oil on canvas with wood construction, 73 1/2 x 43 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches
© The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family.
Roger Brown was a leading figure among a generation of artists known collectively as the Chicago Imagists, a diverse assortment of painters who in the late 1960s bucked mainstream trends in minimal and conceptual art by painting symbolic and narrative imagery inspired by popular culture and self-taught, or “outsider” artists. Taking their lead from rock bands, they garnered widespread attention by exhibiting in groups with names such as The Hairy Who, Nonplussed Some and The False Image, the latter of which included Roger Brown.
Brown’s tragicomic paintings depict a surreal vision of modern America in which hapless figures roam an alien and often inhospitable environment. His cookie cutter people, based on childhood memory, represent the quintessential Everyman and Everywoman, cyphers for humanity rather than individualized portraits. Brown’s landscapes and cityscapes are similarly depersonalized and abstracted into repetitive patterns that teeter between the spectacular and the oppressive. This highly mannered mode of depiction is informed by numerous fine art and vernacular sources, encompassing Byzantine painting, Japanese woodcuts and traditional folk art as well as advertising art, sign painting, and Sunday comics. These disparate influences contribute to the stylish theatricality that animates Brown’s modern morality plays.
Jacknife is one of Brown’s series of paintings from the mid-1970s illustrating manmade disasters. The story unfolds down the length of the canvas, in which the same truck is seen several times careening down a mountain road and ultimately crashing through the guardrail. The force of the crash has literally broken the two-dimensional picture plane, landing the truck upside-down in three dimensions on an exterior shelf, a clever formal device that also serves as a covert commentary on the era’s debate between narrative painting and formalist sculpture. Although the drama of the incident is tempered by Brown’s comic book-like rendition, Jacknife remains a haunting and indelible image of human folly.
Learn more about the artist in James Yood’s Roger Brown and the American Scene.
Naive and folk artists–if you look at the way they paint, it’s the way they structure space. Having learned nothing about the history of Western art, they structure space the same way the early Italian and medieval painters did. Because they never learned all that bull the Renaissance brought in that was trying to make art into science.