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By Fred Camper
Born in Brooklyn in 1951, Dalton Brown grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area. “Brooklyn had been a thriving arts community,” he recalls. “The poor people in the Marcy projects, where I grew up, had such a high level of self-esteem–it wasn’t like project living today.” His childhood interest in art led his mother to place him in a mostly white school with better facilities, where he recalls that his reading score jumped “significantly.” An uncle who was an artist took him to galleries and encouraged him to work in his studio; in 1971 Brown moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute. There he was exposed to more African art and began to connect with other black artists. Members of the Black Arts Guild, he recalls, found themselves “working in a style we defined and called rhythmism, which kind of paralleled what was happening in jazz–the same kinds of tonal changes, the same kinds of rhythmic elements.” Today Brown teaches art in the Chicago public schools, where he’s often inspired by his students, he says.
The bright colors, sweeping lines, and feeling of wild, almost uncontainable energy of most of Brown’s 11 paintings and drawings at Tene Gallery can be found in other African-American works. What sets Brown’s strongest pieces apart is the way their shapes and lines create a sense of fissure even as they echo one another. The central figure in Woman With a Bowl of Cherries, represented by an accretion of transparent overlays, seemingly owes a debt to the cubist depiction of natural forms in multiple, somewhat geometric parts. But when some of these overlays extend beyond the figure’s contours they form colored bands “outside” of it; unlike a cubist portrait, this one has parts that do not and indeed cannot add up to a single figure. This lack of unity, precisely defined here as gaps between different elements, unbalances the viewer, making for uncertainty and thus a more active encounter between viewer and image.
Spill the Wine at first seems more unified. A lightly outlined figure alongside the woman in the foreground echoes her shape; the figure’s hand grabs at hers, causing her to spill her wine. At first I thought the transparent figure might be the woman herself at a different moment in time, but its eyes–two whitish slits–connect it with a third figure, a man with tiny gray eyes in a background doorway. It seems there’s a little erotic narrative at the core of this painting: the man in the background enters the room and begins to touch the woman, who spills her wine. The way the woman’s head is thrust back underlines the erotic metaphor: this upset in her balance will soon lead to more. A composition that at first seems to have a stable central figure quickly becomes decentered: even though the two figures are virtually superimposed, they never quite meld–his pale outline is visually too different from her fully colored figure. The man who disrupts her pose seems to come from a more shadowy world, and the differences between them finally suggest alienation rather than tenderness.
In Sonia’s Spirit the color bands are lighter, swirling gracefully around the central figure, enveloping her. These bands, Brown told me, stand for “an inner voice that resonates through her, coming from what she knows about her history and the dynamic of her people.” Other painters have surrounded a figure with abstract elements suggesting a larger context, but Brown’s abstractions are remarkable for the way they keep shifting. Sometimes the bands vanish behind her as if wrapping around her; often they’re almost transparent when they pass in front of her, but when they stretch beyond her body they regain their solidity. The effect is not merely that of a woman dissolving into a spiritual aura–the aura seems to be dissolving into her. And because the bands shift from transparency to solidity, they don’t unify the composition in the way they first appear to. Brown may have intended to depict a woman in touch with her racial past, but the color bands representing that past seem fractured.
These perceptual contradictions are what make the work exciting, as Brown opens his art to a kind of struggle between unifying and rupturing forces, forestalling any simple conclusions. Perhaps jazz has had an influence, in the way Brown’s lines veer off on surprising tangents, placing the viewer on edge: will the composition come together or not?
Brown again manages to have it both ways in the wonderful Women in the Market Place (which recalls the “variable paintings” of Oyvind Fahlstrom, though Brown is not familiar with them). Three simple pencil drawings of women–inspired by photographs of a market in Nairobi–have been mounted together, one within a wooden frame and two on cutouts resting in grooves in the frame’s bottom edge. Not only is the picture fragmented in depth, with elements in front of one another, its parts are intended to be moved, allowing the viewer to change the composition.
This unusual design came about by accident. Brown made a number of these drawings, cut out portions of them and arranged them on a table, and noticed that they worked well together–even when he rearranged them. “They looked good in different arrangements–the lines seemed to connect,” he says. So he mounted them to allow for continued rearranging. The pieces work together because each drawing repeats simple curves: whatever arrangement I tried, at least one arc from each drawing continued naturally into the next–though of course most lines didn’t match up, and the three drawings are always separated in space. Making the viewer a partner in the work’s composition, Brown literalizes one aspect of some of his other works: more than most art, these paintings and drawings represent an eccentric combination of unity and fragmentation, asking the viewer to complete them.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pictured: “Woman With A Bowl of Cherries”, by Dalton Brown.