Glenn Brown — past is prologue5/25/2016
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” — William Faulkner
“Glenn Brown” opened at the Des Moines Art Center last week and plays through August 28. Four years in preparation, this is the first USA exhibition by the English artist who was part of the Damien Hurst-led generation of British artists who brought that nation’s painters into world renown in the 1990’s. It’s a serious coup for the Des Moines museum. It also offers something for a wide range of viewers. It’s spectacularly eye grabbing, themed in history and science fiction, and it incorporates elaborate techniques.
Brown is a most contrarian artist. After being told that green was the least marketable color, he intentionally painted a long series of works based in the color of envy. At a time when most young painters avoided religious subjects in general, and Roman Catholic ones in particular, Brown wrestles with their influence. While most artists avoid appropriating from the works of others, Brown considers previous creations from artists, both living and historical, the basic language of art — without which artistic communication would be disabled. He was even accused of plagiarizing a painting by science fiction artist Tony Roberts during his 2000 Turner Prize show at the Tate Britain.
Brown also appropriates previously appropriated paintings. One striking precedent to Brown’s process is the Des Moines Art Center’s famous Francis Bacon painting “Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” In his catalogue essay “Opening the Eye of the Creature,” Art Center Director Jeff Fleming points out that Bacon never saw the original Velasquez painting, just a photograph of it. That leads him into a discussion about photographs, memory and selfies — one that has been on-going in the museum’s exhibitions during the last decade. As one young fan said, “If a tree falls on you, but you don’t have your phone to take a selfie, does it still hurt?” Fleming cites American photographer Sally Mann’s less flippant investigation of intermingled destinies of personal memories and photo images of them.
Fleming also compares the creations of Brown to Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, from whom he appropriates the title “opening the eye of the creature.” Brown’s works often cross over into other realms. Death, decay, rebirth, grotesquerie, dismemberment and science fiction are all popular subjects in the exhibition. Besides famous subjects, there are queen spiders, nymphs of the forest, necrophilia and moonscapes.
Brown appropriates, alters, photoshops, smears and repaints. He compares brushstrokes to breathing, calling them the pulse of identity. His brushstrokes are rather mind boggling. They appear at a distance to be heavily layered yet close inspection reveals a flat surface.
Touts: Olson-Larsen Galleries will open their annual landscape show June 10. It will feature Barbara Fedeler’s black and white drawings, and the more colorful paintings of two Iowans who have shifted their points of view further west – Bobbie McKibbin and Ellen Wagener… Jordan Weber will debut his one person show at Moberg Gallery on June 15… The Des Moines Art Center’s café is moving back to the future. After three years, two menu changes and one name change, Gaston (previously Baru at the Art Center) is moving to 6th and Locust. The art center café will be operated again by Rose Punelli, who was Lisa LaValle’s chef both there and at Trellis after LaValle left Greenwood Park. She will call her place “Chef’s Palette” and offer a menu with soups, sandwiches, salads, homemade desserts and wine. She should be open by the time you read this and will keep 11a.m.-2 p.m. hours Tuesday-Saturdays… According to the museum’s annual report, the building drew nearly 113,000 visitors last year while the downtown sculpture garden drew another 38,000. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.