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: Idea and Process


Richard Campbell



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
"Work relies on the relationship between things that are stark and dark and other things that are subtle and delicate."Perceptions of reality informed by personal and collective memory constitute the nucleus of the art of Christopher Brown, a San Francisco Bay Area artist who has achieved international recognition for his compelling and seductive paintings, pastels, and prints.The exhibit "Christopher Brown: Works on Paper" features 60 of the artist's works—etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, mixed intaglios, and pastels—produced between 1980 and 1996. The selection reveals Brown's favorite themes—crowds, skaters, soldiers, figures on stairs, birds, and trains.Objects from Brown's childhood—a baseball glove, an American Presidents jigsaw puzzle, his drawings of birds and a skater, filtered through a "screen of memory"—are what most often induce his reveries. His 1980 etching Three Finger Model is a seminal example of Brown's idea and process. It depicts a baseball glove that was popular in 1951, the year of the artist's birth. It thus serves both as a personal icon and a symbol of America's favorite pastime.In the early 1980s, Brown, primarily a painter, turned to printmaking as a means of "loosening up my method of painting, to make it a little more chaotic." Wayne Thiebaud, Brown's mentor, described printmaking as "super drawing, in that it afforded the freedom to change and erase, to experiment, and to take advantage of possibilities created by accident—all as a natural part of a process." Brown executed about a dozen prints in 1980 during a five-month teaching stint at the University of Virginia in Richmond. He had intended to make "a print a day—quickly, playfully." This spontaneity is evident in Three Finger Model with its heavy and vigorously etched contours, dense crosshatching, and retention of the lines of underdrawing.In 1981 Brown accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, where he experimented with unorthodox intaglio processes. In his The President Series, the artist used a blowtorch to melt the etching and aquatint ground onto the plate. He employed power tools to draw the images and splashed acid directly on the plate to achieve dramatic tonal effects and rough surface textures. This expressionistic approach is typified in the densely shaded etching and aquatint Abraham Lincoln (executed over a two-year period from 1982-84), where Brown's finger prints and random scratches on the plate are incorporated into the composition.Subsequently, photography and cinematography became vital sources for Brown's imagery. These range from a vintage 1863 photograph of the Gettysburg Address by Timothy O'Sullivan to the 1963 footage of the Kennedy assassination by Abraham Zapruder to stills from the 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisentein. Throughout his work, photographs and stills simply serve as stimuli for his imagination as Brown scrutinizes such images and proceeds to deconstruct and adapt them for his own compositional purposes.After a two-year hiatus from printmaking, Brown tried his hand at woodcutting in 1986 at the Experimental Workshop in San Francisco. "You have to know what you're doing before you start," he says about the medium. "The woodcut process necessitates a preconceived idea." Brown's 1990 woodcut Little Blue Run is based on Blue Run, an oil painting by Brown inspired by Union Civil War soldiers and executed in 1989. To capture the subtle colors and tones of the painting, 16 separate color blocks were carved and printed "wet-on-wet" in layers of transparent and opaque inks.After a decade of experimentation, Brown says he came to recognize that his "work relies on the relationship between things that are stark and dark and other things that are subtle and delicate. Color proofing is crucial and subtle distinctions of color are really important." Also, it became apparent to him that color intaglio was the most effective medium with which to communicate his ideas.Fortuitously in 1991, Brown began to work at Kathan Brown's celebrated Crown Point Press in San Francisco. Here, the artist produced virtuoso masterpieces in color intaglio like Forty Flakes, The Shooter's Practice, Across the Boards, and The Farmer's Almanac (cover image). In Forty Flakes, Brown re-examines the ice skater theme in a complex soft-ground etching and color aquatint, which was composed on four separate plates and printed with many colored inks. On the second background plate, the artist spent hours polishing the tooth off the aquatint with steel wool and emery paper to soften the edges of the shadows and impart shine and reflection to the ice. The plate was then printed in a transparent black ink to further enhance the light-reflecting quality of the ice.Last year Brown completed a series of four train prints, Start, Bend, Accordion, and Window-color intaglios printed from five plates by Pamela Paulson with whom he had collaborated at Crown Point. The images are based on photos of a train car taken by Brown in Germany in 1978. The car is shown from four perspectives as moments in time remembered or witnessed by four spectators. In idea and process, the Train series reaffirms Brown's continued fascination with memory and perception.Richard Campbell is the John E. Andrus III curator of Prints and Drawings.All images courtesy of Christopher Brown and Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery.Suggested Reading:
Signe Mayfield et. al., Christopher Brown Works on Paper, Palo Alto: Palo Alto Cultural Center, 1995.
Kathan Brown, Ink, Paper, Metal, Wood: Painters and Sculptors at Crown Point Press, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996."Christopher Brown: Works on Paper," May 10-August 10, 1997
Galleries 376, 377, 378Related ImagesThe artist, Christopher BrownThree Finger Model, 1980
EtchingAbraham Lincoln, from The President's Series, 1982
EtchingLittle Blue Run, 1990
Color woodcutForty Flakes, 1991
Soft-ground etching and color aquatint
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Source: Richard Campbell, "Idea and Process," <i>Arts</i> 20, no. 6 (June 1997): 2-3.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009