Roger Brown (1941-1997) They Call This an Ex...
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DescriptionRoger Brown (1941-1997)
They Call This an Expressway?, 1986
Oil on canvas
72 x 48 inches (182.9 x 121.9 cm)
Titled on the stretcher bar: They Call this an Expressway?
Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago, Illinois;
Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, California;
Corporate collection, Detroit, Michigan.
Affiliated with the late 1960s Chicago Imagists, whose narrative and surrealistic paintings countered the prevailing Minimalism of the day, Roger Brown developed a distinctive visual vocabulary of cartoonish architecture, vehicles, and figures in stylized cityscapes or landscapes to comment on social and political issues. The influences on Brown's aesthetic were numerous, starting in his Church-of-Christ childhood in Hamilton, Alabama: his woodworker father taught him the beauty of handmade objects and vernacular architecture; his mother, on long road trips, the importance of family narratives and the American landscape; and his brother, an appreciation for comics and the Art Deco architecture of their local movie theater. While studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) from 1962-1970, Brown fine-tuned his hallmark forms and techniques: highways or city streets dotted with silhouetted people and streamlined cars, theaters, or other mysterious buildings; spotlights and eerie background lighting, creating graphic patterns; and a predominantly black-grey-white palette punctuated with primary-colored accents.
They Call This an Expressway?, 1986, epitomizes a series of works Brown started in the mid-'80s where his focus on road trips and roadside attractions turned to road culture itself. These "road culture" paintings foreground themes of traffic, road repairs, car accidents, toll booths, valet parking, speed traps, tailgating, and road rage and occasionally depict roads in specific regions of the country, such as Tourists Beware: New Buffalo Speedtrap, Desert Road with Burn Spots, Highway 101, or Ventura Freeway Landscaped. Many from this series feature vertically-oriented compositions with a central road "spilling over" the edge of a horizontal background and bisecting the canvas into patterns of cars, trees, people, and/or houses. This vertiginous perspective--as if objects are sliding off of the canvas--accentuates often unnerving themes. For example, in Ice Storm Aftermath, 1985, a undulating vertical grey road on an icy white ground divides the composition into repeated vignettes of overturned trucks, broken tree trunks, and gesticulating bystanders.
They Call This an Expressway? includes all of the best elements of Brown's road culture paintings: the unsettling vertical orientation, here showing a two-lane highway falling over the edge of a red-striated sky and demarcated by a grassy green median and edges; regular patterns of silhouetted cars and figures, here road workers drilling holes or smoothing concrete; and his signature grey-black palette highlighted by primary colors. Brown puns by making his title a question. How can this be an expressway for fast-moving vehicles when nighttime asphalt repairs are creating bumper-to-bumper traffic? And, from a visual point of view, how can this be an expressway when the cars are defying the laws of physics, tumbling down the canvas? A page from his sketchbook indicates that he meant to underscore the contrast between the horizontality of the sky and the verticality of the cars and expressway. Yet even with his repeated formats and motifs, Brown, in the end, wanted to leave his viewers guessing about the meaning of his work. On a sketchbook page for Desert Road with Burn Spots, 1988, he quipped, "The subject of painting does not have to be discussed, since you don't know anything about it and I can't explain it to you so that you will understand."
We wish to thank James Connolly, Collection Manager, Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for his invaluable cataloguing assistance.
Estimate: $40,000 - $60,000.
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