The peripatetic life of James Brown—painter, sculptor, ceramicist, publisher, paterfamilias and ascetic yet devilish-seeming avatar of elegance—has led him far afield from the New York art world that launched him during the early 1980s, all the way to the outer cosmos, if you will. Now working primarily in Merida, Mexico, and in Paris, he has since 2004 been pressing on toward the completion of a serenely ambitious series of 81 abstract paintings, realized within his studio in constellations of nine, that was inspired by the composer Gustav Holst’s famous early-modernist orchestral work, The Planets (1914-16). About a dozen of Brown’s recent astral-themed canvases, including one measuring approximately 10 by 20 feet, along with related works on linen, paper and in porcelain, were recently on view in an exhibition titled “The Realm of Chaos and Light (Part 2),” wherein airiness and grandeur coexisted to delightful, mind-clearing effect.
The principal paintings on view, all from 2008 to ’11, were rigorously conceived and labor-intensive. Brown, who is currently nearing the last “movement” in this symphonic series, always begins by setting down a more or less random, plentiful array of small painted dots and daubs on raw linen canvas. These notational incidents are then connected by fine penciled lines, producing an overall, irregular, net- or weblike pattern. Over this delicately charted field he applies a few loosely spaced, impulsive passages of brushwork, generally arcs or softly angled swaths of close-valued color in the blue to brownish range, that build up to become rude shapes suggesting asteroids and, occasionally, black holes. The artist’s elemental protagonists are sparely deployed within each discrete field: Only four such substantive forms, for example, populate the vast expanse of The Realm of Chaos and Light: The Soul’s Distinct Connection. There, they seem to hover and vibrate with inchoate meaning, producing faint echoes, at times, from our own planetary realm of art. A viewer may variously conjure up fleeting images of work by Joan Miró, Adolph Gottlieb, Yayoi Kusama or, perhaps especially, Agnes Martin and Cy Twombly, whose exquisite fusions of line and field, earthiness and the ephemeral seem equally relevant to Brown’s continuing painterly endeavor.
Brown grew up in Southern California where, he will proudly tell you, he was educated by Jesuits in high school as well as college. (He also attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the late 1970s.) During the 1980s and early 1990s in New York, his work, often biomorphic or “primitivist” in its imagistic references, and invariably pleasurable in its innate stylishness, seemed nevertheless uncertain, as if in search of a raison d’être beyond the personal discipline and esthete’s ethos involved in its making. But these impressive new works, positively Theosophical in their implied affinities, are solidly grounded—in ether.
Photo: View of James Brown’s exhibition, showing (right) The Realm of Chaos and Light: The Soul’s Distinct Connection, 2009-11; at Karsten Greve.