With his first solo exhibition in New York in over a decade, the Oakland-based Christopher Brown restored a long-absent element to the gallery scene-painterly realism. Not since the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective at the Whitney Museum, in 2001, do I recall a show like Brown’s: keen observations of the “stuff” that’s overlooked coupled with the daily pleasures of painting. In fact he was a student of Thiebaud’s many years ago at the University of California at Davis.
Brown’s show, titled “Racing,” featured a new body of paintings. In these works (ranging from 10 by 20 inches to 80 inches square), cyclists, horse jockeys and distance runners compete among themselves, while simultaneously vying for the viewer’s attention. The standouts are the canvases that depict beehivelike clusters of cyclists. Here, Brown creates distorted pictorial space that recalls Thiebaud’s steep Bay Area street scenes. Ditto the abstract qualities of the shadows cast by each cyclist. But unlike his mentor, whose pictures have a slightly detached quality, as if you’re peering at their subjects from behind a velvet rope, Brown’s brand of realism allows you in.
The aggressive images forced the viewer’s eyes to do a lap of their own around the gallery walls. How fast a lap depended on the person. But the real winners were those who took their time, as Brown’s creations reward sustained engagement. Like a good bottle of Bordeaux, they take time to open up. Initially, when your eyes make the connections between the figures, shadows and geometric forms, their “taste buds” only notice the individual flavors. Then the pictures coalesce into something much more. Brown’s paintings remind me of enjoying a memorable dinner and stimulating conversation with good friends. Their full pleasure comes from sharing your observations about them with others—just like a fine meal.
Chances are, those New York realist painters who saw Brown’s show returned to their studios thinking about the importance of following their muse rather than overly intellectualizing their work in order to be taken (mistakenly) seriously. In the future, Brown may very well carry on Thiebaud’s role as a teacher and artist whose work has liberated many painters to experience the exhilaration of painting whatever imagery they choose. After all, when Thiebaud started out painting cakes and pies, many observers of his work—including major Abstract Expressionist artists like Barnett Newman—were misled by what they saw as lightweight subject matter. As Thiebaud once pointed out, you can paint anything you want—as long as the work is good. Christopher Brown epitomizes that thought.
Christopher Brown, Big Hill, 2011. Oil on linen, 80 x 80 inches.