Minneapolis-based Owen Brown holds degrees from Yale College and the University of Chicago. He has participated in exhibitions throughout the USA and his work has been covered in numerous publications. The artist’s paintings are known for their luminosity, colour range and ebullient geometries. He notes: “outrage can guide my brush towards the figurative; at other times I am captured by the language and longing of abstraction. Regardless the treatment, art’s goal should be to awaken others, to uncover something new – something that we can then have within the shared range of our humanity.” Brown is represented by Grand Hand and Veronique Wantz.
A: In Issue 101 we displayed The Woman from Tblisi from the As Seen on TV series. You noted: “She left her family and now lives alone.” Who is the subject and what is the context of the scene?
OB: This is taken from a scene where the actress, Ia Shugliashvili, the heroine in My Happy Family, is confronted by her husband. She’s left him and all the baggage of her life, she’s rented her own apartment and he is pleading with her to return. The emotional intensity was exquisite: what a talent! I wanted to memorialise that, not on celluloid, but canvas.
A: How does The Woman from Tblisi coexist with other works in the series such as The Bent Cop and The 40 Year Old Version in False Color?
OB: Late last year, when I saw no one but my wife and the occasional, masked supermarket clerk, I decided I would begin to paint images of the people I “could” see – even though they were mediated by our TV. What’s the difference between a screen person and someone before our eyes? It’s more subtle, on a certain philosophical level, than it seems.
The Impressionists painted what they “saw” but the seaside scenes of Morisot and Monet are mediated by choice, and as much by what they leave out as what they include. Every painter faces this, whether it’s a Russian realist like Levitan, a painter of religious subjects such as Piero della Francesca, or ecstatic imagery – Blake, or horror: Francis Bacon. We need to make the imaginary real, our own version of “real” taken from that instant, and if we are painting figuratively, we have a device to aid in entering that particular story.
The Bent Cop is from the British crime series Line of Duty. The 40 Year Old Version in False Color is Radha Blank – her film was shot in black and white, and I colourised it. Again, they, and others in this series, are films that visited our living room at one time. I memorialised that visit, this creating, in a sense, an incomplete timeline of our Covid- and digitally-mediated lives.
A: How do you think paint can be harnessed to express what you see and hear in moving image media such as television?
OB: We have moved beyond The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction with Benjamin’s correspondent “devaluation” of the uniqueness of the object, to an attempt to recover this uniqueness, one which will, I think, eventually fail. The failure is not of nerve, but a fundamental conceit in believing we can provide anything genuinely new. I believe that’s largely a delusion.
What satisfies us is what we feel we have seen and known before. Familiarity breeds comfort. Not that comfort is bad, but the thought that we are succeeding in recognising and rendering recognisable and new the chaos of the world is generally incorrect. Beyond comfort lies incomprehensibility, which is agonisingly hard to turn into the knowable. A long answer to a short question: what I have done is “repurposed” a representation here, re-represented it, to search for a variation on this theme that could speak to me and, I hope, to you.
A: How much of the As Seen on TV series is a direct reflection of what you see and how much is a projection of your imagination?
OB: All of it is a projection! It is excruciatingly hard to see anything outside ourselves. Not only others are strangers – we are strangers to ourselves. To see directly would be like seeing God. Not that one should give up trying.
A: Thinking about what is perhaps a foil to paintings inspired by fictional TV series such as The Little Drummer Girl, some of your recent figurative work explores the current reality of life for some people. Tell me about the New COVID series.
OB: I wanted with New COVID to reflect and honour what we were (and still are, in so many places in the world) going through. The Little Drummer Girl was a bit of a frolic, juxtaposing Donald Duck (he comes into our living room too) with the actress Florence Pugh as Charlie in a TV adoption of John le Carré’s novel. But with Covid-19 we’re into a real horror. Art exists in part to call attention, whether or not viewers respond to that call.
A: Who are the subjects in the paintings – are they specific people you know, or do they represent groups of people you have seen in media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic?
OB: I do know some Covid-19 caregivers, but the subjects of these paintings were taken from photos in The New York Times and the Star Tribune. The last diptych refers to two brilliant medical paintings of the past: Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and Eakin’s The Agnew Clinic, which are juxtaposed on our modernity. Somewhat to my amusement, when physicians from Mayo toured my studio last month, those images were their focus. Familiarity, again, breeds comfort.
A: What differences do you find in working on canvas versus linen?
OB: Linen provides for much finer control as it’s a finer weave. One can approach this with canvas, but it requires multiple applications of gesso. Linen is also much more expensive. All things being equal, I like the greater expressibility linen can provide, although I generally paint on canvas. The roughness of surface should be seen not as an obstacle, but as an implement whose affordances shape the painted object.
A: In this series you employ bold, colourful brushstrokes – almost cheerful if the subject matter was different. What is your thinking behind this approach?
OB: Some artists are extremely “masterful”, have great facility, hew closely to the depictive illusions set forth in the Western canon (or for that matter, the Asian canon). This a result of innate talent, intense training and years of apprenticeship. I too, was educated in this tradition, but I didn’t fit the mould. I wanted an intensity and energy that I couldn’t find supplied by this control – being a bit “out of control,” sometimes, leads me to painterly solutions I wouldn’t be able to find otherwise.
A: You refer to your still lifes as “finger exercises” – when and how often to do you focus on still lifes?
OB: I trained as a pianist as a youngster and spent more hours than I want to count on “finger exercises” such as scales, arpeggios and so forth, trying to overlearn the keyboard so that these tricks would be available for easier mastering of the classics of piano literature. The same holds for painting still lifes – a few hours of tranquility with fruit, flowers or a kitchen scene can sharpen skills that could apply to other, larger canvases. A dozen still lifes were commissioned by a developer here in Minneapolis, others I painted as I could, to relax the eye and mind from bigger things. Perhaps I’ll do two or three a month now.
A: You recently participated in the Nature Art exhibition with the International Online Art Collective. What is the story behind the collective – was it something you’ve always wanted to be a part of or has the Covid-19 pandemic been a driving force behind the group’s formation?
OB: I don’t know much about the IOAC. I responded to their juried call, and was surprised and quite pleased, to be a finalist and given an award for the quadriptych on panel.
I do draw and paint landscapes and nature scenes at times; the Nature Conservancy has a painting of mine of three Minnesota rivers (stacked up on top of each other), and Meridian in San Francisco, showed two “nature” paintings for their Trees of the Field exhibit at the Thoreau Center in 2016. But these paintings were quite abstract.
A: The piece Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow was displayed in the exhibition. Is the meadow a literal or imagined place?
OB: Some of both – I began it in March of 2019 – I stayed that week in my father’s home outside of Chicago while he was in hospital for a heart problem. There was a meadow quite close by which I would walk through in the morning. It was waking up into spring with all its liveliness of bird song and new sprouts.
Then I would drive to the hospital, which was quite the opposite: sterile, clanging with metal and intercom calls. And then in the evening, I would set up my paints in the house’s little laundry room and have at it. The week ended, dad came back from the hospital, and I drove back up to Minneapolis in the first days of our nationwide Covid-19 shutdown. That was eerie in itself.
A: Do you plan to collaborate with other artists in the collective?
OB: No, my next collaboration is with Anat Shinar (@anatperforms), a choreographer in the Twin Cities.
A: Are you looking forward to in-person exhibitions in future? You’ve mentioned that you like meeting with people who come to view your work.
OB: You bet. I have a show semi-scheduled at Veronique Wantz but it’s all rather dependent on our luck with Covid-19, isn’t it? Last year I showed in person at Grand Hand. Due to the pandemic, there was only a virtual opening event and visitors had to book a time to come. This rather detracts from the experience.
A: You are currently in Frisco, Colorado. How has the mountainous landscape inspired your new abstract works?
OB: I’m in Frisco because of a family tragedy: one of my sons is undergoing treatment for a rare blood cancer. I hike every morning in the mountains, and just that act – being in motion, sensing that I am a traveller through not only space, but also geologic time (made more visible by the abruptness of the landscape) – is a comfort.
I draw my son, his nurses and his physician, while in hospital and when resting at home. This in the traditional, figurative sense: pencil on paper. I am also drawing abstractly – pastel, pencil and charcoal on YUPO, a marvellous new “paper” that according to them is “recyclable, waterproof and tree-free.”
A: How do you think your art practice will evolve in the coming months?
OB: I’ve just finished a large abstract diptych for Holly Hunt, at the instigation of their curator Becky Peterson, who urged it on me. I took my heart in my hands to lay down my brush, and did much of the work with scraping, pouring, spraying and masking, off the easel, canvases resting horizontally on saw horses. If you’re too comfortable, you’ve already painted that painting.
The loss of control brought forth something new for me, and I want to further explore these new driving directions in combining paint and surface – how to match the semi-aleatoric rhetoric of abstraction with the story of figuration? It intrigues me constantly.
On the more traditional side, I should be producing paintings for Anat to choreograph. I have no control over Anat, so it will be quite interesting to see what she discovers. And finally, I am painting portraits of real people again, starting with my three brothers, their faces taken from screen captures of a chat on Zoom. It will be a surprise for them, unless they read this. Let’s see if they do!
Images: all images are courtesy of the artist.
The work of Owen Brown appears in the Artists’ Directory in Issue 101 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.