There's an increased sense of relatability in art when a familiar scene is intertwined with ambiguous characters, or vice versa, allowing the viewer to place themselves within the work. That is precisely the feeling emitted by Deborah Brown's shadow paintings. You may not know that house, but that is a shadow of you and your beloved pup, perusing the streets left barren by the COVID-19 Quarantine. Or, it may be a picture your friend or relative sent you as they passed by the building you once called home.
"The shadows are not gendered or racialized, and I think that's why people related to them," Brown said.
Brown started making the shadow painting series in December 2020, and her painting career was subsequently propelled to new heights. Seeing her shadow elongated on the long streets of Bushwick's warehouse district reminded her of the temporality of German expressionism. The series derives from pictures taken on her phone, but the final products are not exact representations of the image.
In some paintings, her shadow doesn't emerge from the bottom of the scene, as it would in a real picture. In others, colours are disconnected from their origin, allowing the viewer to make connections.
"The descriptive elements are not so tied to the surface of the real thing, they're more about the progress of your eyes through the painting," she said. "Marks untethered from representation of one thing going across boundaries; you're not cataloguing specific objects with boundaries being what delineates them... It's about what you're making connections between."
After an immediate focus on the shadows with no identity, the vibrant use of colours guides the viewer through the masterfully captured scene, creating relational attributes between spaces and highlighting eccentric architectural features like aluminium siding, ornate glass door frames or barbed wire.
Brown employed the same idea for a show in Los Angeles at Gavlak, portraying neighbourhoods near where she grew up and statues in Huntington Garden. The grandeur of the houses and palm trees provided a different feeling than the quirky dwellings in the Brooklyn area where the series originated.
Smaller versions of the shadow paintings were produced on masonite, a slick surface with no absorbent quality. The vastly contrasting colours on these tiny versions amazed our members during the visit—the lack of human activity in tandem with vivid colours made for a loud depiction of such quiet scenes. "The colours are very invented because these are drab places. [Not] painting with light, but with colour that makes the light."
Brown's domestic scenes of a much different scale were also on display and maintained her painterly vocabulary. "I think they carry the influence of having done the shadow paintings, trying to activate the surface with the mark that didn't just describe one thing."
While the depicted skulls from her husband's dental practice are not commonly found in homes, there was still a relatability in the works. The furniture and blurred family pictures could exist in anyone's domicile. Brown considers them to be self-portraits also, much like the shadow paintings.
For such an unprecedented time, when life as we knew it ceased to exist, Brown's paintings captured the essence of isolation.
"The existential feeling of loneliness is implied, so it captures our consciousness," Brown said. "Painting has a way of revealing ourselves to ourselves... it's an amazing medium when it works, and I hope I've communicated that."
-- Words by Gideon Fortune
Studio visits are a part of the Cultivist's events programme available to our club-level members. Find more information regarding our membership levels here.