I was first attracted to Joan Brown’s painting Green Bowl (1964) twenty seven years ago when I first saw it in the book, Bay Area Figurative Art.
I had just started to paint seriously and was struck by Brown’s thick, sculptural handling of the paint; the impasto seemed to push the painting into three dimensions. I was intrigued by her subtle and deft use of grey and brown tones. I was fascinated by the shades of yellow-green that were both garish and correct, the simple composition, the use of light and shadow, and the way she drew the bowl.
Two months ago I spontaneously came upon this painting at SF MOMA. The museum has about twenty pieces of Brown’s work.
You can see that this is a simple painting of a bowl, just a bowl.
A unique choice, I think, to paint a bowl — no fruit in this bowl, no more dishes on the table, no flowers to create a vertical line. I have only ever seen maybe one other small painting of a solitary bowl since then.
ALL of the paint on this piece is thick. The paint is so modeled and sculptural that it looks like used brown clay, yes, troweled green-gray clay, or possibly wet cement. One can almost imagine picking it up. I admire the subtle differences in tone between grey, brown and green — I envision her diving right into this limited palette, showing off.
But, here is what I did not know about that painting. I did not know that it was cropped out of a larger painting, to become a new painting. So as it turns out Brown did not compose this work with a solitary table, and that singular bowl in mind. She recognized after the fact how re-framing the piece, alone, could work.
Since then I’ve continued to explore the idea of fragmenting a painting to create a new work; something that is whole unto itself. I thought about what Annette Messager said of her work, “In this process I was trying to point out what already exists, to put it in a form and to sometimes reformulate it.”
I love the process of noticing or attending to something that has-been overlooked. This dish had, I imagine, been sidelined in the larger painting. Brown was now giving it her full attention— so we could do the same.
by Beth Cody