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Christopher Brown
(Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, 1951 - )

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Our memories of the past often take the shape of the images we encounter briefly during the course of our lives. For the past thirty years, figurative artist Christopher Brown has produced enticing paintings and drawings that wrestle with the complicated relationship between history and memory. “Brown never suggests that a handle on reality exists,” according to art historian Michael Brenson, “and his painting offers less a glimpse of the visual or physical world than a de-centered, ever-changing landscape of the mind.”1

Brown was born in 1951 in North Carolina and moved with his family to the small town of Warren, Ohio, when he was three years old. He became interested in art shortly thereafter and recalls “being fascinated by drawing and being able to create illusions.”2 Some of Brown’s earliest grade-school sketches were of the birds he observed in northeastern Ohio, which led to his lifelong interest in ornithology and bird-watching. In 1964, Brown’s family moved again, this time settling in Illinois, where Brown would eventually earn a B.A. degree in painting from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana in 1972. The next year, he enrolled in art school at the University of California, Davis, and began studies with a range of faculty including Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, and Roland Petersen. Brown traveled to Europe in 1974, and while in Munich he encountered the work of Gerhard Richter. The ease with which Richter shifted between abstraction and representation impressed Brown and would later influence his own work.

Brown completed his M.F.A. at Davis in 1976 and spent the next five years teaching, traveling, and writing. In 1982 he reached a turning point in his career with the completion of a large canvas titled The Biglin Brothers (After Eakins). The dreamlike blur of representational imagery in Brown’s painting, which was inspired by Thomas Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Racing (1873), signaled a profound shift in Brown’s philosophical approach toward art making. No longer satisfied with the cool detachment of pop art that he had favored during art school, Brown finally devised a method for exploring the very personal nature of perception and memory. He began collecting photographs—from history books, newspapers, and films—that he manipulated by cropping, enlarging, and then reconstructing using an illusionistic method of blending and blurring. According to art critic Jeff Kelley, “painting [for Brown] represents the possibility of finding—or inventing—a deep space beneath the patina of historical photographs and documents. It is a space like that beneath the water, where images wriggle and refract, where light dissipates and forms dissolve. It does not pretend to objective accuracy, but to intuitive ambiguity.”3

Brown never suspected that the sketches of birds he made as a young boy would eventually become potent sources for later artworks. However, after his mother sent him his childhood sketchbooks in the early 1990s, he began a series of pastels and etchings with birds as the primary subject. Duck Blind Duck (1994) is a lush pastel of two ducks gracefully floating on a dramatically lit pond. Brown uses repetition to imply the movement of both the floating fowl and the rippling water. For Brown, who remains an avid bird-watcher, the duplication also recalls the double vision he sometimes encounters while peering through binoculars, or the sensation of flipping through the pages of his field guides. Brown’s clever title pun, perhaps a holdover from his former Davis days, adds another enigmatic layer of depth to the work. These doubled ducks are restricted to an intimate space, protected from hunters who typically camouflage themselves in shelters known as duck blinds.

Like many of Brown’s paintings and drawings, Duck Blind Duck recalls nostalgic childhood memories, while also referring to one of his current interests. Brown once explained that he seeks to “[combine] memories of different times into one image, as we do in our minds [to determine] not simply what life looks like, but what our memory of life looks like.”4 —A.W.

1. Michael Brenson, “Christopher Brown,” History and Memory: Paintings by Christopher Brown (Fort Worth, Tex.: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1995), 10–11.
2. Ibid., 20.
3. Jeff Kelley, “A Squint of Acquiescence,” Christopher Brown, exh. cat. (San Francisco: Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, 1993), 3.
4. Christopher Brown, interview with Constance Lewellan in View VIII, no. 2 (winter 1993): 1–32.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

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