I think of her as Mother Brown, a subversive figure in white heels and rose-checked creamy frock, careful makeup and long gloves, painting a calm blue vase and single flower, while chaos seeps around the edges. Underfoot, a color-splattered floor gleams, while yesterday’s big wild passionate painting leans against the wall behind her.

“This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown,” now at the San Jose Museum of Art, reveals the bold individuality of this artist who came to prominence in the Eisenhower era and persistently painted the contours and crevices of her life till she died in a freak 1990 accident while installing work in an ashram in India. Her observations would excite generations of women, though she energetically avoided being categorized as a feminist artist.

We meet Brown fresh out of the California School of Fine Arts, the darling girl of a very tight men’s club, the Bay Area Figurativists. Her professor and mentor, Elmer Bischoff, along with CSFA colleagues David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, were the elders of this guild. They defied the prevailing Abstract Expressionism style, using the energy of expressionism to represent a reality outside their heads.

Brown’s early work is heavy with this influence in weighty, laden, dark canvases where, under all that paint we see her lifelong themes emerge. In Girl With the Red Nose (1962) and Cocker Spaniel With Cloud at Night (1963), the artist gazes phlegmatically out of large stylized eyes we will come to recognize; we meet her homey menagerie and that compositional cloud she uses throughout her early work. In Girls in the Surf With Moon Casting a Shadow (1962), figures emerge from the crashing dark waters of the San Francisco Bay, which she will swim competitively and paint herself swimming and surviving.

In an era when few women artists achieved prominence even after decades of exhibiting, these paintings launched Brown nationally in 1960, at age 22. Ignoring the consequences of changing the style for which she has become famous, she soon abandoned this derivative form to paint with increasing orderliness and flatness.

Four 1970-‘71 enamel self-portraits on masonite show carefully representational figures, shallowly modeled, existing on one plane with vivid backgrounds reduced to intricate patterns. With a haunting “this is my home, this is my son …” quality, these paintings recall turn-of-19th-century photos of American homesteaders, their possessions laid out in front of their homes for everyone to see.

In Christmas Time 1970, Brown stands behind her son Noel Neri (second husband, sculptor Manuel Neri, was another Bischoff disciple) in her leaf-strewn garden, gloved hands resting protectively on Noel’s shoulders as he mimics his mother’s affectless gaze from under a skip cap.

Portrait of a Girl (1971) is based on photographs from Brown’s childhood—a perfect little pink girl in paper doll dress, red-shoed toes turned in, wide-eyed and tentative in front of a massive Chinese dragon swirling threateningly behind her. In fact, Brown survived an afflicted San Francisco upbringing that spurred her to pursue her goals without a scrap of tentativeness.

In the largest gallery, Brown’s later works parade flatly, often in profile, the shallow modeling of the 1970s often reduced now to outlines enclosing areas of color against backgrounds distilled into pattern. Here Brown’s mature interests emerge—spiritual pursuits, avid long-distance swimming, esoterica and symbolic animals, man-woman relationships in droll depictions of a seduction, a lonely wait for a lover, a romantic journey and journey’s end.

“This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown” only thinly represents the artist’s quirkier social observations in favor of her more overt self-portraits. Nevertheless, the exhibition reveals an art life lived without compromise, depicting without glorification but without irony her own domestic life and her journey from there to the world.

This Kind of Bird Flies Backward
Runs through March 11, 2012, at the San Jose Museum of Art

More Info on “This Kind of Bird Flies Backward” at the San Jose Museum of Art