Brooklyn-based artist Melissa Brown’s current show at Big Medium in Austin is a retrospective of sorts, consisting of reduction linocuts spanning Brown’s career from the late 1990s to the present. Brown uses the prints as a tool to plan out ideas for her other works. You’d think this doesn’t make sense: reduction printing is not a time-efficient process for sketching. It’s labor-intensive and involves a continuous carving and reprinting of a single linoleum block. But when viewed in the larger context of Brown’s work, the process of layering and manipulating the surface of the print gets on with well her animations and paintings.
I saw Brown’s paintings in a recent show at MASS Gallery—they’re dreamy, layered, still-life landscapes rendered in an otherworldly, futuristic aesthetic that traps you in a surrealist world where everything is slightly off kilter.
Brown’s prints embody this fantastical aesthetic, too, but do so in a simplified and nuanced way. About a third of the works in the show are panoramic forest landscapes. The pieces are miss-registered, over-inked, under-inked, and printed without accounting for folds in the paper. The finished works have white lines running through the composition which disrupt the image.
In one of her odder landscapes, Levelor Blinds, Brown depicts a tree in the midst of a color change. Set against a gradient backdrop of sky and clouds, the tree’s form looms over a desert landscape with no other vegetation in sight. Its roots protrude from the center stump, looking like a four-legged tarantula crawling across a sand dune. This highlights the picture book-like quality of Brown’s prints. Many of the images feel like they’re part of a larger narrative—we are immediately thrown into a story without any pretext. Brown gives us small cues, small keys, to figure out what is going on.
Another third of the works in the exhibition are cityscapes of structures with ambiguous purpose. Next to Levelor Blinds is a print called Storage Wedges showing a tall structure reminiscent of public storage monoliths designed for urban density. Brown’s facility is at least twenty floors tall and sits in a indefinable, open landscape. Why would anyone need a storage facility in the middle of nowhere? It’s a bit funny, a bit enigmatic.
The last third of the show is a mixed bag. The prints here reference technology, and are similar aesthetically to Brown’s more recent paintings. Miami, a warmly colored cityscape where the water is blue, the buildings are big, and the foliage is palm-y, features a main building—a one-point perspective monolith—that looks like a cartoon character. In the image, white and gray ink is so thickly printed that it looks like Brown applied it directly to the paper using a palette knife. And it works.
Floating Rock, another work in the last third of the show, combines this impasto-like technique with gradations that recall ukiyo-e woodblock printing. This is a print that simply looks like a painting—until you realize that everything in the piece is askew. Brown’s way of printing reflects the new realities she creates across her work, across her mediums: everything seems normal until you look closer.
Drive In features Brown’s best use of interruption in the show. The landscape on its own is straight out of a Hokusai woodcut, but screen-like forms situated intermittently throughout the landscape disturb the rhythm of the rolling hills. The screens don’t show anything particular, but have a gradation pattern that can be read as a sort of test signal. This image, created in 1999, predicted Brown’s newer landscapes.
Because of their medium, Brown’s linocuts are about process as much as they are about anything else. All of the pieces in the show use the medium’s inherent limitations to their advantage. And as with her paintings, we’re happy to explore the odd landscapes the artist has created.