« Sharon Brown at Ice Cube Gallery's Icebreaker3 Show in February | Main | Sharon Brown and Sharon Feder Team Up for "Sharon Squared: Interiors" at Pattern Shop Studio »
Wednesday
Sep072011

Sharon Brown's "Virginia:A Life" at Pattern Shop Studio Thru February

 

                                                 "Pontiac," 2011

Sharon Brown's "Virginia: A Life," oil paintings depicting scenes from the life of a Denver woman in the 1930s, and 40s , opened at The Pattern Shop Studio on Friday, October 7th, and continues through February with public openings on:
·    Friday, February 3rd, from 6 to 9 pm; and closing
·    Friday, March 2nd, 6 to 9 pm.
Private showings for groups or individuals are available any time by appointment at 303-297-9831.

Brown, known more recently for her large black and white portraits of artists at Denver International Airport, the State Capitol, and in the Theater District, returns in this show to a theme she developed in the 1980s: colorful oil paintings based on old photographs, letters and mementos she retrieved from trash bags in the alley behind her Denver home.  Sharon writes about the discovery: "Finally, the inevitable happened.  Ed died and Virginia was deemed incapable of living alone.  She was moved to a nursing home. Soon there was a flurry of activity.  An unfamiliar (and unfamilial) man began hauling the contents of the house into piles for a yard sale and for the trash.  The trash ended up in the alley and my neighbor Pauline, an inveterate garage sale aficionado, began to paw through the bags.  She found pots and pans, knickknacks.  I looked into a bag and found something more tantalizing--an envelope dated 1936 from Virginia to Ed.  I opened the envelope and read the first sentence of the letter.  That was enough....Here, I came to find, was her life in all its banality and complexity."

 Inspired by the old black and white photographs and the story of Virginia's life, Sharon painted dozens of canvases, most of which have long since been sold to private collections.  For this show, she has painted 15 new ones, added some from her own collection, and brought back others on loan from their owners.  The result is a show of great beauty and poignancy by an oil painter at the top of her game.

 

Honoring the Ordinary: Sharon Brown's "Virginia: A Life," at the Pattern Shop Studio

 

Sharon Brown's "Virginia: A Life," on display at the Pattern Shop Studio through December 2011, is the result of a 25-year-long, multi-layered project that has so far fostered 85 paintings, 37 of which are in this show. The inspiration for the project was two garbage bags of old photographs, letters and memorabilia that Sharon found in an alley when she and her neighbor were dumpster browsing. This is the first layer of the show's meaning: all the paintings spring from images that were destined for oblivion. Were it not for a curious, even nosy, artist, they wouldn't be in our visual vocabulary and we would be much the poorer for their absence.

 

It's important up front to make a distinction between the historical artifacts that Sharon rescued from the trash and the art she has made out of them. Yes, there really was a historical Virginia, fragments of whose life survive in old snapshots, letters and memorabilia; and yes, these materials are of historical and cultural interest in their own right. But Sharon is an artist, not a cultural historian or biographer. The historical facts of the real Virginia and her life are about as important to this body of work as the facts about Dora Maar are to Picasso's painting Dora Maar au Chat: in other words, not very. Artists are often inspired by "real" people and events, but they appropriate them to tell their own stories and express the kinds of truth that are particular to art, not to history or science. Although this show displays a few letters and artifacts to provide a context and setting for the paintings, remember that the "Virginia" you meet in this show is a person imagined by Sharon Brown, and the narrative the paintings create was constructed by Sharon to express her feelings and ideas and to stimulate yours.

 

Sharon's interest in old photographs and letters has been lifelong. She grew up in a large family with dozens of photo albums, drawers full of old letters, and a habit of looking at them and reading them aloud at family gatherings. Even as a little girl, Sharon was curious about what life was like for her parents when they were "young and hot." Her earliest drawings and the paper dolls she created for herself were of fashionably clothed and well-hatted women. Her aesthetic was formed by the black and white movies of the 1930's and 40's, which she still watches, and then by the movies, advertising, fashion and art of the 50's. When a second cousin died, leaving Sharon her old photographs and letters, Sharon began to paint from them, as well as from other old family snapshots. It's no wonder that a couple of years later, the trash bags full of Virginia's old letters and snapshots were irresistible to her.

 

What drew Sharon to these materials was her interest in authentic voice (the letters), her interest in the period (1936-1944), and her fascination with old family snapshots. A sociology major in college, and the daughter, granddaughter and sister of psychiatrists, she has an eye for images that she can use to convey subtle psychological and social tensions. She sees the ways in which ordinary people reveal themselves, try to conceal themselves (often at the same time), and reflect culturally induced values. In the painting Pontiac, for example, we see a fur-clad Virginia standing proudly next to a splendid 1941 Pontiac Streamliner. Who among us doesn't have such an image in that old shoe box in the closet--of ourselves or family members standing next to our first or most prized automobile? It's an iconic American image, combining both personal and social pride. Virginia and Ed are proud of themselves for having acquired the trappings of an idyllic middle class life. She has her fur coat and fur hat and expensive handbag and shoes; he has his high status automobile and his Pretty Wife posing next to it like a model in Colliers Magazine or Life. The imagery says, "See? We've made it! We're living the American Dream!" The dirt road on which the car rests and the scrawny trees in the background remind us that these people have clawed their way out of the Great Depression. The car itself points to a promising future of opulence and speed for everyone.

 

In painting after painting, Virginia and Ed are posing and showing off a new fur, a new hat, a new status symbol of some kind. You wouldn't know that she was a secretary in an advertising agency, sending rent money back to her widowed mother in Denver or that he struggled with his confidence for years and scrimped to be able to afford even a long distance phone.

 

The original snapshots were meant to show their lives as they wanted to remember them and wanted others to see them. Sharon's paintings, however, show more. She paints people in such a way that we see both who they are and who they would like others to believe they are at the same time. You see this very clearly in the smaller portraits of Virginia and her sister Mercedes, all of which are based on photo booth snapshots. These are not relaxed, happy faces. They're tight, strained. Paint is both extra heavy on some parts of the face and removed on other parts, enabling the under-layers of paint to emerge like unconscious feelings. In Red Virginia, the emotions conveyed by the uneven layers of paint and the background are anger and disappointment; in Furred, we intuit some kind of sadness. In both, Sharon skillfully captures the mask Virginia is trying to project and, simultaneously, the face beneath the mask. Tensions-- between brush strokes of various kinds, outer and under layers of paint, background and foreground colors, smooth and rough textures, light and dark, what the eyes say and what the mouth reveals--create the complexity and dynamism that make the images mysteriously compelling. Sharon's striking portrait of Virginia's sister, Mercedes, shows a smoother style befitting the subject's more open face and temperament.

 

All of the paintings in the show repay close study. Most of the paintings on fiber board began with Milton Avery-like blocks or swaths of color, and you can see them bleeding through and influencing the figures on the surface. You can see Sharon's deftness in so many of the fabrics she designs; her colorist instincts (remember--the snapshots are in black and white); her use of subtle washes to deepen shadows, darken corners, or weather bricks; and the psychological tensions she creates between Virginia and her father, or two visitors, or husbands and wives at a cocktail party.

 

Virginia: A Life is a labor of love now spanning almost 25 years and likely to go on until Sharon stops painting. Each painting tells a little story; the whole series conjures up a larger narrative about ordinary Americans in the 1930's and 40's trying to make it out of the Depression, through the war and into a burgeoning middle class. Sharon says that her primary impulse as a figurative artist has been to "honor the ordinary." In rescuing a slice of someone's life from the trash--a time when they were "young and hot" and in love--and turning what was discarded into something richly textured, beautiful and desirable, Sharon has given the "real" Virginia the glamorous life she apparently sought. In giving us her imagined Virginia, she has given us a character who is intriguing in her own right and reminiscent of the people who stare out at us from our dust-covered family photo albums. And in doing both, she has indeed brought honor to the ordinary.

 

Rex Brown (Sharon's husband)

 

 

 

References (4)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    AndroidenamAPK Installation and Review
  • Response
    Androidaasdsasdasdawqw APK Release
  • Response
    Pimpleasdas in Ear Canal Treatment
  • Response
    Response: 彩钢瓦设备
    传 真:0317- 复合板机 8086199 Q Q:59458991 49870222 ...

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>