One of the key choices an artist faces involves clarity—how clean should the art be, technically and symbolically? Well-defined figures and images are easier to understand and interpret, giving viewers something immediate to grab onto. But too much clarity can drive viewers out, leaving no room for their imagination or surprises. Obscurity in form or meaning gives the viewers space to play, yet in excess, it too can be alienating. Of course, there are many ways to strike a balance. In the case of Aaron Morgan Brown’s paintings at the Arts Company, clear technique is used to create dense images which become rich with ambiguity.
In his debut solo show in Nashville, Brown (no relation to Anne Brown, the gallery owner) wields confident technique to create complex images filled with lots of figures and simultaneous layers of space. Complex perspective effects pass you through different planes, and give you a sense of slipping from one meaning to another.
One thing Brown does clearly is declare his age, or at least that of the paintings’ narrator. Images of rockets and astronauts from the heroic years of space exploration recur throughout the work. These images were seared into the imaginations of children—especially boys—during the 1960s, and they create instant nostalgia for that specific time. In addition, the paintings show children of the current generation, identifiable by their clothes. It is hard not to see a man remembering his own childhood and looking at his children, or those of his peers.
If the images have some narrative clarity, spatial relationships within the images are another matter. Most of the canvases contain multiple planes that are overlaid or interwoven. Many shapes seem to be reflected in windows or mirrors, but when you look closely, it’s virtually impossible to construct a rational explanation of the painting’s interior space. A simple example is “Wichita Still Life.” At first glance, you see a rail tank car through a window. The car is positioned so it seems to sit on the window sill, but a post sticks up from behind the window and runs in front of the car, so you figure the car is definitely outside. But elements of the background indicate that the car must be inside the room. Like M.C. Escher prints, Brown’s paintings create impossible spatial relationships.
If Brown borrows this irrational perspective from Escher, he seems even more influenced by photography. He often overlays a scene with ghostly figures that look like reflections in glass, a phenomenon photographers have used over the years. “Procession 1 (The March of History)” uses this technique to put figures from different places and different times— the Parthenon, a group of ancient statues, a series of mall walkers, images of the space program—onto one plane. Other figures lurk in shadows behind the foreground characters or float over them like window reflections. One of those spectral figures is of a man taking a photo, though what he’s photographing isn’t clear. The work recalls the street scenes of photographers like Garry Winogrand.
Another photographer Brown’s art brings to mind is Thomas Struth, who created a well-known series of large-format, color photographs capturing people experiencing the spectacle of museums. Several of Brown’s paintings seem to be set in museums or zoos. In “Museology 17,” displays of animals and skeletons bleed into a lamp-lit interior that could be a living room or a funeral home lobby. “Zoology 1” shows a man and child walking through a zoo, apparently being viewed by a spectator in the foreground. Brown repeatedly puts his characters in these environments and watches them taking in the spectacle.
Several types of spectacle figure in Brown’s painting: the spectacle of history and culture, preserved in museums and remembered by its iconic images; the spectacle of a child’s elaborate imaginings of the world, represented in rocket ships and the star ornament dangled intently in “Borderland 14 (Stargazer)”; and the spectacle of Brown’s own technique, which can call up all of these objects, overlay them at will, and move from rational to irrational perspective with a precise small gesture.
Brown never deciphers the meaning of objects in his paintings through an artist statement, which seems like a wise decision. The works are put together so precisely that such an explanation could easily force viewers into feeling an obligation to treat the works as chores of decryption. Instead, Brown puts a lot of visual objects and sensations on the canvas, allowing us the pleasure to play with them as we wish.
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