Artist melds art forms, eras and disparate cultures in provocative works

There are two standout works by iona rozeal brown in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 30 Americans exhibition, devoted to the work of African American artists. On first glance, they look like 18th- or 19th-century Japanese images, flat, colorful and erotic, with figures that have the theatrical exaggeration of Kabuki actors. But examine them more closely and a volatile tension emerges between their decorative surface and their provocative treatment of identity and race. In one image, the subject is wearing blackface makeup. In the other, a sexually available, ample and buxom Asian woman with very dark skin looks as if she just emerged from the corner nail and wig shop.

Despite the prettiness of the surface, both works are potentially as explosive as anything in this provocative exhibition, including the blackface photographs of Xaviera Simmons and the Nike swoosh carved into the skull of a black man in Hank Willis Thomas’s “Branded Head.”

Japan has been a constant source of material for brown, who emerged from the graduate program at Yale into the art scene in 2002. Initially intrigued and slightly horrified by a subculture known as gangaru, in which Japanese youth appropriate hip-hop style even to the point of wearing dark facial makeup, brown (who doesn’t capi­tal­ize the spelling of her name) has responded by a reverse appropriation, borrowing back gangaru and re-creating it on her own terms, work she calls “afro-asiatic al­le­gory.” In the process, she is dealing with a complex array of issues: What are the practitioners of gangaru really doing? Should African Americans be horrified or flattered by this culture of impersonation? And what can be learned about hip-hop through serious cross-cultural comparison with other traditions?

She is showing some of her recent images at G Fine Art. It is evidence of a body of work that can no longer be contained within the flat, two-dimensional medium of painting. On display are costume designs and photographs that document a performance brown calls “the battle of yestermore.” Seen in New York in November, the performance piece is a natural extension of the burgeoning mythology that brown has elaborated in recent years, and it brings together several of the essential currents of her work, including music, which is a constant theme and inspiration.

Viewing these visual documents whets the appetite for seeing the performance piece (plans are for it to be seen here at some point), and the viewer’s reaction is to think, “of course.” Given her interest in narrative, given the preening and self-dramatizing poses of her subjects, given the vital role hip-hop and Japanese theater have played in her life (she remembers an early encounter, as a kid growing up in Washington, with the legendary Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo), it makes perfect sense that she would bring preoccupations to the stage.

As you sort through brown’s work, the range of reference is dizzying, in a good way. Kabuki and Noh, West African folklore, science fiction and J.R.R. Tolkien are all simmering beneath the seductive surface of her finely made paintings. The last of these, the grand mythological world of Tol­kien, has been fundamental in the creation of brown’s personal allegorical universe, peopled by figures such as the evil E.I.N. (an acronym for Everything I’m Not), the protective warrior Yoshi (who rides a Big Wheel and wears a cloak decorated with hip-hop argot), and Ana Mei (a “sapling” or teenager, who is trying to make her way through life’s temptations and often fatal distractions).

It is a Manichaean world, but with a mock-serious sense of fun, like cartoons. Borrowing from Renaissance iconography, brown has created what she calls the “Hoochie Putti,” winged “angel” figures with enormous breasts and buttocks, often emblazoned with the barcode stripes of the Universal Product Code. In a public interview at the Corcoran on Nov. 3, brown explained her sexually enhanced Hoochie Putti: “They have bar codes on their breasts and behinds,” she said, “because they bought them.”

The details of this personally constructed cosmology could be tedious, as they are in the work of other artists who have done something similar, such as Matthew Barney. But brown’s world is leavened by humor, animated by a very basic sense of right and wrong, and never hermetic. Her universe, rather like Tolkien’s, is appealingly simple on the moral level. But rather than Christian allegory, brown is sounding a more contemporary warning: We are all in danger of losing ourselves along the way, and it is the duty of elders (whether old in years or wisdom) to protect the young.

If she were simply writing narratives, this would not be enough. But brown is forging what Richard Wagner (writing about his own work) called a “gesamt­kunst­werk,” a total work of art. Painting, theater, mythology and music are coming together, and within this synthetic collective, the simplicity of the moral universe is an advantage, a strong, basic spine on which the details can be fleshed out. Given that she is dealing with complex cross-cultural material, it makes perfect sense that she has gravitated to one of the few, but essential, cross-cultural moral imperatives: the duty to care for and protect the young.

And from that basic moral element emerges an exciting internal critique of hip-hop, especially its treatment of women and its embrace of a crass and intellectually debilitating materialism. She isn’t the first to articulate these concerns, but brown is doing it subtly, with humor, and from within, and in so doing she is proving the resiliency of hip-hop as a form. It is internally self-analytical, one of the basic preconditions for a vibrant and lasting culture.

The work on display at G Fine Art isn’t as polished as some of brown’s earlier paintings. The sketches feel like the working drawings they are meant to be (or meant to resemble). But that’s not the point. The “art” here isn’t on the walls, but in the larger project that brown is creating, which one hopes will come to Washington soon. But it is worth checking in on, before the show closes at the end of the year. It leaves you with the certainty that what is happening is very much worth watching.

iona rozeal brown/open.ed

is on view at G Fine Art, 1350 Florida Ave. NE, through Dec. 31. For information visit gfineartdc.com.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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