ARTFORUM | Alex Brown Jeffrey Kastner | 05/01/2023
Jeffrey Kastner reviews Alex Brown: Presence Chamber in the May issue of Artforum. Find it in the print magazine, or link here to the online review: Artforum.
On a Thursday afternoon at the beginning of February, I joined an unusual Zoom broadcast linking Cathouse Proper in Brooklyn with its director, David Dixon, who was in Iowa. The occasion was the installation of the first gallery exhibition of works by painter Alex Brown since his death almost exactly four years earlier. Dixon—who is also an artist and was at the time participating in a residency Brown’s family had initiated posthumously in his name—was sitting with the late painter’s mother at her home south of Des Moines, directing the proceedings back at Cathouse and talking with her about her son.
Brown was just fifty-two when he died of an aneurysm. He’d had a good run during the 1980s and ’90s in New York and is fondly remembered by his many friends as smart, unassuming, and funny. He played guitar in respected hardcore bands Gorilla Biscuits, Project X, and Side by Side, and graduated from the Parsons School of Design before returning to the Midwest in 1996, feeling “eaten up by the city for various reasons,” as
Rachel Kushner put it in an affecting reminiscence published in these pages shortly after his passing. But his presence in the New York art world actually grew after his return home, marked by a string of shows between 1998 and 2012 at the estimable Manhattan gallery Feature Inc. To make his sui generis works, the artist typically sourced found images and then fractured them into kaleidoscopically complex compositions that, at their best, demolish the lines between figuration and abstraction, never allowing the viewer’s gaze to settle into one stable way of seeing. Brown’s oeuvre operates at an improbable juncture between Op art, Photorealism, and Pictures Generation media critique, with the artist strategically mobilizing what he once referred to as “the specific emptiness of certain images” to create works that infuse finely wrought, technically bewildering visual puzzles with sensuality and pathos.
The Cathouse show was titled “Presence Chamber” after a 1998 painting of Brown’s—an apt name for the conjuring job essayed by the selection included here: three paintings, a dozen-odd ink drawings, and several pieces of ephemera. The exhilarating challenges set by the artist’s work for the eye and mind were crystallized in the largest work on view, The Captain, 2000. Depicting a vaguely seafaring character who resembles a half-melted Lego figure, the canvas is constructed from a cascade of colorful brushstrokes, like fluttering scraps of fabric hung on a hidden armature. The image, which just about resolves into the titular subject when seen in reproduction, inexplicably refused to do so when encountered in person—its uncannily sideways trompe l’oeil effect placed the meticulously rendered surface back into dialogue with the photographic medium from which it originally came. It was joined by the haunting Girl, 2017, a small portrait of a downcast young woman as if seen through a layer of pixelating window privacy film, and Tapestry, 2018, made the year before the artist died. The latter work features, in something of a departure, an object that is itself abstract: an image of a striped rug that the artist splintered into a gloriously vibratory quasi-quatrefoil pattern, presumably with the help of an overhead projector–style transparency bearing a delicately filigreed design that was also included in the show.
The works on paper were no less captivating; never feeling preparatory, they were obviously conceived as pieces in full. They included Untitled, ca. 2015, for example, is a drawing based on a photo of the artist as a child, being held by his father while wearing a clown mask, that somehow materializes out of a rigidly patterned field of small blue squares and circles filled to varying intensities. Meanwhile, Untitled, 2018, features a skein of impossibly fine red and blue crosshatchings that gather into an image of a woman doing her makeup in front of a mirror, a scene that is itself doubled as though she and her vanity were passing through some sort of temporal causality loop. Displayed on a small shelf at the entrance of the show, the latter encapsulates the achievements of Brown’s nuanced practice, foregrounding not just his virtuosity, but also the way he exercised it to conjure his singular mix of banality and longing.