By Sandra Schulman
For artist Deborah Brown, the pandemic allowed her the luxury to reconnect with both sentimental objects she lives with every day and the fantasy of self-portraits through a Western art history lens.
Her new show at Gavlak in Palm Beach has the enigmatic title Return to Forever, a show that was delayed a year.
“This show was supposed to take place in March and COVID hit,” Brown says from her Brooklyn studio, “and we had sent paintings down already from New York for my studio and the show never happened. So this is a chance to show this body of work, but we added some still-lifes and the bathtub painting, which I had done subsequently, and that was the basis of our deciding to construct the narrative.
“The idea of the narrative is that this is a person who might be imagining or recalling this series of adventures from her domicile. So she starts out clockwise around the gallery that she’s in her room and the still lives are part of her domain, or maybe there’s things she picked up and then you see her in her adventures.”
During this lockdown, Brown says she looked at her stuff even more and the objects came to have more meaning as a memento of a travel or another person. The objects also took on more meaning because they were standing in for a lot of real experiences.
The still-life images are of shells, playful keychains, a vase of flowers, and one gorgeous painting of colorful Native American kachinas that belong to Brown.
“I grew up in Washington, D.C., and the Department of the Interior had a gift shop, and this was in the early Sixties, and they sold those,” she says of the kachinas. “So I’ve had them since I was like five or six and they have prices on the underside of them. They’re made of wood, 50 cents. They’re pretty, they’re a little bit worse for wear, but they still are in my possession, and I have them out. I’ve kind of revisited them in a number of paintings because they have such an anthropomorphic quality,” she says.
“I think it’s both. A real and reimagined world. I have that clawfoot bathtub in my studio and the apartment and my dog did come and stand and get in the bath and hung out on the rug. I do have flower plants and flowers in that room and they are in front of a wall of glass block. I have other people’s paintings in a kind of salon style around me. So it’s visually really rich, lots of textures. And it’s a fantastic space that is really kind of a 19th-century space.”
The dog in the art is Brown’s Jack Russell, who died. His name was Zeus, a reference to a classical myth in which Zeus is the golden rain who appears to the nymph Danaë. While the still-lifes are small, the larger-sized paintings are of female nudes bathing, walking the beach with dogs, climbing trees and canoeing. Classic images reinterpreted, the works are painted lightly, with some having a ghostly, dream-like quality.
“Some of these are me,” she says, “but I think it led me to think of other figures in our history that occupied that kind of more bourgeois space. And then the other space where the figures out in nature are take on a really different cast, goddesses, bathers, mythological figures, figures in the Bible. The Western art history tradition has all of these narratives. And I think having a female paint them has a slightly different meaning.”
As for the nudity, Brown says: “I think it takes her out of the contemporary and dated vernacular. You know, anytime you put clothes on someone, there are all kinds of specific references class, race. And I think the nude figure is exists a little bit outside that puts you in this other tradition. And of course, all the narrative ideas, like, why would she be nude? I mean, she left civilization. Is she a runaway, is she purposely leaving a domestic environment? She’s only taking her dog with her. She’s free there.”
Brown has lived in New York for 40 years. She is pleased to see the city coming back to life.
“Yeah, it definitely is,” she says. “I took the L train into Manhattan today and went to some galleries and dropped off work at the gallery I show at. And, the L train, which is the train that I take to get in from Brooklyn, was just packed in the morning. And I have not seen it that way in a long time. We all want New York to come back.”
Return to Forever is at Gavlak Gallery through October 17.