Peter Brown: Amazing Stories
By April Rapier
Peter Brown: Recent Work. Harris Gallery, Houston. November 2-23.
Peter Brown's stories are lovingly imparted, whether verbally or visually, which may be the only uniformly measurable aspect of the work. Gathered over the past two and a half years, the pictures in this exhibition are diverse and subtle, and chronicle the voyages of a person who is endlessly amazed and delighted by what he discovers, one who searches patiently and is extraordinarily lucky to boot. With or without text, this exhibit (like “Seasons of Light", a previous portfolio of work) is a quiet delight with occasional, well-placed bursts of energy that startle and amaze.
The work ranges in tone and content. There are meditative, minimalist interiors (a continuum from earlier work), in which color (browns and blues recur) serves to annotate or extend mood, to fix in memory — as though washed over in color — what is easily felt but difficult to describe. There are also sentimental family portraits, records of reunions and the attendant changes magnified by distance and time, ("Jill Sleeping," 1984. in which a woman reclines, facing away from the camera, in an attic bedroom with flowered wall paper, is a fine example of this.) The emotions are heartfelt and universal, yet transcend the ordinary or obvious. They demand of the viewer a forward perspective or progression of thought — there is no sorrow, no looking back. Some pictures are tongue-in-cheek, and mostly irresistible; others — the rugged, four-wheel drive genre — are of interest because of the struggle and commitment involved in their execution (2-1 /4 square or 4x5 format was used to make all the images). The images that generate the least excitement are those that rely on a more formalist, pastoral tradition: an older woman in her yard, enclosed by a white picket fence, or a tree bursting with ripe peaches, for example, are images in which little emotional investment is demonstrated. Other portraits (of strangers) offer little more than a fleeting glimpse. One in particular, however, of a man beside a red truck seems very different, very personal and revealing. Could it be that the success of portrait encounter with a stranger relies on as straightforward a formula as flat light versus sunshine (the cloudy day images maintaining more of a distance than those bathed in the warmth of the sun)?
These arguments are of little consequence, however, in the face of such dynamic imagery as a grass fire cutting across a field, rendering the back half of the image hazy, Fresson-like, the front retaining its clarity and sharpness. This image, as others, normalizes the strangest of occurrences, making them accessible, familiar. The use of color here speaks clearly, dramatically, as it does in an image of a child swimming through an inky black lake, or a hiker going up a barren black mountain, the path only slightly lighter in tonality than the surrounding terrain. Neither image relies on additional information for its grace and impact.
Another wondrous moment occurs in a photograph taken from a dock: an alligator is swimming toward the camera, while a dog, whose feet and head only show on the side of the frame, bears disjointed witness from a safe vantage point. The dog's partial removal from the frame reinforces his reluctance to get too close. The situation in this image (and in another entitled "Momo on the Move," 1985, in which another dog patrols an icicle wonderland, the probable result of a broken hose or sprinkler, perhaps created on purpose) is not extraordinary except for the dizzying timing which serves to distance them from the reality of reference or possibility. Other moments that are more about travel transport the viewer to places known in memory (collective being the most likely) but not readily placeable: a motel in the West on a cold, clear night, terribly evocative in the recognition of feelings called upon, or the mural that adorns the side of a building in a small town, complete with deer, Hoover ads, and a line about the heart of Texas. The spontaneity of these unconstructed images is their beauty. They represent a race with time, a competition with the perpetual, inevitable changes that people are likely to rail against without the realization of conviction. Often the topographies occur as interiors or still lifes. The most intense representation of this unique genre takes place in a fruit bowl, with a map of European mountain peaks in the foreground just under the bowl, a reference to muralist imagery. The map is reflected in the bowl, and all objects — books, papers, fruit — are utterly transformed. A similar picture, an exterior still life containing an Ice Capades truck, pickup bed, and fruit tree, has the same quality of light — serenity amid the chaos of average modernity. This occurs m a similar manner in a landscape of snow, with little color pushing through. Four black cows in a row form a dividing line to the right, a cold blue sky comprising the top half of the image. In discussion, Brown has mentioned an interest in pushing the notion of the romantic image to its limit, without digressing into its more blatant evolutions. He has succeeded in doing so
The timeless quality, perhaps a function of travel as much as anything else, is seen in several different kinds of images, ranging from a portrait of Brown's father after having mowed his fields (time here circles and threatens to land), to a flooded fruit tree orchard (where time extends in a linear manner). The definitive image, one that incorporates all sensibilities and manners of dealing with the chance encounters the road offers is a portrait of the first town to be entirely nuclear-powered. In this image, entitled "Rowdy, Class of ’91, and his dogs,'' 1935, the viewer is presented with an extraordinary vision, using a graffiti-carved mountain (more block numbers than mountain surface) as backdrop. In a yard dominated by an enormous satellite dish, a boy jumps on a trampoline (and is caught in mid-air). This remarkable yard is enclosed by a fence, as though it were somehow keeping the inanimate inhabitants from wandering; two dogs pose on the outside of the fence, beside a small, obligatory stab at a flowerbed (this part of Utah seems terribly dry). The pine trees, fairly majestic in their own right, are dwarfed by the sad, violated mountain and tv antenna, tributes to a dim future. The exhibit offers a special opportunity to visit a world quite different from the one we know, if only due to the condensation of the vaguely familiar nature of the subject matter.