Mia Brownell

By Peter Frank

The world is too much with us, Wordsworth complained; but nowadays we worry that it will soon not be with us at all. However dismal affairs of state and society may seem, they pale in the face of nature’s collapse – or, more precisely, nature’s increasing hostility to humanity. Mia Brownell’s exquisite celebrations of (mostly edible) flora seemingly vaunt the earth’s bounty – notably in formal terms artists have used for centuries to represent our productive dominion over the earth. But Brownell’s anachronism is knowing and pointed: positing veristic (and decorous) depictions of fruits and vines and glorious flowers in a contemporary context, she suggests that pictures and memories will be all we have left of these once-common, once-perennial plants.

This dire reading responds to the dark spirit that hovers behind and suffuses throughout Brownell’s painting. The more immediate source for her pictorial extravagance is the enduring appetite of homo sapiens, eco-disaster or no, particularly as impacted by two recent, seemingly antithetical developments: the emergence of biotechnology and the rise of the “foodie” movement. The gourmet aspirations manifested in the latter stand, if anything, in ideological opposition to the cellular manipulation of edible plants (and animals). But both focus on “improving” humankind’s interaction with its sources of nourishment – a goal whose implicit folly implicates itself in Brownell’s eyes even as it fascinates her.

These canvases, then, are vanitas still (or not-so-still) lifes. They reflect the arrogance of man even while pleasing the eye and tantalizing the palate. The vanitas arrangement runs throughout the history of still life painting. The opulent concoctions of Dutch Baroque painting, in particular, are thinly veiled admonitions to muse upon the transitory nature of life – the plum wizens, the fowl expires of its wounds, and the centerpiece of the entire arrangement is a human skull and/or guttering candle. Brownell’s oblique post-modern approach gives short shrift to these last, inedible symbols, but they haunt her work nonetheless, conjured by her recapitulation of traditional still-life stylization. 

Caravaggio, too, prefigures Brownell’s dramatic imagery, enmeshed as she has it in chiaroscuro. But her fanciful compositions, suspending her fruits, blooms, and tendrils in an indefinite space, draw on everything from Chinese-Japanese screen painting to 19th century American trompe-l’oeil. Her still life art is as much a hybrid as any genetically modified variety, mirroring our visual as well as gustatory gluttony. But Brownell posits these art-historical references with the same critical distance with which she investigates contemporary food-focused phenomena. She does not judge. Rather, she points at cognitive dissonances, and sets them against an almost invisible but still burgeoning doomsday scenario.

Mia Brownell lives among us, not among museum pieces. She looks back at bygone modes and mannerisms not simply to display her own adept proficiency, but to awaken in us our native sense of cosmic proportion. Her art speaks of the intertwinement, even interdependency, between our species and those of the growths we cultivate and forage. With the clock ticking louder and louder, Brownell feels an ever-greater responsibility to her message. She is not prescribing a solution for global warming, or even for issues with biotechnology and world food inequities (which is what the gourmet movement problematizes symbolically). But she is setting such issues before us. Our cup runneth over, she cautions, with tonic and toxin equally.

Los Angeles

February 2022

PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues.  (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson)