Of Paper and Power: The Collages of Henry Arthur Brown
Henry Arthur Brown’s colorful and exuberant collages are currently featured at Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery in Grand Rapids. Brown has been working in the medium of collage for years, but has only recently started exhibiting his work.
If you missed Henry Brown’s opening the weekend of July 4 at LINC this past summer, you’re not alone. Exhibitions at this multi-functional facility are only accessible to the public during opening receptions, or when there’s a scheduled event in the space. Curator Hugo Claudin (aka, the man with the busiest living room in Grand Rapids), was kind enough to let me in to see the exhibit, which otherwise I would have missed. Unable to assemble a review before the month-long exhibit was in its last days, I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet the artist and see some new work at his opening at Sanctuary Folk Art, on Tuesday, March 17.
It would seem that Mr. Brown has the peculiar habit of scheduling his openings on holidays. I’d like to believe the timing was calculated to be a small but clever act of defiance, interjecting himself into these secular holidays associated with antics notable for their absence of judgment. The artist himself is an unconventional individual, almost the embodiment of interruption, because of the way he challenges our expectations. Consider for example, the variety of venues where he’s exhibited in the past year: a gallery, a community development organization, an upscale boutique in Cascade, and a literacy center. Furthermore, Brown is largely self-trained, but you wouldn’t suppose this based on his artwork, or what he has to say about it.
Brown’s juxtapositions are clever and sometimes very pointed, and his technique is polished, which is not easy to achieve in collage. While he’s very open to discuss the meaning of individual works, he deliberately chooses to number them and forgo titles, something I noted upon seeing his work at LINC. Brown confirmed what I’d suspected–he’s allowing the viewer to engage with the images and interpret the art on their own terms. To omit text in the form of titles indicates an instinctive understanding of the subject/object relationship on the part of the artist.
Encouraging the audience to construct meaning from his artwork is just one indication of Brown’s interest in power dynamics. There are frequent allusions to power or lack thereof, many addressing racism and social inequality. Consistent motifs referencing time and money, effectively speak to the relationship between the two. Leisure for example, requires both time and money. An outcome of unemployment is abundant time, but without money. The former is relaxing, and reflects privilege and choice on the part of the individual, whereas absence of work is a source of anxiety and an unwelcome condition imposed upon an individual. Death, which represents the expiration of time, affects everyone regardless of status or race, was a recurring theme in the LINC show.
The artist is also adept at addressing issues of race and power in a manner that is not overbearing or pedantic. In other words, the message is evident, but he’s not clubbing you over the head with it. One example includes the image of a Klanswoman kissing her granddaughter. Brown indicated that he was interested in the irony of this image that features an expression of affection from someone who is effectively a disciple of cruelty.
Several works address the fickle power dynamics associated with fame. For example, there’s a piece that is a commentary about the recent allegations of sexual misconduct brought against Bill Cosby. The LINC exhibit featured two collages that included the plasticine face of Michael Jackson from the cover of the posthumously released, Xscape. In one example, Brown’s use of Jackson’s likeness makes him seem alien, alluding to the artist’s eccentric persona.
Henry Brown’s work will be featured at Sanctuary through March.
Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery is located at 140 Division Ave S, Grand Rapids
contact the gallery for hours (616) 454-0401
– Tamara Fox