Roger Brown

Teaching Page

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Roger Brown, Mountain Sites, 1973, oil on canvas, 54 x 70 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Purchase, through a contribution from the Wisconsin State Journal.
Roger Brown, Family Tree Mourning Print, 1987, woodcut, 11 x 14 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Anonymous gift

This teaching page provides analysis of the work of art, background information on the artist, key ideas, discussion questions, and online resources for additional learning. You can also download a PDF of this teaching page and a large image of Mountain Sites and Family Tree Mourning Print. These works are on view in Taking Sides through October 15, 2017.

THE ART

Two couples stand behind fences that distinguish their world from the scene before them, where the natural environment of mountains and valleys is being developed with housing and landscaping. Homes, curving hedges, and artificial lighting have been added to plots of land between the eighteen mountains. Residents have already moved in, and people are silhouetted in lighted windows. The brown mountainsides seem to have been cleared of vegetation, causing erosion and deep gullies. The turquoise color of the properties looks peculiar, like enamel or candy, possibly from added fertilizer. Even though the image suggests a developing neighborhood of homes, the houses are isolated from each other. Behind and above the scene a black line suggests a darkened sky over a bank of yellow receding into a pallid white atmosphere; but it might also be perceived as a simultaneous, and perhaps ominous, depiction of both day and night. Roger Brown painted a scene in nature but the colors are unvarying, there are no meandering signs of natural growth, and there is an unsettling suggestion of both dawn and dusk as if growth and devastation are happening at the same time. The two couples might be contemplating the purchase of a mountain site, or they may be worried about the transformation of nature and the changing mountain “sights.”

Mountain Sites is balanced and symmetrical, as if each side would be the same if it were divided in half. The whole scene seems flattened against the canvas without a diminishing sight line. The repetitive, stylized patterns, strong colors, and flattened space are carefully composed to lure viewers into the scene and uncover its meaning. The painting may allude to societal developments in the middle of the twentieth century by picturing the sprawl of suburban homes into the rural landscape. Particularly inspired by his trips across America, Roger Brown used his work for reflection on historical and current events. Mountain Sites echoes American traditions of landscape painting, with its depictions of a vast, unspoiled American landscape, but Mountain Sites calls attention to processes leading to its alteration or destruction.

Another image by Roger Brown that uses strong colors and lines is the woodcut Family Tree Mourning Print, in which the natural form of a tree is employed to convey a message about societal circumstances and beliefs. Each branch of the tree ends in a leafy bough named for a major war in United States history, starting with the War of Independence and extending upwards to the Vietnam War. Stylized shapes like those in the hedges of Mountain Sites define the leaves of the repeated boughs. A flaming red sky recedes into yellow and then into an atmospheric white distance. On one side of the tree an obelisk recalls the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia and shares the same pictorial space as the weeping woman on the right. The title, like that of Mountain Sites, conveys double meaning and carries a layered message about our country’s traditions of both honor for and loss of human and natural resources.  

THE ARTIST

Much of Roger Brown’s work draws from memories of his Southern upbringing and the Chicago artists he came to know later in life. Born James Roger Brown on December 10, 1941 in Hamilton, Alabama and raised in nearby Opelika, the young artist had an early interest in visual and material culture. As a child, he took art classes and appreciated the folk, handmade, and functional objects that were characteristic of the American South. His early interest in comic strips, theater, and machine-age culture resonates in his mature work. Despite plans to become a preacher, he ultimately pursued art as a career in Chicago, where he earned two degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also worked at a decal company learning a hard-edge, airbrush, commercial style of art. During this time he was influenced by the naïve work of Joseph Yoakum, whose flattened perspective, over-all patterning, and simplicity likewise became hallmarks of Brown’s work. Another characteristic of Brown’s style is isometrically-derived spaces that feature sight lines that are parallel instead of convergent for depicting three-dimensional objects in two dimensions. This means that there are no vanishing points, causing the plane of the work to be flattened. The figures in Brown’s works are often lit from behind and theatrically staged, and the low areas of the image are often highlighted over the elevated planes, a characteristic that is attributed to the influence of works by Georgia O’Keeffe. 

Like many of the Chicago Imagists, Brown rendered his subjects playfully and departed from notions that serious art must always be abstract or realistic. Many of his paintings were inspired by comic strips from the 1940s and advertisements in magazines and newspapers, and he used similar dark lines and simplified images. Throughout his career he wanted his works to have the approachability of folk art while at the same time depicting the complexities of twentieth-century America. 

KEY IDEAS

  • symmetry, line, and color as formal components that contribute to meaning in a work of art
  • development of individual artist style from observation of popular visual culture
  • art that contemplates effects of societal patterns on people and the environment

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. As you look around Mountain Sites, what aspects of the painting make your eyes stop―the colors, the light, the lines, or something else? Roger Brown is interested in simplicity—in making things easier to look at and understand. Why do you think he chose these colors? What do you notice about the primary shapes? What are some effects of repeating the shapes? What are your ideas about what is happening in this scene?
  2. Where is the light coming from in Mountain Sites? What helps you reach this conclusion?
  3. What do the differences in size between the people and the mountains suggest? Why do you think the figures at the bottom of Mountain Sites are fenced out?
  4. What do you notice that is unusual about the way Roger Brown has depicted closeness and distance in his use of sight lines and perspective?
  5. How would you describe the mood in this painting? Do you feel a sense of optimism about the people’s opportunity for homes in a natural setting or a more ominous sense about changes that are occurring to the land?
  6. Roger Brown’s ideas for his art often came from the news media, and from past historical and political events. What are some of the ideas conveyed in Mountain Sites and Family Tree Mourning Print?
  7. How effective do you think it is to use a cartoon-like image to describe a serious subject? 

RESOURCES

On the Artist
DC Moore Gallery artist page
ArtNews article
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Study Collection

Art Methods
Contemporary Folk Art
PBS Feature: The Golden Age of Comics

Context
Roger Brown on his collection
The American environmental movement