ROGER BROWN does scary paintings. Innocent-looking as comic strips, remote as what's happening across the street, they issue warnings.
Brown's disturbing work is being displayed at the Hirshhorn and it's a fascinating show, provocative and prophetic. It's a morality play about the American scene. His paintings from the '70s, when he was associated with the Chicago Imagists, use two main characters -- the silhouettes of a tiny man and woman. They are the generic sort found on crosswalk signs, only with '40s hairstyles and jerky, nervous movements. Brown shows them touring the nation's capital; marveling at the sequoias (Why are there sequoias, if not for us?); lining the streets for a parade ("The Entry of Christ into Chicago") or for an assassination.
Brown's paintings speak to conformity and alienation, and when the little people aren't living in stylized highrises they live in little boxes that all look just the same.
Inside the yellow windows of their gray highrises, the silhouetted people experience "Midnight Terror." It's Brown's version of "Hotel," the catastrophe movie, in his pared-down, simplified style. Twin towers have cracked open at the mezzanine and are falling, falling, each in a different direction, like a tree split by lightning. Or, in "Yellow Alert," the people, one at each apartment window, react to an enveloping miasma that suggests death by gas.
It is a world out of control.
Done in flattened perspective, Brown's paintings don't have a vanishing point. He's just not going to let the viewer get away.
His patterned landscapes lend a midwestern feel to his work. He takes the trite expressions "Misty Morning" or "Buttermilk Sky" and runs with their banality. But the landscapes are mildly sinister; people have left their mark.
And when, in the late '70s, Brown's work starts to change -- just when you thought it was safe to go outside -- rolling into his work come these God-awful ominous clouds, with the same shimmer, texture and cheerlessness of gray and black balloons. In this show, the clouds first appear in mushroom shape in "Chain Reaction (When You Hear This Sound You Will Be Dead)," over a town of everymen and everywomen. This is one weather inversion that won't go away.
Some of Brown's characters have grown menacingly to life size -- from biblical figures to Founding Fathers to mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. They are morosely blackened, as if the artist can't leave the silhouette shadow behind. The viewer squints to supply more detail.
The fat killer sits under the trees (Brown's characteristic pressed sumac leaves); his red tie picks up the red drops on his knife. This would be a simple statement of fury at the "Contemporary de Sade," as Brown titles the Gacy painting -- except that in the background, in a small, unimportant looking house, a man is strangling a woman. Brown's trademark yellow interior glows with the usual ironic warmth.
Brown doesn't let up in his own horrific vision of where we're headed -- and our helplessness to do anything about it. ROGER BROWN --
Through October 18 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.