T. Demetrion felt a major retrospective was in order because Brown was not "that well-known on the East Coast, outside of Chicago," Lawrence said. Also, it had been seven years since Brown's last retrospective and he is a prolific artist, having painted more than 500 artworks.
In a telephone interview, Brown spoke quietly, his voice laced with the soft cadences and accent of his childhood in Alabama. Although Brown received his chief art training at the Art Institute of Chicago, he attributed his style in part to growing up a Southerner, in Opelika, Ala. Religion and the Southern tradition of storytelling are part and parcel of his artistic style, Brown said.
"The religious thing had a terrific effect," he said. "There's an intensity of growing up in a fundamentalist environment. It's so important. I also think that kind of thing is what being an artist is about, like being so obsessed, being intense.
"My interest in narration does come out of being Southern. I'm interested in storytelling in art--not only storytelling. But I see it as one of the valid things art can do."
Brown has a reputation for limning humor, tragedy and, increasingly, political commentary in his work, for studding his landscapes and city street scenes with spiky satire.
Brown also paints news events, horrible disasters such as the mass suicide of 900 members of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, and the riot at Attica state prison when 42 died.
He compared his narrative paintings to country music: "I think that music deals in homespun events and stories."
A schoolteacher encouraged Brown's mother to let him study art in grammar school. He worked with an art teacher in Opelika until graduation. Uncertain what he wanted to do, Brown briefly attended a Bible school. He considered becoming a preacher before going to Chicago. There, Brown attended a commercial art school before entering the Art Institute.
At the Art Institute, he studied "everything--the history of Western art, Eastern art, primitive art. I've drawn a little bit from everything I've known, and I've eliminated some of it."
A part of Brown's creative process is collecting, a habit he began as a boy when he took nature walks.
"I would go off by myself a lot, hiking around through the woods. I used to go around and look at nature, collect insects, rocks, stamps," he said. "I was a collector, sort of."
Today, instead of walking through the woods, Brown drives around the United States.
Since 1968, he has taken more than a dozen car trips east, west and south of Chicago. The first trip to California "immediately affected my work," Brown said. "At the time I had been doing theater interiors and things, and wanted to move outside." His work opened out into street scenes and landscapes.
Like most artists, Brown is happy--usually happy--that his paintings and constructions are collected.
"The whole process of art is the desire to communicate . . . visually," he said. "The fact that people understand what I'm trying to do, that they're willing to put their money where their interest is, is highly complimentary. As prices have gone up, it's still comforting that people continue to buy them." (His paintings are in the $20,000 range, depending on their size.)
He appreciates the process of collecting because of his own interest in collecting folk art.
"My collecting and acquiring things involves what art really is, which is a spiritual statement. It involves surrounding myself with things that are a spiritual statement.
"Sometimes you think of all the reasons for collecting, and it's depressing--fashion or the style of the day or investment. Hopefully, I like to think of people collecting for the same reason I do: because they want to surround themselves with spiritual statements."
The exhibit continues through Jan. 10. Brown and Lawrence will speak on the development of the painter's work at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at the museum, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla.