John Brown’s paintings are often derived from foreign travel and we are delighted to welcome him back for his fifth solo exhibition at The Scottish Gallery, this time informed by travels to Cuba and in particular, his most recent visit to the island’s capital city. In previous exhibitions we have seen the product of John’s stays in traditional artist destinations such as Venice, Tuscany and Collioure. For this new body of work he has strayed from the somewhat sanitised Caribbean tourist trail and instead of azure seas and lush green hillsides we are presented with a raw view of what John regards as the ‘real’ Cuba, the bustling streets and crumbling buildings of Centro Habana.
The most densely populated area of the sweltering capital city, life in Centro Habana inevitably unravels in the street. Children play impromptu games of baseball, adults congregate by market stalls and taxi drivers recline on their ciclotaxis and idly chat while whilst waiting for trade. Happenings and conversations are witnessed by bystanders and overlooked by balconies where laundry is literally aired in public. We are not used to seeing figures in John’s painting and in some cases they may seem incidental but throughout the exhibition these colourful characters are integral to the composition. Each painting is like a theatrical performance: bystanders become audience members, their balcony the royal box. Even the dilapidated state of the architecture plays out to this dramatic metaphor. The Malecón Facade (Cat 35) appears like a delicate stage-set. Situated on the pier, this street was the face of Havana in the 1950s as ships came in from the Americas. Elaborately crafted pilasters and architraves are now disguised by layer upon layer of green paint at street level and the upper storey windows reveal no interior, just a pure blue sky behind.
John also nods to the complex political and cultural history of Cuba. The figure clothed all in white Santeria (Cat. 20) belongs to a religion created in Cuba which combines the Roman Catholic faith of Spanish plantation owners with the Yoruba traditions brought by enslaved Africans while the flashes of yellow ribbon tied to the railings in Yellow Ribbons are a subtle reminder of the Miami Five, a group of political prisoners currently being held in Miami.
Founded on skillfully executed drawings, John builds up his paintings in layers: scraps of newspaper and strips of textile are coated in paint which is then sanded back or scratched, mirroring the fabric of the Cuban buildings who reveal their history as remnants of once-pure colour and bare brickwork appear beneath a cracked surface. The flashes of vibrant colours, severe deterioration of many of the buildings and the sheer physicality of Centro Habana lends itself well to John’s painting technique. Perhaps this is why he was initially drawn to this area of the city.