Earthly Gifts to Warm the Soul: Delia Brown
Oxford House Projects, los angeles
THrough March 27, 2022
Written by Genie Davis
Spending an afternoon on a veranda, painting images of oneself in deshabille, serving refreshments to interested guests on a spring afternoon…that is an apt description of Delia Brown’s lush live painting exhibition, Vanitas, which ran for just under a week the end of March.
Brown relates that the exhibition was inspired by “the art historical term for still life that reminds you of death’s inevitability and the ephemeral nature of earthly gifts.” And high among those gifts, and too underappreciated by most of us, is the one that we carry with us every day – our bodies.
Brown explains, “I had been painting myself in my fifty-two-year-old body in an effort to come to terms with how life and time have taken their toll on me, but combined with my love of the romantic, sexy, and glamorous; marrying dualistic ideas about femininity and desire — bringing them into the same space so they can push against each other, to challenge our collective cultural notions about each.”
This creation led to an exhibition decision. “I had wanted to hang the paintings in a domestic space that would reinforce the sense of intimacy that the paintings invite. I had the idea that playing host, myself, would further lend to the viewer’s experience of crossing a threshold from public to private, and provide the possibility of making them feel seen by me in the way that I am being seen by them.”
According to the artist, she’s contextualized her painting practice in intimate installations, and layering those installations with her own performance elements since she was a grad student. “For my thesis show in 2000, I turned a section of UCLA’s Wight Gallery into a stage set — an upscale hotel suite — and held a private party within it. The difference there was that the party was a performance, populated by actors, and viewers had to stand behind velvet ropes to watch us carousing. Vanitas was different because it erased the line of separation that those velvet ropes reinforced. For Vanitas, viewers came right across that line between performer and viewer, fully entering the space, Jennifer Lehr’s home, Oxford House, to be waited on by me and Jennifer, who would greet them at the door, give them a tour, make them a drink on the patio.”
The experiential exhibition dovetails to some extent with past work by Brown, who most recently reprised her 2004 work Live Drawing in two different iterations: one at Maccarone in Los Angeles as a part of a group show, Pleasure Principle, and second, in West Palm Beach Florida’s The Bunker.
“I created a tiny atelier where I would sit with a live model, drawing nudes, and viewers could peer in and watch. This placed the viewer in the role of voyeur, giving them the opportunity to witness a typically private process, while making them acutely aware of their relationship to seeing and being seen.”
Again, citing the difference with Vanitas, this time, Brown collapsed “the distance between viewing and performing. Creating a participatory inclusiveness felt like something I needed to do after two years of pandemic isolation. I have been living almost exclusively amongst my family in Berkeley for the past two years, so I knew that coming back to Los Angeles for this show and getting to feel a physical proximity to friends and the art community would satisfy a lot of the longing for contact and connection.”
Brown has already been attracted to the paintings of the flaneur painters like Manet, Degas, Lautrec, and reveals that in her rich, vibrantly colored paintings in this exhibition. There are softly impressionistic images, such as “Blonde Woman Reading Grapefruit,” and the more realistically detailed “2021-2022,” awash in golden light. For Brown, the artists she cites “captured quotidian contemporary concerns rather than going for grandiosity. The ground they paved for painting to evolve into the formal explorations of the twentieth century, their adventurous use of color, flattening of the picture plane, all of that — I still think that’s where painting’s expressive possibility is most interestingly situated.”
Brown may shape her figurative images rooted in these tenets, but primarily, she says she makes this work because “I’m curious about people. I paint women almost exclusively, I think because we relate to ‘being seen’ in a more interesting, self-conscious, and complicated way than men, because of how we’ve been conditioned to navigate our limited power within a patriarchal system.”
The artist draws freehand, because as she explains “Free-hand drawing produces fluidity and beauty. However, I admit that I struggle an inordinate amount with reworking figures because I’ll draw the head too big for the body, the legs too short for the torso, and so my process often ends up more time-consuming and tedious than it ought to be for my mental health!” She adds “At some point during the making of the paintings in Vanitas I began to use a grid to help me with the proportions, and it was very helpful. It still takes away from the pleasure of free-hand drawing, because the gestural nature, or spirit of it is compromised, but it saved me a lot of the frustration of reworking the figure that has historically plagued my practice.”
Brown plans to continue exploring aging, intimacy, class, gaze, and each of these elements’ relationship to “the feminine masquerade, design and decor.”
If you missed the all-too-brief Vanitas live, you can view many of the images at https://www.oxfordhouseprojects.com/. And follow the artist’s work, as Brown says she has “many ideas for more projects that involve painting, performance, music, and installation.”