Ashlynn Browning’s new abstract paintings say volumes about space and color. The geometric forms and stacked structures that became a touchstone of her style over the past eight or so years are still present, but her brushstrokes press close to the surface, their variations and subtleties of central importance.
In Building, a pink rectangle and a turquoise square stand out for their subtlety. The other forms in the painting have more definite colors: the greens, blues, and peaches are solid and fully mixed. But the streaks in the peach rectangle and the turquoise square betray vulnerability and the traces of their creation. Their range of intensity resolves the composition by balancing with other colors within the composition. The turquoise square anchors the lower left and offers a view beyond, with black and grey marks receding into the distance. The contrasting proximity of color planes to each other within a composition runs through her newest works, balancing flat and receding grays with energized and dramatic pinks and blacks.
On her website, Browning includes this quote by Francis Bacon: “Man gets tired of himself. Man is obsessed with himself. I would like some day to capture a moment of life in its full violence, its full beauty. That would be the ultimate painting.” This desire for unmoored emotion comes through in paintings such as Cantilever. Browning’s keen sensitivity to color enables an incredible range of shapes and brushstroke textures to coexist. Black and yellow grids push toward our field of view and seem to levitate above planes of green, red, and mint. A gemlike form in the lower quadrant is obscured by muted brown and gray tones. As Browning said during our conversation, her paintings come about intuitively and are first about paint, though much about her biography in particular and the human drama in general is also present within them.
Shana Dumont Garr: Many of your structures are created in response to the paint as you work, or intuitively. How often is it intuitive versus calculated?
Ashlynn Browning: There is never a plan or study for a piece in the beginning. That is just not a system that works for me. I’ve tried it, but I quickly realized that intuition, instinct, accident—whatever you want to call it—is the main driver of my work and the only way I get a piece that is “successful” to my eye. So for me, it’s pretty much the classic Abstract Expressionist approach: “Make a mark, respond to that mark, etcetera.” So I would say at least 75 percent of each painting is made by trusting my gut and putting down colors and marks without really thinking them through. The other 25 percent of the process is where I will let a layer sit for a while and just look at it over a period of days, plotting my next move. That calculated choice may or may not remain in the final piece, but it is still an important part of the process. So in the end, the painting contains a cumulative effect of thoughtful decisions and purely felt acts. That seems to be the recipe that works for me.
SDG: When calculated, are your forms and constructions ever from observation? Do you sometimes get déjà-vu and realize later that something you painted is from observation when you didn’t realize it at first?
AB: I rarely purposely set out to recreate something that I’ve observed, but yes, things creep into my paintings that I would never expect. For instance, lately, I think all the architecture in my work is coming from playing building blocks with my son and from doing home construction projects. Of course, I didn’t realize that was the origin at all, until the paintings were under way or done. Also, I’m just always interested in grids, and stacking them seemed like a natural progression.
I completely admire artists who have the skill to set out and paint something specific and then accomplish that beautifully. It’s just not in my repertoire. Logistically, I don’t think I ever quite learned to paint that way. But also, conceptually, I really like the surprises and mystery that come with working the way I do. I often get the déjà-vu feeling you describe, and it’s always intriguing to me to see what the subconscious mind churns up.
SDG: You have said that your paintings balance psychology and geography; they are places that stand in for figures with distinct moods, personalities, and stories. I find this fascinating, when the works seem so spatial and to reference places.
AB: The current work is very architectural and about space and place, yes. The forms are combinations of walls, buildings, and stacked, interlocking structures. I love the feeling of seeing around the structures and through the windows and openings in the grids.
But up until about two years ago, the paintings were much more personified. As always with my work, I only know “what they’re about” once they’re done. It’s all hindsight. I started to see that the singular forms all had very specific personalities and moods.
If you look to my titles, you’ll find insight in them. Vixen, The Loud One at the Party, Guston As A Boy, for example. I have no talent or interest in painting actual realistic human figures, but I saw that these forms were filling that niche in a different way. The posture, color choices, and mood of the pieces all told a story about an individual. Perseverance is a painting that really stands out to me as having a narrative. The hunched over, wearied posture, the small window of color where a “head” would be, and the halo-like form on top — all these variables add up to a form that, for me, tells the story of a troubled soul that is managing despite significant burdens placed upon her or him. Also, it was a very layered and laborious painting. So the title speaks to both the subject matter that emerged, and also to the difficulty I had in executing it. Perseverance says it all.
SDG: Do you maintain a sketchbook and/or a drawing practice?
AB: I am not sketching or drawing much currently, no. I used to work almost exclusively in drawing (up till around 2006), using graphite, charcoal, oil pastel and then mixing those media with paint and collage. Over time, the paint began to take over and the drawing media disappeared. It will be interesting for me to see when and if it returns at some point.
SDG: Do you think it’s because you love color so much that you keep things nonobjective? Tell me more about your relationship with color.
AB: Color only really became important again to my work in the last eight or so years. It goes in cycles. In college, I was making large, colorful oil paintings. Then, in graduate school, color was gone. It was all prints and drawings. My thesis show in graduate school was exclusively monoprints, all in black and white and earthy tones. I’m not exactly sure what explains these shifts. Some of it has an autobiographical nature. In other words, whatever is going on in my life plays out in the work. In graduate school I was lonely a lot, my grandfather died, and Sept. 11 occurred. So, looking back, I can see that gravity seems appropriate in the work.
As a general rule, I’m very sensitive to color and can’t live with much. All of that is saved for my studio life. At home, my environment is very neutral and I hang mostly black and white work, a lot of prints and drawings. It’s just easier on my head somehow. I compartmentalize and keep color experimentation in my paintings.
As for influence, I think I am constantly soaking up different palettes, whether from my garden, fashion trends, or art historical references. There will always be some Guston pink in my work, for example. And recently, I had to laugh when I realized that my latest series of paintings seemed heavily influenced by the many reruns of “Miami Vice” I’d been watching. All of a sudden, everything was pastel blue and green with hits of turquoise and coral.
Ashlynn Browning’s work can be seen at the Durham Hotel and in the current issue of New American Paintings (#118). Her recent exhibitions include those at Gaddy-Hamrick Gallery at Meredith College and Artspace in Raleigh; Whitespace and Twin Kittens galleries in Atlanta; and ART Gallery in Columbia, SC. She has a MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a BA in studio art and English from Meredith College, Raleigh, NC.
Shana Dumont Garr recently relocated from Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was the director of programs & exhibitions at Artspace, to the Boston area, where she is an independent arts writer and director of Kingston Gallery in Boston’s South End.