Realism's Refreshing Renaissance at Free Radical

By Jonathan A. Dawe

Nicole Carlson's portraits of sex offenders at the Free Radical.

When I arrived on South Division earlier this year for the Free Radical, I was prepared to roll my eyes yet again at the painted political propaganda that masquerades these days as art. I was half-expecting to see pieces depicting George W. Bush with an Adolf Hitler mustache, more collage of magazine model cut-outs, and photographs of faux-philosophers smoking Sartrean cigarettes and dropping Foucauldian bombs in coffee shops.

So I was suprised when I came upon the work of Kendall College junior, Brian Brown. His pieces are large, colorful, realist—refreshing. And I was not alone in that sentiment. Brown’s pieces were fawned over. Everywhere I went that night I overheard people talking about them. He even had an exact copy of a Ruebens. The colors were rich and the lighting dramatic. The detail was painstaking. This was impressive painting and it generated a buzz I had not experienced ever in Grand Rapids’ local art scene.

Brown. Saturn Devouring
his Children

I wondered what is it about realism (at least realism done well) that leaves people so dazzled? It cannot be merely the effort. Despite hours of effort, a painting that could be mistaken for a photograph because of its lifelike qualities could still be considered quite uninteresting. For instance, there are plenty of realist painters in Grand Rapids who paint technically proficient pictures of lakes and forests that sit above suburban mantles. Yet many of those who appreciate art and follow its history wouldn't give them a second glance. Aesthetically they just don't do much. Neither do they engage the intellect. While Brown's paintings evoke a serious respect for the painterly talent, it was not talent alone which made them art worth considering. What was it?

Perhaps it was the contrast. Sitting among a body of mostly abstract work, does realist art get praised simply for being more accessible or “not as obscure” as the rest? That may factor, but if those over-the-suburban-mantle landscapes were hanging at the Free Radical, I don't believe they would have generated a buzz, even if all the other work actually was hopelessly abstract.

Are people tired of abstract art? I think it's possible. More likely, people are tired of uninspired, intellectually weak, or solipsistic abstract art. Once upon a time in art history, abstract art was an experiment in representation, a development in the enterprise of painting. Now, it seems that abstract art is often a mask for laziness, lack of talent, or shallow ideas. When confronted by the abstract art, I will seek out educational resources in order to make sense of it and be able to appreciate it more deeply than what its surface reveals, if indeed anything at all. Unfortunately, I'm constantly disappointed by how vapid the explanations that come from our local artists are. (Just have a look at some of the artists' statements at LaFontsee Galleries to see what I mean.)

I'm still seeking an understanding of what that "whatness" is about Brown's work that made it so refreshing and enjoyable to the Free Radical show-goers. It wasn't the effort, it wasn't that it simply was better than the rest, and it wasn't even its realism-as-opposed-to-abstraction per se. No, I think what makes his work good is its naïveté.

After lamenting the boring, bland, and blasé art of local galleries and student shows, am I going to turn around and commend Brian Brown's art on its naïveté? Yes, because Brown's work has innocence in its naïveté. Not the innocence of primitivism, but the innocence of a young artist building a body of work, exploring ideas, and putting time and effort into visually representing those ideas. Brown is an artist in sense that he attempts and executes such ambitious paintings with conviction that his ideas are worth effort depicting. Too often artists sacrifice the aesthetic value of art for an ideology by using not-so-subtle symbolism and other didactic methods. If these artists really wanted to get their point across so unmistakably, they should have just written an essay.

But Brown’s greatest asset in exploiting his medium is also the weakness in the finished result. It says too little with too much. For instance, in Fig. 2, a girl stands in the desert, holding ice-skates, with a dejected look on her face. Left to its own ironic face value, the work loses interest immediately upon beholding it. Perhaps the artist has sneaked in a political motive, that of unhappiness with the immediate effects of global warming. Ironically then the girl will again need those skates in the coming ice age. Frustration clearly. But who’s?

In Fig. 3 (right), a girl whimsically shrugs at the viewer. In what context? Unless the girl had special relation to me or I just couldn't stop looking at that "I give up" shrug, I have no way of appreciating the work beyond its surface. Though, like in Fig. 2, there again is that frustration, or dissatisfaction with the world.

Fig. 3 (left) illustrates a girl with a book in her hand, half-regarding the dim-witted pink cranes standing behind her. The book in her hand, a symbol of education and knowing condescension, excruciatingly reinforces the contrast between her and the animals: "Look at me, I am nothing like this stupid crowd!" Whether Brown is represented by the girl or not doesn't matter. He pulls the sophomoric rhetoric of enlightened artist, providing the viewer with no indication of what needs to be learned. The work portrays clear, "stars-upon-thars" alienation, which, unlike Dr. Seuss, is in reality never so distinctively drawn. The frustration is now compounded by the alienation, and alienation with a strong degree of superiority.

Fig. 4. Brown. Untitled

Finally, in Fig. 4, the artist is clearly self-portrayed, calmly reading the open book in one hand, while the other is outstretched behind the head of a roaring lion that sits next to him, under control as if a pet. Behind them is a dark, cloud-covered field. The windswept hair of the pair suggests an incoming storm. What is he reading? Echoes of the devices from Fig. 3 (the girl and the pink cranes) resound loudly: The book, the animal, the human figure in focus, and the calm in spite of cacophony. Here the book, as well as the lion, strongly suggests spiritual elements. The figure is crouched in contemporary clothing, ready to move at any moment, reading the pages. Scripture? Which? Let’s turn to the lion for help: A symbol of Judah? Christ? But in the midst of the perils of the oncoming storm and the roaring lion, the figure sits calm and looks to the book for guidance. He is ready to move, but he is not moving. If there is conflict here, it is interior for the artist. The viewer is asked to pay attention, not to the conflict but to the artist. We are not given any real indications of how this possible spiritual journey is going. All we know is that the artist wants us to see him struggle. The struggle betrays the lack of wisdom and experience, hence the innocent naïveté.

There is a theme in all this and it strikes me as Bildungsroman. The coming of age story is precisely why the work of Brian Brown can be simultaneously strong and weak. For behind it, like any growth, lies potential. Brown's work is impressive because he is a young and talented painter, a painter who invests time into working out his ideas on the canvas. His work cripples itself, however, in its own self-indulgence. Hints of his grappling with identity, politics, history, spirituality, remain hints and never materialize into something profound, something the viewer can engage. Nevertheless, while his work matures, it should inspire other students and challenge local artists to put more effort into their own messages that their art communicates.

Posted on August 23, 2006 12:00 AM


It seems like this praise of style over substance has been taking over all the arts and most recently in film. What's actually on the page/screen takes a backseat to stylistic pretensions of the artists. Not really a new development, but an ongoing conflict. Coolness, recognition, newness, fantasty become more important than depth, feeling, reality. This is not to say style is bad, but it's like candy. It's good at first, but gets old fast. Good art should not neccessarily be explainable but captivating and lasting, not just to the intellectual elite, but to everyone.

Posted by: Dan on August 24, 2006 7:32 PM

Very well written Mr. Dawe. I haven't been this captivated by art criticism since my Modernism class at Kendall. It's especially refreshing to see this done on a local level, with work I'm already somewhat familiar with. I'm super psyched about lamb. Keep up the good work!
The area I see that needs the most improvement is the photography. These works are technically amazing and would be easier to appreciate in this form using a direct shot with more consideration for lighting. It's not easy to get a professional looking photo in a gallery situation, I know, but it's worth exploring.
Nicole Carlson's portraits were easily my favorite body of work at Kendall's senior show last spring. I'm glad to see them here.

Posted by: Jake on August 27, 2006 10:18 AM

I definitely agree with Jake--those were amazing paintings worthy of 'detail' photos. This was also an excellent criticism.

Posted by: aaron on August 30, 2006 3:49 PM

I appreciate the feedback on this essay. I agree totally that better photos are necessary. Unfortunately, the shots I took at Free Radical are all I have. Does anyone have access to any better photographs of Brown's work? I would gladly replace these with those.

Posted by: jdawe on August 31, 2006 3:02 PM

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