CHICAGO -- Roger Brown is at the wheel. He pilots his small station wagon down Halsted -- the once gritty, now gentrified street where he lives -- curves toward the lake and heads for the elegance of Michigan Avenue. The city's architectural laboratory of skyscrapers rises off the horizon, just the way it does in some of Roger Brown's paintings.

"I love those buildings," he says, "the old ones and the way the new ones come up behind them."

In the paintings, these very buildings soar toward the sky, rows of windows illuminated in canary yellow, silhouettes of the inhabitants visible in virtually every one. Occasionally, all seems to be terribly normal. More often, something is terribly wrong.

People hang upside down, hands held to their heads. The earth shifts and the structures are rent in half, frozen in midcrash. A perverse wind blows the curtains into the night.

An ominous vision of urban America. Is he afraid for himself when he is in one of these buildings?

"No, not really," he says quietly, perhaps to dispel the implicit question of how personally those paintings should be read.

He pauses. "Well," he says, "maybe I once was."

Today a major midcareer retrospective of Roger Brown's paintings and constructions opens at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Tomorrow he leaves for Moscow and Leningrad as part of a glasnost exchange, to talk and work and look. Next month, he'll have one-man shows at the Fendrick Gallery in Georgetown and the Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York and several group shows in Chicago and, with Chicago-based film critic Gene Siskel, he will lead a Smithsonian Resident Associates evening of conversation in Washington on Sept. 9. Almost an international festival of Roger Brown.

Memorable as his "disaster" images drawn from this city are, and they hang on like a rude nightmare, they are just a small part of Roger Brown's rhythmic, patterned vision.

Some of his work is highly political, as in the picture he painted after Gary Hart withdrew from the presidential race, which will be in the Fendrick show. He has titled it "Guilty Without Trial! Protected by the Bill of Rights/The Modern American Press Marches to Defend Us From Tyranny by Government but Who or What Will Defend Us From the Tyranny of the Press?" In it, a reporter lurks behind a bush while a couple enters a town house. Above are three rows of marching figures: the Nazis, the Russians, the press. "I was trying to make a little comparison," he says with ironic understatement.

Much of it is topical, some funny, some frightening: "Silly Savages (We Will Sell No Painting Before It's Dry)," a streetscape of the New York galleries, windows filled with abstract paintings, King Kong hanging off the Empire State Building in the background. Or "Chain Reaction (When You Hear This Sound You Will Be Dead)," in which a mushroom cloud sends tiny figures fleeing across a pastoral landscape.

Or "Imelda Building," in the shape of a huge inhabited shoe.

Roger Brown once said, "Half the time I'm painting, I'm laughing."

He is 45, a tall man, rugged, with a handsome rough-hewn face and shy blue eyes. He has a big, warm smile that goes all flat when a camera appears, as if he's protecting the innocence it betrays -- this is the serious artist look, not that of the inveterate wanderer, the curious flea market shopper, the wicked crafter of titles.

He throws himself into laborious projects as well, and busted his lower lip not long ago on a post-hole digger while working on the landscaping of his country house. He makes his own stretchers and then stretches his canvases. Sometimes he loads the finished paintings into his wagon and takes them down to Phyllis Kind's Chicago gallery, the gallery that has represented him and many of his friends -- the so-called "Chicago Imagists" -- for nearly two decades.

"Roger Brown has an amazing work ethic," says Bill Bengtson, the director of the gallery. He estimates Brown paints about 30 pictures a year.

"His need to make the art has been a central factor in him," says Barbara Rossi, another Imagist and one of Brown's good friends -- they met in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's graduate program.

"His work indicates what kind of person he is," says Don Baum, the curator who saw Brown's early theater paintings in a Fellowship Exhibition at the Art Institute, and gave him and three other young artists their first exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1968. "He's very fair, very sensitive and intuitive about other people's feelings."

He has also been among the most successful of the Imagists, along with painters Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke. His paintings hang in major museums and collections here and abroad and bring an average of $20,000 each. There is no shortage of buyers. "I can sell his paintings from transparencies," say Bengtson, who mails them to prospective clients within 24 hours of the work's arrival in the gallery. "There is quite an interest in Roger Brown."

Surroundings Despite the way Roger Brown's work has come to typify the "Chicago style" -- visions ripped from reality and then mutated into strange and exotic images -- it would be a mistake to think of him as only of this city. He has an acute sense of place -- be it Alabama, where he was born and where his parents still live; New Buffalo, Mich., where he has a summer-escape house; or any of the stops on his frequent travels. All of it spills into his art.

"My work is really about wherever I am, what I'm involved in, whatever I'm experiencing," says Brown, seated in his living room, surrounded by the hundreds of folk and primitive art objects he has collected over the years. "It's involved with Chicago, a lot of it's involved with daily news events. Sometimes it goes back and deals with things from my own personal background, from my own family history. So I think I sort of cover a lot of areas ... Naturally I've lived here, so my whole response to the city, to urban things, is directed to Chicago."

But when you scrape off the Chicago veneer, Roger Brown's real sense of place is the South. He still speaks with a faint drawl after more than 20 years up North, and each sentence unwinds at a leisurely pace, like some great old river wending its way across the landscape.

"I think the thing when I'm talking about {being} southern, what I feel is influential, being a southerner, in my work, is just the tendency toward being interested in narrative," he says, syntax flying.

"I don't feel narrative is something that has to be left out of painting. And it began to be in modernism ... It was felt that art should be about itself, or something, I don't know, so that it can't deal with storytelling. I think art can deal with storytelling."

In Opelika, Ala., where he grew up the eldest of two sons, the tradition of storytelling flourished. (He left in part, he says, to avoid going into the family grocery business.) "I always felt pretty close to my family," he remembers, "especially my mother's side, because the whole family was very involved in relating family history ... wild stories about either things that had gone on in their childhood or relatives, or things they had heard.

"It's a real Appalachian kind of background where a lot of that kind of stuff, southern -- the South is sort of famous for narrative, and I think it comes out of all of that kind of hill country influence the same as country music comes out of."

In the late '60s, after his great-grandmother died, he tried to trace his family's history. It ended up being the basis for a painting, his "Autobiography in the Shape of Alabama: Mammy's Door."

On it, he hung an old shirt.

"It was made by my great-grandmother for me when I was around 15," he says. "In fact, there are others. It's like an oversized shirt and something that I was sort of ashamed of at the time.

"At 15 years old in high school, I wanted to look like everyone else. I didn't want homemade clothes. So it was sort of packed away and left in a chest for years and years, but it just sort of represents the kind of person she was, very frugal and doing everything herself, and she made quilts and she used to can dry apples."

This was the world that formed Roger Brown, from even before the time the art teacher, Mrs. Mason, told his mother at a Cub Scout meeting that he had a special talent for art.

"I'm sure it comes from a kind of psychological makeup ... the way you develop as a person, what direction you go in, whether it's going the direction of art or a person who goes the direction of business or sports ...

"For me," he says, "it was very easy to kind of be isolated. Not that I was some friendless person. I had lots of friends and buddies and stuff like that, too, but I was always aware of being very alone somehow with my own feelings, and I don't know if that's uncommon or common. Maybe people who go into sports have the same feeling," he says, laughing quietly.

Getting Started Roger Brown made many of his friends at the School of the Art Institute, where he got his BFA in 1968 and MFA in 1970. Brown and the three other artists whom Don Baum showed in Hyde Park in 1968 called themselves The False Image, in the tradition of Chicago's exotic art nomenclature.

In the '40s and '50s, there had been The Monster Roster; in the '60s it was The Hairy Who (which included Jim Nutt and was so named for a broadcaster named Harry Bouras, who reviewed art on the radio. "Harry who?" they asked). Later came The Nonplussed Some, Marriage Chicago Style (an exhibition in the guise of a wedding) and a wild 11th-hour show put together in the basement of the fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art called "Don Baum Says 'Chicago Needs Famous Artists.' " Roger Brown was part of that one.

"It was such good fun," says Barbara Rossi. "I don't think that kind of attitude is possible now." Don Baum remembers that when he saw what became The False Image -- Roger Brown, Phil Hanson, Christina Ramberg and Eleanor Dube -- "I realized this group already existed in a very curious way.

"There were these four artists, and of course they were close friends, so there was a link ... But their work really seemed to me to have a kind of coherence and a kind of relationship. Each one was quite unique, but in some ways there were a lot of things that connected them -- the scale, for instance ... very small ...

"The attitude of the Chicago Imagists in general is quite different from the attitude you might find in New York or on the East Coast. It has to do with their interest in the sort of nonart sources of things, the fascination with the detritus of existence and the fact that all of these artists, for instance, were collectors. They collected things which were made by people who weren't graduates of art schools -- coloring books or catalogues, innumerable things ... found objects of all sorts, primitive art, naive art, folk art and all of this kind of nonart art that they were very fascinated by."

Of that time, Brown remembers, "I just had begun to feel that what I was doing was something that was really coming from inside, you know, that I was no longer just sort of borrowing styles from one person or another, but that I really had become developed, my work ...

"It's a little bit like what happens when you go in therapy," says Brown. "Anyone who has ever had the experience of going to a psychiatrist, which I have, there is a point where you begin to be very enlightened about what's going on in your head, and you become much more aware of why you're acting the way you're acting ...

"And I think that is the most exciting part of it, is to have -- all of a sudden -- to have these insights into things that just sort of come. Where they come from I don't know." He laughs broadly.

"It's just that you've brought yourself to a certain point. And it's like you know yourself, that what you're doing is right somehow, that it really is, it's authentic."

From his first theater paintings, with their art deco figures and framings, right through to the most recent work, a Roger Brown picture is immediately identifiable.

"I think there have been changes along the way," he says, "introduction of new forms and developments, which sort of subtly changed them." He lists the phases: City streets. Patterned landscapes. "And then for a while the patterned landscapes took over, and you can see where that developed starting with clouds and trying to work with the sky, large expansive skies with clouds, which then developed into patterning of clouds and things, and then how that took over ...

"I've always felt that as an artist you're sort of developing a vocabulary. And when you develop a larger vocabulary, you don't throw out things you knew early on. You don't throw out a's and the's just because you know some larger words. You use them all."

That vocabulary has been developed through the influence of Hopper (just look at the yellow light in the cafe in "Nighthawks"), de Chirico, Magritte, O'Keeffe (her 8-by-24-foot painting "Sky Above Clouds IV" made him see clouds differently) and the Sienese painters. "For me, style is not something you just pick. I could no more have picked the way I paint than I could have picked my face out. That evolved from me, as a part of me. You can call it style now, after the fact, but it isn't as if you can say well, let's see, what style do I want to do -- hmmm, hmmm, pick this one. It just doesn't work that way."

The 'Cancer' Picture In late 1983, when his longtime companion, architect George Veronda, was diagnosed as having lung cancer, Brown painted what might be his most personal painting. It is a large picture, divided into 12 panels that show chest X-rays, skeletal hands and silhouetted portraits. It's called "Cancer."

"When George was first diagnosed, well, it was a really weird time because he went to the doctor and he was having weird pains, like he just couldn't breathe. And he didn't know what was wrong," says Brown. Even the doctors were stymied.

"Very scary. Finally, after about three days of being in {the hospital} the doctor came in and told both of us that it was lung cancer ...

"Of course, the doctors lead you to believe that at a point like that, 'Oh yes, don't worry, you know, we have all these treatments and you're going to be fine' ... So we were going along with this treatment."

During this time, Brown began working on a major picture, "American Landscape With Revolutionary Heroes," which is in the Hirshhorn show. "I knew it would occupy me for about a month and ... it would just be the labor of doing it ... So that I was able to continue working.

"George had a therapist that suggested that we try, or that George try, going to this est thing ... And I said I'm not going to have anything to do with that stuff ... I know what it's like, one of those crazy California things. But finally, I had to try anything ... This was this whole idea that a person can heal themselves ... When you're in that situation, you start believing any of that stuff, you know, trying to.

"So we did that est business, I think it goes for like three different sessions, three different weekends. So we were doing that and trying to go to the hospital at least every other day for some kind of treatment.

"But anyway, in that period, I was able to keep working on my own. That was what was going on in my life, so that was the idea of that painting that just came into my head. And that was in the middle of that est business, so that est was one of the panels in the work. When we would go to est, he would really be cold. Chemotherapy affects you so bad, and so he would be cold all the time ... He had this blanket he would hold around him and this is the way he looked at this est thing.

"And George saw the painting, actually came through the studio once, 'cause he always came through the studio and saw the work. And he just looked at me and said, 'Well, you just have to do that.' He could certainly see -- it's pretty graphic -- what it was about. It was about all the fear and everything that he was fearing, too."

He stops and looks down, quiet, the painful narrative at its end. The last panel of "Cancer" is bright yellow, all possibilities. It's labeled "Hope." But George Veronda died the next year at age 42, and Brown moved out to the New Buffalo house, which Veronda had designed, for a year and a half. Friends say he is just now getting over Veronda's death.

In part, Brown says, it was easier to deal with in his painting; the raw exposure of this most difficult time had to come out on his canvas.

"It's not as difficult in painting to open up somehow," he says.

"And I've dealt with some other kinds of things, like in the skeleton kinds of paintings, that get kind of scary, or even after George died, doing 'The Final Arbiter' " -- a silhouetted human skeleton on a galloping horse skeleton. "You realize that those things aren't very attractive, people aren't going to want to have those. So there's a case where it's necessary to make those things and they're not being made necessarily because they're going to be sold or anything. And that's what an artist is about."

Politics Roger Brown leaves tomorrow for three weeks in the Soviet Union and says he is slightly worried about how his politics will play over there. In fact, he keeps his political views deliberately inconsistent even as they often dance through his paintings.

In "Presidential Portrait," Ronald and Nancy Reagan float on billowy clouds while the business of America goes on below them. He took that structure from old Currier & Ives campaign fliers, he says, and when asked how people should interpret the painting, he answers with an enigmatic smile, "I mean for it to be just like that, so that someone always will be able to say -- it can be taken any way ... It wasn't that I was setting out to make fun of them."

"The whole label conservative, liberal, is really kind of ridiculous," he says. "I think to be honest with yourself, you have to have varying opinions and views from both sides. I do, I think.

"And I really do get upset with it's always got to be the liberal point of view, and in the art world it's always that way. It's always people calling me to give paintings to support the El Salvador guerrillas. Why do you assume that I want to support the El Salvador guerrillas? Because I'm an artist? You think I'm automatically going to be for establishing a communist movement in Central America? I'm not."

Nor does he automatically let the judgment of art critics go unanswered. He writes angry letters and paints pointed pictures. In "Giotto and His Friends: Getting Even," two Chicago newspaper critics take an allegorical beating. In part of the elaborate text painted under 12 panels Brown writes, "Giotto and his friends grew in fame and fortune despite the provincial efforts of the two monks to degrade their work with snappy copy ... Justice prevails, however, for the name of Giotto is remembered forever but no one remembers the name of the lute player or the tall gaunt monk."

About critics he has this to say: "The thing that really bothers me is the thing about someone being on a different wavelength than you are and then going out and writing about you from their wavelength. It's like -- don't bother. Because you're infrared and I'm ultraviolet, don't tell me I'm wrong or what I'm doing should be something else."

Says one friend, "He has paid over and over for being so outspoken."

Home Babe, a big-toothed but seemingly gentle English bulldog ("Churchill had one," Roger Brown reassures the photographer, who has inquired as to whether this might be a dread pit bull) snores happily on the floor.

Brown bought this two-story North Halsted Street building, which houses his city home and studio, in 1974 for $18,000, when, he says, the neighborhood was a slum. Now the neighborhood has gone upscale. While he heads for New Buffalo whenever he wants, he says he wouldn't think of moving from this place.

"I'd hate to," he says. "When I moved here, I was so tired of going from apartment to apartment, trying to be an artist and paint in the living room, messing up somebody's apartment with paint all over the place, being cramped ... I don't have to move again and with all this stuff. I mean, I had a collection before I moved here, but it's at least doubled."

The collection is everywhere. There's a pig skull on the wall, an Elvis bust on the floor, small carved figures by folk artist William Dawson on the dining table, a room-high sheet metal concoction that used to top a city hall somewhere in Wisconsin. A room full of drawings by folk artist Joseph Yoakum. An African warrior's shirt with hyena-skin panels and a monkey's skull. Everywhere you look, something odd, something wonderful.

But he keeps very few of his own paintings and says he has no difficulty parting with them, perhaps because he is so prolific.

"The only big painting I ever did in a day, actually, a couple years ago, was called 'Arrangement in Blue and Gray' after Whistler," he says with a smile. "But I was over in New Buffalo and I had seen the sky over the lake was just really beautiful and the way light was coming out and hit the lake, and I went back in the studio and stretched a canvas and painted the whole thing in one day. It's one of the paintings I have kept for myself because it really is -- it's a nice painting.

"Once I'm done, I'm done with it. Except just once in a while, when a painting for some personal reason is one I want to keep. And then I do keep paintings because an artist should keep some of his own work." He smiles again.

When Roger Brown travels, which is often, he takes along sketchbooks and makes quick drawings for possible paintings. The impression of place is what he tries to capture. In "Capitol City," for instance, bought by New York's Museum of Modern Art after the Hirshhorn turned it down, the ordered grid of the federal city perfectly conjures up the feeling of Washington. He painted it after a visit here during the '70s, taking a map back with him to get it right. He travels to see.

"The last trip I took was to California in January," he says. He took a lot of slides of gardens and has relandscaped his New Buffalo home with California-like vegetation. He says it has astonished the local folks, who do double takes when they drive by.

He visits New York occasionally, and acknowledges that Phyllis Kind's opening of a gallery there in 1975 -- the inaugural exhibition was Brown's -- was a major turning point in his career. But he despises the art scene there. "Every two years there's a whole new movement we're hit with," he says. "It becomes a farce."

As opposed to Chicago 20 years ago, when the Imagists were young and Roger Brown, still in his twenties, took off on a streak that hasn't stopped. "Early on, I was not living high on the hog or anything," he says, "but I was able to survive and pay my rent and keep painting, and things kept getting better ...

"There's just a great combination of things that happened here. You couldn't reproduce it. I like to think it's very similar to other times in history and other places where things clicked ... The way it was here at that time, the artists were really involved in their art. They weren't involved in some sort of scene about art. I think that's important.

"And that's what makes it authentic."