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ART : California Dreamer : Long noted for his street-smart, urban works and as a major proponent of the Chicago Imagist school, Roger Brown now finds the Left Coast to his liking--maybe it’s those mouse-eared clouds

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

“Last year there were these heavy rains, and when the sky over the ocean finally began to clear, it became filled with these clouds that looked just like Mickey Mouse ears to me,” says artist Roger Brown. Thus was born the latest body of work for this artist long associated with the city of Chicago, who now spends a portion of each year in his newly built home in this little town south of Santa Barbara.

“In 1983, I spent a couple of weeks in a town near here called Summerland, and I thought it was fabulous,” Brown said of the decision to come west, which led to the series of whimsical landscapes on view by appointment at the Linda Cathcart Gallery in Santa Monica.

“At that point Summerland was still in a time warp--it looked like an old coal-mining town--and I decided it would be great to have a place here because the California landscape is so stunning,” he continues during an interview at his house, a cheerful place designed by Stanley Tigerman that is filled with light, kitsch treasures and folk art. “People think of me as an urban artist, but I’ve actually done quite a bit of work with landscape.”

Brown is right when he says he’s thought of as an urban artist, and the urban milieu he is associated with is quite specific. As one of the best-known proponents of a style known as the Chicago Imagists that coalesced in the ‘60s, Brown played a seminal role in hammering out a raucous figurative painting style incorporating elements of fantasy, American regionalism, comic books and primitive and outsider art.

First introduced in 1966 by a group of artists known as the Hairy Who that included Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green and James Falconer, the style was developed further in 1968-69 by a group including Brown, Christina Ramberg, Eleanor Dube and Philip Hanson that dubbed itself the False Image. It was with the work he exhibited in 1968 under the rubric of the False Image that Brown introduced the subject matter and visual vocabulary that continue to be central to his art.

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“The imagery in my work is drawn entirely from things I see in the world,” says the 52-year-old artist, whose work is faintly perfumed with nostalgia for the small-town America of the ‘40s he knew as a boy growing up in Alabama.

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An unmistakably American artist whose work is rooted in popular culture sources, Brown regards anything smacking of European high art with suspicion.

“Your art should reflect the world you live in because then it’s real. I’ve always hated the way American culture puts European culture above itself--and that attitude is very prevalent in New York,” he says disdainfully.

Brown has made several paintings expressing his dislike for New York, which he considers elitist; he prefers such populist forums as Playboy (he’s been doing illustrations for the magazine for years), and Time (he did the cover for a 1991 issue on the breakdown of law and order in New York, as well as the cover for this year’s issue dealing with the Reginald O. Denny beating trial).

Populist beliefs are central to Brown’s work, which is flat, iconic, vibrantly colored and easy to read in a manner evocative of folk art. With its exterior views--often of city streets that fall into mazelike grid patterns--Brown’s work employs devices associated with naive art (obsessive patterning, ambiguous perspective, vertical stacking) and is awash in the surreal, melancholy light that also illuminates work by Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper.

Over the course of the ‘70s, the street scenes that dominated Brown’s early work gave way to landscapes and skylines of increasing spatial complexity, a series of “Disaster Paintings” based on newspaper items, images of archetypes (angels, athletes, cowboys) and a series of wildlife paintings completed in the early ‘80s that he considers pivotal.

“That work was a major turning point for me,” says Brown, who was the subject of a retrospective that originated at the Hirshhorn Museum in 1987 and traveled to university galleries in Miami and Des Moines, Iowa. “The scale of my work increased considerably with the wildlife paintings, and I began painting full-scale figures then--and that was entirely new territory for me.”

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A shy, soft-spoken man who gives the impression of having to gird himself for encounters with strangers, Brown is a peculiar mix of innocent Southern country boy and street-smart Chicagoan. Oddly enough, it’s the country part of his sensibility that he credits as being responsible for the edge of menace and dread that critics invariably comment on in his work.

“I’m sure the mood of threat and apocalypse in my work can be traced to my Southern fundamentalist upbringing,” he says. “I remember as a child traveling by car to visit my grandmother, who lived 200 miles from us, and sometimes we’d be returning late at night and I’d see the glow of the cities on the horizon and I’d wonder if they were on fire and the world was ending, because that’s what I heard all the time in church. The church had a lot to do with shaping the weird way I see things, and though intellectually I’ve rejected those beliefs, you can never really get rid of that kind of childhood programming.”

Brown was born in 1941 in Hamilton, Ala., and raised in the small town of Opelika, where his father owned a grocery store.

“I was one of those kids who could naturally draw, and from the time I was young I was singled out as a person with artistic talent,” Brown recalls. “The visual arts didn’t really exist in Opelika, though, and when I was growing up, Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney were all I knew of art. Still, I knew I wanted to be an artist from pretty early on, although I gave serious thought to being a preacher for a long time--mostly because that’s what I was told I should do. But there was always a part of me that resisted that.”

The part of Brown that resisted the idea of a life in the church began applying to art schools, and at the age of 19 he moved to Chicago intending to attend the prestigious Art Institute in Chicago, after two years of preparatory schooling.

“I took to life in the big city immediately,” says Brown, who arrived in Chicago planning to become a commercial artist but quickly found the field too creatively restricting.

“Part of my reason for going there was because I realized when I was 15 that I was gay and I knew that wasn’t acceptable in the small town I lived in. I struggled with this realization throughout my teen-age years, then when I was 19 I told my parents and they insisted we talk to the church elders about it. The church advised me to go to this clinic in Columbus, Georgia, and see a psychologist.

“At that point I agreed with them that this was a ‘problem’ we needed to solve--I still sort of half-believed the Bible at that point, so this was a very painful time for me. The psychologist I saw told me I should move to a big city, because he understood this wasn’t an aspect of me that was going to change.

“I’ve never wanted my art to be about my sexuality, because my life is not about being part of gay culture,” says Brown, whose companion of 12 years, architect George Veronda, died of lung cancer in 1984. “I think painting should be about more than gender and sexuality.”

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Having come to grips with his sexuality while in his early 20s, Brown moved on to the challenge of discovering his own voice as an artist--a challenge he conquered in fairly short order.

“Comic books were very important to me when I was growing up--I particularly loved Marvel Comics for the dramatic views of the city--and when I was at the Art Institute I was fortunate enough to have this great teacher, Ray Yoshida, who encouraged us to go back to our earliest experiences for subject matter,” he recalls. “For me that meant comic books and movies. When I was growing up, I often went to the movies twice a day because I loved being in this dark room full of glowing light, shadows and silhouettes--it was so mysterious and beautiful to me. So I started drawing interiors of movie theaters and immediately knew I’d found a real beginning for myself.

“At around the time I began to paint theater interiors, (architect) Robert Venturi came and lectured at the Art Institute and he talked a lot about the imagery of small-town America,” says Brown, who also mentions Robert Henri’s 1930 book “The Art Spirit” as having been important for him during this formative period. “It was liberating for me hearing Venturi validate styles unique to America because most art training revolves around learning how to copy European artists, and I wanted to get back to something authentically American.”

It was during this period (in 1968) that Brown befriended Joseph Yoakum, an outsider artist whose work met with great critical acclaim after his death in 1972 but was virtually unknown during his life.

“It was inspiring spending time with Yoakum,” Brown says, “because he just lived in his room and did his art and didn’t expect anyone to take any notice of the fact.”

Yoakum’s influence can be seen in Brown’s work in that both are largely built on isometric, rather than Renaissance, perspective (with isometric perspective, lines that recede from foreground to background don’t converge on the horizon line as they do in Renaissance perspective; they simply recede). This unconventional sense of pictorial space is also one of the things that attracts Brown to 14th-Century Italian painting, a school he loves:

“I like 14th-Century Italian painting’s rejection of Renaissance perspective, which dictated that art should look as much like reality as possible. The Renaissance was essentially a move toward science, and hence, a realistic depiction of space became highly valued. But for me the mystery began to go out of art at that point, and mystery is one of the most important things in art. That was also the point when religion began to go out of art, so maybe the mystery was religion--I’ve always believed our response to art and religion emanates from the same place.”

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Though Brown believes art must be rooted in a sense of the sacred, you’re more apt to find him at a flea market than in church on Sunday mornings. After completing a comprehensive tour of Southern California flea markets, Brown returned to Chicago, where he planted an extremely ambitious rose garden including 150 varieties of the flower.

Regardless of what city he’s in (Brown also has a country home in Michigan, 70 miles east of Chicago), he paints just about every day and completes an average of 30 paintings a year, but he feels no urgency about exhibiting. He has been represented for 22 years by dealer Phyllis Kind, who has galleries in Chicago and New York, and there is a steady market for his paintings, which sell for $16,000 to $60,000.

As of late, much of Brown’s time has been occupied with a mural commission for the Federal Building at Foley Square in New York, a project that is allowing him to create one of the most challenging works of his career.

“Right after they started excavating the site for this building they discovered they were digging into a black cemetery dating back to the 17th Century, so they had to stop construction and remove all the graves, and a lot of controversy kicked up,” Brown says of the project, which is scheduled for completion in September.

“A group of people from the black community wanted the cemetery to be left intact or for a black museum to be erected at the site, and another group thought it was a violation for any sort of building to take place there at all. For a while it looked like the whole project was off, but everything was finally resolved. One of the stipulations was that my mural should deal with the cemetery as part of its theme, so what I’m doing is a 10-by-15-foot mosaic image that will combine the theme of the cemetery with the AIDS epidemic; the image is of faces that evolve into skulls.”

Asked how this dark metaphor for mortality connects with his Southern fundamentalist upbringing, Brown responds:

“Because of the way I was raised it’s hard for me to say I don’t believe in God, but I think my ambivalence about this can be seen in this image, and in all my work. Don’t get me wrong--I think the world is full of wonderful things, but at the same time, it’s hard to accept that there’s this being somewhere who’s concerned about all these zillions of people having all these terrible experiences on Earth.”


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