Roger Brown (1941–97) turned a limited set of borrowed motifs into paintings that can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. Seen only in silhouette, the same two people occupy almost all of the Chicago Imagist’s surreal scenes: a man wearing a hat and overcoat, who seems to have stepped out of a René Magritte work, and a woman with an iconic 1940s hairdo. Myriad variations on these figures wander through Desert Crater and Cave Park, as they gawk at biomorphic American landscapes that radiate menace despite Brown’s cheery, Sunday-comics palette and figuration.
In Tourist Trap (1974), a gloomy couple watch four men swim in a giant lap pool excavated in the middle of nowhere, while people standing nearby on blue-tinged, artificial-looking grass marvel at a rock formation. The eerie landscape’s man-made and natural features dwarf Brown’s human figures, who cast shadows in contradictory directions, recalling Giorgio de Chirico. Yet Brown’s crisp details, maintained even at a tiny scale, and the smooth, flat, hand-blended areas of exquisite color mark the piece as his own.
In Fishermen with Their Wives and Reflections (1976), the artist gives each miniscule figure a shadow, a reflection in the water—and a personality, conveyed through pose and gesture. As in his other paintings, Brown pits his remarkable realism, which extends to the precise little ripples embellishing the water, against the fantastic nature of his composition.
A few of Brown’s theater scenes, cityscapes and signature paintings on household objects complete this enjoyable retrospective of his early career.