If I Should Die Before I Wake
Getting fuzzy with Michael Brown’s creepy critters
Michael Brown’s art brings back long-suppressed memories of childhood nightmares. His strange creations peer out at you from an unearthly darkness, their wary and reproachful faces illuminated by a too-bright spotlight, just like those old night terrors that made you wet the bed when you were 4.
Remember that recurring dream in which you were strolling through the cemetery at midnight, and your flashlight passed over some creature in the dark—like, say, a deformed rabbit or something—and then it bared its teeth and made that awful noise, and you woke up screaming? Or how about those dreams in which you somehow found yourself at the bottom of the sea, swimming through the inky depths without so much as a wetsuit to protect you, sweeping your little lamp across the ocean floor and catching fleeting glimpses of things better left unglimpsed?
In Brown’s “Ringmasters” show at the Sarah Bain Gallery, all of your stuffed animals come to life once more, shambling toward you out of the blackness and staring at you with their big, wet eyes. They want to know why you left them all alone, locked up in the toy chest for so long. And here are the twisted, midnight trees that used to scrape against the window of your bedroom on cold, rainy nights. Look at those trunks, covered with the kind of weird, diseased lumps you’d expect to see clustered on an old lady’s ankles. (But why does that one tree seem to be wearing a cat’s pelt like a sweater? Perhaps because this tree eats things, making little prizes of the skins of its luckless prey.) And hey, what do we have over there? Why, it’s your old pals, the giant bugs who just sit and watch you for hours, never blinking. Try not to be nervous . . . they can smell fear.
Brown’s paintings are wonderfully, horribly tactile. Everything has an uncanny, sculptural solidity, like one of his surly deers could suddenly twitch to life, leap out of the black, land with a crash on the gallery floor and go scrambling away into the night. Everybody, mammal and insect alike, is covered with a blond, knubbly fur that looks as soft as a pug puppy’s belly. Even the ground seems to be covered with these tufts of fluff, like you could make a cozy sweater from the earth itself. But as much as part of you aches to run your fingers through the stuff, you’d be wise to keep your hands tucked deep inside your pockets.
There’s something a bit Freudian about Brown’s insect portraits. His little family of bugs (Mutter, Vater, little Kind and Fremder . . . even Nachbar the neighbor has stopped by) all have a look that could be described as “tumescent,” with a big swell of fat around their necks and glassy eyes peering out of their round, knobby heads. Brown’s trees seem rather appallingly alive; you’d hesitate to prune them for fear they’d cry out in pain for every branch you snipped. They look like what would happen if you buried a suicide’s heart deep in the ground, and it took root and grew into a lonesome plant with really bad acne. Brown’s creatures are preschool-cute—almost fetal, really—while somehow also looking profoundly unwholesome and untrustworthy. His Bambis have fangs, his trees have . . . tree syphilis? (Seriously, they really need to get those bumps looked at by a qualified tree surgeon.)
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Perhaps the dark spirit of the show is best summed up by two paintings, Right and Left. Each is an oversized closeup of some creature’s eye, melancholy eyes that gleam with a human-like intelligence. These are the eyes of a prisoner, a lost soul, a lonely one. But they are set in an inhuman face covered with some sort of downy fuzz, perhaps a bear cub or a child’s plaything. Whatever this creature is, you have the feeling that you somehow did wrong by it a long time ago. But it’s been too long, and you can’t remember what happened. And if you can’t remember, how can you ever hope to make things right?
All your kindergarten nightmares have come together tonight for a little reunion, a party in your honor. And even if you’ve forgotten them, they sure haven’t forgotten you.
Michael Brown’s “Ringmasters” at the Sarah Bain Gallery, 184 Center St. Promenade, Anaheim, (714) 758-0545; www.sarahbaingallery.com. Open Tues.-Sat, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Through Nov. 30.