“The work has always been about struggle, about healing trauma,” explains Judith Brassard-Brown. “The new work speaks to our ability to persevere and even find joy through these more extreme [times].” Brown’s show, On the Rise and the Fall v.2, is a reimagination of her earlier, traveling project On the Rise and the Fall, most recently shown in the Art Center Gallery at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA. The opening reception for that first incarnation of the exhibition occurred in late February of 2020, as mentions of COVID-19 in the U.S. were still murmurings. Brown’s descriptions of her work are almost haunting in their prescience: “These landscape paintings […] do not create a specific location or event,” she said of her work. “Rather, they provide connections across boundaries of time or captured moments; contrast what we see with what we sense in the air or below the surface.”
If the year 2020 can be characterized by any particular force, it could arguably be the power of the unseen—that which hides “in the air or below the surface”—to separate us from each other. “The intensity of life in COVID was very much a factor in this exhibition,” explains Brown of the show at Kingston Gallery. While the current environment spurred some newer works, each of her pieces adds a cathartic warp to the reflections of the natural world carrying on around us. I first encountered Brown’s work back in August, as I was planning an online show through Artsy, intent on capturing the otherworldly feeling of landscapes before and after our time here on earth. Her earlier works recall Anselm Kiefer’s smoldering, inhospitable scenes, which similarly act as “a microcosm of collective memory.”
Now, as her show has evolved in both breadth and depth under the current circumstances, the impulse to view her work as alien fades away. Instead, we are presented with the world as we understand it now, even if it is not how it appears to the naked eye. Brown intends for her work to “activate our capacity to connect to our own stories and others.” While the ground is grim, it is also a common one. Standing together amidst the roiling landscapes of Brown’s work is the closest approximation to the emotional experience many have been feeling during this time, especially as traditions and memories have cleaved in COVID’s wake.
Following the February opening at Anna Maria College, Lauren Szumita of the Worcester Art Museum wrote an update to her catalog essay that had originally accompanied On the Rise and the Fall.
“Since the original publication of the essay in February, 2020, Brown has produced a new group of figurative paintings worth considering with respect to her larger body of work,” writes Szumita. “The warmth, vibrancy and intimacy of her landscapes is evident in her expanding repertoire of portraiture.”
Seeing Brown’s technique used to dig deep into the crags of the human form adds a new dimension to her landscape work. Her work SelfPortraitSomewhereBetween, seems to denote the kind of ambivalence with which we have all been developing towards our own company during these isolating times. The work draws the viewer’s eye to its intentional raw edges, with Brown’s own gaze leading us to what is unsaid and unshown off of the canvas.
One of Brown’s most striking new works is her collaboration with Natasha Ginyard. Brown renders Ginyard’s piercing gaze in oil, collage, and wax. Next to the portrait is a poem by Ginyard. “Pairing my painting of her with Natasha’s words was an opportunity to connect to the personal impact of racism as we are held by her gaze,” explains Brown.
Szumita agrees: “This unique juxtaposition of Brown’s portrait with the words of her sitter, Natasha Ginyard, demonstrates that while Brown’s interpersonal relationships are uniquely hers, they exist among a complex network of friendship, love, and nods to passing strangers, which we understand collectively as the human experience.”
Brown characterizes her work by its “harshness, beauty, and abstraction,” all three of which serve vital roles in her show. “The portrait, in art, embodies the psychological search for meaning among the silent cues of communication – expressions, the gaze, and appearance,” writes Szumita. “Brown’s portraits of those who inhabit her world – as well as herself – represent a search for identity, whether formed through interactions with others or through self-reflection.”
Her landscapes convulse with human impulses, and her portraits alternatively deflect and defy expectation. Each of us has experienced a total shattering of normalcy during these times. Brown’s show, which expands and contracts in scope as well as in form, reflects more than just upheaval. As she herself emphasizes, the continued motion, movement, and connection that her work invites, even prescribes, to its viewers, is vital for our perspective as we wade through the end of this year.