Taken out of context and isolated on a blank page, the shapes of particular countries are transformed into abstract, irregular shapes. In Orientation at Stevenson University’s Art Gallery, Baltimore-based artist David Brown has applied his unique brand of minimalistic, pattern-based drawing to a series of monumental maps. Instead of the geometric arrangements he has become known for, Brown depicts a variety of currently existing countries and uses their outlines as a tool for new compositions. Is it possible to divorce the political and nationalistic associations with a particular country and focus instead on its shape as an abstract and visual entity? Brown’s new exhibit is an attempt to explore this question and to push the tight boundaries of his practice. I met David Brown at his latest exhibition at the Stevenson University Art Gallery to view and talk about his work.
Orientation consists of twelve black ink on white paper drawings. The dimensions vary slightly with an average size of forty by sixty inches. Within the confines of the paper, Brown has repeatedly drawn the same small elliptical unit with a dot at its center using a fine tip marker. The units gather into the shape of a country. In each drawing the country is centered and floats in roughly the same margin of negative space. From a distance the shapes feel solid, albiet very flat, against a blank void. On closer inspection, the solidity falls apart. The boundary between the shape and the background is porous. Each unit vibrates and shifts, hinting at the often arbitrary and temporal nature of our political borders.
LZ: Tell me more about this series of work.
DB: I have chosen to draw a series of map shapes standing alone, taken out of context from their surrounding countries. It is my attempt to illustrate the beauty and temporary nature of these artificial shapes. I chose countries as a reminder to myself that even an image that I hold so solid in my mind is in a constant state of flux. Even the drawings themselves are not static. They change with light and time. I believe, the repetitive mark-making lends itself to this idea of process.
LZ: Let’s talk about this mark that you’ve chosen to repeat. How did you determine the form it would take?
DB: I wanted to create a mark that had a certain amount of ambiguity to it. I wanted something that was obviously constructed and not simply a dot or dash. Again, my desire was to draw attention to the process while leaving the identity open to interpretation.
LZ: There’s a few countries I had trouble recognizing because I tend to identify them by their size in relation to other countries. Switzerland, for example. You’ve democratized geography in your choice of scale. China and Switzerland are about the same size. Can you talk about the shift in scale of the countries?
DB: I chose to draw the countries roughly the same size, in an attempt to allow each shape to carry the same weight. I think the more successful or interesting ones for me, are the shapes that have greater detail and variation. For the most part, I think scale plays a big role. When I enlarge a smaller country I tend to get greater detail such as Vietnam, Panama, Thailand and France as opposed to China and Brazil. Some of that has to do with the natural and/or manmade borders of a particular country, and some of it is a result of limitations of how big I can go with the materials.
LZ: How did you choose which countries to include?
DB: The shapes were chosen randomly simply out of curiosity to see what they would look like drawn on a large scale. I decided to make the shapes roughly the same size regardless of the actual size of the particular country. It is an attempt to illustrate the beauty of the shape and the process.
LZ: What’s your criteria for a shape to be beautiful?
DB: I do not consider myself an authority on what may or may not be beautiful. I guess there may be something beautiful in every shape depending how you look at it. I think for me, it is more of an interest or curiosity in seeing shapes in a particular light or way. My hope is that, when my work is installed somewhere the viewer finds a sense of thoughtfulness and beauty in it.
LZ: For me, the drawings that most successfully highlight the shape of a country are those that depict countries we’re less familiar with, the graceful teeter toter shape of Ethiopia for example. On the other hand China and Italy are instantly recognizable. How do you experience this?
DB: It is all an experiment. Of course it is difficult sometimes to leave my thoughts of a particular country at the door. For me, it is more of an exercise in attachments and letting go. My attempt when in the act of mark-making is to meditate on the act of drawing, and not have any particular feelings one way or the other about the shape I am working on. In fact, I draw up and down the surface instead of right to left, this in some way helps with that.
LZ: You haven’t included the United States, can you talk about that decision?
DB: I deliberately did not want to show the United States shape for this exhibition, and I questioned showing Italy and China because of the easy recognition. Although, who am I to say what countries are easily recognized by the viewing public. At one point I was toying with the idea of installing the work, what we would consider upside-down, but it seemed too disruptive. I may try it if another opportunity to show the series comes around.
LZ: I’d be curious to see a United States the size of Iran.
DB: Well, fortunately the couple that I have done have found homes. I have been thinking of doing a painting version of the United States on multiple panels.
LZ: I find that in this body of work, there seems to be more of a conceptual element than in your previous works. People walk in and the first thing they see is China. Your focus is to draw attention to the shape. Do you think its possible to see beyond the sociopolitical baggage of some countries?
DB: It may not be possible for the viewer see beyond the sociopolitical baggage, I am not sure. Again, It is an attempt on my part to remove myself from any preconceived ideas I may have about a particular country through the meditative mark making process. It is an experiment or exercise on my part. I think it is impossible for an artist to know everything there is to know about their own work, I surely do not. I try things out of amusement and more importantly to learn something about myself and the community around me.
LZ: Is your laissez-faire approach an extension of your meditative process?
DB: I don’t want it to seem as I do not care. I have to believe in and care about the work I do, otherwise it would never get done. Once I do my part in the process, making the marks and installing the exhibition I attempt to let go of my attachments from there. I simply want to create a space where the viewer can come and have their own, opinions and feelings about the work.
LZ: We’ve talked quite a bit about your interest in process, so I’m curious about the details. How do you start?
DB: After I decide on an image or shape and color, I will project or draw out the image first in pencil. If it is a non-structured piece like the map drawings I will go in with a fine tip marker, filling in a little here and a little there. I skip around the surface until it is completely filled in. The variations of the markers and of my hand, gives the piece that water or fabric like quality. It is a lot like writing except, I always draw, up and down the page instead of left to right.
LZ: You seem to set parameters for yourself to work within. The work feels like a mediation between freedom and control.
DB: I have always been interested in craft and felt more comfortable viewing myself as a craftsman rather than as an artist. I feel as though for me the right way to move forward with an idea is through some sort of process. I think setting up certain limitations allows me a kind of freedom as opposed to facing endless possibilities which tend to produce the opposite effect on me. Before I start a drawing I decide on the size, shape, color, etc. but I never really know how the piece will ultimately turn out until it is complete. The limitations of my ability and the variations of the materials always add an unknown element to the work.
LZ: What are you working on now?
DB: I am always working on a few different things at once. I am still working on a series that I call the River Series. I have only shown a piece here or a piece there from that particular series. I would like to find the right place to exhibit the entire series at some point. While drawing the Vietnam map I decided to start a series of bone shapes. I was influenced in part by the shape of Vietnam which reminded me of a spinal column, and influenced by my wife who recently fractured her back. I still have some more ideas to explore with the geometric shape pieces as well. It seems like every time I draw, I think of other shapes in varying arrangements I would like to try.
Orientation at Stevenson Gallery is on view until February 1st. More information here.
* Author Lu Zhang is a Baltimore-based artist.