Writing Archive

Petey Brown's Water Signs

catalogue essay, Bowery Gallery, June 20, 2017

At its inception, Impressionism extended what was known at the time as Realism – Courbet’s (and others’) jettisoning of Romanticism and Classicism alike in favor of making paintings truer to the appearance of real life. The nature of the Impressionist project was optical. As Cézanne admitted in exasperation to Vollard, “Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!”

But it’s in the nature of art for its mechanisms to make themselves felt with ever increasing force. Late Monet was only realist in a manner of speaking. The lily pond did shimmer in the morning mist, no doubt. But the paint told the story, not in the form of documentary, but parable.

Fast-forward a hundred-plus years. The Impressionist method – figuration executed as an array of lively daubs – is now an long-absorbed item of technical vocabulary. Like any vocabulary, it can be used in contemporary ways. That’s where Petey Brown picks up.

Her innovation isn’t just to introduce swimmers into Monet’s nacreous depictions of water, horizon line hiked over the top of the picture, although that in itself is a delightful notion. It’s also to use the daub in a notational or graphic way, not so much to show what the swimmers looked like paddling around in the surf, but to mark their very presence: let it be known, a human was here. The figure in Alone in the Sea (2016) is recognizable as such through her raspberry bathing cap and fragmented silhouette. It doesn’t look like someone observed, but someone abstracted, a sign for an awed recollection of the ocean.

Realizing that fragments would reconstitute the whole in the viewer’s imagination, Brown pushed that aspect of her work until the waters began sprouting feet. In Swimmer (2016), ten toes (and a nose to boot) arise from waters painted cobalt and lichen green. The orange in the sky indicates dusk, but the twin suns setting into the ocean are the feet themselves, glowing hot with radiance. Floating (2016) advances still further. All that the viewer can see of the bather are the upturned feet and forelegs of his diving form, drawn with a dark magenta line. Brown has raised the color temperature past what we encounter in real life – ambers and golds that apply the memory of hot summer sands to the ocean itself.

Given larger scales to work with, such as the diptychs in this series, Brown extends her vocabulary into pictures that are decorative in the profound sense, bathing caps punctuating an endless, pearlescent sea as a sparse pattern of colored dots. They are as evocative and charming as a Rinpa folding screen. Conscientiously pursuing a handful of cherished affections for method and subject, Brown has unearthed something significant.

Word count: 455

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