Jesse Howard & Roger Brown: Now Read On Essay08/06/2005 - 09/17/2005
In life and in art the paths of Jesse Howard and Roger Brown had crossed already many times before this exhibition conceived to pair the two of them together. Still, it is hard to imagine, given the distances between them, what circumstances may have brought these two men together in the first place, and what circumstances, now, would substantiate a reunion of reckoning (and questioning) of the work they created three decades later.
In the case of the first meeting between these two venerable American artists, the credit goes to Roger Brown. Even as a young artist, Brown was already navigating the networking systems of art and, at the urging of his mentors in the Chicago art community, mining the margins of those systems to feed his creative development and perhaps, to find affinities and connections with his own emerging vision.
By the time the two met, Howard was a seasoned sign maker of some twenty years plus and certainly old enough to be Brown’s grandfather and then some. Brown’s travels, in the summers of 1971 and 1972, were inspired by an article published in Art in America in 1968, about “an unusual group of American artists…who felt the need to build something original and exciting from whatever they found at hand.”1 This pilgrimage of sorts took Brown from the modern metropolis of Chicago to the slow pace and rural interior of Missouri, to the small, quiet town of Fulton to meet one of the artists featured in the article, Jesse Howard.
As a young man, Howard too had traveled away from home in search of sights and life experiences, coming home with stories and memories of a few wonders himself. Many years earlier, at the very beginning of the century, Howard’s own travels had taken him, with his six partial years of schooling and the work ethic of a farm boy raised by good Christian parents, away from his rural roots into the brave expanse of a new century. In both cases, eyes were wide open.
Roger Brown had grown up in rural Alabama, with a strong religious upbringing, but while Howard and Brown may have had similar beginnings in this world, the cultural contexts and the course each man’s life took, was quite different, especially from a 21st-century perspective. But, as it turns out, Brown was searching and Howard was waiting to be found, hoping that at least someone was out there listening and thinking about the sorry state of things as he saw them.
Chances are pretty good that the two men didn’t see eye to eye on much of what concerned them, except for perhaps a knowledge of all things biblical and their shared rural American heritage, but then any difference in opinion they may have had probably just never came up. There was, however, a passion in both men and the faith they collectively held in the power of beliefs and convictions conveyed. Somehow, though, a connection between a young man and an older man – and their artistic sensibilities – was made. There was something in each of them that suited the other.
Howard, you see, was a showman and a teller of stories. And while some of those stories might have been of the big-fish variety for the sake of his listener’s enjoyment, any listener it seems, Howard had a guest to entertain and a tour to escort. A tour that included several buildings, crafted by hand and ingenuity over the years of discarded but darn useful old odds and ends. This experience, we can now imagine, must have played well to Brown’s already developed penchant for the serendipidity and eccentricities that make up the vernacular.
In each building on Howard’s property, there were wonders to explore. The wonders, of course, were Howard’s signs, hundreds of them conceived and carefully fashioned, hand lettered to expound his views on a range of topics that touched his life: world politics, city government, corruption, sin and degenerate values – the iniquities of a life lived, one might say.
The first sign, made by Howard twenty years, give or take, before Brown’s visit to Fulton, was a protest. It was an accusation of wrongdoing, aimed at vandals who had destroyed one of his prized hand-made model airplanes. The airplane had been displayed purposely for the enjoyment of anyone who might pass by or come for a visit, and it had been smashed up for no possible good reason.
Such an occasion, in all likelihood, was confounding to Howard, who in earlier years had participated with his friend Ed M. Peacock in entertaining and delighting crowds of invited spectators for organized displays of the antique farm implements and steam engines collected by Peacock. In creating and displaying his own handmade and found objects, Howard might have expected a similar response, one characterized by amusement and delight, not violence and destruction. As disappointed as Howard must have been upon discovering the work of unknown vandals who had destroyed a thing that Howard made with pure sincerity, he retaliated against his transgressors by making a sign, for the express purpose of communicating his disapproval, his dissatisfaction.
Imagine this, then, as a kind of folk art “happening” that fueled an old man’s retirement hobby and went on to inspire an outpouring of prolific, creative achievement. Howard’s life delivered disappointment and frustration. And it continued to deliver a steady stream of transgressors, real and – if not imagined necessarily – then certainly perceived. Along with the salvaged wood and metal, the house paint and, later, the magic markers he used to create his signs and sculptures, these were the materials that served Howard’s art.
At the time of Brown’s visits, it’s unlikely that Howard would have considered himself an artist but already he had received many of the visitors from beyond Fulton who would, over the next few years, come to have an impact on Howard’s slippage into the history of twentieth-century American art.
Chief among these visitors was Richard Rhodes, a writer whose experience of meeting Howard and his observations of the signs was to be published first in a collection of essays in the book, The Inland Ground: An Evocation of the American Middle West. Gregg Blasdell, the young artist and grass-roots art enthusiast who authored the 1968 article, was also to serve as a guest curator for an exhibition in 1974 at the Walker Art Center of work by “nine artist-craftsmen whose visionary environments,” including Howard’s, were featured.2
As emissaries or ambassadors of the Kansas City Art Institute, visitors Dale Eldred, Willem Volkherz, and others, came to know Howard and respect his creative endeavors, as well. There were others, of course, newspaper reportors, curiosity seekers, the hooligans Howard cites in numerous signs. Charley Drace, a young college student from Westminster College, whose tenure in Fulton between 1959 and 1963, was to turn into a lifetime of exchange, a friendship of sorts, and a well intentioned championing of a man who was misunderstood by his community and mistreated as a result.
Some of the signs were purchased from Howard by visitors and collections of Howard’s work began to accumulate, including the Kansas City Art Institute’s collection of over 100 signs, sculptures, and related materials from which this exhibition is drawn. Roger Brown also collected a selection of Howard’s signs that were on view in his Chicago home, a few of which are included in this exhibition and were also included in at least one exhibition organized by Brown in Chicago.
The two artists never met again but Brown spoke of the influence, direct or indirect, that the older man’s work had on his own and their work has come together through the curatorial efforts of a few before now. Works by Howard and Brown, since the mid 1970s, have hung on walls in adjacent rooms in Brown’s house in Chicago. In this context, which certainly inspired the envisioning of the current pairing and investigation of the two artists’ work together, the relationship between the two makes sense and immediately conjures up a host of connective ideas. Context has a way of creating a filter, adding a layer of understanding that can add to or change the meaning of something.
The decision to exhibit works by both Howard and Brown, outside of their respective, cultivated environments comprised of things made and things found, does one thing. The act of assembling a selection representing two extensive collections of works by Howard and Brown has resulted in the discovery of several dominant and parallel themes recurring, by chance or by faith, through each artist’s career.
The presence of these themes has provided the impetus for organizing the work in Now Read On: Jesse Howard & Roger Brown and has provided the organizers and, hopefully, the viewers of the exhibition and readers of the catalog, with new insight into the work of two individualistic and visionary American artists of the twentieth century.
Raechell Smith and Lisa Stone
Now Read On: Jesse Howard & Roger Brown assembles works arranged and grouped thematically under two headings: Driven by Religion and Debating the World. Together these works illustrate the drive each artist had, expressed through their work, to pose questions, name names, rail against, circle around, and address the issues that concerned them, in life and in art, as individuals and as members of a community. There was awareness and articulation, too, of how the each artist’s respective community contributed to a larger scheme and helped comprise, in a larger sense, the society or societies, rather, that they both felt compelled to respond to with commentary and critique.
It is by design that the exhibition celebrates both the similarities between the two artists, as well as the disparities, the ambiguities and unanswered questions alongside the contradictions. Arranged as an exhibition, the works engage two distinct strategies and, hopefully, achieve two things. Through comparison, they present some of the overarching, prevailing themes for our consideration. Through juxtaposition, they invite us to compare and contrast these artists. As with the standard practice known by all who have ever taken an art history survey course, we might, through this activity, distill a more meaningful understanding of the artists, the art at hand and, by association, something of the time and circumstances of its making.
Driven by Religion
The first four tableaux, or vignettes, of the exhibition present works that illustrate Howard’s and Brown’s engagement of religious, Christian themes, including stories, characters, and values, as expressed in the Bible. Each artist’s approach was unique. Howard, with a didactic reliance on text and language, quotes scripture, often referencing the exact pages from his own King James version of the book, and recounts, albeit sometimes loosely and somewhat expressionistically, tales of ancient woes and glories. Brown, on the other hand, illustrates the visual equivalents in a painterly, narrative format, including the symbols and signifiers of the Bible’s teaching through storytelling. Neither artist was a churchogoer, however, they both displayed the ability to interweave aspects of Christian themes and lessons with aspects, anecdotes, and details drawn from contemporary life.
Jesse Howard’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and its teachings inspired his sign and object making. Roger Brown, raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical Church of Christ environment, didn’t ascribe to this or any other organized religion as an adult. In fact, Brown’s lifestyle and open homosexuality would have been categorically rejected by this church. He did not abandon the power and drama he experienced in church activities in his youth, instead he distilled memories of his religious upbringing, and incorporated it into his work.
In God We Trust
Howard and Brown both had a reverence for nature and more gentle expressions of this and their own personal reflections on unity, faith, and beauty are conjoined in the first tableaux. Here, too, there are hints of each artist’s contemplation of human suffering, mortality, and death.
Howard’s early construction, The Voice of the Bird, is a poetic evocation of the Biblical and spiritual dimensions of the bird as one of God’s creatures. Constructed from the castoff seed planter it once was, the object’s new function as object/sculpture is fueled by Howard’s wit and resourcefulness as a scavenger cum artist/maker.
In Brown’s Arrangement in Blue and Gray: The Artist and His Friend Fishing, the luminosity and profound stillness of the lake and sky beyond form a monumental, yet intimate setting for human connection, projected microscopically against the vastness of nature. In much of Brown’s work, stylized cloudscapes and weather events form the visual, metaphorical, and perhaps spiritual backdrop and context for human enterprise and exchange, invariably dwarfed by the omnipresent and mercurial forces of nature.
In the Beginning
Howard and Brown both pondered the story of Creation, making connections between the Biblical story of original sin and more contemporary sins. Both artists borrow and appropriate to create their own unique visions; Howard lifting from the Bible, Brown from the work of another artist. Their reflections on creation conflate ancient origins and the present time, connecting then to now.
Howard’s reflections on creation are expressed in litanies focusing on the minute details he fondly recounts verbatim and in genealogical list form, providing a foundation for further rants on generations, familial bonds and responsibilities, brotherhood, and unity. In his construction, The Patience of Job, Howard used over 40 different types of wood,3and describes specific qualities of each in near moral terms. Here, Howard reveals his style of putting on display his own learnedness and knowledge, delivering, too, his facility for divining symbolic meanings in the material world.
Brown was a great admirer of the pre-Renaissance painters of Sienna and his own Story of Creation is a parody inspired by Giovanni de Paolo’s The Creation and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve (1445). In Paolo’s version God, held aloft by cherubim, swoops down holding a mappa mundi. This representation of the universe shows the unformed world, encircled by rings representing the elements and symbols of the zodiac and known planets. Adam and Eve are ushered out of Paradise by an angel, here in a California setting. Brown recreates the fall from grace, animating the scene with classical and popular culture. Brown’s Story of Creation includes a smug version of Kenny Rogers (which he identified as God in a preparatory sketch) perhaps to suggest the ascendancy of popular culture over religion in the twentieth century.
Saith the Lord
The more dramatic, ominous prophecies, warnings, and judgments of the rewards and/or punishments of a life lived figure into Howard’s and Brown’s re-envisioning of religion as well. In Howard’s work, the phrase “and if a kingdom be divided against itself” is a way for Howard to call into play a range of circumstances or, on an individual level, misdeeds that cast “Old Man Howard” as a victim, an individual misunderstood by his community. However, Howard’s reckoning of justness in the world also puts Hitlerite agitators alongside Sodom and Gomorrah.
Brown made paintings about iconic Biblical stories, both Old and New Testament, including Beast rising from the Sea, recasting the seven-headed, ten-horned beast from the Book of Revelation. Brown does so with irony, though, as the dark silhouette of the beast towers over a miniaturized and petrified humanity, perhaps calling into question the verity of the Beast as ultimate anti-Christ by endowing it with a benignly furry, stuffed-animal quality.
Our Family Record
Familial bonds, connections, and traditions also make their appearance in works by Howard and Brown. In two of the works in this tableau, the artists use inventive strategies and create interesting and unique formats for the presentation of what may otherwise be just a banal and run of the mill subject.
Howard incorporates details of his own autobiography and personal life in many of his signs, but nowhere more clearly than in the ornately carved and hand-painted headboard turned canvas Our Family Record. Here, Howard records the date and intimate details of his marriage to wife, Maud, along with the birth dates for their five children. With a somewhat ornery twist, Howard conjures up matrimony, vows, consummation, and one family’s genealogical heritage in this one work. Here he transfers the common tradition of recording the names and dates of births and deaths in a family bible into one of his more sculptural and elaborate signs.
Brown exhaustively researched his family tree for 25 years and made several paintings illustrating aspects of his family’s history. Assuredly, it is an uncommon subject for contemporary art, and a pursuit that some of Brown’s friends thought was uninteresting. Coming to America is a diagram of both geographical and genealogical details, framed in the format of a sideshow banner. By using the banner format to present this otherwise tame subject, Brown may have intended to raise the genealogical journey to the auspicious level he felt it deserved.
Debating the World
Debating the world is something that both Howard and Brown did regularly. It is the modus operandi for both artists. The two artists, employing their respective set of skills and materials, responded to current events in one of two ways – describing them in a straightforward, from the headlines, manner, or with a more sensationalistic, grandstanding style of editorial.
Do You Read…
Howard and Brown believed strongly that an individual had a responsibility to be informed, aware, and literate, in order to practice good, upstanding citizenship. In both, there is a low threshold of tolerance for what was perceived as a kind of mass ignorance or naïveté. For Howard, one of the greatest crimes is “the great multitude of people that don’t know a Holy Bible from a funny paper.”
Howard and Brown both displayed a unique brand of patriotism, offering up decidedly different viewpoints and presented, in this tableau, side by side. Howard’s signs excoriating communism are iconic to his oeuvre; the virulent anti-communist stance adopted by Howard indicates that he took it all very seriously, pretty personally, and absorbed is as a kind of Truth. All of this is more understandable when one considers the political context of Howard’s time as well as the fact that he was living in a place he may have considered to be a version of “ground zero” for the Cold War.
It was in Fulton, in fact, that Winston Churchill delivered his now famous “Sinews of Peace” talk, introducing the phrase Iron Curtain into the global vocabulary. Fulton and its citizens gained a certain level of renown due to Churchill’s visit in 1946. Howard seems to have felt the eyes of the world alighting on his hometown of Fulton and he liked this attention. There was also the ongoing media-generated red-scare propaganda that Howard and countless others encountered with their daily dose of local and national newspapers, more than likely inspiring him to rant repeatedly about the “brain washed communists” everywhere in his midst.
Brown’s UnAmerican House Activities Committee adopts the ribbon of text from the side show or freak show banner tradition, echoing a format represented in a large banner by Snapp Wyatt that hung in his home. This genre of American painting was much celebrated by Brown and other Chicago artists. As a counterpart to Howard’s invectives about communism and the opinions held about the threat of evil it presented, Brown portrays the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings as a categorically un-American manipulation of the nation’s political process. By using the banner format he may have been suggesting that he considered the HUAC hearings as one of the country’s more destructive freak shows, as many artist’s careers were ruined by the process.
A Crooked Generation
Howard and Brown both opposed governmental corruption and created vehement indictments of its existence on all levels. As an ardent advocate for honesty and integrity in elected officials, Howard called out the abusers, as he saw them, with relentless criticism. His signs rail invectives towards the crooks, hoodlums, judges, police, lawyers, and the courthouse gang, as he calls a groups of Fulton officials, but especially the tax assessors, who “wore out countless pencils raising his taxes.” One of Howard’s particular concerns was the notion that taxation without representation was unlawful and he, in his own estimation, was left without protection and representation when it came to the vandals and thieves that disrupted his sense of safety at home. “Free thought and free speech” was a common theme for Howard, and one gets the sense that by exposing injustices and inequities there on the fence bordering his property, that he inched closer to reclaiming justice than if he had remained silent.
Government Smokescreen, another of Brown’s paintings using the sideshow banner format, frames the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s as one grand governmental freak show. Brown distills the S&L debacle that occurred early in Reagan’s administration into a simple image: an American flag is suspended across a classical architectural façade as tiny figures rendered in silhouette take a match to the lower corner of the flag in protest.
They Have It Coming
Howard and Brown had enemies both close to home and far away and both artists were known for the indignation they expressed in their works. Here, Howard names his transgressors, including a Fulton Judge, Hugh P. Williamson, John F. Kennedy, and some of the people he knows who are “so darned contrary,” but he also cites a supporter, one who has expressed appreciation for Howard’s ability to give the deserving the hell they have coming.
The Writing in the Sky, directed toward Chicago art critic Alan Artner (and art critics in general), is one of two paintings by Brown using text almost exclusively. It’s interesting to note that Brown uses a standard visual device of Howard’s, perhaps in homage to the older artist, calling out certain words in red for emphasis – a graphic convention Howard most likely borrowed from the Bible.
Brown was admiring of the example set by Howard’s independent voice. In an interview, Brown once stated “…I felt I was given the liberty to do that [use text in his work] by Jesse Howard, and…it finally came out in my own work, it was certainly influenced by Jesse’s being able to do that…I sort of decided to just put it out there, whatever I have to say, no matter how corny or cranky it may be…because that’s what Jesse did and it worked for Jesse so…why not?”4
Howard’s sign, reading Wanted Peacemaker’s, accompanies the larger than life group portrait, The War We Won, by Brown of world leaders Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush (the Elder), and Ronald Reagan. While each work is somewhat ambiguous in its meaning, Brown’s sketch for his painting provides insight, with various combinations of the phrase, “We won the war with Communism but lost the battle of Viet Nam.” Considering the power of those leaders who broker for peace and prosperity, Howard and Brown were unflinching in their bold calls for responsible leadership.
For two artists who so often addressed the world beyond themselves, it’s important to acknowledge the range of poignant, personal expressions of disappointment, discouragement, disenchantment, disillusionment, rejection, and loss.
In some of the most personal and autobiographical signs he ever made, Howard is as brutally honest here as we have come to expect him to be. Howard is right and there is no argument that “75 years of hard labor is a mighty long time and 50 years of dissapointment is a long, long time.” Howard was never diagnosed with clinical depression or any other known mental affliction, but he became less resilient as the years wore on. Brown, born of a different generation and certainly no stranger to loss and grief, had his low periods and created a visual equivalent of spiraling downward in Down Down Down.