The Annex Gallery at 333 Midland opened an exhibition, Into the Woods, of new work by the longtime Detroit painter Betty Brownlee. The artist, who transitioned from Landscape paintings in the 1990s, is now a well-known figurative painter (which includes self-portraits) where this body of work focuses on women and the female body.
One of the most powerful paintings in this exhibition is Briar Rose where scale and composition make a difference. The choice of composition reminds this writer of 18th century neoclassic work by Jaques-Louis David. The contemporary attributes of Brownlee’s dripping paint provide a coeval effect that brings the artwork into the present. The six figures, most asleep, spread out horizontally against lush green surroundings, making the painting romantically inviting. It does what every painter wants: It brings the viewer back… again, and again.
The other elements present in these works on paper are the pencil grid, the dripping of paint, and the setting found in commercial illustration from the 1950s, maybe the 60s. The grid that Brownlee uses and leaves behind could be used with small illustrations and then enlarged to support the drawing process. Brownlee is not hiding this penciled grid from these works. It is as if she finds an attractive section from an illustration in the past and captures a moment in time in The Audience. Is the female character looking back at something that startles her? The artist remains very conscious of her use of color, relying on the interaction of primary and secondary color using a variety of penetrating inks.
Much of the show’s subject matter is contemporary, but the painting, The Cook’s Revenge, could skillfully go back to an earlier time when the artist successfully combines the figure with still life. This work is different from the smiles and cheery figures in most of the paintings. Instead, we find a sober expression surrounded by earth tones, Brownlee maintains her grid and the two-thirds/one-third composition formula that always works. Is there a throwback to Vermeer in there somewhere?
Who doesn’t like a self-portrait included in a solo show? Brownlee sets herself, head and shoulders, left of center, dominates the composition in terms of scale, and includes a painting in the background (perhaps one of her own). She stares the viewer down with a smile and continues with what has become a signature: A penciled grid, and drips of paint. After observing these subjects in most compositions, the figures are not drawn from life but instead captured from photo compositions. And fair to say, this writer likes these consistent elements appearing in every piece. After all, it is a contemporary tool that separates her work from other similar work, something that one does not forget.
I recall seeing this work at MOCAD, the Double Vision exhibition, where artists were asked to work in couples (Betty Brownlee and Cristin Richard), and I liked this painting then. Again, it feels like a throwback to commercial imagery from the 1960s via the clothing and hairstyle. The pigmented ink captures the moment as the transparency of the light is casually illustrative. This painting is based on a film still from a Jean-Luc Godard film.
Betty Brownlee is a longtime artist residing in Detroit. Having received her MFA at Wayne State University, she has been included in many local exhibitions (30 plus) and remains a steadfast participant in the Detroit arts community. Her work is distinctive and deserves wider exposure.
Betty Brownlee earned her BFA and MFA from Wayne State University. Her work has been exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, the Kresge Art Museum in East Lansing, the legendary Willis Gallery in Detroit, and most recently at the Annex Gallery in Highland Park.
Located in a large, industrial site in Highland Park (a city within the borders of Detroit), 333 Midland is a historic factory, formerly the Lewis Stamping Plant, that provides extensive space to artists and sculptors, especially those who wish to create large-scale works. The owner, developer and sculptor Robert Onnes came to Detroit in 2013 from Whangaparaoa, just outside of Aukland, New Zealand to invest in the Detroit art community. This solo exhibition by Ms. Brownlee is her second solo exhibition, part of fifty art exhibitions & events at 333 Midland spaces since 2014.
The exhibition Into the Woods at the Annex Gallery at 333 Midland is on display through April 5.