Comedy in an Era of Anxiety

Jen Brown’s recent exhibition of figurative oil paintings gives us a glimpse of the modern world with satire and soul.

Brett Holverstott
Nov 2, 2019 · 10 min read

Wolff Gallery, Portland Oregon | Sept 6 — Oct 27, 2019

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Jen Brown, Allegory of Facebook, 36 in x 54 in

en Brown is an art historian, curator, and oil painter who began painting full time in 2013 and has rapidly matured as an artist. Her paintings are constructed with a light source in the center of the painting, giving us the sense that we are peering in on a private moment. And she loves sprinkling her paintings with wit to find comedy in an era of anxiety.

I took a troupe of art friends to Portland to see the paintings, and have coffee with the artist. It coincided with the Portland Open Studios event across the town. Our hands hugged our coffee cups as we enjoyed the beautiful fall day. The Wolff gallery sits on a corner across from a coffee shop, a block off a busy street, nestled into a friendly neighborhood. I’d been there before to see a friend’s group photo exhibition.

In the Allegory of Facebook, we have a bar brawl, a pair of women going at it with a pool cue, a pair of men in a fist fight like a scene from a Johnny Cash lyric, and a woman silently praying with garlands in her hair about to be attacked with a fire extinguisher. The flat light of overhead fluorescence makes it unmistakably contemporary.

And, in case you didn’t notice, there is a an unfortunate figure already unconscious on the table, fallen only a few seconds before.

I can’t help but feel like the audience for this painting is someone out of our place in history, who suddenly arrives in the contemporary world and wants to know what the hell is going on.

In a way, it was true for Brown. Canadian born, Brown and her husband were living in Mexico until days before the last election. When she arrived, she noticed how social media had reached an uproarious tone equivalent to a bar fight.

In fact, about a year after she painted the piece, the Daily Show produced a skit What If Facebook Were a Real Place? Essentially bringing this scene to life — although, we don’t know if they were actually inspired by the painting.

In Allegory of Climate Change, Brown shows a poker game between four men. There is no eye contact in this piece, each man is looking at another who is looking at someone else, which feels appropriate for the way in which arguments bounce like ping pong balls between groups that seem so separated in their worldview that they are hardly able to respond to one another on the same terms.

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Jen Brown, The Allegory of Climate Change, 34 in x 46 in

One man is saying something extraordinary, another is genuinely surprised at the news, another is genuinely in fear of what is happening (while making a quick grab for the kitty) and the last figure is unperturbed by the news, as if he had some kind of devious foreknowledge of the situation. Some of us speak out, some of us come late to the game, some of us have already internalized the risk, and some of us know the situation but don’t care. They are gambling with both chips and greenbacks.

The bar scene overhead lighting is an excellent way to create intimacy in the scene, and small finesses like the curve of the table seen through the martini glass make it fun to explore with the eye.

In Allegory of Post Truth, Brown gives us a mystic positioned squarely in front of the viewer, sitting at a desk that feels more like an altar, with an open book of scripture, surrounded by a busy assortment of tubes, vials, mortar and pestles, a skull, a globe and — if you look closely — a Magic 8 ball. A candle on the right and an oil lamp on the left ensure that the mystery of the scene is maintained.

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Jen Brown, The Allegory of Post Truth, 42 in x 46 in

Set up like a classical still life, Brown is playing with the curvature of the circular and elliptical forms. It is pretty obvious that these accessories, which include a gravy boat and a garden pitcher, are only to impress the observer rather than serve a useful role in science.

On the wall behind him are references to George Orwell and vocabulary that has only recently entered the popular lexicon such as “fake news.” The connection is obvious and really frightening. Language is being used as a weapon by our leaders to make our citizenry lame at discerning truth from fact. We see this loose relationship with reality in both science and politics, and especially where they overlap.

The man is signing to us with his left hand that he is the orator, and with the right that he is about to speak. We are in a moment of pause before a lecture that I’m sure would melt the brains of the most hardy.

When I think about who might buy this painting and hang it prominently on the wall, I think of friends who have a deep love of the art of conversation, and enjoy wry political humor, perhaps with only the slightest satirical cynicism on the state of things. They would enjoy watching the eyes of their guests light up when they find the 8 ball.

When the voice of the alchemist carries through our national dialogue, our outlook is not so good.

In The Allegory of Painting, Brown has created a beautiful and iconographic self-portrait. The almost Egyptian pose of the figure is balanced, fills the painting with fun shapes, and the spotlight washing over the scene seems to indicate an inspired thought.

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Jen Brown, The Allegory of Painting, 36 in x 48 in

The painting plays on Cesare Ripa’s classic Iconologia, published in 1611 and hugely influential on painters, in which he prescribes the muse of painting (la Pittura) as:

A beautiful woman, with full black hair, disheveled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front “imitation.” She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently covered drapery…

Both Vermeer and Caravaggio both painted Allegories of Painting as self portraits at the easel, while a woman posed in the background. In 1630, Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself at the easel, and in a bold move adorned her own person to represent the allegory of painting. She includes the gold chain and mask, and is clothed in a fine gown. She omits, however, Ripa’s prescription for a cloth tied around her mouth, the symbol to show that painting is “mute poetry”. Gentileschi reminds us that through her art she indeed has a voice.

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Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as The Allegory of Painting, 1638

In Brown’s contemporary self portrait, she is at her easel, and the audience can see the painting they are looking at in progress on the easel itself, making it unmistakable that she is the artist of the piece in front of their eyes. This is a powerful way to claim ownership of the work. (If you notice, however, the painting on the easel is a mirror image.)

Instead of us looking over the shoulder of an unaware artist, Brown is turning to face the audience, almost exhibiting herself momentarily to the viewer, and the figure makes a great composition on the canvas. Like Gentileschi, and consistent with other female self portraits of the time such as Judith Lester, she is wearing a dress that she wouldn’t be caught dead painting in.

And she interprets Ripa’s prescription as a gag — with a bra.

Brown was touched by the experience of a friend and artist, who painted a nude self portrait, only to receive harassing comments and unsolicited attention on social media. In response to this, the artist began to alter the features of the figure in the painting so that it was no longer a resemblance. What a sickening experience it must have been.

Brown contemplated doing a nude, although was easily dissuaded from it by the experience of her friend. In the background, she shows a partial sketch of a nude self-portrait and a crumpled drawing on the floor. As a narrative painter, Brown’s paintings hinge on context: time, place, and story. For this reason she ultimately prefers clothed figures, and her dress allows us to place the painting in time.

Brown tells me that the presence of the gag an expression of the barriers women still face when expressing themselves in the public sphere. It is something that women are struggling with everywhere, although it was not specifically a nod to current events.

But, like the other paintings in the collection, Brown can’t resist her own wit. The gag is a bra, which men will want to interpret as an erotic signal. (Sometimes, wit goes over the head of the audience, and sometimes the joke is on them.) The artist occupies a powerful position in the frame. There is a healthy sense of self, creative ownership, and intelligence. I wonder what is keeping her from spitting out the gag at any moment.

As figurative work is reborn in the world of today, nothing is more important that supporting artists, including female artists, in expressing themselves uninhibited by social pressures. A self-portrait is an open book, in which the artist is revealing something, or everything, about themselves. It makes them vulnerable. Let’s respect that in how we talk about the painting.

The last piece I want to talk about is a love scene, and it was clearly the favorite of my ragtag troupe. In the work, a man gently holds the head of a lover, a moment before, perhaps, leaning over to kiss her. Live in the gallery, it had a shimmering presence that we could all feel.

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Jen Brown, Allegory of Depression, 36 in x 48 in

The man’s face is loving, and the light halos his head against the background, showing us how the woman sees him. The woman’s face is thrown back with parted lips in a truly sublime expression. I love the forgotten arm hanging over the side of the mattress.

Brown chose to call the piece The Allegory of Depression, in order to make it consistent with the other works in the collection. But from the viewer’s perspective, it isn’t a witty play on an irritant in the modern world, and I didn’t feel a strong need to ask her amount what it meant.

The picture needs no explanation, and has a universality absent in her other pieces. We have two beautiful figures, and the least possible detail in the clothing and scene. Everything hinges on the nuances of the flesh tone, and the way the light caresses the forms.

Brown laughs when she explains how she asked her husband to take a photo of her in bed with the model, in order to obtain the photo reference. I think there is a lingering glimmer of amusement on her face.

The figure is emerging in art, once again. We no longer accept the postmodern position that art is only valuable in relationship to politics, or as an intellectual reductionist game for its own sake. We no longer accept the figure conveyed as only an object of cynicism and contempt.

We expect art to have meaning, and wit, and be an engaging experience of the senses. And sometimes, as in this scene, it ascends to a place in which it is untouched by the anxiety of modern life.

Young artists are emerging with a love for the figure, a commitment to beauty and mastery of the form, and a fragile but burgeoning confidence that they will represented in galleries, and maybe someday, museums. But figurative artists, even the really good ones, still face a struggle to make a living, and to be represented in the art world.

Once a month, Jen Brown hosts a gathering of narrative painters in Portland, and she is planning a travelling exhibition of their work. She runs an instagram blog (@narrativepainting) to discuss both historical and contemporary works. She is planning other exhibitions to come.

Through her art and her curation activities, Jen Brown is knocking at the door of the postmodern art world. We are behind her, with fire extinguishers and pool cues, and you bet your ass there will be bodies on the floor.

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Jen Brown, Allegory of Climate Change II, 12 in x 16 in

Jen Brown is an artist, art historian, and curator. She holds a Masters in Art History and a diploma in Curation. Her work may be seen on her website, instagram (@jenbrownartist) or on Medium (Artist Jen Brown). Special thanks for use of her images.

Brett Holverstott is an architect, art collector, and hobby sculptor. He holds a BA in Philosophy and a Masters in Architecture. His work may be seen on his website, instagram (@brettholverstott.architect) or on Medium (Brett Holverstott). This is a first in a new series of pieces on figurative art.

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