Burning in Water is pleased to present an exhibition of new paintings by the Brooklyn-based artist Deborah Brown: This dream and other animals. Extending across both of our gallery locations at 505 West 27th Street and 317 10th Avenue, This dream and other animals is Brown’s first exhibition with the gallery.
The focus of the paintings in This dream and other animals is a lone female figure rendered in range of settings, who alternately appears in varying affective states: aggressive, threatened, forlorn, physically daring. Her environment is a curious amalgamation in which particular elements are foregrounded - a still pool, a vertiginous rock face, an expansive beach - while other details are shorn away in favor of an enveloping, enigmatic darkness. Taken as a whole, the images depicted in these paintings suggest vignettes extracted from a broader narrative.
In each scene, Brown depicts her protagonist as nude but incorporates details - particular poses, settings or accoutrements - that invoke references to classical mythology, biblical tales, apologues or canonical scenes from the history of art. The central figure adopts and sheds various implied roles without ever fully inhabiting them. Narratives are suggested yet never explicated - with elusive meanings yielding to an intimation of the archetypal. The figure cycles through a series of possible identities: perhaps a deity, a sprite, a warrior or an outcast. The confrontation between immediacy and historicity in Brown’s paintings imbues a sense of atemporality or anachronism — leaving them to stand outside of any discernible timeframe.
The works in This dream and other animals build upon Brown’s preceding series Runaways, which depicted a female protagonist protected by a retinue of canine and avian companions. Runaways was informed by Brown’s experiences in the area around her studio in Bushwick, which Brown describes as “industrial but interlaced with ‘ruined’ nature”:
Flower trellises snake around barbed wire and trees grow through chain link fences and on the roof of disused buildings. In my travels around the neighborhood, I found several stray dogs whom I adopted as well as birds --pigeons, parakeets and even a partridge that had escaped from a local slaughterhouse. In the paintings, I constructed a narrative around the theme of the “runaway” who had left the city to live alone in nature with her animal companions.
In the present works, Brown continues the use of a lone female figure intermittently accompanied by small dogs, yet she pushes the sense of dislocation beyond just geographical displacement and into a strange, almost other-worldly milieu. The incongruous elements that the female figure employs (swords, handguns, climbing equipment) coupled with the excision and displacement of natural settings against a flat black drop suggests that the locale may not be physical, but rather a hypnagogic hallucination, psychological terrain or a phantasmagoria.
Brown consistently depicts the lone protagonist in the current works as nude - an approach she utilizes to reference canonical precedents from art history and to allude to themes from antiquity. However, Brown appropriates and reconfigures the conventions of the painted female nude in a manner so as to subvert them, noting that:
Because there are no male characters, the images also suggest a new order in which the female figures are unrestricted by assumptions of vulnerability or dependence. My intent was to revisit themes explored by male artists and subvert expectations, sow doubt and disrupt traditional readings.
The engagement of the “male gaze” is thus excluded from Brown’s hermetic vision of a female proxy accompanied only by her dogs. In works such as Judith or Yellow Sands, the protagonist’s gaze confronts the viewer directly, but her visage exudes an ambiguity or imperviousness that forestalls the implied intimacy that her nudity might otherwise suggest. Whereas Judith has been portrayed over centuries by artists from Donatello to Artemesia Gentileschi to Goya, she is almost invariably depicted in the context of her slaying of Holofernes - either enticing him into her trap or displaying his decapitated head. By contrast, Brown depicts “Judith” without any narrative signifiers apart from her sword. Whether “Judith” is an identity, a role for the protagonist or a psychological state is unresolved.
Taken from the poem Sister was the wolf by Aracelis Girmay, the title of the exhibition suggests a milieu in which external, natural settings and the inner topography of the psyche are commingled or possibly enmeshed. In this context, the protagonist intermittently takes on various classical personae such as the shield-maiden or valkyrie Brünnhilde; Judith from the Book of Judith; or the Greek goddess Artemis. With her polyvalent identities, the protagonist is perhaps most akin to the protean character Artemis, who in early Greek mythology was a “lover of woods and wild chase over the mountain” and served as “the protectress of dewy youth,” but whose identity later split into a trinity including Hecate, the “Goddess of the Dark of the Moon.” Hecate’s nocturnal dominion over over the earth was dependent on the blackness of moonless nights. She was “Goddess of the world above,” but only when it was completely “wrapped in darkness.”
This dream and other animals is on view at 505 West 27th St. and 317 10th Ave. in New York from February 7 through March 30, 2019.
Deborah Brown lives in New York and works in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Brown was the founder of Storefront, one of the first artist-run galleries in Bushwick. Recent exhibition venues include Burning in Water, New York; The Lodge, Los Angeles; Freight + Volume, New York; Underdonk, Brooklyn; Spoonbill Studio, Brooklyn; Castor Gallery, New York; GEARY Contemporary, New York; Lesley Heller Gallery, New York; Mike Weiss Gallery, New York; BravinLee programs, New York; Galleri Christoffer Egelund, Copenhagen; and Angell Gallery, Toronto. Her work is held in numerous museum and corporate collections and has been written about in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Art in America, The Wall Street Journal, ARTnews, Artnet News, Madame Figaro, Hyperallergic and ART-Das Kuntsmagazin. Brown has served as a visiting artist and lecturer at Penn State University, Hunter College, Pace University, Columbia University, Maryland Institute College of Art and Art Omi. Brown earned a BA from Yale University and an MFA from Indiana University.