Utilizing idiosyncratic techniques that are both playful and strategic, Melissa Brown has transformed the traditional landscape painting into a magical meditation on form and perception. For Palisades, her sweeping study of the towering topography of Palisades Interstate Park, she draws upon her extensive printmaking skills and sensitivity to such disparate genres as Lyrical Abstraction, Japanese Ukiyo-e and skate graphics to create a hybrid structure which vividly captures the majestic vistas observed over a year of trips through the park. All twelve works of various sizes are executed on raw canvas that has been dyed, airbrushed and saturated with hazy earth tones. Brown then builds vibrant tableaus from layers of oil onto this delicate ground through a complex procedure of stenciling and monoprinting. Shifting between actual geologic forms and phantasmagoric apparitions, the cliffs, trees, leaves and waves of these landscapes are bathed in a supernatural radiance which evokes a timelessness that is at once ancient and yet profoundly present.
For Parvenu View (2011, 48 x 48 inches), Brown places us along the Hudson River, hovering high enough in the cliffs to induce a subtle sense of vertigo. At the very top of the painting the Bronx skyline of soaring tenements juts up from the river bank, echoing the dramatic verticality of the surrounding columnar rocks, which Native Americans once referred to as rows of trees. The same palette of grays, greens and purples used for these tenements is repeated in the two stately tree trunks that stand in the most extreme foreground, rising from the cliffs below. Ghostly gnomish faces are cunningly stenciled into the bark, transforming these trees into animated totem poles. Swirling waves from the Hudson cut through each tree, mimicking the shimmering visual effects of sunlight dancing on water. The misty water-colored ripples call to mind some of Georgia O’Keefe’s more abstract moments, whereas many of the more colorfully cartoonish facial features retain the vibrancy of a skateboard silkscreen. Brown seems to relish in this potent cocktail of high and low cultural reference points.
On a more intimate scale, Peanut Cascade Marker (2012, 28 x 19 inches) serves as a study of the totemic tree while still capturing the panoramic nature of its setting. The background’s saturated canvas has all the murky richness of a Helen Frankenthaler while retaining a certain tie-dyed Hippy slapdash bliss. The trunk is placed front and center, towering in an atmospheric haze of pastel blues and purples. Its bark is dark and rich, with impasto-like layers of paint adding a weathered feel to the emerging faces. Once again, Brown juggles cultural allusions deftly. While the raw, heavy-lidded figures can easily fit into the Art Brut aesthetic, it’s also impossible to ignore their striking similarity to the talking apple trees from The Wizard of Oz.
The splendor of Overlord Envy (2012, 60 x 44 inches) is achieved in its radically vertical construction. Like the Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints (literally translated as “pictures of the floating world”) that Brown seems to be drawing inspiration from, the landscape depicted here is full of grand gestures and majestically fleeting moments. The iridescent background is punctuated by brilliant slabs stone and wispy blades of vegetation. Pale blue trees stretch regally towards a castle of cliffs; their totemic expressions appear almost reverential. As two scraps of paper float in and out of view, we are reminded of our inevitable presence as contemporary interlopers in an otherwise pristine natural setting. Yet, in Melissa Brown’s fantastical world, we can be joyful participants in a Zen-like alchemy of vision, where we become one with what we actually see and what clouds our imaginations.