Kenneth Baker reviews Theophilus Brown collage show at Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery

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Brown as collagist: Theophilus Brown’s show at Elins Eagles-Smith will come as a surprise to visitors who think of him only as the author of viewer-friendly figurative paintings.

The collages from this decade, composed of thin slabs of acrylic color that Brown has manipulated in various ways as it dries, redefine him as an artist.

Compositional signs of sophistication easily overlooked in his signature paintings come into their own here. As abstract ciphers they almost miraculously pack into modest dimensions all the energy of narrative or description, reference or anecdote.

How to put this? At 90, Brown’s unconscious has had a wealth of experience following and pushing his hand around. In these works, it gets to speak its own language.

All the drama and moodiness of the figurative paintings manifest, but none of the coziness. Instead, as if through X-rays, we see forces and decisions contending with, contradicting and occasionally reconciling with one another.

We might think we spot a human figure hiding in the whorls of “Untitled #13” (2004), but as a pictorial structure, it gives no ground to the eye’s appetite for theater.

Brown seems unconcerned with historical references in his abstract work, but his use of a comb, or comb-like tool, to striate the paint goes back to collage’s origins in the art of Braque and Picasso.

Visitors who see Brown’s collages in reproduction first will be startled to find how they seem to expand under direct scrutiny: another mark of their profound roots in the artist’s experience of life and work.

by Kenneth Baker

SF Chronicle, May 16, 2009

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