Roger Brown Calif. U.S.A. installation view Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago IL, 2010. On the left wall is the virtual still life object painting by Roger Brown, Calif. U.S.A. With Astonished Couple, 1995, oil on canvas, and in the middle right is the Television Arrangement.

This blog aims to document curatorial activities connected with Roger Brown’s La Conchita CA home, studio and garden which is a part of the Roger Brown estate and Roger Brown Study Collection at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

What follows is a description of the process and content research that lead up to the exhibition Roger Brown Calif. U.S.A. that was shown at Hyde Park Art Center in the summer of 2010. With the support of the staff and volunteers at the Roger Brown Study Collection in Chicago and the commitment of students from the school, the initial curatorial research began in June 2008 and quickly outgrew all of our expectations. A number of creative projects developed beyond the scope of the initial exhibition and catalog to include the supplement of a three reel View-Master® set and a dvd of video animations about the objects and the exhibit construction. As a side project to the main exhibition a series of scale models were constructed. Representing details of Roger Brown’s former La Conchita CA home, these models entered the project initially as a way of understanding the exhibition design but then became integral as a means through which to better understand the detail in the collection. The intensive approach to the visual research for the exhibition gave rise also to a series of booklets detailing aspects of the collection, ‘Artworks I’ and ‘Artworks II’ present a survey of Roger browns dimensional artworks, then the booklet ‘Ceramics’ shows a small selection of  ceramic objects from the collection while Garden’ is a compilation of photographs mostly by Roger Brown of his garden at La Conchita. A fifth booklet ‘Project’ documents the working process from unpacking.

In the three years preceding the summer of 2011 certain imperatives have guided our processes, most paramount of which has been to honor the care and detail with which Roger Brown himself conducted his career and his life. Brown took his career very seriously and the successes he enjoyed allowed him to pursue a life dedicated to creative endeavor while also facilitating the rich experiences he cultivated. Roger Brown and his contemporaries developed a lively and now world renowned approach to making their art that included the development of their homes as spaces for collecting. Not least, Roger Brown created the environments in his homes and gardens, in Chicago IL, New Buffalo MI and La Conchita CA, as an inspirational support to his creative work, preparing carefully organized displays of objects of all kinds. Manufactured and mass produced items and naturally formed materials are placed in deliberate locations  close to hand crafted and traditional folk objects, the collections are all enriched by the work of independently oriented and self taught artists and are also the cradle for a range of artwork by Roger Brown’s colleagues and friends. Above all the collections function as muses through a series of narratives about human endeavor, these objects are of high design and hand made curiosity and what ties them all together is the evidence they bear of human intervention upon material.

Waterfalls and Pitchers

Detail - Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls and Pitchers

Detail, Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls And Pitchers 1995, oil on canvas, mixed media, 37 1/2 x 50 x 9”

The Calif. U.S.A. exhibition began as a project to investigate the twenty seven Virtual Still Life object paintings in relation to the home and collection in La Conchita, California. Brown lived in La Conchita for almost the last decade of his life and in 1995 he began making the series of paintings we know as the Virtual Still Life Object Paintings. The particular critical demands of these works has also been a guide to the work we have undertaken recently. To address the three dimensional nature of these object paintings as artworks requires the formation of a series of complicated questions that was in part are addressed in the catalog of a previous exhibition, A Different Dimension[1] which opened at the Montgomery Museum, Montgomery Alabama and was also shown at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2004. Although primarily a painter who is associated with working in two dimensions Roger Brown also made a number of three dimensional art pieces. Some are are made from collections of found objects while others are re-purposed single objects with paint added to their surface so that they take on other forms, there are a number of irons that are painted to look like passenger vessels and boats. A trunk becomes a building, and a child’s playground slide a bridge in an inddustial landscape.  The Virtual Still Life object painting series however has a distinct and different set of concerns to these other object based and dimensional artworks and this is largely due to their intriguing diorama-like construction. These are settings of objects in still life. Found objects that are arranged on a platform with the painted canvas behind as a back drop that are every bit as much diorama’s as the displays that are found commonly in a natural history museum. The platform or shelf in each case extends from the bottom edge of the painting where a found object or series of objects is placed to form a coherent whole with the backdrop. The main series of concern to my initial research from 1995 and 1996 were titled by Brown with the prefix Virtual Still Life. They do however have a strong precedence in other of Browns dimensional artworks works. These works date from the 1970’s and 1980’s and include full sized taxidermy; a proghorn antilope, a white timber wolf or some seagulls for example [2] though none of these were called by Roger Brown with the prefix name ‘Virtual Still Life’. Dennis Adrian in his catalog essay for A Different Dimension uses the term ‘object sculpture’ to describe these repurposed objects and a different term, ‘object paintings’ to talk about the Virtual Still Life type works. Throughout the Calif. U.S.A. project we have adopted a truncated approach to describing these particular artworks. Bringing Dennis Adrian’s ‘object’ designations together with Roger Brown’s title prefix of Virtual Still Life, to form the description Virtual Still Life object paintings.

Pronghorn Diorama (1987 72”X72”X21”)

Pronghorn Diorama 1987. Oil on canvas, wood and taxidermy 72”X72”X21” (photo: William H. Bengston)

In considering the twenty-seven Virtual Still Life object paintings, it is vital as is the case with much of Roger Brown’s work, to understand in detail the context from which these works were developed. Brown preferred to situate his studio inside the confines of his home and in his three principle homes this was certainly the case[3]. He worked in response to a location and developed his collections in this way too and for this reason our research of the past three or so years has included an extensive survey of the objects and furniture from Brown’s home in La Conchita CA. and the way in which this collection and the Virtual Still Life object paintings are related.

Bedroom Right Blue Hutch

Bedroom Right Blue Hutch, showing a range of ceramics of Mexican origin, the arrangement is shown here as it looked on display in the exhibition Roger Brown Calif.U.S.A. at Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago IL, 2010.

By the middle of 2010 Roger Brown: Calif. U.S.A. had become essentially an exhibition about objects and their relationships. In many ways these objects are unconventional, the Virtual Still Life object paintings of which sixteen were included in the exhibition feature mostly ceramic objects, and in the re-assembled arrangements of objects and furniture, a selection of some of the contents of Roger Browns La Conchita home there is a significant collection of mostly ceramic objects. All of these things were organized by the artist into groups and placed in arrangements that included furniture in his home. These arrangements in and of themselves are legible as sets and can be read for the associations that they produce within each set and between each arrangement which in and of itself reveals an extremely rich set of associations. The objects when considered individually are extremely rich in detail too and they demand different kinds of consideration. In all of these respects the dimensional qualities have been foremost and while the exhibition provided access to these things, the object paintings and reassembled arrangements, all be it for a limited time, the ongoing research continues to be concerned with the object-ness of the objects themselves. The kinds of documentation needed to serve these dimensional qualities lead us to the development of three stereoscopic View-Master®  reels that were included in a pocket at the back of the catalog. The inspiration of our students at the School of the art institute can never be underestimated and through the animations that were created by Rebekah Scheer the objects themselves come alive, energetic with meaning and desparate to communicate with the world around them. These elements go some way to simulating a spatial presentation of the two main elements of the exhibition, the object paintings and the object arrangements, but most importantly the exhibition provided an opportunity to see the collection and the object paintings in reasonably close proximity to the other homes and collections  in Chicago at 1926 North Halstead and at the Veronda Pavilion in New Buffalo, Michigan.

Dog Table, Roger Brown Calif. U.S.A.

Dog Table – desk, chair 19 objects and $102.73 in change. depicted here in the exhibition Roger Brown Calif. U.S.A. at Hyde Park Art Center 2010

The established narratives of Roger Browns life are usually recounted via his proclivities as a collector and artist. At the Roger Brown Study Collection in Chicago we have access to an archive where the copious details of Browns daily activities are available, both as an artist and as a collector. Through the archive it is possible to gain a very detailed understanding of his life and career as a whole, something that is rare when studying an artists life. There is in addition a quantity of autobiographical writing to which we can add the annotations of his many personal friends, hand written notes, audio and video recordings, letters and greetings of all kinds. These notations, recollections and the details we find in the many cards and letters are amongst the most rich and revealing details in the archive. The story of Roger Brown’s adult and professional life emanates from the times he spent as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago and after, he lived in Chicago for almost all of his adult life. Through his family in Alabama we have a clear picture too of how events of his early life contributed to making Roger Brown the man that he became. Part of our research in this project has been to understand more about the details of the last ten years of his life, from around 1988 to 1997 though it is fair to say that in all respects the detail is not yet complete.

My involvement in the Roger Brown Study Collection and this work became initially focused around the summer of 2008, though in actuality the project really began some 12 years previously in 1997, shortly after Roger Brown died. In late November 1998 Lisa Stone, the Curator and Director of the Roger Brown Study Collection in Chicago, along with Maryanne Redding and Daniel Paul went to La Conchita, California to catalog and supervise the packing of everything Brown owned at La Conchita. This formidable undertaking initially formed an important legacy of details from which my research would pick up. As part of their process an extensive set of photographs were made, we have three large albums of photographs and 35mm slides detailing the La Conchita house inside and out, the location and position of the arranged objects, recorded as Brown had left them in 1997. There is also a quantity of photographs taken by Roger Brown throughout the time he was living in La Conchita. Additionally the house and its contents was documented extensively by the photographer Patti Carrol, who visited the house with Tony Jones, then the President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the winter of 1997/ 98. All of this documentation proved to be a lifeline for us when starting this project in the Fall of 2008.

My work has progressed also through the close examination of the objects, both the items in the collection and the object paintings that form the virtual still life series. In order to understand more about his working methods and the material qualities of Roger Browns art making I have made it my business to see as many of the dimensional works that Brown made throughout his career, yet another task that is far from complete. While the study collection holds some of the painted and constructed objects, many are initially accessible only as reproductions in the archive as digital files and 35 mm slides. In this respect I can only begin to express the delight and surprise that ensues when encountering any of Roger Brown’s work for the first time face to face. It has been endlessly surprising and most instructive to all who work with the Study Collection to encounter Roger Browns artworks at close quarters. The lesson learned early on in the formation of the study collection was where possible ‘see it for real’!

Once packed, the La Conchita materials were shipped to Chicago in 1998 and have been held in off-site museum storage ever since. With the help of Lisa Stone and two of our most stoic and now graduated student assistants Claudia Arzeno and Lucka Matejcova the unpacking process began in February of 2009. We established an unpacking protocol and began examining the collection, box by box and piece by piece. This process continues. Then in the summer of 2009, having previously seen just one of the Virtual Still Life object paintings (Virtual Still Life# 23 The Midnight Ride Of Paul Revere) I had opportunity to spend time the with Lisa, staffer James Connolly, and Study Collection volunteer Leland Meniers, in unpacking some of the object paintings in the Permanent Collection and the Estate Paintings Collection. Over two days we examined eight paintings, and there is no understatement when I say that we were all totally blown away by the work. The visual strength of these object paintings is truly astounding. The painted surface alone contributes a very dynamic aspect to each and this in combination with the integral objects defies initial and easy definition.

Virtual Still Life #23, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #23, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. 1996, oil on canvas, wood, mixed media, 3 pieces each 19 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 13”

This was just a first step with the La Conchita materials and in the coming year I hope to extend the detail that is available and so give a deeper flavor of the characteristics of this part of the Roger Brown estate. For details of the Calif USA project there is an extensive catalog available from the Study Collection and 1926 North Halsted Street, in Chicago. Through it we aimed to open up further scholarship opportunities at the Roger Brown Study Collection overall. The essays provide practical descriptions and scholarly perspectives, they point to many unanswered questions and unopened doors. Lisa Stone, Christine Atha, Dana Boutin and myself describe the contents and contexts of the Virtual Still Life object paintings and explore some of the initial questions that are raised by these artworks and the objects in the collection. The limitations of a printed two-dimensional reproduction in the context of a publication has been a constant concern. With all the best intentions a printed reproduction of an artwork can satisfy a curiosity but will only ever come a very poor second to experiencing the work itself. The most well developed and organized descriptive prose can never replace the nuance and accentuation of an experience. The quality of light as it reflects off pigment and medium or the physical weight an object possesses in space, the location and placing of materials, and the confluence of all of these things along with sensory details like smell and temperature will all yield sensations. Our intention in the catalog was not to reproduce this but rather to excite interest and to encourage the further engagement of our students, our colleagues and a wider public.

Our enthusiasm for the material and need to see it for real has taken us on a number of metaphysical and actual journeys. In March 2010 James Connolly and I, escaping for real the tail end of Chicago’s winter, spent a very welcome five days in California. Staying initially with our dear colleagues at the Museum of Jurrassic Technology in Culver City CA. We stayed in the Spartan Royal Mansion, aircraft trailer that once belonged to Roger Brown in La Conchita and that is now in the long term care of the Museum, and in the company of a fine collection of like residential vehicles. We then visited La Conchita in Ventura County CA. where the hospitality of Bonnie and Bill Kelm made possible a visit to Roger Brown’s former home the Stanley Tigerman designed Temple of Painting. And finally had the pleasure of meeting Linda Cathcart who knew Roger Brown very well during and before the years he lived in California. Linda and Roger spent time together shopping for folk and craft items and Linda’s collection of Mexican folk craft items is no less remarkable than Rogers. Mostly ceramic Linda Cathcart’s collection is now housed in Santa Barbara’s longest standing adobe home structure, as a museum called Casa Dolores –the Center for the Study of Popular Arts Of Mexico. An afternoon spent with Linda and Claudia McLaughlin at Casa Dolores has helped us in understanding the fine details of much of Roger Brown’s La Conchita collection.

The Spartan Royal Mansion in Culver City CA.

The Spartan Royal Mansion traler in Culver City CA.

Once we understood that this project could not move forward until we had made a collection of View-Master® slides we set off on one of the hardest journeys of all, learning to make stereoscopic photographs. To help us along the way we took advice from our friends at the Museum of Jurassic Technology and our colleagues in Chicago. Not least from Eva Hausem, Ron Gordon and Matt Bergstrom. We organized a week long photo-shoot and produced an initial set of 21 stereo images with many more as yet unpublished – this too is a project that is ongoing. These stereo images are in no way intended to stand in for seeing things for real or as-if-for-real, but rather then have opened up the opportunity to take on the idea of a dimensional presentation in a popular context and this is consistent with an aspect of Roger Brown’s collecting sensibilities. They provide an opportunity to see a selection of the materials from the Brown estate while also seeking to locate the Virtual Still Life object paintings in the context of the Roger Brown Study Collection. In turn by including one view of the collection of Ray Yoshida, we hope to locate Roger Brown’s collection in a the wider context of the Chicago milieu that Brown was so integral to. We are indebted to the Yoshida estate for allowing us to photograph in 3D part of Ray Yoshida’s collection before it was dismantled in 2010.

[1] Roger Brown, a Different Dimension. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, 2004.

[2] Pronghorn Diorama (1987 72”X72”X21”) Arctic Moon (1987, 74 ½ X 49 ½ X 21 1/4) Visit the Oregon Coast (1979 73 1/2 X 50 X 16)

[3] 1926 North Halstead Street in Chicago where Brown lived from 1972 – 1995, at the Veronda Pavilion in New Buffalo, Michigan, a purpose built home and studio designed by his partner George Veronda, completed in 1984, and then at his ‘temple of painting’ in La Conchita, California, a home and studio in the Basilica style designed by Stanley Tigerman and completed in 1991, where Roger Brown lived from 1991 – 1997.