Deborah Brown, Danae and Zeus, 2018, Oil on canvas, 70″ x 80″

Heather Zises of READart visits with Bushwick-based painter Deborah Brown and curator Madeleine Mermall to discuss Brown’s current show “Chimeras” at Spoonbill Studio, portrayal of the female figure, social media, and the benefits of artist-run galleries. Deborah Brown: Chimeras, curated by Madeleine Mermall, is on view from April 18-June 3rd., 2018


Heather Zises: Your recent work features a female protagonist who reenacts myths and stories from antiquity, literature, and the Bible, but with a gender-altering twist. Can you elaborate on how you invert the notion of the “male gaze”? 

Deborah Brown: That is an important question that I have thought about a lot, especially in the context of other artists who are working with the same idea such as Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin. Particularly Lisa Yuskavage, because her paintings appear to me as if they could only have been executed by a woman. Her depictions of the female form do not invite male desire; they are erotic but awkwardly so, therefore they short circuit our ability to view them as purely sexual invitations. I think that makes viewers aware of how they read images of naked women and how mechanisms of representation and structures of signification are embedded around us. In my work, I give women agency. I take figures that have traditionally been viewed as opportunities for men to look at, such as a bather or a classical goddess, and place them in an environment with their own activities. They are busy girls and they have their own narratives.  They are strong and not dependent on an interaction with a male-driven story to give them their meaning. I think this is particularly true in my bigger paintings where the figures are more clearly defined as individuals–they have expression, they have consciousness, and they have a singularity that doesn’t allow them to be reduced to servants in someone else’s narrative.

Madeleine Mermall: They are no longer props!

DB: Yes, they have agency. They are not enacting some fate–they have their own fate and their own purpose.

MM: And their agency isn’t competing with anyone else’s. Its focused on them–they are the subject. There is no competition between their individuality and another subject within the scenes.

 “In my work, I give women agency.”

HZ: And your use of color! It’s explosive and wonderful. I was thinking of Lisa Yuskavage when I walked into your studio, especially with Daphne and Apollo 1, because I know she works with a lot of color and light, not to mention the nude female form.

Deborah Brown, Daphne and Apollo 1, 2018, Oil on canvas, 60″ x 48″

DB: Indeed, I look to a lot of her paintings in terms of color. I think she is really underestimated as a colorist. And part of the reason her work is so powerful is that she knows how to orchestrate her compositions using areas of less saturated color and detail with areas of hot color and extreme detail.

HZ: Regarding the fauna in your compositions, have you given much thought to the meaning behind each animal? For example, why do you feature mostly dogs and not a cat, or a bear or a tiger?

DB: The dogs in these works are partly based on my own narrative. I have two dogs that I rescued here in Bushwick and they have become recurring characters in my work. My dogs are my sidekicks in life. In my work they function as a jumping-off point. Their presence could be viewed as a part of a contemporary narrative but also as a reference to classical narratives that feature dogs, such as Diana and Actaeon.  In art history the dog is an image of fidelity.  In my work, the dog is a guard dog, the one who is watching while the action unfolds.

Deborah Brown, Diana and Actaeon, 2018, oil on canvas, 77″ x 88″

MM: This makes me think that even in these paintings, the dog–which is traditionally ‘man’s best friend’–is associated with men.  To have a best friend companion in these contemporary works that is not considered traditionally feminine adds another layer to subverting the male gaze.

DB: Absolutely. These works spring from my series Runaways that I showed last fall at Geary in New York, in which a girl runs away to a pastoral/dystopian place with her dog as her companion. This is where the story left off.  Then I began my series of powerful, nude women, some of which are in the Spoonbill show.

HZ: Formally speaking, I think there is a cinematic quality to these paintings because they feel like a scene that is already in progress, as opposed to a static pose. It is rather striking to have these paintings read like a photograph.

Deborah Brown, Pandora, 2018, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″

DB: Yes, I agree because in a sense I want the narrative to be somewhat open-ended. I draw on other sources and make references to art history, but my goal is to tell a story in paint, which I think is what you are getting at. The way the artist orchestrates the viewing process is like cinema or the theater, and that aspect is so important. Telling a story in paint has some things in common with other kinds of storytelling. When you read a book, the narrative unfolds at a certain pace and things are revealed in time. In painting, the same thing happens. The artist controls how and when you see what you see; there is a time element. The difference is that in a painting, the image has to “read” all at once.

“My goal is to tell a story in paint…”

MM: This makes me think about the evolution of storytelling in painting where in the Renaissance there were multiple panels that told stories, which eventually spread onto doors and ceilings, and now most painters reduce their stories into a single composition. So, there will always be a trend in the way painters tell stories, and with Deborah’s works you can witness a unique take on that in a contemporary context.

DB: Telling a story is part of being human, so if you work with figurative imagery in painting, you are in dialogue with a tradition but also in dialogue with contemporary technology. There are so many ways to read a painting!

HZ: And probably 100 years ago we would be reading these very differently, and who knows if you’d even be painting this subject so…

DB: When you think about Manet and what he was doing in the 19th century, he was truly the vanguard painter of contemporary life at that time. I feel like my new works have a contemporary feel, but they drive some of their power from engaging a narrative that connects with the past.

HZ: As an art activist and a woman, what are your impressions of vanguard initiatives today such as movements like #metoo and #timesup?

Deborah Brown, Judith, 2018, Oil on canvas, 46″ x 78″

DB: I think many women from my generation feel we had to slog through a lot of resistance. All of us had experiences that are right out of the Harvey Weinstein playbook!  I think the doors are opening somewhat for women, and it’s a result of people demanding to be heard and seen. Hopefully it will trickle into the cultural arena, which is a more privileged realm. The spotlight on intersectional feminism and equality in the art world has created a bigger playing field. I think galleries and art institutions are actively seeking to show the work of women and people of color because they know they are under scrutiny to become more open and their audiences have become curious about narratives that have been excluded from the mainstream.

HZ: This ethos has even spread into art fairs–for example Fair., the alternative all-women’s art fair that launched during Miami Basel last winter.

DB: And so much business is conducted at art fairs now that if you’re not in there you risk being denied opportunity and visibility. When I ran my gallery and interacted with lots of artists and did tons of studio visits, I was surprised to observe that men were more aggressive about demanding a show and doing whatever what they felt would take things to the next level in their career.  By and large, the women did not feel as comfortable doing this.

MM: It’s because they are allowed to!

DB: It was striking and disheartening. But it’s also the squeaky wheel syndrome. You tend to pay attention to somebody who exudes confidence. That’s a lesson I’ve learned from being on the other side of it, as an artist-gallerist. If I was going to succeed in bringing my work to people’s attention, I had to be more aggressive.  Now when people express interest, I ask for the next step.

HZ: And, this is New York City! Gotham is a nexus of incredible minds, all trying to do the same thing, so to stand out, you really need to be vocal about your wants and needs.

“Maybe social media will give women the paradigm for that [confidence]. By curating an image online, you develop a voice and it empowers you and this confidence can be funneled back into your work.”

DB: Maybe social media will give women the paradigm for that. By curating an image online, you develop a voice, and it empowers you and this confidence can be funneled back into your work. Instagram is an especially powerful vehicle because it’s pictures and little text. I see it as a very holistic thing, where you are giving yourself agency through outreach in the digital realm. And that, in turn, engages people to interact with you. It’s not just for puffery.

Deborah Brown, Europa, 2018, Oil on canvas, 77″ x 88″

HZ: Let’s go back to what you said about being an artist-gallerist for a moment. What are some major differences between artist-run galleries and commercial galleries? Do you think one model is better than the other?

DB: I think an important part of the art world is artist-run spaces because they allow young, unknown artists to exhibit their work. Fortunately, they have been a part of artist neighborhoods since the 60s.  When I came to Bushwick, I started Storefront, one of the first artist-run spaces in the community. Spaces like these are a vital part of the art ecosystem. Artists often come to the attention of dealers in the commercial art world through the “pure” activities of artist-run, DIY spaces.  But most artists eventually seek representation by commercial galleries because they want access to an exhibition space where their work can be shown to best advantage, reach a large audience and sold by someone whose mission it is to promote their work. The upside of a traditional gallery is that the dealer helps place your work and manage your career. The downside is the pressure to keep doing work that has sold in the past or risk losing the representation by your gallery. DIY spaces, on the other hand, allow artists freedom to do what they like.

MM: And with the more established artists, they can have the chance to come back to the community and give back to the younger generation. That is what happened with me and Spoonbill and now I have a chance to pick painters I am passionate about for each exhibition. This includes Deborah!

DB: Alternative programs, like what Madeleine is doing at Spoonbill, are great. Especially as the middle market craters. Those platforms are going to be increasingly important. When a space has the right curator and the program passes “the sniff test” amongst artists, a community will form around that space.  Madeleine has given Spoonbill legitimacy and that comes at a time when artists–emerging and established–are hungry to show their work in non-traditional places.

“Alternative programs, like what Madeleine is doing at Spoonbill, are great. Especially as the middle market craters.”

MM: Thank you! I feel like the art world had been devoid of an alternative venue that had a warm, community-feel for a while now, and it enjoys having somewhere else to go than Chelsea on Thursday nights. Spoonbill offers an incredible fusion of books and art and community. I have seen people come in off the street and offer opinions about the art on the walls which you never hear about in the larger galleries! It’s odd because the major galleries have so much space and you’d think that it would feel open and free, but instead it remains the sterile white space where viewers feel intimidated.

Curator Madeleine Mermall at Spoonbill Studio, Opening Night for “Deborah Brown: Chimeras”