William Eric Brown: ColorStatic
On ViewThe National Arts Club
April 5 – June 28, 2021
William Eric Brown’s ColorStatic is a highly innovative show of TV screen-like tablets, spotted with random shapes that look both like abstract paintings and the static ones that used to be found on televisions. Brown fills a metal pan with two tubes of watercolor paint and waits—as long as a week—for the liquid to evaporate. He then presses wet plaster onto the paint residue, and the surface picks up the color in ways that turn it into a record of the hue’s impress. Sometimes the imprint of the wire mesh will be evident on the surface if Brown presses the plaster down hard on the dried, formerly-liquid color.
Brown has no real control over the final image with the exception of his choice of colors. (One might think of Fluxus artist Jackson Mac Low, who created poems using chance in the manner of John Cage, a fellow collaborator.) This arbitrariness can result in flat expanses of color characterized by unformed blots of white where the plaster did not pick up the color. Little matter, though—the results are somehow fairly high-tech, given to the visual noise of the television, and classically historical, joined to the long history of abstraction in New York.
One painting/tablet is an off-white, slightly gray surface, which Brown’s audience might well imagine as a mist, with subtle variations in tone. Looking at this painting, the viewer would find it easy to recall the monochromatic works of the ’60s. But we remember that the process does not result directly from Brown’s hand; instead, its inchoate atmosphere results from chance. I don’t think that Brown has much say in what happens in the paintings, but he has skillfully used a haphazard, direct transfer of color that results in a hauntingly abstract image. Sometimes remarkable results occur when an image is allowed to follow its own direction, determined by independent processes beyond the hand of the artist.
The medium-sized, horizontally aligned plaster tablets are displayed in a single row across the walls of the gallery so that they work nearly as an installation. Subtle variations occur from one tablet to the next. In ColorStatic G1, the composition consists of different variants of green—dark in the center with a lighter hue partially framing it and, around the lighter green, a grass color filling the edges of the tablet. Mesh shows through in two small areas in the middle left. One might look askance at the lack of a controlling hand, but the beautiful colors and random effects of the process are more than enough to construct an image of substance.
A grouping of three panels may be the most stunning passage of Brown’s show. It consists of two lighter red panels on the left, and a deeper red panel on the right. One’s association might be a ruby/rust-colored skyscape, in which cloudlike forms are colored in a compellingly reddish light. The middle panel is lightest in color, flanked on the left by a slightly darker red panel and on the right by a rich deep red one. As a triptych, it is dramatic, even baroque in its implications. Bits of white peek through in the first and third panels, mostly the lower part of the two tablets. One thinks of Turner’s billowing clouds, though their hue pushes the three parts toward a dramatic, even a suggestively violent statement.
The biggest question concerning Brown’s show has to do with his methodology. Just how much control should an artist cede to his creativity? The music of John Cage, often produced in improvised collaboration with his musicians, comes to mind. The interesting part about Brown’s art is his willingness to let go. By now, this methodology is well established, and Brown participates in this avant-garde tradition with enthusiasm and intelligence, resulting in a body of work that is part painting, part low relief, and more than partly inspired in his embrace of strategies he cannot control. The result is a very good show.