A Still, Quiet and Ferocious Calm

Michael Benjamin Brown’s artist book, Winterhouses, takes the form of 61 loose pages (mostly drawings, and a few photographs and texts) contained in a box with hard cover boards. The drawings, rendered in grey tones of India ink, embrace a diversity of touch, from the exacting and precise to a lyricism that borders on the utterly casual. He will double up figures in a single drawing; one stitched and slightly monstrous, the other drawn so delicately that it seems to be dematerializing.

Winterhouses is a book of opposites. The range is human and cosmological, figures are creators and destroyers, they ascend and descend, words and images sit in the same space. In content and tone the drawings are equivalently light and dark. We see a serene forest and then notice that it includes the fuselage and wing of a crashed airplane. “I have an interest in beauty and transcendence but with that comes an equal measure of darkness,” the artist says. “An aspect of the book is to express something elusive about experience, and some of my figures, they can be humanoid or demigods, have access to these inexplicable things. There is a darkness just to being a human being under the vast sky of the cosmos. We exist in this still and quiet and ferocious calm.”

A world where beings move from one state to another needs places of entrance and exit; as a result the drawings include passageways, tunnels and portals through which humans and animals pass. In one drawing, a deer forages in an urban setting; Brown calls the animal “a delegate from another realm of experience, which has crossed the threshold from one reality to another. Something remarkable happens in these shifts where the metaphorical replaces the literal. I think it’s a realm that is open to magic. It’s an interesting place for artworks to exist because it has the potential to open things up. It’s the way that poems work; they use more than the words on the page because the meaning exists between the words.”

Brown admits that in the past he has exercised too much planning and over-determined his practice, so in Winterhouses his strategy was to relinquish some of that control. “I attempted to recognize the success of intuition and accident. That’s what excites me about making art, and about all quests into knowledge. Things are slippery and art plays an interesting role because it doesn’t have to be built out of facts, it doesn’t have to make any sense. For me, the potential in Winterhouses is the way the drawings can combine and talk to one another. This is so sprawling, and there is such an overload of images, that I can’t comprehend how to put it in any order. It was an opportunity for me to relinquish the control that I’m probably vain to think I have in the first place, but I want people to rearrange the pages and come to their own understanding. ❚

Volume 31, Number 3: Dreams and the Spaces In Between

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #123, published August 2012.

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