Highlights: Roger That
Kate Pollasch (Dual MA 2013), a dual-degree Master of Arts student in Modern Art History, Theory, and Criticism and Arts Administration and Policy, curated the exhibition Roger Brown: This Boy’s Own Story, which runs at the Sullivan Galleries through November 10. Lisa Stone, Director of the Roger Brown Study Collection, a house museum and special collection of SAIC, talks to Pollasch-Thames about This Boy’s Own Story, an unprecedented look at the theme of sexuality in Roger Brown’s work, including works never before seen in public.
Lisa Stone: Kate, you had such a great opportunity to look at almost all of Roger’s Brown work—a 27-year career—in great depth. Can you talk about that project and how it influenced this project?
Kate Pollasch: I started two years ago. It was one of my first projects—it was an opportunity to explore all of Roger Brown’s art works by digitalizing them from slides to high-resolution digital scans. It was a phenomenal introduction to say the least. I looked at all of his works chronologically and was able to study each piece because I edited them after scanning them. I was able to see how Brown progressed as an artist, and how themes would come up and evolve throughout the years. Through that project I really zoned in on certain elements. In the 1970s Brown was really eroticizing the landscape and using the silhouetted figure in interesting ways throughout large cityscapes. As the 1980s and 1990s came, there’s a radical shift in his work as he discusses issues of the culture wars, HIV, and gives more personal commentary on his relationships.
LS: In the summer of 1997, Brown came to Chicago to talk about the collection he bequeathed to SAIC. I asked him about some of the paintings he gave to the school with his early gift, and Brown described Peach Light. The painting itself shows a male skeleton with this nuclear peach-like radiating haze behind it. The painting was painted in 1983, in the very early years of the outbreak and discovery of AIDs. Brown captured so much about that experience in that painting. Can you talk about that a little bit?
KP: I placed that piece in its own room in the exhibition. It commands its own space because of its visual power, but also because of its various references. It references the early gay bar, Gold Coast, which had leather culture connotations depending on the night that you went. The hat that the skeleton wears can be read as a reference to the clothing that was worn at the Gold Coast—the leather, biker clothing. The posture of the skeleton has a very cruising mystique about it. The light in the painting references the softening of the lights in the bar by bartenders and bar owners at the time for gay men whose appearances were starting to show their mortality due to HIV and AIDs.
One of the most dynamic components to that piece is how it dualistically captures the way he boldly dealt with mortality, AIDs and the physical ramifications of that, but also this strong desire for life. In that sense, it talks about realizing what you’re dealing with in terms of a debilitating illness and then also realizing it’s still Friday night and you still have desires and you want to go out and be in your community. I think that piece captures all of that and more in really an amazing away.
LS: I am excited about this show because Brown so often gets pigeonholed as a Chicago Imagist. This exhibition delves into this intense subject matter, starting out with sexuality in all of its guises. It will really give people a very different idea of who he was as an artist in one aspect of his work. How do you think that’s going to change people’s perception of Brown as a person, as an artist?
KP: This past year there’s been an interest, artistically, in the 1980s and a lot of the issues of the culture wars, sexual identity politics, and gender. It was a radical time for the art world. I think that it has become a moment that people are fascinated in unpacking because it hasn’t really been unpacked yet. For me to be able to look at that time period, and before that in the 1970s, Roger Brown is a phenomenal case study for understanding someone’s artistic shift as their world is shifting too, medically, culturally, sexually. I hope that through this exhibition the depths of Brown’s work and his practice, and the impact of what he left behind for us as students to study from can really be felt. It’s a monumental thing that we have.