Artist Interview: Melissa Brown

Melissa Brown makes art which deliberately engages the precarious mental territory where reality and fantasy are indistinguishable, not in the sense of a narrative which may or may not be true, but in the sense of the inconsistency and vagaries of perception when vision gets a hard slap of imagination.  A little over a year ago Beautiful/Decay did a studio visit with Melissa where we discussed her large scale prints (made with a steam roller) and scratch tickets collages of dizzying geometric complexity.


Brown has made a series of oil paintings which work within and around the conventions of oil painting and printmaking.  Brown is originally a printmaker who, in the past, has made prints with ink so thick that the prints looked like paintings, so it is not surprising to see her new work delve directly into dyes and paint.  This body of work brings to mind both Plein-Aire landscape painting and Ukiyo-e (Japanese = “pictures of the floating world”) prints.  Plein-Aire painting directly confronts reality with the intention of making an illusion of the moment the painter is working.  Ukiyo-e presents a fantastic world that is based partially in symbols and dream logic where, for instance, water might become smoke.

We have all woken up, and, still in the illusion of a vivid dream, checked to see that reality was real. That moment of doubt, when you’re not sure if you are in the labyrinth inside the crystal cavern where the doppelgänger who looks exactly like your first grade teacher, your mother, and your first girlfriend lives and is trying to trick you into overpaying for your favorite blanket, which both they and you seem to possess simultaneously, or if it is your normal bedroom, is the location of Brown’s newest show Palisades.

Actually, the Palisades are a state park in New York, but I want to make a point about Melissa’s method, so accept the idea that the paintings are both of the park and the place between the reality of the park and other-reality, where reality is both an open question and contextualized by its juxtaposition against other-reality.  Because in this body of Brown’s work she’s working with a combination of direct observation and imagination, causing reality to be both better defined, but also completely open to disruption, in particular the concept of pareidola enters into the work heavily.  The easiest way to explain pareidolia is that it is a way to see something that isn’t there, like a hippopotamus cloud, or the Virgin Mary in the condensation on a window.

It would be easy to dismiss pareidolia if it wasn’t taken seriously by some of the major artists and thinkers throughout time.  Leonardo DaVinci wrote about pareidolia when he talked about the value of artists imagining faces in stained plaster.  Brown is employing pareidolia in a slightly different way, in this body of paintings the faces congeal out of the natural forms which surrounded her on trips to the Palisades park.  In Palisades eyes peak out from whirls in the bark of trees.

Brown’s usage of pareidolia reminds me of the way Sigmund Freud describes the uncanny moment, when you cannot tell if something is alive or dead.  He gave the example where, walking around the corner in a department store, you come face to face with a mannequin and for a split second you think it is a real person.  Brown is imagining that the landscape was not just alive, we all know trees are alive, but she is also describing something which ambulates a little closer to explaining that strange, quivering feeling located between reality, between sensuality, and between knowledge.

Uncanny is the English word for the German unheimlich.  Besides Freud’s use, it is also a term Heidegger used to describe a creative state where it’s important to feel “away from home,” because it creates a dual urge to return home and forge ahead.  Philosophers and historians search for the moments when a culture becomes self-aware, when all of a sudden the things it has always done change from something we just do and become “a tradition.”  These secular priests and narrators then use that self-awareness to debate the meaning of modernity, create historiography, or present unusual and unintuitive ways to think about time and consciousness.  They are asking themselves this question:  Is that the way things really are?  Chipping away at the representation we all negotiate, and have come to call reality, making it seem like less of sure thing, and, in turn, freeing up some space for new descriptions of reality.

You can see Melissa Brown’s show up now at Kansas gallery in Tribeca.  I was lucky enough to ask Melissa a few questions, you can read the interview below.

Interview with Melissa Brown:

B/D: Melissa, Palisades consists of paintings of nature.  In fact, there are even three small oil studies which are more or less traditional landscape paintings.  How did observation play a role in making this work?

Melissa Brown: I started out visiting the Palisades because it was a convenient day trip; the extreme terrain of the Palisades Interstate Park is bizarre, especially because it is so close to New York City.  The day trips turned into regular outdoor painting sessions with an artist friend, Ilsé Murdock.  I’ve always been a fan of Plein-Aire painting because if you nail it, the painting captures a specific moment.  The colors that you pick outdoors can recreate the atmosphere of August, 75 degrees, 8:30 pm, tee shirt at night weather.  The observational paintings were used specifically for color.  For instance, the color in Overlord Envy is based on mid-January light, late afternoon, sitting on the shoreline looking up into the trees.  The colors in the fantasy paintings correspond to experienced moments in time.  (Overlord Envy is the first image.)

There is also a strong element which seems to come from Ukiyo-e prints, which are a special type of colorful woodblock print which historically originated in Japan.  What kind of role does the fantastic color, flatness, and foreignness of these prints have to do with the work?  Or, conversely, maybe you don’t see them the way I described them, and instead see them as something more familiar?

The Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, have been some of my longest running influences.  Maybe when Van Gogh, Gauguin and Munch were influenced by Ukiyo-e prints they looked really foreign, but at this point I feel like those prints are such a part of the contemporary visual canon. Their influence is evident all over Japanese and American cartoons.  I love them for all the same reasons that other artists like them: the cartoon-like drawing style, saturated gradient color, abstraction of nature. However, mostly I am influenced by how those prints use hand drawn imagery with a mechanical technique. The color is flat, bright and stamped onto paper, but the images are drawn from imagination, not from photographic references.  I crave versions of reality that come from the mind’s eye.  I’m seduced by gradients and flatness that refer to commercial culture, coupled with drawings that come from an otherworldly place.  Japanese prints feel timeless because they have those qualities.

If you are willing to go along with my description of this work as a nexus of observation and fantasy, then there is another thing happening, a third element, which comes out in the concept of pareidolia.  It is manifested by the anthropomorphizing of the landscape, and in particular the trees.  Everyone has experienced a moment when they experience paredolia, and in my experience they are always sort of magical.  I usually think something like “thank god, the world is going to go away.”  For a split second sometimes it can feel like reality is lifting away and there is actually a fantastic world being revealed!  I think that by combining observation and Ukiyo-e aesthetics, it creates this situation where pareidolia becomes totally thick visual language magic. Magic being when something is operating in both language and sensual experience, and sort of reforming reality through sophisticated play of form.  Am I imagining that, or do you see those elements working together in a similar way?

The sophisticated play of forms is another magical effect in Ukiyo-e prints.  Most people can tell from looking at Japanese prints that carving wood (and in the case of Ukiyo-e, hard wood) is a lot of work.  You could never say that the Ukiyo-e carving masters were lazy, but I think efficiency influenced their abstract drawing style.  Water turns into smoke or clouds partly because it is effective to use a single gradient to represent both things, which also means fewer plates to carve.  I believe that this historical form of woodblock printing helped to develop a philosophy for reduced representation.  Ephemeral ideas are conjured using onlya few carefully chosen shapes.  This philosophy asks: how can I depict an entire sky and clouds reflecting on a river surface with only a single brushstroke (or single plate impression)?  Reducing the information makes it more dream-like and magical because your brain has to fill in the blanks.  I see this approach to representation as related to things like Rorschach tests.  Arrangements of colorful shapes can become a grimacing cashier, a menacing fog or a pile of Paleolithic rocks.  Many early abstract painters, who were interested in theosophy like Kandinsky, Hilma of Klimt and Max Ernst work from a similar place by suggesting symbols of reality, allowing the viewer to make new associations.  However, I think that mechanical, graphic, layered shapes adds a dimension of game playing.  I try and adopt this approach by asking questions like: how can I make this group of trees feel like a room full of people sizing each other up, using only three stencils?  I don’t care whether or not the viewer gets that specific idea.  I only want to provide limited ingredients for someone to have their own fantasy.

Part of the reason I like the work so much is that I know you, and I trust you, because I have been around you when your friends were around. You hang out with some of the best artists, but some of them are also some of the most unguarded and vulnerable people I have met.  In particular I am thinking about the crew that comes to the Draw Jam. Everyone in the room is very smart, and very good at drawing, but I can’t avoid the feeling that they are also the pilgrims who found each other absent god, the modern human devoid of meaning, and that they are the people who sort of refuse to participate in the illusion of society.  It might be awkward to talk about, but is there a correlation between this body of work and the artists you hang outwith?  

The main correlation is that I strive to impress those that I admire.  Also, as you might guess, I put a lot of stock in serendipitous connections and I think most people do.   I feel like I would be nowhere without the long-term influence of my artist friends.




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