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.