The impact of iona rozeal brown's startling mixed-media paintings is partly a matter of color and movement. The internationally exhibited Maryland artist's complex images break past the eye, jumping like "wild-style" graffiti.
But whatever their merits as visual art, those lush, interlocking rhythms are just the packaging for works dense with allusion, as brown weaves hip-hop energies into 19th-century Japanese Ukiyo-e characters and themes. Using those popular woodblock prints (originally inspired by a "floating world" of actors and repressed passions) as a conceptual and dramatic template, brown's four-by-five-foot panels illustrate pivotal episodes in a network of backstories.
Sampled from several cultures but firmly rooted in black American experience, brown's narratives are both complex and whimsical, sketching chapters in an evolving epic tale. Her mythos has the loose, deeply personal weave of a dream, inscribed with the rich creative freedoms that cultural cross-pollination — like a sampling and looping of epochs and aesthetic intentions — can provide.
The 15 new paintings in MOCA's iona rozeal brown: all falls down were commissioned after brown and the museum won the 2009 Joyce Award in Visual Art, given by Chicago's Joyce Foundation Award to underwrite work by artists of color. Serving both as stand-alone works of art and vignettes in an ongoing series called you can't turn a hustler into a husband (or lessons on how to get something for nothing), each painting is entertainment and life-lesson rolled into one.
Set in an intermediate world called HEZ (humanic enterprise zone) — "a metaphysical realm, like heaven," as the show's curator Megan Lykins Reich describes it — the works' classical Japanese format morphs into a sci-fi-like blend of past and future. HEZ owes some of its plugged-in look and conceptual base to the Afrofuturist movement described by author Mark Dery in his 1993 essay "Black to the Future," and the subject of a 2006 exhibition at Cleveland's SPACES Gallery.
Deriving its structure from ancient, globally disseminated stories of quest, trial and transformation, brown's often slyly humorous tale is about young souls in training. Called "saplings," these spirits are exposed to earthly temptations and distractions, luring them from the path to maturity. Promiscuity and high-end fashion accessories are among the bad-news desiderata deployed by demonic cherubs, the "hoochie putti," and their disease-riddled boss "E.I.N" — "Everything I'm Not." Fortunately, the good guys have their own presence in HEZ; it seems that troubled saplings like the teen-age character Ana Mei have a chance against their adversaries.
The title of one central work quotes from Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing — "That's it? I got it. I'm gone!" The two-part painting depicts members of the god-like Council of Women in its upper panel, shown reclining on clouds after ordering the child-hero Yoshi to aid Ana Mei. Below, Yoshi's Big Wheel and other possessions lie in a heap, apparently abandoned in haste. In general, brown's work, like Lee's film, counsels the importance of remaining true to oneself, mixing street smarts with values like self-respect — echoing the themes of any people's folklore. Originating in the common experience of life's pitfalls, the exhibition comes full circle back to the community in a mural painted by brown and 12 area high-school students in MOCA's Seltzer rodunda. It shows Yoshi rearing up on her Big Wheel, trailing a cape-like quilt.
Among contemporary art's innovations is the idea that an individual image can be part of a more comprehensive fictional or didactic structure. The evidence of the artist's process — the art works themselves — are program notes to the shifting shapes of an interior world. The gambits of metafiction are a model for this, as are the epic obsessions of artists like Chicago janitor Henry Darger. Darger's large-scale drawings illustrate the vicissitudes of his army of "Vivian girls" and are accompanied by a 15,000-page epic — possibly the most comprehensive of all backstories.
In principle, there's no beginning or end to iona rozeal brown's elaborate parable. HEZ and its denizens may turn out to be short-lived or may continue through hundreds of works and narrative permutations. Much of the fun for her audiences will be in seeing where the artist goes next with her ideas and dreaming worlds along with her.