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November 19th, 2020

Each week, Artful spotlights an art experience or destination that speaks to us right now.

When she first emerged in the Bay Area scene of the late 1950s and early '60s, the painter Joan Brown was known for her thick impasto. (Among her close friends and contemporaries was Jay DeFeo, whose monumental painting The Rose was so densely layered that it weighed almost a ton). In the mid-'60s, however, Brown seemed to fall out of love with the physicality of paint. Her work from that point on embraced flatness and a pared-down, but symbolically rich, figuration influenced by Henri Rousseau and ancient Egypt, among other diverse sources.

A dozen of these colorful and mysterious canvases are now at Venus Over Manhattan (through December 23), in a show that includes loans from the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa. Among the works on view are Grey Wolf with Red Clouds and Dark Tree (1968), with its confrontational lupine apparition and menacing landscape, and the more whimsical Woman Preparing for a Shower (1975), in which the main figure shimmies out of her polka-dot robe as a small, obedient dog waits nearby with a checkered towel.

Two other works reflect the fact that Brown was an accomplished swimmer, serious enough to train in San Francisco Bay with an Olympic coach. They show sleek, silhouette-like figures diving and doing the crawl, and invite us to see Brown's style of painting, for all its quirks, as a similarly disciplined and athletic effort.

Joan Brown, The Swimmers #2 (The Crawl), 1974. Enamel and oil pastel on canvas, 73 x 85 in (185.4 x 215.9 cm). Collection of Jill + Darius Bikoff, courtesy Venus Over Manhattan, New York.Joan Brown, Grey Wolf with Red Clouds and Dark Tree, 1968. Oil on canvas, 61 x 85 1/4 in; (154.9 x 216.5 cm). Private collection, courtesy Venus Over Manhattan, New York.Joan Brown, Woman Preparing for a Shower, 1975. Enamel on canvas, 84 x 72 in (213.4 x 182.9 cm). Courtesy di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.Joan Brown, David with Sphinx, 1978. Acrylic on paper; Sheet: 18 x 24 in (45.7 x 61 cm), Framed: 18 1/4 x 25 3/8 in (46.4 x 64.3 cm). Courtesy di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.Joan Brown, The Long Journey, 1981. Enamel on canvas, 78 x 96 in (198.1 x 243.8 cm). Courtesy di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Joan Brown, Self-Portrait in Fur Hat, 1972. Oil enamel on panel; Work: 40 5/8 x 29 3/4 in (103.2 x 75.6 cm) Framed: 41 1/4 x 30 1/4 in (104.8 x 76.8 cm). Courtesy di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

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