at Phyllis Kind Gallery, through May 6

One picture in the show of new Roger Brown paintings at Phyllis Kind Gallery might give any reviewer pause. Alan Artner, Ironic Contortionist of Irony depicts the Chicago Tribune critic as a circus contortionist, facing the viewer and bent over backward in a kind of circle so that his nose and mouth emerge from between his legs while his eyes are pressed against his buttocks. It made me wonder about artists’ frequent complaints about the irresponsibility and power of critics. I can’t find an Artner review of Brown that uses words as viciously as this Brown “portrait” uses images–the worst Artner has said of Brown’s work is that it’s “decorative.” Nor can I recall Artner ever accusing any artist of looking up his own ass. Nor is the critic likely to receive as much money for his review as Brown does from the sale of a painting.

Brown’s problem with Artner, and the art establishment generally, seems to turn on the problematic distinction between “high” and “low” art. Artner has criticized the work of another Chicago Imagist, Gladys Nilsson, as “undercut by a low source. . . . blunted by its comic-book style.”

When pop first surfaced, art-world denizens–including many of the great abstract expressionist painters–thought both its subject matter and style abominations. Three decades later, many still deny that Warhol was a serious artist. Argued with any subtlety, the case against “low” art is usually that subjects or forms taken from popular culture lack the complexity and resonance of true works of art, from van Eyck to Vermeer to Cezanne. “Low” art is said to give the viewer the same limited and debased experience as mass-culture objects. Its defenders typically try to show that the artist has transformed mass-culture sources into something else.

In a 1976 interview, Brown positioned himself at the far “low” end of the spectrum; whereas the pop artists were trying to make their low subjects into high art, in Chicago “one sees those images as art in themselves, not as something to be blown up to make art, but as something to parallel in your own work. Those things are already art: so if you can make art as good, you’re really lucky.”

Brown’s paintings certainly have elements of the comic strip and the advertising poster. But it seems a mistake to judge a work of art by its sources. There are works both high and low that offer complex, rewarding experiences, and works both high and low that offer nothing. Much better to see each piece not according to its source but for the particular experience it offers: the complex spatial arrangements and strange inner light of Brown’s paintings create a resonance that in the best work becomes a real vision.

Even Alan Artner, perhaps the weakest picture in the show, is a good deal more interesting than the average circus poster. The frontal view makes the figure seem some weird anatomical catastrophe, a body whose head has collapsed into its midsection–a distortion that left me with a feeling of real unease contrasting sharply with the cheerful, cartoonish pink and yellow of the background.

In fact most of these paintings, despite their bright colors and simplified forms recalling folk and naive art (among other influences), are haunted by apocalypse. In Winter Storm vast curved bands of clouds filling the sky dominate a low horizon of jagged hills and a curiously calm sea. Serrations in the edges of the clouds echo without exactly duplicating the jagged line of hills; the effect is to give the ominousness of the storm to the land as well, making a natural event seem a metaphor for the state of the entire world.

The foreboding in Rosa Californica comes not from its subject, a large rosebush, but from the way it’s depicted. With four large branches growing from a near-barren strip of ground, the bush is almost black, filling the vertical frame. The roses and the glowing circles of green around them provide the only light, shining as if illuminated from within. One might see this pattern of flowers as decorative, but the looming hulk of the bush, dwarfing the boys who stand at either side in the background, is oddly aggressive.

In all three paintings, the pictorial space seems on the verge of collapse–the picture collapsing into one of its parts, or the parts collapsing into each other. Each painting creates a strong tension between the apparently banal but slightly quirky folk-art-like imagery and a sense of monolithic disaster, a kind of mind’s-eye monster. Brown’s work has often been haunted by hints of apocalypse, but his present view of space as itself unstable may have been affected by the recent earthquake in Southern California, where he lives part-time.

Two pictures–Dancing Houses–The Earthquake of 1994 and 6.6 Tremor–are direct depictions. In each, the buildings are solid forms but one or two lines at either vertical side show the shaking of the quake. Each of the yellow windows contains a single silhouetted figure. There is something a little absurd about the apparent directness with which Brown depicts the quake, almost as a child would, with a few comiclike double images. Yet in 6.6 Tremor his approach is not as direct as it seems. Though the building is seen to “move,” almost all the window silhouettes are hard-edged and stable, and in this discrepancy the artist seems to acknowledge the inadequacy of his depiction. It’s as if he were telling the viewer that he knows his cartoonish extra lines can no more capture the devastation of a “6.6” than an illuminated light bulb in a comic can capture an idea.

The feeling of instability in Dancing Houses comes less from “shaking” buildings than from the overall composition. The image is filled with distinct hilltops, bands of green at their tops yielding to desert yellow below–conveying the artificiality of southern California’s landscape, in which well-watered lawns barely encroach on the native desert. Each hill, impossibly steep and disconnected from any visible base, has a lone house on top, heightening one’s sense that this is a fantasy landscape, one created by real estate developers–who have in fact managed to place homes everywhere, no matter how seemingly inaccessible. A silhouetted figure appears in each of the houses’ yellow windows, a common Brown motif. Even in the same home, each experiences the quake separately, and the voyeuristic viewer is made to feel his separation from the scene–the silhouettes offer little in the way of human contact. This separateness is mirrored in the landscape as a whole, with its isolated peaks.

Brown’s subjects may seem ordinary or be drawn from news events, but he doesn’t deny that he’s expressing a personal vision. In a 1987 interview with Dialogue magazine, he acknowledged that the way his figures are isolated from one another “may say something about my own personality.”

Brown acknowledges a wide range of influences in addition to naive and folk art: Chinese art, Japanese prints, comics, advertising, medieval art, Indian and Persian miniatures, roadside architecture, the writings of architect Robert Venturi, the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, and farmland seen from the air. The non-Renaissance perspectives of his pictures–sometimes collapsing into flatness, sometimes almost awkward in their presentation of depth–seem to confirm these influences. The one kind of art Brown almost never mentions positively is mainstream Western high art, from the Renaissance masters to abstract expressionists.

Perhaps the most important influence was Brown’s childhood: born in 1941, he grew up in Alabama, moving to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute. He told the Los Angeles Times in late 1993: “I’m sure the mood of threat and apocalypse in my work can be traced to my Southern fundamentalist upbringing. I remember as a child traveling by car to visit my grandmother, who lived 200 miles from us, and sometimes we’d be returning late at night and I’d see the glow of the cities on the horizon and I’d wonder if they were on fire and the world was ending, because that’s what I heard all the time in church.”

For me the strongest element of Brown’s work is his use of color and light. The sometimes flat effects of his cartoonish forms and foreshortened perspectives contrast with the way bright bands or streaks seem to glow from within with a light that’s been compared to that of cinema or television (some of Brown’s first exhibited works were of movie theaters). But what makes his light powerful is that it has no visible source, and no single symbolic association.

In California Cloud Surprise a landscape of identical hills curving smoothly down to the sea is dominated by a vast gray sky of giant, strangely circular clouds–about half of them topped with Mickey Mouse ears. The conflation of natural and cartoon images is characteristic of Brown, producing an odd mix of emotions. It’s unsettling to see nature depicted as something “goofy” but at the same time powerful and sublime. Each hill, dark green at the peak and topped with identical trees, glows from desert yellow in the middle to almost white nearer the base, making a strong contrast with the next hill. White bands surrounding the dark clouds give the sky a dramatic glow. The whole image might be seen as tacky, plastic, repetitive, and monotonous, but for me it’s strangely alive, at once ominous and silly, its contradictions the contradictions of our culture.

Equally strong is Mountainside Venture, another depiction of real estate development. Five diagonal brown ridges topped with green cross the canvas; neatly spaced identical houses sit atop each. In the upper left, gray cloud bands form the sky. Each house’s yellow window, partly obscured by the foliage, has a lone silhouette; two lone silhouetted figures stand outside on all but one of the ridges. Here the brown land becomes near white just as each hill meets the next ridge; the effect is of a strange glow coming out of the land.

Once again Brown envisions development turning the world into a decorative, patterned, artificial landscape–it’s hard to imagine walking from one ridge to the next in this place. It’s a vision true to every subdivision that tries to establish a picture-postcard world divorced from the land. The lone figures or couples become, as in Brown’s other pictures, emotional focal points. Though they inhabit the scene, their emotions are hidden from the viewer, and so he imputes to them his own responses, imagining them by turn comfortable in their predictable, well-ordered setting; isolated from others and from any sense of natural landscape; and afraid, perched on the edge of an unstable world, waiting for the inevitable end.