When Chicago painter Roger Brown was still a little boy, he built -- and then destroyed -- worlds in his back yard.
Brown grew up in the Bible Belt, in Opelika, Ala. A child of the Church of Christ, he understood God's wrath. He made toy cities with toy buildings. "First I'd build them, then I'd burn them." Some aura of those dusty days, of dolls and toys deployed in rows, of doomed towns seen from high above as if from the viewpoint of some calm avenging angel, still burns within his art.
Brown, now 45, has been exhibiting his pictures since 1968. His retrospective exhibition, his first on the East Coast, goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. He is part grown-up and part child. He makes divided art.
It is divided in more ways than one. His paintings, to begin with, are almost perfectly symmetrical. Pick out any one, fold it in the middle, and its two halves would match precisely. Brown's moods are matched as well. In almost every picture he manages to balance narrative and pattern, banality and wit, menace and amusement, the naive with the knowing. His Hirshhorn exhibition, picked by Sidney Lawrence, the artist who's in charge of that museum's press relations, is bracing and refreshing. It's repetitious, too.
When Brown finds a motif he likes, he'll stick with it for years. The little people that he paints are bigger than they ought to be; they are near as tall as buildings. His women wear the hairdos, the 1940s pompadours, made familiar in the comics by Nancy's aunt Fritzi Ritz. The trees he paints are Sluggo-dumb: They look like ocean mines or circles growing hairs. They appear for the first time in this 49-painting show in a streetscape, "Central City," dated 1970, and in more than 20 other pictures on display. When Roger Brown paints windows, and he paints them all the time, he inhabits them with figures black and crisply outlined as if silhouetted against yellow shades.
Yet all this repetition often works to his advantage. Give a kid a doll and that doll can be in turn mommy or a princess or a teacher or a witch. Brown's little silhouetted figures all look pretty much alike, but the stories that they tell, that they witness or enact, vary all the time.
Some are stories of disasters, torn out of the news. Prisoners and guards die horrid deaths at Attica. John Kennedy is murdered; so is Aldo Moro. In the painting "Midnight Tremor," one of Brown's disaster paintings of 1972, twin skyscrapers topple, and desks and chairs and victims hurtle through the air. In "Contemporary de Sade: John Wayne Gacy" (1981), the Chicago mass murderer sits in monstrous, shadowed majesty as if bloated by his victims' blood.
But not all his tales are hideous. Some, his landscapes in particular, cast a mood that's almost sweet. His "Contrail Crucifix" (1975), a cross-shaped painting done in Georgia O'Keeffe colors, would not look out of place among the landscape-praising photographs in Arizona Highways. "Buttermilk Sky" (1974), with its rolling hills and hitchhikers and hi-yo-ing Lone Ranger, is a painting as idyllic. "Presidential Portrait" (1985), with Ron and Nancy Reagan grinning from the clouds (as our heroes used to do in Currier & Ives prints) is neither wholly sweet, nor is it wholly hideous; it is sort of both at once.
Two things give Brown's best paintings their considerable wallop. One is their sheer beauty, the way their colors seem to glow as if from hidden lights, a glow that's reinforced by the power and correctness of their admirable designs. The strongest works on view -- among them "Rising Above It All," a skyscape ringed by skyscrapers of 1978; "Volcanic Fields with Film Crew" (1975); and especially "Misty Morning," a formal, foggy knockout of trees and mists and headlight beams -- sing out from the walls.
But there is more to it than eye delight. Something else is going on in Brown's strongest pictures -- a gradual unfolding, a layering of memories and complicated references to other sorts of art.
Brown likes to claim his pictures are accessible as folk art, as direct as country songs. But there is more to them than that. They somehow conjure up, with subtlety and slyness, much that is less obvious. To see his pictures fully, you really ought to have in mind many other sorts of art, the miniatures of Persia, the wood-block prints of old Japan, Navaho rugs, Little Lulu comic books, the moody streets of Edward Hopper, Grant Wood's rolling hills, Red Grooms' painted cities, de Chirico's strange silences, movie sets and movie screens, streamlined metal toys and the paintings of Siena.
Brown often speaks with bitterness of "so-called mainstream" painting, of pictures that he denigrates as "fashionable elitist art produced by the intelligentsia." But the scorn that he expresses for "rebellious modernist" painting and non-narrative abstraction is more apparent in his prose than it is in his art.
He often builds his works of gridlike repetitions. Large portions of his pictures work just fine as abstractions. Look, for instance, at the tree stumps of his "Lewis and Clark Trail" (1979). Or, even more tellingly, at his splendid "Irrigation of Eastern Colorado" (1981). No one who hates minimalism as much as he claims to could have made this picture. With its reiterated circles and its 60-degree angles it might be, despite its tiny trucks, a Washington Color Painting from the studio of Tom Downing.
Other abstract painters wink out of Brown's show. In a number of his recent works, whose large, heroic figures -- Lech Walesa and the pope, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington -- are done in black on black, one cannot help but noticing some lessons learned from such New Yorkers as the late Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko.
There is something in Brown's tough-guy stance -- that conscious, cunning blending of art both high and low, and that punchy denigration of eastern hoity-toityness -- whose flavor is, it seems to me, peculiarly Chicagoan.
That city of extremes, of skyscrapers on prairies, of awful heat and awful cold, has always welcomed opposites -- Everett Dirksen and Paul Douglas, Saul Bellow and Hugh Hefner, Muddy Waters and the symphony. Perhaps it is no wonder that many of Chicago's finest writers -- Mike Royko and Studs Terkel and the superb Nelson Algren -- also give their prose that elegance concealed by the down-home and the folky that one sees in Brown's art.
Brown's works in three dimensions are not all that strong. They do not bear comparison with those of H.C. Westermann, the late Chicago master. Brown's work, it is true, is sometimes nicely creepy, but it is less creepy by far than the scary portraiture of the late Ivan Albright or the fastidiously polished, horrific and unsettling paintings of his colleague, the Chicagoan Jim Nutt. I also find Brown's pictures somehow less amazing than those of his friend, the wild, jagged-minded, entirely original Chicagoan, Karl Wirsum.
Brown's work, when viewed within the context of hard-edge abstract art (and works by Don Judd and Frank Stella are displayed outside his show) takes on a pleasing punchiness. In group shows with his colleagues, Nutt, Westermann and Wirsum, Brown's pictures gain, by contrast, a sort of funny-scary warmth that wins most viewers' hearts. But in a retrospective, wholly on his own, his art -- despite its memorable virtues, its gradual advances, its polishings and honings -- begins to seem a bit too formulaic. It is easy to admire the art of Roger Brown. It is specially impressive when one sees it now and then. This is not an exhibition that leaves one hungering for more. It will travel to La Jolla, Calif., Miami and Des Moines after it closes here Oct. 18.