Joan Brown's The Search is a self-portrait. The artist stands before a painting she is working on: a half-length portrait of an Egyptian queen. In fact, we have two portraits: Brown's painting itself and the unfinished one on the artist's easel. Although we see two women, ancient and modern, Brown is attired in a provocatively transparent shift, head wrap, and shoes that suggest Egyptian dress. But as a twentieth-century woman she holds a cigarette in one hand. It wittily mimics the paintbrush she holds in the other, which disturbingly seems to be dripping drops of red blood. The upward spiraling trails of smoke and the artist's searching expression suggest that she is in deep reverie, pausing to think on the progress of her painting. Or, is there more?
What is the fuller nature of Brown's introspection? The contemporary artist and the Egyptian queen float in a dream-like space of mottled blues, greens, and pinks—the pinks and lavenders of Brown's dress linked to the gown on the Egyptian queen. The two women even share the same type of banded necklace. The artist must in some way identify with her predecessor. Is she pondering the roles of women in history determined by power, beauty, and sensual allure? Is Brown's ultimate concern her identity and status as an artist and woman in a modern world? Perhaps, in the tradition of Rembrandt's and Vincent Van Gogh's self portraits, Brown is reflecting on who she is as a human being.
Joan Brown, The Search, 1977, enamel on canvas, 96 1/2 x 78 inches. Collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Purchase, through National Endowment for the Arts grant with matching funds from Mr. and Mrs. Frederic F. Renfert. 81.0.20 © Estate of Joan Brown. Courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim.
Joan Brown. Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.