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May 16, 2010
Critic's Pick

Happy accident sends painter in new direction

By Victoria Dalkey, The Sacramento Bee art correspondent

"Untitled"/Theophilus Brown.
All kinds of things can happen when you are making a painting, many of them bad. But then there is the happy accident, the kind that opens a new realm of endeavor. Such an accident led illustrious Bay Area figurative painter Theophilus Brown to the start of a new series of abstract collages. "I was painting one day," said Brown on the telephone from his studio in San Francisco, "and I noticed a place on my peel-off palette that was sticking over the edge. So I pulled on it and off came the most beautiful shape. I couldn't have invented it, it was so fine." Brown put it away in a drawer for awhile and then took it out and began making his first abstract collage using pieces of his peel-off palette as his medium. The result is a fascinating blend of painting and collage. Because the raw materials are paint, the images have a lushness that is sometimes missing in paper collages. In making these vibrant objects, Brown first coats a sheet of peel-off palette with black paint, applies other colors and uses scrapers and a wide-toothed comb to make textures and patterns in the paint. Then he usually cuts up the paper palette and rearranges the pieces into a vigorous abstraction that has the improvisational quality of insouciant jazz music. Brown, with Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, David Park and Paul Wonner, is known for his figurative work. And like Diebenkorn and Bischoff, he has turned his hand to abstract work in his later years. Asked if it is harder to do figurative work or abstract work, he said with a self-deprecating twinkle: "It's easier, but maybe that's because I'm not so good at it." Brown talks about poetry as easily as art, quoting poems by William Butler Yeats, Marianne Moore and Philip Larkin. He is acquainted with the writer Christopher Isherwood and once met W.H. Auden, another favorite. In a profile in Art Works magazine, writer Erin Clark describes what she calls the 91-year-old artist's "charmed life." In his youth, she writes, Brown was "a dashing young artist" who, after serving in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge, traveled around the world meeting the likes of Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Heading west in the late 1940s, he entered the fine arts graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he met his lifelong partner Paul Wonner and became friendly with Diebenkorn, Bischoff and Park, participating in regular life drawing sessions with them. A drawing show two years ago at b. sakata garo in Sacramento demonstrated the importance of figure drawing to Brown's work. And drawing is no less important to the collages he is now showing at the sakata gallery. The boldness and freedom of his gestural collages is underpinned by a strong sense of architectural solidity and a flair for incisive graphology. And the rich and surprising color in the collages echoes much of the work he has done with the figure. "Untitled #7" is a vigorous, musical arrangement of combed and curvilinear forms in black and white with touches of yellow, red and blue. In "Untitled 15," he has dragged the comb though thick acrylic paint to form patterns like the whorls of fingerprints magnified. "Untitled #8" has suggestions of landscape with a red sky and blocks of color calling up associations with rooftops in a skyline. "Untitled #14" is almost austere in comparison, a black and white study that suggests a classical Cubist still life of a book and envelope. With its turquoise, red and orange tones, "Untitled #24" is evocative of the Southwest, and there is a jaunty nautical feeling to "Untitled #29." "Untitled #19" is more intricate, with waves resembling the marbling on book covers, while "Untitled #22" bursts free with forms reminiscent of art deco typography. A series of smaller unframed collages allow you to get a close look at Brown's methodology and are a lively coda to the larger framed works. The show terminates with the dark, brooding, subtle colors of "Untitled #21" which has both the gravity and playfulness implicit in the Spanish term "duende," a coming together of forces in a way that is just right.

The show continues at b. sakata garo, 923 20th Street, (916) 447.4276 through Saturday, May 29, www.bsakatagaro.com