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 Roger Brown  (1941 - 1997)

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Lived/Active: Illinois      Known for: abstract-surreal figure-views

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Alabama, he became one of the most celebrated of a group of Chicago artists called "Imagists," creating edgy, cartoon-like paintings of urban trauma.  His specialty were whimsical cityscapes that often touched upon social issues.

In 1987, a retrospective was held of his work at the Washington D.C. Hirshhorn Museum.  He donated a collection of 30 paintings and his homes in Chicago, La Conchita, California, and New Buffalo, Michigan to his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Even the artist Roger Brown, most closely associated with Chicago art of the 1960s and 1970s, had deep ties to the South.  Brown was born in Hamilton, Alabama, and was raised in Opelika, Alabama.  His traditional upbringing might have developed into a future in ministry or the family business until he discovered the arts and moved to Chicago.

In Chicago, he studied at the American Academy of Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving bachelors and master’s degrees from the latter. While at the Art Institute, influential instructors such as Ray Yoshida, the introduction to the museum’s permanent collection, and the accessibility of other Chicago museums initiated Brown’s education.  He also began looking at self-taught artists, allowing his own art to move beyond the mainstream. 

Brown’s education fully evolved when he became an art collector himself.  In fact, by the end of his life, Brown’s eclectic and enormous personal collection of art and artifacts ranged from outsider and folk art, to countless articles of popular culture.

Chicago Imagism is the stylistic American art movement with which Roger Brown’s name has become synonymous.  In his own words, Brown discussed this movement. “Chicago has not exactly taken over as the nation’s art capital, but it was the birthplace in the mid 1960’s of what I feel has become a significant movement in recent art history.  That movement is concerned with the making of art as an individual and very personal endeavor. …Inspiration is taken from the raw, direct art of the naïve or folk artist whose work is unencumbered with pretentions [sic] to ‘high art’… It might be appropriate to describe this new and uniquely American movement as a loose association of individual artists who briefly came together in group shows, exhibiting their autonomy from all previous artistic traditions, and even from each other.” (1)  The series of exhibitions occurred at the storefront gallery of the Hyde Park Art Center. (2)  Brown was one of many artists who exhibited together and ultimately were collectively labeled the “Chicago Imagists.”(3)

The artist’s own statements declared the individuality of each artist, including himself, and his desire to avoid classification by art critics. 

Brown’s painting style in unequivocally unique and immediately recognizable as he utilized the world around him as his tableau.  He attacked critical and contemporary issues from political, religious, and artistic arenas.  “My work is really about wherever I am, what I’m involved in, whatever I’m experiencing…It’s involved with Chicago, a lot of it’s involved with daily news events.  Sometimes it goes back and deals with things from my own personal background, from my own family history.”

More specifically, southern ties remained relevant throughout Brown’s oeuvre.  He stated, “…what I feel is influential, being a southerner, in my work, is just the tendency toward being interested in narrative…I don’t feel narrative is something that has to be left out of painting.”(4) 

Brown, in a 1990 letter to the Columbus Museum, stated, “For me art is not about repeating historical mannerisms, it is about inventing a new language of my own which can communicate to people my perception of my own time.”(5)


Sources:
1. Roger Brown, “Rantings and Recollections,” in Who Chicago? An exhibition of Contemporary Imagists (Sunderland, England: Ceolfrith Gallery, Sunderland Arts Centre, 1980), 29.

2. Ibid, 30.

3. The other artists most attached to this group includes Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Ray Yoshida, Karl Wirsum, Barbara Rossi and Gladys Nilsson.

4. Ellen Edwards, “Roger Brown’s Places in The Art,” Washington Post (12 August 1987), C1, C4, Col.1

5. Letter from Roger Brown to Fred Fussell, November 1990.  Columbus Museum collection files.  In the files is a statement that Brown provided to Fussell for a 1990 exhibition, "Home Again", which included Brown’s paintings.  In this statement, Brown reveals that his eerie use of light comes from old memories from Saturday afternoons at the Martin Theatre in Opelika (AL), where the fluorescent lights caused shadows and modulations of dark and where he saw old film noire movies that provided him with anxious themes.


Submitted by the staff, Columbus Museum, Georgia

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