MARY K. BROWN - CALM CENTER OF THE IRRATIONAL UNIVERSE
Updated: Apr 17
I have been smitten with Mary K. Brown, from afar, for almost 50 years, ever since High school. When I actually made contact with her, wings across the digital universe, I was thrilled, still a quivering fanboy.
I so remain.
In the mostly unwritten history of American Graphic art she was a defining stylist, (and I assume she still is) even when rock posters and underground comics were making that a hard thing to be.
I’ve never been able to find any genesis in her art. Most artists, of any significance, leave a partial fingerprint of somebody else in their approach, a marker as it were, some influence or first inspiration. One can see a bit of Peter Lastman in Rembrandt, a bit of Corture in Manet, a bit of Walt Kelly in R. Crumb, and so on. There is nothing wrong with that of course, just about every good artist builds on a pre-existing structure and is better for it. Mary is certainly a product of her generation, and could not be taken for anything else, but her stylistic DNA is as hard to trace as it is instantly recognizable. She was a new mutation. She characterized a face or a figure with expressive cogency, but not quite like anyone else. Mary seems to have sprung fully formed and unblended out of some rare native self.
Her color, when she uses it, is simple and vivid, and it always works seamlessly with her graphic idea. Somehow, it's as unique to her identity as the pen.
She was as utterly incomprehensible to mom ’n pop as Frank Zappa, and come to think of it, Mary seems to be on much the same Martian waveband as Frank was.
Forever linked to the National Lampoon, like a conjoined twin that she didn’t really look like, she defined the oddball graphics of the late 60s and 70s with an undefinable new chop. Her stuff was like Sunday funnies by a Zen Buddhist.
She all but invented the genre.
The old National Lampoon was near to the only stand in America where such exotic curiosities were to be found. Nat Lamp is not much discussed these days, But for 10 years it defined progressive graphic art. Copies lay atop the detritus of every co-ed dorm in America, the outrageous playbook for college hippies. Nat Lamp lambasted WW2 generation righteousness along with the spoiled, pissed-off kids that came of it. I was certainly one of the latter. However, a significant difference between us and my dad’s Republican legionaries is that we could, at least sometimes, laugh at our own silliness…. and our music was a lot better, but I digress.
At any rate, Mary's proposition was, at bottom, far more radical than throwing darts at Richard Nixon, who is now almost forgotten as king Ashurbanipal. She was a dadaist master who explained her theater of the absurd in Koans that defied explanation and with graphics that were marvelously folded into the job.
Mary is often funny in the same way that dreams are funny.
I always liked that.
A lot of Nat Lamp satire was heroically offensive, but M.K. never really was. As a general thing her drawing and her narrative radiated a sort of bemused, irrational, calm center of a world that made no sense. She offered that vibe to a world more obtuse people call the real world, which ultimately makes no sense either.
A perfect, complementary fit then.
Her contributions were almost never angry, bitterly sarcastic or indignant. Those things seemed foreign to her nature but for some reason her sideways wit, and the brilliant but indefinable graphics that animated them, have held up better after two generations than anything more brutal or topical. She was both very much of her time and yet, always, in some dimension at right angles to that.
She will always speak to people who look beyond and behind reality and will only confuse people who are oppressed by it. JDA
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