Untitled #1, 2008, Acrylic Collage on paper.

Elins/Eagle-Smith Gallery


by Anthony Torres

Theophilus Brown: Recent Abstract Collages at Elins Eagle-Smith Gallery in San Francisco presents 20 acrylic-on-paper collages that represent a new direction for Theophilus Brown, an artist always interested in the figure, who has been associated with Bay Area figuration and the exploration of the dialectical relationship between of abstraction and figuration since the 1950s.

In the Recent Abstract Collages, done over the last four years, we see the results of a self-reflexive practice of selecting, re-claiming, and manipulating painterly residues left from previous excursions and experiments in studio — peeled acrylic paint shards from his palette — that Theophilus Brown deploys as a strategy for engaging non-figurative aesthetic concerns associated with American abstraction.

Here, the acrylic-on-paper constructions are formed from a process of cutting, moving, and manipulating the painted materials — used as base components of the collages — that reveal Brown’s artistic virtuosity through the juxtaposition of lines, shapes, and a continuum of colors, which range from bright primaries to stark contrasts of black and white, and earth tones, integrated and bound by incised lines embedded in the paint surfaces, to reveal the painted colors underneath.

In many of the collages, the painterly gestural “actions” are evidenced all over the picture plane, in others, it appears in the applied shards of paint. In many cases the shapes, area borders and lines are formed by the edges of the cut over-laid painted paper, while in others by the incised lines in the paint. In all cases, he utilizes these pictorial elements to create dynamism through the pictorial structure, composition, and the placement of the colors in the work.

Despite the dense fusion of these varied components, there seems to be identifiable “types” of work within collages in the exhibition, characterized by painterly gestural abstraction, by geometric architectonic structures, and those that emphasize a fractured pictorial surface construction.

Within these varied works, there are nonetheless unifying qualities, such as balanced symmetry, a sense harmonious discordance that speaks to the rhythmic ebbs and flows in the work that are bound by associated compositional counterpoints.

If this body of work may be thought of as partaking of a constellation of modernist ideas based in Cubist, Dadaist, and Surrealist disruptions anchored in formal strategies that problematized Western painterly representations centered in illusions of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface, they do so by revealing that formal techniques are capable being co-opted, disavowed, and subsumed through technical appropriation in the service of addressing a fundamentally different sets of issues.  Here Brown translates the formal vocabularies of collage in the service of non-objective abstract sensibilities.

Through a self-reflexive practice of selecting, re-claiming, and manipulating painterly residues leftover from addressing formal challenges and experiments in studio, Brown re-deploys and thus re-signifies these remnants as a strategy to engage non-figurative aesthetic concerns associated with American abstraction.

While the significance of Theophilus Brown, who recently turned 90 years old, is usually anchored in the past through his associations with artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Mark Rothko and his close friendships with Willem and Elaine de Kooning, whom he says had a strong influence on his work, as well as Brown’s integral participation in the development of San Francisco Bay Area Figurative art, what is crucial in reflecting on what unifies his diverse bodies of work is recognizing his ongoing formal concern with integrating volumes and shapes, balancing illumination and compositional structures across different media, content, and genres, and his ability to manipulate the tools and materials at his disposal, to (re)presenting his varied subjects in pictorial space, through knowledge and lessons learned over years of artistic practice, which in the collages function as a form of visual allegory for individual artistic subjectivity, and a greatness wholly infused and implicated in living and making art.

Anthony Torres is an independent art critic and curator who has taught at Ohio State and UC Santa Cruz.