American Dyspepsia: Paintings by Mia Brownell

Gil Scullion, July 2018


Several years ago one of the area universities offered a course in Experimental Drawing to its graduate level students. Basing its approach to drawing on the works of artists working with minimalist, post-minimalist, process and performance forms, it deconstructed the traditional assumptions about the nature of drawing. First and foremost it divorced drawing from its long association with observation. The customary notions of hand and eye coordination were jettisoned in favor of conveying information that was not essentially based on the senses. One of the assignments began in traditional fashion and evolved into something altogether different. The three-part project started by having students draw from a conventional still life set up that included a seated model. In typically modernist fashion they were to accurately represent the spatial relationships between the various elements. In the second part the spatial interaction was to be represented while at the same time eliminating all indication of negative space. The final segment had the students crawling all over the platform with rulers measuring the distances between objects and the model, then returning to their easels to jot down in text, numerical measurements and diagrammatic renderings the position of the many components. Successful completions of the third part of the assignment often looked like the exploded, schematic views of household appliances contained within owner’s manuals and trouble shooting guides. The emphasis was on what one knew about the subject as opposed to what one could see.

Diagrammatic space has not played a large part in the history of drawing and painting. Duchamp and Picabia incorporated it into many of their Dada era machine images. Duchamp’s Large Glass remains a masterwork of its kind, but as improbable as it seems it represents the end of a line of exploration rather than the beginning.

In the 1960s Sol LeWitt and Al Held each introduced work that incorporated schematic imagery. In the drawn renditions of his Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes LeWitt employed the method of isometric drawing to represent the series of 122 forms. An isometric drawing of this kind incorporates what we know about the structure of a cube and presents it in what is a virtual mockery of traditional perspective. In the isometric rendering all of the edges of the cube are drawn the same length. The foremost edge, the most remote edge and all of the receding edges are the same. Although the drawing’s orientation suggests a position in real space any attempt at convincing perspective has been abandoned.

In Held’s paintings of the late 60s the isometric method of constructing forms has also been employed, but the results are far less methodical and consistent than in the LeWitt pieces. In his pieces Held delineates sets of geometric shapes that create entirely irrational spaces. One set of lines and negative spaces can read simultaneously as a projecting form and a receding space. All the while the intricate patterns of black and white remain resolutely flat. The underlying geometry and the black lines on white shapes speak of rationality that ultimately dissolves into ambiguity and disorientation.

LeWitt and Held both used the formalist visual language that was the lingua franca of the 1960s to address the gap between that which is seen and that which is known, each producing a promise of completeness and closure that was to remain unfulfilled. Some four decades later Mia Brownell weighs in on the conversation with a figurative, visual language and ideas that go beyond formal issues.

Brownell’s incorporation of diagrammatic space is most clear in several of the paintings from her Plate to Platelet series of 2017. In these paintings the lush color of previous works has given way to a stark black, white and gray palette that graphically delineates the ambiguous and contradictory spaces she is constructing. Occupying positions within these spaces are collections of fruit painted in a meticulous, illusionistic style. Sometimes the still life elements rest upon the fragments of shelves that lean and turn in space, alternately fixed, floating or falling. The shelves frequently cast shadows onto their indefinite surroundings, encouraging the viewer to read them simultaneously as space and surface. Connecting the otherwise isolated images are linear devices that resemble vines, umbilical cords or arteries. The relationships indicated by the linear elements evoke the kinds of systems represented by organizational flow charts.

While spatial contradictions and inconsistencies exist within Brownell’s paintings it is not as if she is contrasting theoretical and perceptual ways of knowing. Rather it appears as though she is combining both approaches into a single analytical method. But the two methods are not entirely reconciled or acting in tandem. If each way of understanding is represented by a circle then the two circles do not share the same center point. They exist side by side, and overlapping, in the manner of a Venn diagram. 

The diagrammatic quality is most easily identified in the monochrome paintings of Plate to Platelet, but it is not exclusive to them. In such series as Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting of 2011-2015 and Stomach Acid Dreams of 2010 Brownell’s compositional strategies often rely on chemical or biological structures that we usually encounter as graphic illustrations in scientific texts. These are then wedded to pictorial conventions that trace their source back to 17thCentury Dutch still life painting. Long strings of grapes, apples, pears, tulips and roses are based on the structures of chromosomes, the double helix, models of proteins and molecular diagrams. These are then precisely rendered in rich, vibrant colors that glow and project from dark, chiaroscuro backgrounds. The figurative elements are so prolific and lavish that they call out siren-like to the viewer, promising sensual delight. It is only on prolonged inspection that a cool and calculated scientific foundation becomes apparent. 

One such painting is Still Life with Double Double from the series Adventures of a Reluctant Omnivore, 2006–2008. Two sets of spiraling tendrils formed from bunches of red grapes occupy either side of a bisected canvas. Subtly glowing red pears float in and around the spirals as others sink back into the dark, shadowy background. The two sets of spirals are nearly symmetrical and at first glance recall a rib cage. In fact they are two double helix structures positioned side by side. The double helix is a model of a DNA molecule wherein two strands wind around each other like a twisted ladder.

In another painting from the same series, Still Life with Adam (When you snooze you loose), 2008, an actual slab of ribs coil upward through the center of the canvas, fat and tissue still attached, looking like a candidate for the barbeque grill. Individual grapes connected by a fragile filament echo the twist of the meat. A single apple glistens from behind the ribs. This is one of several paintings that combine animal products and plant products in a duality that suggests more than just a balanced meal.

What is it that Brownell’s paintings address beyond the intricate formal arrangements? They are clearly more than a new approach to still life and homage to Dutch painting. An essential clue may be found in her continuing series The Birds & The Bees. This set of paintings, the earliest of which dates to 2011, includes the same formal structures of the previously discussed series, but includes images of birds and bees, a hard to miss allusion to sexual reproduction. But it is not the sex that is to be highlighted here it is the reproduction. The subtext embedded within much of Brownell’s work has to do with ideas concerning the growth and alteration of our food supply, particularly the move towards greater reliance on genetic manipulation of foodstuffs. In spite of all those labels one sees in the grocery store announcing that the enclosed products are made without GMO ingredients much, if not most, of America’s food supply is genetically modified. 92% of the corn, 94% of the soybeans and 94&% of the cotton (the source of cottonseed oil) is genetically modified. (1) The largest percentage of these foodstuffs is grown to be fed to livestock. This removes the introduction of GMO foods to the consumer from the immediacy of the grocery store shelves. Lax requirements for reporting the inclusion of modified products in grocery items compound the situation.

It may be an overstatement to suggest that Mia Brownell’s dense, exuberant and seductive paintings serve primarily as a cautionary tale. Their formal structures provide significantly complicated and paradoxical rewards. The sumptuous colors and opulent shadows furnish a thoroughly sensual experience. But it is hard to believe that such intelligent work does not have even more going on beneath the surface.

(1) (Center for Food Safety, About Genetically Engineered Foods,

Gil Scullion, July 2018