Skip to content

Quote

“My paintings are, for the most part, fantasies and ideas of how to live your life.”
-Delia Brown

Text-Image-1

Delia Brown: Society Portraits and the Divine Feminine - Features - Independent Art Fair

Delia Brown, Jai Maa! (Justine II), 2024, Oil on linen, 30 x 22 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hervé Bize, Nancy

Twenty years ago, superficial as subversion wasn’t in court favor in the art world. Bright, bubbly figurative paintings of fantasy parties had no place in an era of post-conceptual and relational art. For the artist Delia Brown that meant an early run of “dismissive reviews saying that I was really fluffy,” even as collectors urged her to make more paintings of “frolicking girls.” 

Brown was a visible presence in the downtown New York scene of the late 1990s until 2009, when she returned to her native California. Her vivid depictions of luxury, wealth, and privilege were often painted from staged photographs she and her friends enacted for the camera. Knowingly entangled with class politics, they bore a certain gilded aesthetic and reality-TV voyeurism that sat uncomfortably in the white walls of institutions and galleries.

With the market’s 2010s shift towards the abstract realms of Zombie Formalism and Brown’s own withdrawal from the inner sanctums of contemporary art, her career never gained reliable momentum. “I have gone from being a high-end commodity coming up in the art world to not being a person of interest any longer,” Brown confesses.

Delia Brown: Society Portraits and the Divine Feminine - Features - Independent Art Fair

Delia Brown, Bar at the Caribou Club, 2007, Oil on board, 15.3 x 23 cm, Private Collection, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hervé Bize, Nancy

Still, she never left the scene completely. Enduring support came from the late Los Angeles art maven Margo Leavin—who posed as the central matriarch in the No Place Like Home series of 2001—and over the past decade Brown has shown in some of the contemporary art gallery map’s most interesting outfits. In addition to recent solo exhibitions at Tibor de Nagy, Beth Rudin DeWoody’s Bunker artspace and Maccarone, she participated in group shows including Maccarone’s The Pleasure Principle, commissioned by Pornhub. 

The French gallerist Hervé Bize has fervently appreciated Brown’s work for years, both as a collector and a dealer. With his eponymous gallery based in Nancy, France, away from the pressures of Paris or London, Bize has acquired a maverick reputation for “not really caring about the market,” he says, because “the reality of art, as we tend to forget, lies elsewhere.”

The new series of paintings they have teamed up to present at Independent embodies the spiritual concerns that drive Brown’s artistic practice today. “I’m answering to something higher, and it’s not the marketplace,” she says. In Jai Maa! Brown has produced five portraits of meaningful women in her life who are also incarnations of the “Great Mother” or divine feminine archetype, including her own mother. For Bize, the works testify to her “ability to embrace painting wholeheartedly, embracing all the historical charge it represents.” 

In an exclusive conversation with Independent Features, Delia Brown told us more about the new series and why she feels the moment is right to step out into the limelight again. Her statements below have been edited and condensed from an interview with Julie Baumgardner.

Delia Brown: Society Portraits and the Divine Feminine - Features - Independent Art Fair

Delia Brown, Me, Leisa, and Katie in the Dining Room, 2003, Graphite and gouache on pale pink Canson paper, 49.8 x 64.8 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hervé Bize, Nancy

Every show I do is a new series or project. Lifestyle fantasies: that was a thing that wove through my projects for a couple of decades. I would do a project that was about being a bourgeois housewife, or my friends and I being really Dionysian rich girls. The scenes of us hanging out in luxury were less about what was around me and more about the fantasy. But the fantasy, of course, is informed by where I am, or was.

My paintings are, for the most part, fantasies and ideas of how to live your life. More central than fantasy is trying to understand what it is to be a white cis-woman with a class-specific set of cultural references. And what would it be like if some of those identities or reference points shifted?

Delia Brown: Society Portraits and the Divine Feminine - Features - Independent Art Fair

Portrait of Delia Brown, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hervé Bize, Nancy

There’s an essay by Thomas Lawson called “Last Exit: Painting” that talks about representational painting, and gave language to something that I felt inside of myself, which was that you could make work that looks dumb and that is doing something subversive. And you could do that within the language of representational painting.

Nowadays, this might not sound like a very edgy thought—when you look at all the figurative painting out there right now, people are just going wild with it. But at the time when I was coming into the art world, and coming into my own as an artist, it was uncommon to be a representational painter and consider yourself to be working in a conceptual mode, and working out a politics to it. It’s not an easy thing to pull off. It’s a very sophisticated thing if you manage to implant something subversive in that experience, so that someone doesn’t even know what’s happening to them.

There’s work that makes you think about issues like systems of oppression and there’s work that just gives you aesthetic engagement. I like to locate myself in a place where both things are hopefully happening. I hope there’s pleasure in looking at my work and if it doesn’t speak loudly to you of something political, it might be operating at a sub-perceptual level.

Delia Brown: Society Portraits and the Divine Feminine - Features - Independent Art Fair

Delia Brown, What, Are You Jealous? (Los Angeles), 2000, Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, Courtesy of the artist

After I graduated from UCLA in 2000, I had my first show at D’Amelio Terras of the staged party scenes, where I took my friends and borrowed homes and tried to make us look like we were the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But that show, of course, didn’t exist at that time. 

I remember sitting with those early reviews—dismissive reviews saying that I was really fluffy—and at the same time, my show had sold out, and I had an eight-page spread in The New York Times Magazine. I was commercially “cha-ching” but then, on the other hand, I was confused that these works weren’t perceived as having nuance and having something else going on. 

I had to pivot away from the fantasy girl works to make people say, “Oh, wait, maybe she’s not all about that thing that we thought she was about.” When I made those pivots, I got a critical reconsideration, followed by a commercial devaluation. That’s sort of the story of my career. 

My second show at D’Amelio Terras, called Pastorale, was a radical departure. I showed big paintings that originated with the idea that they were going to be abstract. I was going to take a giant white canvas and start making marks on it, which I did, very somatically, using my whole body in an action-painter way. They turned into landscapes, which wasn’t intentional.

Delia Brown: Society Portraits and the Divine Feminine - Features - Independent Art Fair

Delia Brown,  Jai Maa! (Mia), 2024, Oil on linen, 36 x 24 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hervé Bize, Nancy

My fixation had gone away from those party scenes. I was engaged in a contemplative practice and was trying to cultivate a relationship with Spirit. I wanted to make work that was about that. I didn’t want my life commodified. On a conscious level, I wanted success; on an unconscious level, something in my spirit was resisting it. I’m an artist for spiritual reasons.

The work I’m doing now is about the divine feminine, the spirit that I call the Great Mother, or Shakti. It’s a result of a Kundalini awakening through engaging with sacred plant medicine. It’s completely freed me from 15 years of being in a certain cycle. 

But I still use the word “society portrait” for my paintings because a society portrait has a very specific scale and ratio of the figure to the canvas. The sitters are usually in an interior, in their own space. My works are that type of portraiture. 

There are a couple of women I have painted who have a relationship to celebrity. But I don’t think that was the reason I chose them. For this series I painted the actor and activist Justine Bateman, but I was thinking about devotional Hindu paintings of goddesses and religious iconography of the Virgin Mary. The types of paintings that are not a depiction but an icon. But if you look at them individually, they could appear only as a portrait of a woman. I hope people will feel this person’s presence and power through the painting in a way that feels divine.

 

 

As told to Julie Baumgardner, an arts and culture writer, editor, and journalist. Her work has been published in Bloomberg, Cultured, the Financial Times, New York Magazine, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

Learn more about Galerie Hervé Bize’s presentation of Delia Brown at Independent New York 2024.