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The New Yorker

Roger Brown

December 5, 2019


Roger Brown, "Sarajevo the Serbian Way," 1993, Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 in (182.9 x 121.9 cm)

Roger Brown

by Johanna Fateman

Brown, who died in 1997, was associated with the Chicago Imagists—an eccentric cohort of Pop-surrealist painters who emerged in the nineteen-sixties—but his fire-and-brimstone themes likely derive from his upbringing in Bible Belt Alabama. In many of the arresting canvases in this career-spanning show, dark skies roil with rhythmic patterns, as disaster strikes strange landscapes below. A wonderful group of small paintings, all from 1968, reveal the influence of film noir. The square compositions depict Art Deco theatre interiors, with audience members seen in silhouette; in one, the discovery of a body seems to flicker onscreen. 

There’s an undeniably playful aspect to Brown’s work, although his gloomy graphic sensibility is also a vehicle for social critique. Take “Acid Rain,” from 1984, a stark monochrome punctuated by black, leafless trees, or “Sarajevo the Serbian Way,” from 1994, in which the bloody siege referenced in the title is rendered as a comic-book cataclysm, deftly highlighting the illusory aspect of distant horror.

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