Roger Brown, Self Portrait In Alabama With Hank Williams and Truman Capote, oil on canvas, 54"X72"1987

Since first encountering the virtual still life object paintings I’ve wanted to understand their form more accurately. There are many ways to read  the artworks and since working on the exhibition ‘Roger Brown Calif. U.S.A.’ the narratives about these very unique artworks has certainly been extended. It was always my intention in the exhibition to draw out the relationships between the object paintings and the collection and there is still much room to extend discussions of this particular set of relationships. The details and wider context of Roger Browns life in California are still unfolding and following my recent visit to the Rock House in Alabama I was able to examine materials that make possible some new connections. These connections have grown through considering a collection of letters from Brown to his family that were written between 1995 and November 1997, roughly the last 18 months of his life. In the close consideration of some of his earliest art making activity, the drawings and constructions from childhood and the wealth of paintings produced in his juvenile years, there are strong indications that Roger Brown was thinking about the relationships between objects in the real world and their artificial representation through painting.

The Rock House, Beulah, AL

The Rock House is a mid nineteenth century building made of stone, an unusual though not totally uncommon structure in Lee County Alabama. Roger Brown had seen and admired the building some years before he resolved to acquire it. When he began inquiring about its availability the building had been empty for some time, the owner had understood the special qualities of the house and by keeping the roof in good repair had effectively mothballed it, protecting the interior structure from serious decline.  In full awareness of his mortality Roger had decided that it would serve him well as a home and studio close to his family who were based in Opelika AL. His sketches of the plan for the house show a studio at the ground floor and a living area on the upper level. After a number of requests the sale was agreed upon. In actuality Roger died the day before the final contracts were due to be signing and the deal was closed by James Brown, Rogers father, and Greg his brother. While this turn of events was tragic for his family they embraced the Rock House as an opportunity to focus upon establishing the family archive. It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Brown worked every day for a year with the help and support of Greg and other family members to rehab and organize the interior. Greg has compiled a detailed photographic record of the process from clearing out a substantial layer of bat droppings in the roof space – the upper floor ceiling had to be completely replaced – to Mr. Browns construction of an extremely elegant front porch which enhanced not only the functional spaces in the house but also its general appearance.

The 'family' cabinet, The Rock House, Beulah, AL

Utilizing the old windows and reclaimed wood from the rehabbed structure Mr. Brown and Greg constructed two robust display cabinet to house objects and materials, and the task of gathering things together began.  Benedicte Retrou-Brown (Greg’s wife and Roger’s Sister-in-law), and Elizabeth Brown (his mother) assisted with gathering and organizing material also. Benedicte describes how one day Mrs Brown arrived with armfuls of clothes that had once belonged to Roger and Greg as children. Noticing Benedicts surprise at the quantity, Mrs. Brown assured her there was much more where this had come from. Elizabeth had saved everything she possibly could, carefully storing and reserving papers, toys, keepsakes, photographs and clothes. Seeing the quantity and breadth of materials at the Rock House is telling upon Roger Browns own instincts in his adult life, that is to reserve his personal artifacts and to include them as part of his extensive gifts to the School of the Art Institute. The gifts and legacies that Roger Brown established in his final years were well judged to say the very least. As Greg Brown has pointed out, when the various parts of the estate are considered together they form what is possibly the most complete picture of an artists life than that of any other archive of its kind. The Rock House collection is an extremely important resource for understanding the deeper currents and context of Roger Brown’s life and work. Greg Brown pointed out how many of Roger’s early paintings and drawings anticipate directly the visual elements and stylistic approaches that became key traits in his mature artistic output.

Here Greg Brown indicates how the charascteristic silhouetted figures that appear in so many of Roger Brown's paintings were developed directly from photographs of his parents.

James Connolly[1]and I spent the best part of three days at the Rock House carefully sifting and collecting details. With the patient and attentive help of Greg and Benedicte Brown we were guided to specific details and our initial questions were answered. We have been offered unparalleled insights and details that extend both of our current knowledge of the Roger Brown estate. Upon our arrival in Aabama, Greg and Benedict gave James and I a whistle stop tour of down-town Montgomery. Taking in the key sites of the civil rights movement and of course a visit to the family memorial of one of Alabama’s other favorite sons, Hank Williams. Moving swiftly along to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts to see the 1985 painting with its neon title, “Dr. Imperials Tree of Knowledge” we were delighted to also see “A Celebration Of The Uncultivated – A Garden Of The Wild” (1980). On the coat tails of this thrill we headed out about an hour east of Montgomery to Opelika, the Brown family home-town. First visiting the family grave site and then 1224 Glen street to see the modest red brick bungalow where James and Elizabeth Brown lived in their retirement with its adjacent wooded lot, where Roger was planning to create his American topographical garden. From here we traveled further east to Beulah and the Rock House.

Roger Brown, Dr. Imperial’s Tree of Knowledge, oil on canvas with neon, 106" x 73" x 3 1/2” 1985

Roger Brown, Celebration of the Uncultivated -- A Garden of the Wild, oil on canvas, 59 7/8" x 120 1/2”, 1980

After sifting and searching through the material for two and half days it is clear that we only just scratched the surface though even this initial visit has brought together some extremely interesting leads. Following Greg’s invitation to think about connecting the materials in the Rock House with subject matter in Roger Brown’s paintings, I was immediately drawn to the quantity of still life and landscape paintings. As is the case with many your artists still life paintings are a standard learning exercise as too is landscape work, they are all part of honing observational skills and manual ability. Roger is no exception here.  An interesting comparison is possible when looking at the still life paintings both in the collection and in the arrangements and murals in Aldo Piacenza’s home that Roger Brown admired. Additionally it seems that from a very young age Roger was thinking about the dimensional qualities that could be aligned with a drawn or painted surface. The cardboard construction depicted below appears to be a prototypical niche, perhaps an articulation of the form of the virtual still life object paintings. Although I have made the comparison before between Piacenza’s home and the ‘Television’ object arrangement in Brown’s California home it is worth looking again at both to compare them with the early painted still life and small cardboard landscape.

A mural with Ceramic object arrangement by Aldo Piancenza in his home. Photographed by Roger Brown, circa 1970.

Roger Brown, Untitled dimensional drawing, crayon on cardboard with steel dress-pins. date unknown, 3"X5"

Roger Brown, untitled still life, date unknown. gouach or watercolor on paper.

The Television arrangement in Roger Browns La Conchita CA home, photographed by Roger Brown, circa mid 1990's

But what becomes immediately evident is the choice of content. Both Greg and Roger were provided with private art tuition and many of the paintings from Rogers early teens come from exercises carried out in these early classes. The boys were encouraged to collect cut out images from magazines and there is one large folder which still holds a good selection of this material.

Three sources from a scrapbook collection - Left to right: Mobiloil advertisement; Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix; a schematic diagram showing the invention of steam railway. The landscapes in this last image strongly resemble paintings by Grant Wood.

The cross section of subject matter that is evident in this collection from reproductions of classical paintings, Goya, Velasquez and the impressionists, to commercial advertising that depicts stylized product representations, stacks of oil-cans and the confident smiles of happy consumers prefigure a life long interest for both Greg and Roger in a wide range of sources. From very early on Roger was concerned with understanding the nature of vernacular buildings, a passion that was extended throughout his life. He quickly developed a graphic style that can be seen to have been influenced so readily by painted commercial advertising. In addition there is a large quantity of memorabilia and papers from road trips taken as a family, trips to attractions and resorts, maps, souvenir objects and trinkets and this material too bears a stylized and frequently idealized representational approach which the young Roger was enlivened by. An easy comparison can be made between the small painting on red card-stock below, and the ‘Miami’ tourist information brochure. Both these items show buildings, one of the visual traits that became so characteristic of Roger Brown’s paintings. Interestingly also, the 1976 painting “Atop the Tallest Tower” presents a similar sense of wonder to that which is fostered by tourist advertising material.

A painting by roger brown that emmulates the visual qualities of tourist information literature. date unknown.

'Sightseeing in Miami', one of the many information brochures in the Rock House collection.

Roger Brown, Atop the Tallest Tower, oil on canvas, 48"x20" 1976

On my trail of understanding more about the La Conchita CA years I feel extremely privileged to have been able to read the letters that Roger wrote to his parents from California. These letters express his enthusiasm for the garden he was creating at La Conchita and also his research into plants for his parents garden in Opelika. He identifies varieties of roses for his mother, types of Azaelea and offers advice for their care. The development of his ideas for the Rock House, his proposed adobe home at Lompoc CA and the American topographical garden at 1224 Glenn Street can all be observed in his letters home. Another interesting trail to follow is the confirmation with Tony Jones, who was at that time the President of the School of the Art Institute, of the gifts of the Chicago and New Buffalo homes to the School. Significant also in these letters is his increasing frailty as his HIV related illness progressed. As a group of letters they form a very touching chronology of someone whose creative vision was shaped but not tempered by mounting health issues. It’s clear that as long as he was able to do so, he kept facilitating the production of his very ambitious plans. One of the most astonishing connections made during the visit to the rock house is a drawing by Roger Brown done probably in the late 1950’s. Compare the expression on the farmers face and the shape of his hat in the 1995 painting ‘Indianapolis Jones’ to the one in the drawing of a farmer with his dead horse. Also the number of tines on the pitchfork in the sketch and the virtual still life object painting is the same. It is clear that the sketch represents the kernel of an idea that treated in two different ways, consciously or not, Brown revisited in the two mature works.

Indianapolis Jones, oil on canvas 1995, 12"x9"

Roger Brown, untitled drawing. pencil on paper, circa late 1950’s
Roger Brown, detail showing the under-painted farmer figure in the object painting Bread Basket with Dustbowl, oil on canvas with ceramic object, this illustration shows a section of the painted surface approximately 3″x4″, the full size of the object painting is 48″x72″x6″ 1996.

[1] James Connolly is the Assistant Curator to Lisa Stone at the Roger Brown Study Collection in Chicago IL
Advertisements