Pegan Brooke at George Lawson Gallery
By Greg Flood
Given the period of art production we find ourselves in, it is hardly surprising to find a show of abstract painting while wondering around the gallery scene in any city. Many of them are lackluster, uninspired, or otherwise simply derivative without the strength of their aesthetic forebearers. Too many of these paintings sit on the wall and, once glanced at, require no more attention or reckoning. Others attempt to use abstraction to explore a high conceptual theory of some sort or other (it may even be low conceptual theory), requiring the parsing of a text often so difficult to read that we cannot make sense of the words on the page even though we know the language they are written in. Some of the paintings occasionally do hold up with the effort, but on the whole I am not buying what the vast majority are selling.
There are those moments, however, when one is paused in one’s wanderings and enticed to stand there and really look at a work, go over and read what has been provided, then go back to look again. Pegan Brooke’s current show at George Lawson Gallery does just that. Their beauty aside (and that is not to derive beauty in any way), the strength of this show comes from Brooke’s use of abstraction to explore the relationship between humanity and the land around them, as opposed to limiting herself to the conceptual concerns of painterly aesthetics. While it may sound like I have contradicted myself in just a few sentences, I have not. There are long traditions of landscape painting, abstract painting, and of artists using both to confront the relationship humanity has with the land – are we just animals meant to co-exist with the rest of life around us? -- are we God’s children, placed here to use the land as our playground? – are we the Gods over the land, with no accountability for how we use/abuse/exhaust its resources entirely for human aims except to ourselves?
The search for answers to these questions is a timeless, and always timely, subject for art and artists. All three of those views have at one time dominated our thinking in the West, and today compete with each other for dominance. Pegan Brooke’s paintings are only the latest offering to explore those long traditions. While her painting style is not entirely unfamiliar, the subject she is delving into is evident upon viewing the work.
What is Brooke asking, answering, opining on her canvases? Such questions are unanswered, but answers are not what she is looking to provide. The paintings are meditations, beckoning us to slow down and contemplate their subject; to force us to answer for ourselves the questions of what the land means and what our role in it is. The abstract nature of these renderings does not lead us to a certain end point. Rather, these are paintings to return to again and again, to continue to ask questions of, to seek answers from. In the face of the current onslaught of abstraction, their strengths are the connection they forge with the viewer and the search they illicit within us to find answers to the greater human concern of our relationship to the world.
In an (art)world dominated by go-go-go, to produce works that instantly make a connection with the viewer and which can sustain a continued conversation over time is a mean feat that is a rare find. Mark Rothko wrote that “A picture lives through companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.” Pegan Brooke has listened to these words, where in many other cases they have fallen on deaf ears. Go see the results for yourselves.
Greg Flood is a Bay Area Curator, Critic and Media Professional.