The human experience, how we navigate through this turbulent world, interacting with society and nature, and our destined demises—all this dwells within Nick Brown’s affective canvases. Not to say the lot are sombre: this array of paintings and pastel drawings at Austin’s Tiny Park conjure a spectrum of complex emotions befitting their varied imagery. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Brown’s works embody infinitely more. – Brian Fee, Austin Contributor
As a central work in this exhibition, Poppies is a show-stopper. Think Claude Monet’s fields in Argenteuil drenched in textural psychedelia, the poppies swirling out as cherry frosting impasto atop a vertical, vegetal-toned jungle, thinned out into the horizon’s vanishing point. Brown noted the red poppies’ symbolism as a memorial to the dead, and though Poppies is not overtly political, it’s not a stretch to see a field of wartime bloodshed balanced against a visual feast of vibrant paint. Brown accomplishes two perspectives of diminishing space here: a sense of gazing out into the distance (the shimmering reddish smears) and, simultaneously, plunging downward into thick blooms (the tactile foreground impasto). Poppies asserts its attraction.
The like-sized Southern Pacific, on the opposite wall to Poppies, draws the eye in a subtler sense. Thickly textured tree trunks break up a silver birch forest vista and the titular railcars. A starry beacon of light erupts seemingly from the train itself, and from the forest’s darkness nearby darts a blur of human motion, translated in violets and whites. Brown acknowledged this was a self-portrait, that Southern Pacific had come from a dream where he chased the train, sensing that if he didn’t catch it—or the light itself—he’d never leave the forest. The snow, tinged in moonlight blues, evaporates into gessoed canvas snowdrifts constituting nearly half the painting, a frozen moment as Brown roused himself from sleep.
Nick Brown | Southern Pacific, 2011, oil on canvas, 36″ x 60″ Courtesy the artist and Tiny Park, Austin.
Only three of Brown’s canvases are on view in Tiny Park’s adorably boutique-sized space, the aforementioned two and Innocence, a heavily-applied network of flesh-tone daubs resembling both a barn and the slaughterhouse within. Yet the six small-scale drawings comprising the rest of the show, each rendered in fiery red pastel, manifest the same mortal energy of their larger, painted kindred. Brown plays with scale in The Truth Has Its Following: Your Nightmare Is Their Light, a heaping motley of moth carcasses that I initially mistook for dead soldiers, like in Otto Dix’s harrowing Der Krieg/War etchings series. Brown drew the insects from life, ubiquitous nuisances at his New York and Los Angeles studios, and in his detailed rendering he uncovers human characteristics: goggle-like eyes, helmeted visages, drawn wings becoming military cloaks.
Nick Brown | The Truth Has Its Following: Your Nightmare Is Their Light, 2009, pastel on paper, 11 ¼” x 15 ¼” Courtesy the artist and Tiny Park, Austin.
The “your” in the title adds another layer of complicated personification: if “their light” is artificial light as in the gallery itself, fatal to moths, then whom is addressed as “your”? Comparing his drawing to Dix goes beyond the moth-to-soldier comparison, as Brown has a printmaking background evinced in these works. Like in Corpse, he works the pastels down to the nub, until their wooden bases incise—or “etch”—the paper. Even Brown’s decision to display them on a linen backdrop adds a classical formalism.
Nick Brown | Corpse, 2009, pastel on paper, 11 ¼” x 15 ¼” Courtesy the artist and Tiny Park, Austin.
Beacon echoes both Poppies in its flood of red streaks splintering into negative space and Southern Pacific‘s luminescence. The difference is the subject itself, a coal miner’s lamp sheltering a dead canary. The allusion is noteworthy: miners kept caged canaries because the bird’s demise harbingered the presence of toxic gases. Idiomatically, it means any organism whose distress signals an early warning of danger. These ephemeral instances of passing mortality captured here leave much to our meditation.
Nick Brown | Beacon, 2009, pastel on paper, 11 ¼” x 15 ¼” Courtesy the artist and Tiny Park, Austin.
Nick Brown (b. 1973, Wolverhampton, England) currently teaches at the UCLA extension program in Los Angeles. He has shown at The Drawing Center, NY; P.S. 122, NY; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Chicago Cultural Center; plus in national and international gallery exhibitions. His exhibition at Tiny Park, Austin, concurrent with filmmaker PJ Raval, runs through April 14.
Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee’s List covers his three loves (art, film and live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).
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