An Interview with Artist Mark Brown

February, 2006

Mark Brown received his BA in studio art from the University of Kentucky. After a photography career and extensive traveling, he moved to North Carolina and became studio assistant to painter Herb Jackson. He earned an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where his thesis chair was painter Peter Plagens. His work has been exhibited widely in the southeast, including in North Carolina at the Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill; the Duke Museum of Art, Durham; the Duke Institute of the Arts, Durham; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem; and in New York City at the E. S. Vandam Gallery and The Painting Center. He was a finalist for an NEA Fellowship. His most recent solo exhibit was Winterreise (Winter Journey) in 2005-06 at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC. He lives and works in the woods near Chapel Hill, NC with his wife, sculptor Cathy Kiffney.

Julie Karabenick: You’re fond of a particular passage about the nature of painting from phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s essay, Cezanne’s Doubt.

Mark Brown: I first read the essay in the late 80s. Some painters I was meeting with were discussing it. They were trying to differentiate their work from the Abstract Expressionists. The method of working improvisationally was similar, but the results were more structured to reference architecture or the figure. The part of the essay that excited me most was the idea that “the artist launches his work just as a man once launched the first word, not knowing whether it will be anything more than a shout.” That concept has been one that I have returned to consistently in my studio practice, especially when I think I am playing it safe.

When it comes to my work, I’m a pretty basic order-out-of-chaos kind of painter. Painting is my opportunity to make something I haven’t yet seen or do something in painting I haven’t yet done. I’ve read that the portion of the brain that responds to novelty is larger than the portion that responds to sex.

Pacific Heights
Pacific Heights, oil & beeswax on canvas,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2004

JK: So familiar shapes, but used in ways which might surprise or invite us into uncharted territory?

MB: I think it’s all been charted. I’m attempting to present enduring truths in a new way–by truths I mean shared similarities in the collective unconscious.

JK: Reviewers of your work often sense this need for exploration–or observe that signs of a struggle are visible in your paintings.

MB: It takes a lot of effort to make a painting appear inevitable.

JK: Inevitable?

Karma
Karma, oil & alkyd on canvas, 137 x x 178 cm (54 x 70 in), 2005

MB: It works on its own terms and, though just discovered, appears to have always existed. Like the “aha’” moment when one successfully interprets a dream.

JK: And you leave traces of these explorations visible in the finished work?

MB: It’s the deKooning in me.

JK: You’ve said that you work improvisationally.

MB: I don’t know what the finished painting will look like when I begin, but I do impose guidelines to give the paintings a context. I am primarily concerned with color, structure and proportion. And I allow for impulses, notions and chance. This approach enables me to make most of my decisions in the present.

Scherzando, oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm (30 x 24), 2003

JK: And encourages some degree of risk-taking?

MB: Rilke said that a work of art must appear as though it has journeyed out to the limits of something. To me, one can’t get there without risk. I keep that in mind when I’m assessing a painting, a poem, any work of art.

JK: How does chance enter the work?

MB: I know the rules, but I like to make a mess too. Life is risky, and I have no problem with the evidence being visible in my work.

JK: Would you say that self-exploration is an important aspect of your painting?

MB: Yes. In my work, I sometimes have to force myself to get lost so I can get on with the business of finding myself. The title of a recent painting, Psalm, is taken from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Psalm
Psalm, oil, acrylic, & Kremer pigments on canvas,
191 x 152 cm (75 x 60 in), 2004

That music has affected me since I first heard it. Coltrane was interested in satyagraha, or truth force—the idea that one can advance in self-knowledge by breaking through layers of denial to connect with the unity at the source of all life. I bought the recording and later, the concept. I work through denial in my life and hope the results are concomitant in my work.

JK: And this self-exploration through making art—it’s been pretty much a life-long pursuit?

MB: I started drawing when I was able to hold an implement. I feel most connected to the world and to myself when I’m using my body, my imagination and materials at the same time. I’ve come to paint the way I paint as the result of years of decisions. I think of myself as having more in common with the painters at Lascaux than with academics or art theorists.

JK: Returning to Psalm, there appears to be a lot of attention to surface and to paint handling.

Psalm detail
Psalm detail
Psalm (2 detail views)

MB: I’m actually not that interested in surface—built-up, washy, whatever works as long as it’s not too shiny. In Psalm, I wanted to get a lot of activity at the edges of shapes and I wanted there to be lots of variety in the paint handling. I’m not fond of contemporary paintings with large, bright, unmodulated expanses of acrylic paint. The idea of separating my paintings from the body that made them seems Puritan to me, like a mind/body or spirit/body separation.

JK: An observation from Merleau-Ponty seems apt: “It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.” [emphasis added]

MB: And brings his paintings into the world. I certainly prefer embodiments to depictions.

JK: Returning to the Abstract Expressionists, did this group of painters, or any in particular, have a strong influence on your work?

MB: When I was in my incubation period in graduate school, Neo-Expressionism was in the galleries. Lots of thick paint and lots of drips. At that time, I was also drawn to abstract image painting and the paintings of Denise Green, Nancy Brett, Ed Ruda and many others. I attempted to combine the handling of Neo-Expressionism with abstract forms. Placement and edge were my foremost formal concerns.

As a child, my mother took me to a show of Abstract Expressionist paintings, and that experience had imprinted in large type on my brain. I intuitively sensed what those paintings were about. I think all these influences are present in the paintings that I was doing from the 80s.

Untitled
Untitled, oil and enamel on canvas,
145 x 122 cm (57 x 48 in), 1986

JK: What in particular spoke to you from the Ab Ex work?

MB: The sense of freedom—the idea that one could make an analogy in visual art to an unseen world without referring to recognizable imagery.

JK: And you soon began to focus on the issue of frontality?

MB: I became interested in frontality in graduate school, not only as a formal issue, but as a metaphor for the culture. For instance, I noticed genocide and pop culture being given equal importance in the media. Now celebrity gossip is given more importance. I didn’t know how good we had it!

In my paintings from the 80s and early 90s I established frontality as a constant in my work and experimented with creating tension by positioning shapes around the canvas. I was listening to a lot of Thelonius Monk at that time and was trying to create a visual analog for the disjointed rhythms in Monk’s music. The rhythms explained how I felt, maybe how all artists feel—not quite in sync with the world, like an apple that has been halved and put back together off-center. As Merleau-Ponty states in Cezanne’s Doubt, “Only one emotion is possible for this painter—the feeling of strangeness—and only one lyricism—that of the continual rebirth of existence.”

JK: Like a critic who said that Monk’s music was “like missing the bottom step in the dark”?

MB: Yes.

Caliban
Caliban, oil on canvas, 102 x 79 cm (40 x 31 in), 1992

JK: Frontal work often has a confrontational feeling to it.

MB: I want the viewer to experience my work in the medulla, not in the cerebrum. I don’t want the viewer’s initial response to be to think about it. D. H. Lawrence said something to the effect that he wanted to get to people where they didn’t know they had been gotten.

JK: And in a painting like Caliban, it seems you work to destroy figure/ground distinctions.

MB: The figure/ground ambiguities short-circuit the viewer’s expectations and allow possibilities for multiple interpretations.

JK: Did you also use color to help establish frontality?

MB: I see frontality as a question of balance. Say you have a small area of red—warm color, advances. You can hold that red in the same plane as blue—recedes—if you include enough of it. I work this out intuitively. In Goblin, the reds and yellow-oranges were balanced by a large area of green over pale violet. There are dark areas which could read as deeper space, but there’s so much going on color-wise in terms of hot and cool that the eye tends to keep moving around the painting.

Goblin
Goblin, oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm (30 x 24 in), 1991

I typically use lots of layers, and the earlier layers are sometimes revealed at the edges of shapes, sometimes in the interstices, and sometimes they disappear altogether. It may take several sessions before I can get an idea of where a painting and I agree in terms of color and composition. When that’s more or less settled, it’s a matter of moving slowly and making careful decisions to balance the colors and shapes and attenuate the mood.

JK: And by “attenuate the mood” you mean …

MB: When the painting’s mood is similar to what I intend and it otherwise has its own life, we’re done.

JK: You’ve mentioned that you begin with a few self-imposed guidelines. What are these?

MB: They tend to be rectilinear shapes. Over the years, I have moved from inventing shapes to the ordering possibilities of right angles. And the paintings came to be as much about the space between the shapes as the shapes themselves.

JK: And for you, reductive means are also a given?

MB: The essence of abstraction is reduction. Reducing the elements of form enables me to focus on the areas of inquiry I am most interested in—color, relationships, and edges.

Prince of the City
Prince of the City, oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm (30 x 24 in), 1993

JK: Yet restrictions in your formal means don’t imply minimizing or denying content?

MB: Most painters working with abstraction are by nature reductive and inquisitive and perhaps are looking for the place where form and content are indistinguishable. Much like physics where if one reduces enough, particles and waves are indistinguishable. I think Rothko located that place, maybe Joe Marioni, too.

JK: How would you describe the overarching content in your work?

MB: This may be a bit broad, but I’ll refer to Zen: “that which is greater than being or non-being.” Mystery, the sublime, the road less traveled, whatever you want to call it. An at first unfamiliar, but more aware way of seeing or being in the world. A river ran through the town where I grew up and I heard locals joke, “The river is up so high you can see under it.” That they might have been inadvertently referring to something metaphysical captured my imagination.

JK: Reviewers often comment on the strong feeling of structural coherence of your work.

MB: The structure in my paintings comes from my attempt to reorder the physical world by merging concepts, sensations and intuitions that occur in my conscious and unconscious mind. I think my paintings work better than the world does.

JK: As when painter Peter Pinchbeck called his paintings “mirrors of the mind”?

MB: Exactly. With equal weight to the unconscious.

JK: And, looking outward, a structural coherence perhaps akin to that found in architecture?

Pursuance
Pursuance, oil on canvas, 196 x 183 cm (77 x 72 in), 1994

MB: My work has been described as architectural, and I think this refers to my effort to arrange the shapes in a particular way that is intelligible to the viewer and myself. In the mid-90s my shapes were made of components that only had coherence in relation to the whole, which is a similar concept to architecture. I paid a lot of attention to gravity—for instance the paintings wouldn’t work as well upside-down.

JK: Over time, it seems that you’ve increasingly emphasized verticality.

MB: I’ve lately chosen to reduce the compositional elements to a series of generally long vertical rectangles, sometimes stacked, sometimes unbroken, always used as armatures on which to suspend paint and color. The associations these structures initially held for me were based on impressions made by buildings in London and New York where I lived on occasion. My current studio is in woods containing tall pines and deciduous trees. In winter I see a landscape of long, high vertical columns.

Sounion
Sounion, oil on canvas,145 x 122 cm (57 x 48 in), 1997

Most of these paintings are on vertically oriented supports. Vertical orientation has always meant the figure to me, and on some level the paintings are less about the world than they are self-portraits. Or the self at some level that I can’t articulate any other way. Sort of like the way dreams are self-portraits—we may not understand the significance of the imagery, but they’re self-generated and of course can be very powerful.

JK: You often leave the central area of your canvases relatively free of shapes or individual forms.

MB: In some earlier work, I was flanking a broad area with long vertical rectangles on the sides, then adding forms to the space or leaving it as an essentially flat plane of color.

Acknowledgment
Acknowledgment, oil & beeswax on canvas,
190 x 152 cm (75 x 60 in), 1999

Lately, I’ve begun to divide the central area into two rectangles of the same color, but of different values, which to me is an embodiment of the Buddhist principle of emptiness/fullness or kong. Simply put, emptiness and fullness are not in opposition, but are in essence the same thing. I don’t think of the flanking vertical stripes as geometry—they’re more like lateral predellas.

Resolution
Resolution, oil and Kremer pigments on canvas,
190 x 152 cm (75 x 60 in), 2005

JK: Predellas—making the central area a sort of alterpiece?

MB: I hadn’t thought of that, but the idea is very interesting!

JK: These recent works feel more spacious.

MB: I’ve been working to bring some atmospheric space into the paintings, less frontality. My attitude may have changed from assertion to more acceptance. I would say that I feel a sort of relief from the more frontal work. In Resolution [pictured above], I have placed long narrow verticals of blue and green to hint at the notion of sky or space or the sense of a plane behind the reds. I attribute this new interest in opening up the picture plane to observing the space between the trees in the clerestory windows above my painting wall. This compositional device can also be seen as analogous to spaces between buildings.

JK: And many of these pieces are quite large.

Mark Brown with Psalm & Resolution
Mark Brown with Untitled, oil and alkyd on canvas,
183 x 196 cm (72 x 77 in), 2005

MB: Three reasons come to mind: I often feel the need to get my whole body involved in the painting process, the split channel in the center doesn’t work as powerfully in smaller scaled paintings, and they’re about the maximum size I can move around when wet, unaided.

JK: The movement away from frontality and confrontation seems to accelerate in your current series, Winterreise.

MB: With the Winterreise series, I am aiming to provoke a reaction more along the lines of what I have heard in Schubert’s Winterreise lieder or seen in Friedrich’s Winterreise—some mixture of Romantic melancholy and recognition that the world situation is especially dire at this moment in time. The Winterreise paintings have been described as “neo-Romantic.”

Caspar David Friedrich's Winterreise
Winterreise by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)

Like the Romantics, I find more of what I’m looking for in art in the irrational, the intuitive. To quote the late Peter Pinchbeck, “Painting must go its own way. It must always elude our understanding.”

Winterreise 1
Winterreise 1, oil & alkyd on canvas,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2004

JK: And your feelings about the top-to-bottom verticals in this series?

MB: With the Winterreise series, I’m more aware that the stripes are analogous to trees. I was walking on a rise in a forest of hardwoods not far from my studio in late winter, and noticed the grey sky behind the leafless trees. I remembered once walking in the woods disoriented and alone at night as a boy. I saw the stark beauty of the trees silhouetted against the moonlight and the shadows the trees cast on the snow. It may have been my first awareness of the sublime.

Winterreise 15
Winterreise 15, oil & alkyd on birch panel,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2005

JK: Barnett Newman also wanted to invest abstraction with content and was concerned with the experience of the sublime. Do you feel any kinship between your verticals and his “zips”?

MB: My verticals in this series are more descriptive and can be interpreted as referents to trees, icicles or chasms. In opposition to Newman, I’m approaching the sublime via a naturalistic reading.

Winterreise 9
Winterreise 9, oil & alkyd on birch panel,
24 x 20 cm (10 x 8 in), 2005

JK: I’m struck by how often music comes up in relation to your work.

MB: I experience the world primarily through my senses rather than my intellect. In the process of applying to graduate school I scored very high on the Miller Analogies Test. It seems to follow that someone who approaches the world through the senses and is strong in analogies would have a tendency towards synesthesia—hearing colors, seeing sounds. Sometimes I hear a mood in music—I rarely pay attention to lyrics—that sounds like something I’m trying to get at or aspire to in my painting. I’ve never understood the popular concept of inspiration, as for me painting seems as natural as eating or sleeping, but hearing the right music at the right time might be as close to understanding that kind inspiration as I’m going to get.

JK: And you’re more concerned with the experience of the sublime rather than, say, with beauty?

MB: I think that the sublime includes beauty and fear—and has the potential for a much more powerful response in the observer—though it’s much harder to access than beauty alone. My touchstone is the scene in Kubrick’s film, 2001 when the astronaut Bowman travels through space and encounters a beautiful and frightening new galaxy. Close-ups show the reflection of the aurora borealis—like lights in one wide, infrequently blinking eye.

Not long ago, I read sympathetic lines in poet Franz Wright’s The Only Animal:

…You gave me

in secret one thing

to perceive, the

tall blue starry

strangeness of being

here at all.

You gave us each in secret one thing to perceive…

 

I have so far managed to remain ink free, but my imaginary tattoo would read “Born To Be Awed.”

Mark Brown
Artist Mark Brown

JK: I’d like to conclude with the painting that you told me might be your all-time favorite, Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea.

Monk by the Sea
Monk by the Sea, oil on canvas, 110 x 172 cm (43 x 68 in), 1809-10

More information about Mark Brown at markbrownpaintings.com

Interview images and text copyright©2006 Julie Karabenick and Mark Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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