By Alan Bisbort
10:00 AM EDT, September 6, 2012
Stephen Brown: Legacy
Sept. 4-Oct 14, Joseloff Gallery, Hartford Art School, University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, (860) 768-4090, joseloffgallery.org/info.
Nestled inside Stephen Brown: Legacy, an exhibition on view at University of Hartford's Joseloff Gallery through Oct. 14, is a small, delicate, unobtrusive painting of a dead bird. It's not an Audubon-like attempt to reanimate the bird on canvas. No, it's just a dead anonymous little bird lying on its back, feet scrunched upward in throes of rigor mortis, painted as a still life. Brown, however, does something with this bird that's far more revealing than an Audubon painting. He honors it by entitling the work "Psalm 84:34," then bathes the bird in a reverential light that reveals the delicate beauty of even such a tossed aside creature as this.
Though he would probably never have stated it openly, this bird — rather, the respectful manner with which he treated it — was emblematic of the artist's own life story. Diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease as a teenager in Colorado, Brown overcame the initial assault, yet lived with its specter thereafter. He went off to Brooklyn College to study art under the likes of Philip Pearlstein and Lennart Anderson — both of whom contribute essays to the exhibition catalog — met his future wife Gretchen Treitz (also a painter), married and raised a son and daughter while pursuing a career as an artist and teacher at University of Hartford from 1989 until his death to cancer in 2009 at age 59.
Stephen Brown: Legacy serves as a tribute to the artist and human being, but it is also a comprehensive career retrospective that has been divided into different subjects and genres: still lifes, portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, animal life, and acrylic pastels. One testament to Brown's success as an artist is that half the pieces on view at the Joseloff were loaned by owners.
"One family donated six pieces for the show, and they love Stephen's work so much that it was hard for them to part with them for two months," says Lisa Gaumond, Joseloff's director. "All of the collectors feel the same way. They've kept me on the phone telling me what a great guy Stephen was."
No matter the genre, Brown's work is of uniformly high quality, unpretentious, humble, eschewing any discernible trends. Some of the work, especially the later paintings, seems to exist in the same timeless realm with the Renaissance masters Brown studied in art school. It's clear that he was not out to destroy the traditions of Western art but to befriend the best aspects of it in portraiture, perspective, light, color, accuracy of rendering, atmosphere, and then pass that knowledge on to the next few generations.
Walter Hall was Brown's closest friend on the University of Hartford faculty, a confidant and kindred spirit. "Losing him at age 59 is still hard to accept," he writes in his catalog tribute, "He was not ready to let go, and his aspirations were nowhere near ended. But the fact that his last works…stand with his best provides a measure of consolation for me."
Though he eventually died of cancer, Brown's health was compromised after 2006, when he had a stroke. He continued to teach while recovering, though he couldn't hold a paint brush. He worked himself back into shape, so to speak, by taking to pastel chalks and drawing trees, some of which are in the show. Gradually he got his body back in shape to paint again.
Walter Hall recalls visiting him at the worst of his illness and finding him painting a doorknob, vividly recreating the object in oils. He came to pick Brown up to take him to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Hall found him working on a "small but intense painting of a doorknob glowing as though lit from within, utterly defying in its conviction and vibrancy the state of his compromised body."
That doorknob is including among the fascinating still lifes in Legacy. Brown used single objects and painted them alone, such as a potato on a plate, olives floating in a jar, an onion, a pear, a pair of untied boots. He infused these mundane objects with a tender attention to detail, elevating them somehow.
"Students felt that he was so real," said Gaumond. "If they didn't feel like holding class inside, he'd take them outside and sit among the trees and they would talk about art and life."
Stanwyck Cromwell is one of Brown's students who went on to a distinguished career as an artist and a teacher. "Stephen was a great artist and a very well liked guy at the school," said Cromwell, who was born and raised in British Guiana. "He wasn't just a professor but an artist too, and that made a big difference. When you have people coming from different countries and backgrounds to an art school, you can't expect every artist's work to look the same. Stephen allowed his students to flow."
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