Owen Brown is an artist and Art Force MSP showcase member currently living in Minneapolis whose work has been shown nationally. Last year we featured Brown’s essay, Autobiography in Art, and Transmission, Interpretation, Transgression, exploring the ever evolving interaction of ideas and people throughout art’s history. Enjoy his newest piece, Paying Attention, and the Path of Painting:
Last year I was given a residency in a small village in southern France. I painted morning and night (and if you want to see what prompted Air Le Parc to give me the residency, take a close look at Fieldworkexodus.com) and in the afternoons, when it was too hot to paint, but not too hot to hike, I took long walks. The countryside was lovely.
Hills and fields, little woods and streams, sheep and cows. It was lonely and lovely. Buzzards circled overhead, buntings sang and I kept my eyes and my sketchbook open. My phone’s camera, too. What I noticed then was about the nature of noticing. The world is all around us, and extends far beyond what we could ever see. And of that world, we ignore almost all, to take our notice of a few things closely. So these cows, in a corner of their field, played an outside role in my conception of the day – they loomed bigger than any field, and I drew and painted them larger than the life they led. I was reminded of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of a Jar.”
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
And just as poetry, so painting, or art itself. Painting is about being more alive, more intense. And a large part of painting is paying attention. To what is about, visually, externally, and then what is transmuted, internally as well.
It’s also about this transformation – something strange which addresses the surface to be painted, and mysteriously dresses it. What is dross and what is gold? So my cows, and my field. Where did these changes come from? The painter brings out an item and intensifies it from undifferentiated reality, that’s a part of the process. The other is that a painting is not just about an object, not just a pointer to and merely representative of an object, but a thing in itself. And an important thing. There are so many things shrieking from our hypercommercialized world today; the more there are, the fewer, paradoxically, because we don’t see ‘em. It’s chaos. Good painting is a way of calming this chaos, or at least guiding us to avoid some of its perplexities. Regardless its subject matter, its prettiness, or lack thereof.
It is also a way of seeing directly. Good painters have sighted eyes, even if they are painting in the studio, even if their paintings seem to have no referent in the outside world. They see something that isn’t seen without them, and they paint it. Great painters see something that no one else could see – they aren’t playing in the marketplace for “received ideas,” but instead, are putting their hands and hearts together for something beyond the opinion of their age. to quote English essayist Andrew Maar, they move beyond “the popular concept of beauty.”
That’s what we strive for. How to see it, how to maintain a standard of honesty and sincerity in painting? There’s a clue in a thought from Joseph Campbell:
“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”
Discomfort is a positive good in art. It won’t be summoned by attention, but it cannot exist without it. And a combination of these two form an important basis for the work. Without them a painting can be no more than a series of marks in space, made through time. With them, we have interpretation.
Of what? Sometimes artists can elucidate this immediately. Sometimes not. So my Fields of the Tarn – how do I know where that came from? It rushed upon me in the heat of the days, and painting it my breath was filled with the taste of it, my ears with its sound. As if I was on a road at night, obscured but for flickering lights, as if I was listening to a late Beethoven sonata, with the wind roaring, at times, over the pianist’s delicate phrasing.
Sounds very romantic. I hope it also sounds desperate, because in almost every painting, there are moments of despair. Still, one seeks to pay attention, and to bring a piece to order. This painting may be a “landscape,” but of a topography far from Southern France. It’s an abstracted, nonphysical place. What we have is a map chronicling an activity that was only known to the Owen of then, and then, only briefly.
But this is what we do, and this is what painting, in part, is about. And if the painting is successful, then others can find their own paths through them, find their own countries, with these maps as their uncertain guides.
Brown has had a successful and diverse career that extends far beyond the arts. Poetry and synesthesia are prominent themes in his abstract paintings, often allowing the viewer to create their own interpretation. Owen has exhibited throughout the country, and his work is a part of collections in the United States and Asia. We had the opportunity to interview Brown last year for Art Force Academy.
You can read more from Brown at his website.