Roger Brown: This Boy’s Own Story | Art review

SAIC Sullivan Galleries explore themes of sexuality in the Chicago Imagist’s work.
By Franck Mercurio |
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Given that Chicago Imagist Roger Brown (1941–97) wasn’t shy about expressing his sexual identity, it’s surprising no one has organized a show like this before. The title of the exhibition at the Sullivan Galleries of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, “Roger Brown: This Boy’s Own Story,” is borrowed, in part, from the artist’s painting This Boy’s Own Story: The True and Perfect Love (1993), a kind of visual history of same-sex love and desire at different stages of a young protagonist’s (perhaps Brown’s) life. Like many works here, the painting unapologetically depicts gay male experiences of Brown’s time. It’s a subject, along with other expressions of sexuality, that curator Kate Pollasch describes as a “significant, yet under-explored current in the artist’s career.”

Brown is all over the city’s art scene this fall. His works are featured in “Roger Brown: Major Paintings,” a joint exhibition at Zolla/Lieberman and Russell Bowman galleries. Significant Brown pieces are included in “Afterimage” at the DePaul Art Museum and “Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity” at the MCA. But the Sullivan Galleries bring new scholarship and insight to Brown’s oeuvre.

Many of Brown’s paintings reflect gay life in the second half of the 20th century: the chronic police harassment and bar raids of the 1950s and ’60s, the celebrations of gay liberation in the 1970s, and the AIDS epidemic and culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. Brown chronicles his ruminations on these events—via words and pictures—in his accessible and humorous cartoon-like style.

Some of his paintings address sex in suggestive, playful ways. In Observing the Celestial Display (1973), Brown depicts people inside an observatory shaped unmistakably like a giant penis pointed toward the heavens. Sexual acts are more obvious in other works like Hancock Building (1974), a three-dimensional painting of the Hancock Tower whose windows display the silhouetted figures of people screwing. Both works play with the phallic nature of certain architectural forms, as well as the voyeurism as we peer in from the outside.

In addition to paintings and sculptural works from the SAIC’s Roger Brown Study Collection and private collections, Pollasch includes archival ephemera, such as some of Brown’s sketchbooks and writings. Drawings and texts reveal not only his creative processes, but also his reflections on the events and issues of his day and happenings in his private life, lending further insights into his motivations as an artist.

For the last 12 years of his life, death was a theme in Brown’s works. The striking and powerful Illusion (pictured, 1985) features a kind of Janus head with the face of a living man and a skull. Painted toward the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, Illusion evidently serves as a meditation on the classic dichotomy of sex and death, perhaps reflecting the artist’s struggle to come to terms with his own mortality. (Brown died of complications from AIDS in 1997.)

Works that deviate from Brown’s more tongue-in-cheek style, like Illusion, beg to be placed more firmly within their historic and social contexts. The exhibition could benefit from having more text labels that describe Brown’s differing attitudes and responses toward sexual themes. Or perhaps displaying other examples of Brown’s sketchbooks and words would have better anchored the works in the zeitgeist of the artist’s changing times.

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