From sexual politics to religion: The enduring paintings of Roger Brown
Homosexuality, AIDS, sexual politics, religion – there were all grist to the mill for the late US painter, Roger Brown. By Garrett Bithell.
A powerful and important figure in American painting from the late 1960s until his death in 1997 from AIDS, Roger Brown was famous – if not infamous at the time – for exploring confronting issues such as sexual politics and religion in a stark, open and highly homoerotic way. Although formally considered a member of the so-called ‘Chicago Imagists’, a group of painters that included Ray Yoshida, Art Green, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum, Brown’s work was often undervalued in comparison due to its overt and confronting nature.
The Hughes Gallery in Surry Hills is hosting the first international solo exhibition of Brown’s work in decades, His American Icons. According to gallery director Evan Hughes, Brown’s visual language “transformed painting in the 1970s”.
GALLERY: The paintings of Roger Brown on show at Hughes Gallery
“His flat, well executed, crisp surfaces were depicting narratives whilst the work of many of his peers were not,” Hughes tells SX. “What’s more, where many artists such as Mapplethorpe, who also died from complications due to AIDS, became gay icons of the 1980s, Brown was never revered as one, but constantly bravely championed the cause of challenging society’s ostracism of victims of AIDS, amongst other hugely contentious political moments in history, such as the Jonestown massacre. He was a history painter in a time when artists wanted to keep narrative at arm’s length.”
Brown’s ballsy interrogation of American sexual politics is exemplified in pieces such as ‘Aha! Heterosexuals Fuck Too’, which depicts Magic Johnson, the straight basketball hero who contracted HIV. “Brown’s playful but engaging take on things was an important communication with the mainstream, who already loved his work (his work was the cover of two Time Magazines), about issues that were obviously critically important to his life,” Hughes says. “It is wrong to say that Brown was an artist whose works were about ‘gay issues’, and it is interesting to note that he was omitted from the important show Hide and Seek at the Brooklyn Museum, which dealt with homosexual identity in American culture.
“Brown was an artist who dealt with important political issues of his time – America’s reaction to AIDS and homosexuality was only two of those issues.”
[Lead image] Roger Brown in his studio. Courtesy of the Roger Brown Study Collection.
Roger Brown: His American Icons, until April 29, Hughes Gallery, 270 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. Go to thehughesgallery.com