Saturday, October 1, 2011

Joan Brown at the San Jose Museum of Art

The San Jose Museum of Art will explore the work of the pivotal Bay Area artist Joan Brown (1938-1990) in the exhibition This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown, on view October 14, 2011-March 11, 2012. The exhibition, the first major survey of Brown's art in a decade, is the first to examine and stake a claim for her work in the context of the women's movement. 

 Girls in the surf, moon casting a shadow, 1962

The exhibition includes approximately 40 paintings (plus a select group of drawings and mixed-media works) on loan from public and private collections as well as from the artist's estate, including some never before seen by the public. The exhibition spans Brown's career from 1959 to 1984. Brown emerged as a successful artist just before the advent of 1960s feminism. Her pioneering use of domestic subjects, decorative motifs, and autobiographical imagery prefigures the new artistic territory championed by the women's art movement in the 1970s.

Self portrait with scarf, enamel on canvas, 1972
Brown experimented freely with a range of styles, and her art has been discussed in relationship to abstract expressionism, Bay Area figuration, and new image painting. Yet she consistently took everyday moments from her personal life as her artistic subject: her son, Noel, in front of the Christmas tree; her birthday celebrations; her routine swims in the San Francisco Bay; evenings at the opera with her husband. 

 Dancers in a city, #2, enamel and fabric on canvas, 1972
Born in San Francisco, Brown began her studies at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). She was influenced by her fellow artists Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell, and Nathan Olivera. Her success came early: she had her first New York show at Staempfli Gallery at the age of 22. That same year (1960), she was the youngest artist included in the pivotal exhibition Young America 1960 (Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Brown's early work was characterized by thick paint and expressive texture, and was clearly influenced by abstract expressionism. By the 1970s, Brown's canvases were thinly painted, yet full of bold color and vibrant pattern. 

 The Journey #1, 1976
She moved away from her interest in traditional still-life elements toward an unrelenting examination of her own image and life. In 1976, following a divorce, Brown traveled to Europe: this trip inspired her "Journey" series, a deep personal reflection on relationships. (Brown's Journey #1, 1976, is in the collection of the San Jose Museum of Art and included in the exhibition). Brown's interest in spirituality and the new age movement grew throughout the 1980s. She died in 1990 in an accident while helping to install an obelisk for Sathya Sai Baba's Eternal Heritage Museum in Puttaparthi, India.

Opening October 14th through March 11, 2012
images courtesy San Jose Museum of Art


sfmike said...

I know it may sound cynical, but I love that last sentence about the absurd way Joan Brown died. Really, how can you improve on: "She died in 1990 in an accident while helping to install an obelisk for Sathya Sai Baba's Eternal Heritage Museum in Puttaparthi, India."

namastenancy said...

Yes, she did die in a bizarre accident - the obelisk that she was helping to install fell on her. I was in an art class when I heard the news. Several of us, including our teacher knew her, and it was just strange. You didn't know whether to laugh because only Joan would be in India doing something so unusual or cry because of her loss or wonder if the whole thing could possibly be real.

A Cuban In London said...

Two elements struck me straight away: her use of colours and the shapes. Very unusual, I would say. Thanks for introducing me to another new artist.

Greetings from London.

namastenancy said...

Thanks for an intelligent comment on her art. I really like her earlier work which is very emotional, with thick impasto and expressive brushwork. I find her later work very kitschy and decorative - lots of cats painted in enamel for instance, or stylized mermaids - but she was an important presence in the Bay Area arts scene for many years.