Welcome back to the Art Force Academy podcast! This week, we spoke with Owen Brown, who recently moved to Minneapolis from San Francisco. Owen has had a successful and diverse career that extends far beyond the arts. Poetry and synesthesia are prominent themes in his abstract paintings, often allowing the viewer to create their own interpretation. Owen has exhibited throughout the country, and his work is a part of collections in the United States and Asia. We visited Owen at his beautiful downtown apartment to learn more about his fascinating career.
I was looking for, and I continue to look for, truth. And truth, whatever that is – momentary, confusing, eccentric – is revealed on the canvas, the surface, or whatever media you’re working on. For some people, it’s trying to represent in the Western tradition. For others, it’s putting things together, 3-dimensionally or 2-dimesionally in a different format. It’s good to have the tools to understand the issues of Western art, the armature of painting, the 3-dimensionality of a sculpture, the issues of hue, value, chroma, line, and contrast – those are the five elements of painting. Everything else is either narrative or not, and with or without narration comes emotion. The question of “what is an artist?” you think you can find there, which is in many ways, a reflection of yourself. But how you can communicate to the viewer so that the conversation is not going to be one-sided? You will have something shining forth from your eyes into theirs. To connect in that way, even if you’re not there, that’s what is important about painting.
How do you go about creating that dialogue with the viewer when you can’t be there?
I don’t know…
It’s one of those questions with no answer.
That is correct. If you believe in the idea of ectoplasm and the spirit, maybe you can. I don’t myself, so I think there can only be a representation in terms of having contributed a few grains to sandbox of zeitgeist, of the soul of the world, the soul of the time. Changing it very subtly and moving that forth. The great abstract painter Agnes Martin was asked “what’s the best time for you for painting,” or something of that nature, and she said “it’s when my dealer comes and removes it from my studio.” Which is pretty funny. I mean, maybe it’s because somebody bought it or because it is going out into the world. She’ll never know who’s seeing it, but it’s touching them. I don’t know my collectors or the people who have my pieces – do they look at them? Do their guests look at them? I don’t know, and I don’t think too much about it, but there is a lot of satisfaction in feeling that you’ve provided for others, a matrix for their attention, a substrate you hope will bring them joy.
There’s value in creating art for yourself, but I think that art really becomes art when it reaches others.
That’s a huge element to any work of art.
That’s so true, and you want to be able to just give it away. Well, I quite can’t afford to do that…
But you want to share it with others.
Yes, exactly. In a sense, it’s dāna, the Buddhist idea of something freely given. You think, “how does this work?” maybe another analogy would be classical composers. Certainly Schubert was paid for his work, he was maybe the first composer of that nature, but previous and after him – who were they composing for? How did it work out? Schumann, Brahms, before the world of recording. They had publishers, publishers paid for it, but sometimes they didn’t. They were just writing, and they’d hope someone would play the music. Schumann’s third symphony was played five times in his lifetime – and that was it!
Imagine that. There were, of course, piano transcriptions, and a greater percentage of the population may have played the piano than they do now, but still.
Still, the disbursement is completely different than nowadays.
We are drowning in material culture. It can dullen and deaden us, and I, as a painter, am always trying to simplify. My evil instinct always seems to make things far more complex than they should be. The painters that I admire most, and the paintings that I admire most, have a calmness and a luxuriousness to them that I would like to emulate. And I never really get there! Which is why there is always the next painting.
What are some of those paintings that you’re thinking of?
Well, there’s a wonderful painting by Anselm Kiefer in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I think its title is On the Seaside of Bohemia, which is a line from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. Bohemia, of course, has no seashore. It is an extremely large painting, and it’s quite dark, very morose. It’s sort of a northern sea feeling, and when you come up to it, you can tell that it’s very complex. It’s at the end of this long gallery, and from 100 feet, you can see how simple it is. Contrast that to Corot – there’s a beautiful little painting of Corot’s in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Because we’re new to Minnesota, I’ve only been to the Institute 2 or 3 times.
That’s still pretty good for just moving here…
Well, as a painter, you know. I’ve only seen a little bit of it. I saw this painting the first time, and I’m always going to go back and see it again. He was a brilliant landscape painter. If I think of painters today, well, first Matisse is exquisite and then Richard Diebenkorn. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but oh my gosh, what a genius. He was a painter in San Francisco who I think is one of the greatest painters of the last century. Then a friend of mine today sent me to look at Gary Kormarin, a painter I had never heard of, but another brilliant painter of today. I look at Cy Twombly a fair amount. I think he’s great. Then there’s Dan Flavin for his video works, and Turrell who I think makes exquisite spaces. I’m interested in artists that are provoking the natural world.
Right now, I am getting to work on my first foray away from the hand. I’m working with a search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, SETI.org. They have data streams that are a mirror image of the atmosphere that they use for adoptive optics. They’re going to give those to me so that I can re-represent them with some programming help in video so that you can actually see what the atmosphere is from 60 kilometers over your head! How neat would that be!?
Wait, so you work in video too?
I did a little bit many years ago when I was running software businesses. I’ve gone back and forth between painting and working because with a family – and the feeling that one had to make money. Right now, I’m just getting programmer friends to make this happen.
I’m curious about your background because you seem to have done a lot of things and worked in fields unrelated to art. Was art always a part of your plan?
When I was a youngster, I grew up in a family that was very attuned to music. I was trained as a classical pianist and still play. I had professional aspirations which were ridiculous because I didn’t have the talent. I did study with some great musicians. I wasn’t really certain what I was going to do. I had never really picked up a pencil or paintbrush. I think I had one art class in high school. Somehow I became very interested in architecture. As an undergraduate, I won an architecture award. I was able to use that to get a job at an architecture firm when I graduated. The principal looked at me and told me, “You need to learn how to draw. Here’s a drawing class. Take it.”
It was great. I was smitten. So I was drawing, drawing, drawing. Then I went off to Japan because I was young and had no debt. I wound up being a newsman, reporter, correspondent for various American publications.
Yeah it was great. It was a lot of fun. I mean, you’re young, they don’t pay you much, and you wind up in a lot of semi-dangerous places even outside Japan. But I was still drawing there. I found drawing classes there. It was great.
What led you to choose Japan?
I was interested in Japanese culture. One of my girlfriends was a Japanese major. I had studied most of the Romance languages by then. I knew Latin, Spanish, Italian, Catalan. I could read French.
How was your Japanese?
I was able, by the time I left, to be able to interview in Japanese and read the paper. But not so great…
Still you had to learn a whole new alphabet.
Oh it was great. I loved it. It was so hard, but I have forgotten almost all of it.
How long did you spend in Japan?
I spent 2 and a half years there, and I was tutored 5 or 6 hours a week. I really worked hard on it.
So, I’m still drawing. I’m not making a lot of money. I’m not certain I want to stay in the news. I had a few incidents that were physically rough – being put in jail in Thailand while trying to cover a coup, and this and that. So then I thought, maybe I should go to business school, which of course, was kind of absurd. So I applied to a bunch of places, and The University of Chicago accepted me. I went back to Chicago, and I kept on drawing. I was studying economics, and I thought I would go get a Ph.D. in economics and pretty soon I realized, I wasn’t going to get a Ph.D. in economics… so I got my M.B.A. with a concentration in economics. Had I been more mathy, I might have gone on. I was more interested in behavioral economics.
That went on. I’m drawing, I’m drawing, I’m drawing. I meet my wife, who at that time was my girlfriend. I get hired by Hewlett-Packard, and I go out to the bay area.
I’m working for Hewlett-Packard, but nights and weekends, I am drawing and painting. I’m bored.
What were you doing with your drawings and paintings?
I’m throwing them in a corner.
But I’m spending most of the weekend drawing, and my sweet wife is very attentive and letting me do this. I decide that I’m going to start a business with a friend in Japan because I don’t like being a cog in the enormous Hewlett-Packard wheel. The bay area is great for entrepreneurship. It’s fabulous.
At this time, we throw caution to the winds. We bought a house. We have a baby. He cries all the time, through the night. I’m working this business, which was surprisingly moderately successful. It was the first business to export boutique wines from California to Japan. Of course, to run the business, I had to be on the phone at night. So my wife said “Why don’t you just go to art school full time during the day, and just drink lots of coffee?” We had a little conversation about that, and I said, “Okay!” So for several years I went to CCA in Oakland, and I drank lots of coffee. I was in my early 30s, and it was great!
I was painting a lot. Then I had a fight with my partner in Japan, lawyers got involved, and he bought me out. I’m showing a little bit in the bay area, but I was afraid. I felt I had to man up – by now we have two kids – and I have to make a living with my wife because it’s expensive to have children, and it’s particularly expensive in the bay area. So I went back to drawing and painting very little for 15 or 20 years. With my youngest child, I started spending more time drawing and painting with her. She has a very sharp eye.
So we’re drawing away, and an acquaintance of ours comes to see us, and I am doing these little drawings. First the first time, they were abstract. I had gone to the Met in New York and saw the Indian wing, and I thought, well, that I could do that. They were little, 3×3. This guy Don comes by and says, “That’s great. I’m building this house down in Palm Desert, and I’d like one of those 4×6.”
I tell him that I’ll have to build up to that because right now they’re 3 inches by 3 inches, and he says “No, no, no. 4 feet by 6 feet.”
Right? So I told that would take a little longer. So I’m working away. I’m getting bigger and bigger. He comes by, a few months later, and by now I’ve gotten to 18 inches by 24 inches, and he’s entranced. He says, “Okay, I want two of them.”
So now I have my first big commission – which I wasn’t at all expecting. I thought I better go get a studio. I find a studio in what’s now a defunct studio building that run by Solange Gabrielli. She was looking at my paintings and told me she wanted to give me a show.
Later, she gave me two other shows with other artists, and then the building got sold out from under her. However, I’m still painting away and people are coming by, which is very nice. Some of them think I’m a nutcase; others are a little kinder. I’m working, and I’m not really certain what I’m working for.
Somehow, I work through Don’s piece and then get in touch with Meridian Gallery, which at one time was the primo non-profit gallery in San Francisco. The same thing happened to them: their building got sold out from under them. So they’re just doing pop-up work, and Anne Brodsky, who is the chief curator, took a look at some of the pieces I was doing on velum, and offered me a show.
Is this the Ideasthesia show?
Yes. So I wind up with 20 drawings, and it’s a good show. She sells half the pieces, and it gets mentioned in the local paper.
Can you describe the idea behind the show?
I was entranced by the idea of transparency and the thought that one could not only have these pretty colorful drawings that could also manipulate them. The viewer themselves could make their own drawing or painting if I could actually transfer the drawing onto a transparent sheet of acetate. We were able print them off. In this enormous gallery, we had four different stations that each had five different transparencies. Each station had a visual projector – the ones that used to be in high schools – as a viewer, you could put on any connection of drawings in whatever orientation you wanted and then shine them up on the wall.
That’s so cool.
And they were great! We also had this perfumist who mixed different perfumes for each station. So that was a lot of fun. Then there was a spoken word soundtrack every day for three weeks. People would go in the mics and say what they had to say about the exhibit and that would get digitized and remixed into a loop the next day.
So you have almost every sense involved.
Yeah, we really wanted to get every sense involved, get people woken up, and have them, in a certain sense, take control of the gallery and be actively involved in creating their own work of art.
For a lot of artwork, you have to wonder, “Why do it cost? What is the value of art?” As a consumer, it is sometimes hard to understand what it really means or what purpose it has.
My response is: what is the value of your heart? Why should I buy that? How much do you love? Why are you charging so much? Should I be paying you by the hour? If you’re paying me by the hour, you should be paying me by the year because it took me 60 years to paint that painting. It’s true.
It’s a whole career that has built up to one painting.
The counter argument is that it will be even be when you’re painting at 80, and I say, “Yeah, I hope so.”