In her latest body of work, Quiet City, American artist Deborah Brown captures the beauty and nostalgia found in everyday moments – in this case, daily walks with her dog Trout through her Brooklyn neighbourhood, often at golden hour as their shadows spill over sidewalks and roads.
The new oil paintings form part of the artist's Shadow Series, which focuses on intimate scenes from her life and how it has been shaped by the social isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Quiet City, we get a hint at what Brooklyn was like when lockdowns and restrictions were in place. Structured around absence, the human protaginist can only be seen by their shadow, connected with a leash to a dog in the foreground. The shadows extend far into the distance, suggesting the time of day, creating odd distortions and pleasing patterns.
In each painting, we see all the structures and features common with urban spaces: road signs, telephone poles, traffic lights, fences, grates and spray-painted symbols. These are paired with Dionysian street murals that cover many of the New York neighbourhood's buildings.
The landscape is devoid of other humans, suggesting an absence of life and that the protaginist and their dog might be the last inhabitants on earth. But with everything bathed in golden light, as the sun sets in the sky, there's a feeling of warmth and hope. Brown's paintings certainly take on extra meaning after a year of quarantine and isolation created by the global pandemic.
"The subject matter is drawn from the East Williamsburg Industrial Zone in Brooklyn where my studio is located," Deborah tells Creative Boom. "The area is dominated by one-story warehouses covered with street art, murals, and graffiti. Although it's only a few miles from Manhattan, the absence of tall structures allows for uninterrupted vistas down multiple blocks often in several directions at once. These are some of the elements that attracted me to paint these images."
Initially, Deborah's attention was drawn to the low angle of the sun in winter: "As it extends shadows far into the distance, it creates odd distortions and evocative patterns," she continues. "I am also fascinated by the multifaceted structures that occur in an urban space—stop signs, telephone poles, light stanchions, fences, grates, sidewalk paving, and spray-painted symbols. Commonplace artifacts that we take for granted in a human environment are paired with the Dionysian graffiti that covers the low-rise structures.
"The result is a play of painted signs and symbols that move our eye around the space of the painting, creating new relationships between the elements and forcing the viewer to decode and reinterpret familiar markers."
Deborah continues: "Because most of us spent 2020 and part of 2021 in relative isolation, I have placed the viewer in the role of a protagonist navigating a landscape mostly devoid of human inhabitants. The absence of cars and people gives the work an existential cast as if the protagonist might be a survivor among the last inhabitants of a strange landscape.
"This theme takes on added meaning after a year of quarantine and isolation created by the global pandemic. We are all figures who emerge tentatively from shelter, happy to find the world intact but wary of what awaits us."