A true California artist, Christopher Brown grew up in Illinois—where from his early teens he was aware of West Coast painters like Elmer Bischoff and the Bay Area figurative school. He studied at the University of California, Davis, in the early ’70s, with artists like William T. Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, Roy DeForest, and Robert Arneson. He lives in Oakland, California and is Chairman of the Painting Department at Berkeley.
Thomas Bolt Chris, one of your earliest images was a birthday cake covered with candles that were being blown off in a very strange way. Then a painting of an enormous bait carton, the kind Chinese takeout comes in. Since then, there was a life-sized landscape one could enter and be surrounded by, and others. What do you have to say about the way your images have changed?
Christopher Brown The paintings I’m doing now are some of the most figurative I’ve ever done. It’s not what I would have expected to be doing if I had thought about it a couple of years ago. But my work always tends to move into some area that I hadn’t anticipated. The subject matter comes and goes, but all the paintings deal with issues that are purely painterly. Like issues of light and movement and depiction. An ongoing concern is the problem of negotiation, especially if you’re a representational painter, between recognizability and pure abstraction. I’m coming to learn that recognizability does partake, to some degree, in giving meaning to abstract movements and shapes and markings in paintings. A painter explores imagery, explores where meaning comes from in images. To be specific, for example, in the drawing of the girl blowing out the candles on her birthday cake.
CB That drawing was very much about light, on one hand, and it was also a pun: a funny little drawing about the cake being blown out of the picture. There was an afterimage where the cake had been, as in a time-lapse. So that simple drawing was about light, movement, and how you draw, and also, in an abstract way, concerned with speed, movement, time and change.
TB Someone seeing your work is always aware that the artist is doing something physical, sensory, even sensual, as well as intellectual.
CB I’m very interested in painting as an activity, as much as I am in picture making, making images. Something I question is how much my paintings are really about the images pictured in them. Painters explore that relationship between paint as a substance, and what it creates illusionistically. So my paintings have this dual personality that I’m always working back and forth between.
TB How did you arrive at the enormous bait carton?
CB At about that time, 1980, I needed to move in close-up, on some subjects. I did a series of paintings that were very simple, single images of objects around the studio. I tried to paint them with the greatest sense of identity and personality, individuality and singularity that I could. At least, that’s what I was thinking about.
TB Of course, it’s not a painting of a bait carton, it’s a bait carton involved in a lot of paint.
CB The imagery is not significant, only a starting point. At the time, I was painting very fast. I’d start out with one image, radically revise it, and end up with another image completely, all within a couple of hours. I found myself working on trying to develop space, light and color relationships, a sense of weight and atmosphere, that felt right to me. The identity of the objects derived from the character of the paint itself: how the paint was put on and how the painting was made as an object.
TB Scale is another important part your work. One of your paintings that’s the most affecting is The Painted Room. How would you describe that painting?
CB Well, big. (laughter) It was part of a group of canvases that fit together. The Madison Art Center commissioned that piece, and they were designed for a particular gallery in that museum. Paintings were hung next to each other to form a continuous image one hundred feet long that ran 360 degrees around the room. It was a landscape in which the viewer felt as if he or she were in the middle of a forest, looking through trees to a river on one side and into the night on the other. There were some figures in the trees.
TB Their actions are sometimes obscured. People had been swimming: a man and a woman are coming out of the water. When you bring the human figure into a painting, a narrative begins. But the narrative remains mysterious, though the situation is very clear.
CB They are individual figures held together by the consistency of the surrounding landscape. There is a sexual energy between the male and the female figures: a kind of mystery and darkness. I left a lot to the imagination. The purpose was to create an evocative, emotional situation, charged with mystery and an elemental energy. The forest and the figures are charged in an equal and similar way; the trees take on an anthropomorphic quality. There is something threatening about the forest at night.
TB The scale is one-on-one. There’s a life-sized campfire around which the shapes are more or less normative. As you leave the light, however, the objects become figures of the imagination. They become scary, expressionistic and very weird. Somewhere between those extremes of order and chaos, a woman squats and urinates in the woods, as if she’s being enveloped by the darkness, or swallowed back into nature.
CB That’s a pretty literal description, but it’s obscured by the paint and that’s the kind of image that you don’t really see right off the bat. Throughout the paintings, there are images of figures that have been obscured, and gestures of trees that had been taken out. It gives you a sense of process and time-lapse, the same figures present several times, as though they have moved from one spot to another.
TB Very much so. In fact, it seems to be different times of day in different parts of the painting.
CB Definitely. At that time, 1984, I was trying to come to grips with pure emotionality, intensity—a feeling that as a viewer, you were up close to something you didn’t necessarily want to be so close to. It was very confrontational to put you right there. Right up against it. My painting changed away from that after a while. I started looking at the details in those large landscape paintings, the image of water in particular.
TB And that process led into paintings like Swimming in China?
CB Yes. Then the paintings became questions about how to paint water, notions of floating, weight and light, reflection, illusion. They took on an airier, more light-filled, less emotional quality. That went on for about three years.
TB What do you find yourself involved with now?
CB At the time I was doing the water paintings, about five years ago, I started collecting hundreds of photographs and reading about the Civil War. Over the last three years, I managed to do one painting per year that was unlike any other painting I was doing; soldiers in the field. That finally led me into the work I’m doing now, with figures in a larger scale. Images of soldiers in fields, people in fields, and very muted, toned down colors. They relate vaguely to the Civil War, although, you wouldn’t necessarily know that that’s their source. You’re looking down from above at a parade of fifteen figures and it’s as though they’re running below you. There are other paintings in which I’ve used photographic foreshortening, very flat, circular compositions with many figures, in which the background figures seem to come forward and exist at the top of the painting almost at the same scale as the figures near the bottom so as to create a nonhierarchical composition that forces you to see all the figures as being equal.
I’ve found that the paintings are becoming more abstract. As I’ve familiarized myself with the subject matter, I am taking more liberties, changing the viewpoint, blurring figures together…The subject is becoming the crowd scene: big paintings in which recognizable heads stick out of the dark throng.
There’s a sense of monumentality and momentousness in the Civil War photographs. It’s hard to say whether it’s the subject matter or that old black and white photographic way of looking that I’m fascinated by. Black and white photography has come to be the way we think about history—a certain period of time.
TB Just as thinking of the early sixties, color photography where the colors aren’t quite real comes to mind.
Where did your Thomas Eakins’s painting fit into this?
CB In the late sixties, early seventies, when I went to art school, Pop Art was the dominant vein. Pop Art has been very influential for me, and for all artists since. It made art cool, rather than hot and emotional, and it gave you an ironic distance from everything. I grew up taking that for granted, and that was something I came to recognize it in my own work. So I decided to go back and in the opposite direction. Thomas Eakins was a very direct American painter of the 19th century. I did this painting that was almost a copy of his Biglin Brothers Racing, though it wasn’t a literal copy.
TB It was very much in your style.
CB It was an attempt to get myself to think about the emotionality in my work in a very different way: hot and tense, not cool and lucid.
TB Of course, there are other emotions. I wonder if you’ve ever thought of your approach to painting as being, somehow, comic? Some of your paintings really are funny.
CB In what way? What way are they . . .
TB Swimming in China, with inflatable black tubes and the yellow-and-white water. The trees and all your landscapes, the ones from the “subconscious” are frightening, but they’re also comical: the Birthday Cake; the large painting of the bait box—There’s something funny about seeing a large painting of a bait box, you know.
TB I see this humor running through your work.
CB There is a kind of dumbness to my work. Philip Guston was also interested in that kind of blunt dumbness. A bold flat-out unstylized presentation of the images and issues. By making something comic, sort of goofy, I open a slightly different way of seeing it. It’s part of the nature of painting. You’re involved in something so seriously, with such dedication, day after day, and you realize the absurdity of it. And sometimes you just have to make a joke about it. And sometimes it just appears, you can’t repress it.
TB You were trained to approach art intellectually and yet your paintings are oriented stubbornly toward the emotional or the intuitive. The comic and the makeshift, rather than the programmatic. Would you agree?
CB You can’t be taught some of the most crucial things that you have to understand in order to be an artist, things like learning to trust your intuition and developing a sense of your own self in your paintings. Not because of what you learn, but almost in spite of what you learn. Painters paint and speak in the language of painting. It’s not a verbal language. Sometimes painters and critics make the mistake of trying to translate intellectual ideas into paint. It doesn’t work. It just doesn’t translate that way. You’ve got to find a metaphor in the enigmatic language of painting.
—Thomas Bolt's art criticism has appeared in Arts and elsewhere. His book of poems, Out of the Woods was published last year by Yale University Press.