A Key Figure in the Hairy Who: Roger Brown’s Stoic Mysteries

The exhibition of paintings by Roger Brown, on display at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, is the first New York show devoted to his art in 10 years-and, in fact, since Brown’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1997. (He was 55.) Brown was a key figure in the advent of Chicago Imagism or, as it came to be known, the Hairy Who: a loose confederation of artists centered around the Art Institute of Chicago. The predominant commonalities in their work were a meticulous attention to craft and a devotion to bizarre, often scatological images informed in equal amounts by Surrealism, folk art and the funny pages.

The Imagists garnered notoriety during the late 1960′s and early 70′s, but they’ve subsequently been more or less pooh-poohed by the New York art establishment as a provincial variant of Pop Art. Of course, if you don’t buy into the standard line, you might come to a different conclusion. Truth to tell, the cartoonish, utterly personal fantasies of the Hairy Who put the facile Dadaism of Pop Art to shame. Better ornery individualism and proud localism than a passive co-opting of mass media.

It might be prudent to ask whether the peg “Imagist,” with the literalist connotations it brings to mind, hasn’t outlived its usefulness. What’s striking about Brown’s paintings, after all, is their structural rigor, their unerring regulation of form. You can’t call him a formalist, exactly; Brown’s images of panoramic landscapes, populated by silhouetted figures and anonymous, storybook buildings, have melancholic, sometimes apocalyptic stories to tell. Yet his compositions are impeccable in their orchestrations: fine gradations of metallic light, theatrical settings and eccentric patterning. There’s not a moment in the paintings that isn’t considered fully as a pictorial event.

The brief overview at Baumgold hints at the artist’s failings, too-Brown ultimately became straitjacketed by his mature style-but it also underscores his deep-seated connection to American modernism. Some 30 years after the heyday of the Hairy Who, Brown has less in common with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist and more with Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keeffe-painters whose relationship with the American mundane is defined by isolation, tinged with mystery and, in its execution, is stubbornly pragmatic.

Brown is at his stoic best in Buttermilk Sky (1974), an encompassing vista in which a hitchhiker, a trio of tourists and a cowboy on a rearing horse are dwarfed by a bleached-out sky pockmarked with ascending clouds. Here Brown establishes himself as a de Chirico for the land of manifest destiny.

Roger Brown: Paintings is at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, until Jan. 15, 2005. (The gallery will be closed from Dec. 23 to 28.)

Skimpy Primitivism

How many years has it been since anyone gave the German painter A.R. Penck a second thought? Twenty or so? Something like that. Mr. Penck’s pictures-with their stick figures, cosmological symbols and brusque calligraphy-were a staple of 1980′s Neo-Expressionism, the overblown school of overheated painting that presumably put the beleaguered art form back on the map.

Mr. Penck looked to cave painting and graffiti for inspiration, yet the resulting images were markedly absent of the former’s magic or the latter’s authenticity and grit. That didn’t stop museums from acquiring them, collectors from writing checks or critics from waxing enthusiastic. Donald Kuspit, the philosopher king of art criticism, extolled Mr. Penck’s “mastery of the apotropaic.” (That means “averting evil”-I had to look it up.) It’s hard to imagine primitivism as skimpy as Mr. Penck’s fending off Aunt Ethel, let alone a genuinely malevolent force.

Mr. Penck’s signature pictographs make a brief appearance at the Michael Werner Gallery. You’ll find them decorating the bottom of two dish-like objects in an exhibition devoted to the artist’s constructions. Not that his efforts in sculpture-slapdash assemblages of cardboard boxes, aluminum foil, tin cans and tape-count as a major achievement; they count only as being German. Like Dieter Roth and Joseph Beuys, Mr. Penck gains in pretension the more disposable his materials become. His paintings are pointless, but the constructions-they’re insufferable. That’s how they make a dent.

A.R. Penck: Constructions is at the Michael Werner Gallery, 4 East 77th Street, until Jan. 20, 2005. (The gallery will be closed from Dec. 25 to Jan. 3.)

Eccentricity as Principle

Looking at the recent canvases of Charles Garabedian, on display at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, I couldn’t help but wonder what the Ryman claque thinks of them. They’re bound to see the paintings; Robert Ryman’s latest essays in white are on view directly across the street at PaceWildenstein.

My guess is that anyone prone to swooning in front of a Ryman would probably dismiss Mr. Garabedian’s frumpy, mythological dramas as outdated and nutty, the irresolute fantasies of a man with his head in the clouds. They’d be right, to an extent anyway, but I also like to think that a vague unease would settle over the Rymaniacs, a nagging sense of doubt that maybe-just maybe-there’s more to art than vacuous pseudo-religiosity.

As things stand, I’ll make a bet: 200 years from now, the work of Mr. Ryman (or Christopher Wool, or Delia Brown, or name your poison) will have faded from memory while Mr. Garabedian’s pictures will have endured-not as masterpieces, but as eccentric outposts of principle.

Scattered, fumbling and oddly affectless, Mr. Garabedian pictures history as a slag heap of ritual and legend, a shambling conglomeration of Greek temples, European villages, cavemen, tea kettles and a mermaid covered with a floral pattern cadged from your grandmother’s sofa. Though Mr. Garabedian is remarkably (and unfortunately) blasé about the niceties of color, surface, composition and edge, you’ll marvel all the same-at a painter humbled by the necessity of his own overstuffed fantasies. He’s an original, which is to say that Mr. Garabedian’s legitimacy as a visionary-not to mention his limitations as an artist-can be measured by the distance he stands apart from the rest of us.

Charles Garabedian is at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, until Jan. 22, 2005. (The gallery will be closed from Dec. 24 to Jan. 3.)