G alen Brown’s drawings are such perfectly calm objects, they make it look as if he must have some divine power to transfigure the world’s anxiety into peaceful, 2-dimensional order. Most of the usual elements of drawing—form, color, space, texture, value—are downplayed or even absent, and there’s often no discernible subject matter. Brown has narrowed his playing field to almost nothing but lines. Thousands of vertical lines on a piece of matboard a few inches high and longer than the couch. Concentric, circular lines that start the size of a split pea and grow, sometimes over years or even decades, up to 12 feet across.
If you’d given me a yes-or-no pop quiz about whether Brown might classify his own work among that of contemporary Zen-Buddhist-inspired artists (Germany’s Wolfgang Laib comes to mind.) I probably would have said “of course.” It’s tempting to assume that he must live in some mythical monastery of the mind.
Actually, he lives in Carson City. And his drawings, like most things that look like inexplicable magic, came to fruition by discipline and work. And their fodder is not so much the divine as the ordinary minutiae of life. The calm that Brown’s work exudes is hard-won.
He grew up in the 1960s and 70s in Kings Beach, on Lake Tahoe’s north shore. After he finished high school, he wanted to be an artist, but at first he pursued a different path.
“I let people talk me into being an architectural draftsperson,” Brown said in a recent interview. “I was working for a civil engineer and designing houses and things like that.”
A couple of years into that career, when he was 23, his knee was badly injured in a skiing accident. The recovery was slow.
“I was sitting there staring at the walls for six months,” he said. It struck him as a good time to change course. After his knee healed, he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute and stayed there until he finished grad school.
When Brown talks about his work, he doesn’t talk about peace or meditation. When he’s drawing, he’s likely to be processing the problems of the day or listening to whatever’s on the TV or radio. And the stories he tells let on that his lifetime’s worth of lines really adds up to a sort of journal, written in a private vocabulary, of everyday events and observations.
Here’s are a few of those stories:
The one about the ax
Early in his career, Brown ran a frame shop in Oakland. “One of my employees grabbed one of my tools,” he said, a Japanese ax with a sideways head. “He was playing with it, and the head fell off and just missed his foot. … And I was just seeing my business and my future gone.” Brown instinctively grabbed a piece of matboard and a pencil and went to the shoreline to decompress. He started drawing concentric circles. They would become one of his trademark motifs.
The Iraq one
Brown specifically calls himself “not a political artist.” But he doesn’t have his head in the sand either. He said that when the U.S. bombed Iraq in 2003, “I was kind of angry at George Bush.” So he picked up his pens. He made a 6-foot plus-shape out of museum board. He drew concentric squares, and in between them he painted pastel blues, yellows, greens and pinks so subtle they’re hard to see from a few feet away. He drew a single red line running through each of the piece’s extremities. He started to think of that line as blood vessel. He scratched in that line, over and over and over, taking out his frustration on the surface of the board.
The one about the dock
Here’s an observation Frances Melhop made. She’s the owner of Melhop Gallery, where Brown’s current exhibition, OCD, is on display. There’s a photograph of a narrow, wooden dock on Lake Tahoe that Brown grew up looking at, day after day. And in the sun-dappled gallery, there’s an elongated drawing with thousands of parallel, vertical lines inked in dark red, light red, and occasional black. The piece is held a few inches away from the wall by a red, metal framework. After sunset, the gallery’s track lights overpower the window light, casting an aesthetically pleasing shadow. To Melhop’s eye, the drawing with its shadow looks remarkably similar to the photo of the dock.
Brown hadn’t conceived of the piece as a trip down Childhood Memory Lane. He’d actually set out to make a diagram of prime numbers. (He got the idea from a movie character.) But when I asked him about it, he said, “My growing up was spent either on snow or on water, basically. So that environmental influence is in me. I can’t let go of it.”
If you search his work for patterns that look like snowfields or the glimmering horizon of an enormous lake, you’ll find them easily.
The drive-thru one
There’s a long, horizontal piece hanging in Melhop Gallery’s office, covered end to end in thin stripes of green, with a few dark-ish circles. It’s titled “Drive-Thru.”
“I don’t know if it was Jack in the Box or Burger King,” said Brown. But it was definitely a drive-thru window, and the screen definitely had a few holes in it, and those holes burned an image into his mind that he decided to draw. Hence the circles.
“I’m influenced from this random stuff,” he explained. “I guess I wanted the accumulations of life. Even if you can’t really read it like a record.”
Looking at Brown’s work in a gallery, however (or at the Nevada Museum of Art, where his show, Sine Cire, was on view in 2019), I find the prosaic origin stories disappear in the rear-view mirror, and what remains in the foreground is a vast collection of simple elements, mostly lines, that amount to honest-to-goodness transcendence. Maybe I failed the pop quiz about Brown living in a magical, perfect world, but quiz me about whether he creates one. I’ll ace it.
Galen Brown’s exhibition OCD is on view at Melhop Gallery °7077 in Zephyr Cove through March 31. The gallery is open by appointment only. To schedule a visit, email email@example.com.
Cover photo: Frances Melhop