Born Rantoul, Illinois, 1951/ BFA, MFA Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Painter Betty Brownleeʼs transition from landscapist to figurative painter took place more or less in the middle of her four decade (to-date) career. Tiring of scenic vistas painted in the 1980s and ’90s and wanting to inject more “reality” and “romanticism” into her art, about 2000, she turned to portraits, self portraits, genre, and still lifes. Introduced as well at this juncture is the prominent portrayal of women as subjects, in works she describes as a reflection of “the condition of the female body.”
In the early 1980s she presented a group of sumptuous, expressive landscapes notable for their blazing, high-keyed chroma and thick, tactile pigment laid on with a palette knife. In Au Sable River #15 from 1982, three abrupt green curves sweep the onlooker into a watery blue expanse flanked by flat, triangular hills sitting beneath a sky dominated by a sturdy stack of yellow and pink sausage-shaped clouds. Au Sable is as much a Fauvist composition of splotches of autumnal hues declaiming the glories of both geography and art as it is a view of the terrain of rolling hills and placid waterways of northern Michigan. Pine Woods (1981), barely twelve inches square, likewise embodies both the physical heft of densely packed pines and the snappy contrast of dense strokes of dark green pigment frosted with dollops of yellow and blue.
Come the 1990s, Brownleeʼs bucolic locales, painted as always en plein air, focus on the wild, immersive vegetation that envelops undulating terrain. A lighter touch, brushier facture, and less brazen palette distinguish the landscapes of the 1990s. A glance at Faded Goldenrod and Daphne (both 1993) reveals pale yellows, tawny browns, russets, and pinks abroad in the land. In the former, eddies of wind sweep across the gray November field, while in the latter flame-like vegetation surges upward amidst the twisting, fallen branches.
A decisive shift in subject and technique emerges at the onset of the new millennium. While oil remains her standby medium, Brownleeʼs handling of paint tacks from thick to thin, viscous to fluid as rivulets of multiple glazes (often up to twenty) flow freely across her compositions. Interiors replace outdoor sites, and women, often pictured in fraught, somber moods and states of mind, are sized up and rendered on canvas or paper.
Tightrope (2014) combines a lush green landscape and silhouetted figure. A young woman, moving warily across a rope strung between two trees, raises her arms both to steady herself and in eager anticipation of victoriously completing her crossing. Streams of paint, Brownleeʼs signature motif, at once disturbing and enhancing, trickle down the canvas. These ribbons of thinned oil occurred serendipitously at first, but were subsequently embraced both aesthetically and as portents of meaning. As Brownlee notes, it is “paint, time, and gravity” that produce the animating drips of paint and at the same time subvert fixity and allude to changes wrought by other than an artistʼs hands.
Molly, also 2014, depicts a young woman, hand held to head, illuminated and mesmerized by a computer screen. Her intensity of gaze, parted lips, tattoos, and the eerie light represent a millennial enraptured by the existential culture of the magic window. At the same time, runnels of glaze reflect time (passing) and gravity (tugging) in the midst of her concentration. Conversely, in Winter (2017), Brownlee represents a reclining figure drawn from the imagery of PaJaMa, a vanguard artistsʼs group of the 1930s. Like someone creating a snow angel in winter, the woman has inscribed a circle–the mark of her hands–and rests peacefully, hands clasped on her chest, as streams of diluted pigment cascade.
Of late, Brownlee has embarked on a number of self portraits, which she begins by photographing herself in or near her studio. A 2020 triptych features herself and the shadows of the cameraʼs tripod as protagonists. In the first (Tall Tale), standing on tip-toe, she peers beyond the fences of the studio complex; in the second (Not Fade Away), she stands against the studio wall as the shadow of the tripod appears to form a muzzle over her mouth; and in the final (Left Me Hanging), she, deceived, lies insensate upon a concrete slab. In all three, the liquid emanations created by paint, time, and gravity dipping earthward remind us that surety is inconstant and change inexorable.
Dennis A. Nawrocki, October 2020
Copyright Essayʼd October 2020